By Dr. Donald Whitchard
Many years ago there lived a pastor and Bible teacher by the name of Donald Grey Barnhouse, who served as pastor of the Tenth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1927 until his death in 1960. He led this church in a time in which the mainline Presbyterians were drifting away from the standards of orthodox Christian doctrine and the embracing of liberalism, denying the facts of the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the exclusivity of Christ as the sacrifice for our sins, and church order as established by Scripture. Dr. Barnhouse was determined to stay fixed to the truths of Scripture and the lordship of Christ and preach the truths of what the Word said about the condition of man and the fact that there is an “invisible war” going on between the armies of God and the demons of Satan for the souls of men.
What I am not presenting here is the notion that the sovereign LORD does not know who will and will not come to Christ and that this war produces unforeseen casualties. That viewpoint stresses the thought that God is trying His best to get everything under control, but just can’t seem to work things out, letting the devil have his time on the battlefield and watching helplessly on the side as He figures out how to plan His next strategic move. That, quite frankly, is how some people see the hand of God in history. Some people assume that the fall of man took God by surprise and that He had to come up with the plan of salvation as a back-up idea to get things back to normal. If you’re observant, you’ll come to the conclusion that this type of thinking is a weapon of the devil used to cause doubt in people as to whether or not God has control over the affairs of men, deciding whether or not He can be trusted.
Throughout his long career as a pastor and Bible teacher, Dr. Barnhouse led numerous Bible conferences around the country and the world, emphasizing the need for people to give up their man-centered views of the world’s events and sinful behavior, and embrace the truth of salvation only found in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, surrendering everything to Him. He emphasized the necessity of prayer, the study of God’s word, and the importance of membership in a church where the Bible is taught and Jesus is Lord. He had a weekly radio show on CBS back when the mainstream media gave airtime to preachers and speakers. He stressed that there is a wide difference between having “religion” and the reality of relationship. These two worldviews have been used as effective weapons in the ongoing invisible war, and we who fight it according to the principles found in Ephesians 6:10-18 see with ever maturing spiritual vision the fact that these two competing views are a part of the overall theme of the Bible.
Before his death in November 1960 from a brain tumor, Dr. Barnhouse had put together a draft of a book that he was in the process of completing entitled The Invisible War. He never got a chance to complete the full story and it was up to editors and assistant writers to put together a more polished format for potential readers. It was first published in 1965 and when you read it in its entirety, you realize that more needed to be said, but it ends abruptly.
Dr. Barnhouse’s range of thought is not fully developed, yet what he has written gives the reader an excellent teaching on the origins of evil, the fall of Satan, the plan of salvation, the work of Jesus, and the assured victory of the forces of the LORD over the wiles of the devil, his demons, and the Antichrist, consigning them and all the rebels of history to an eternity in the sure fact of eternal hell, with the saved enjoying the fruit of victory and eternity in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. A large portion of the book presents the use of weaponry by both sides and the fact of God’s absolute control over things, using what He has in His arsenal to assure the absolute fact that salvation is available to all who cry for it and that once that happens, there is no way that the enemy of our souls can have us back to suffer as a prisoner of war in his camp.
I read this book a couple of months ago and took its ideas to heart as I helped to write a book with a pastor colleague on the subject of spiritual warfare and the onslaught of demonic activity in the world and how we as believers are to confront it. The Christian life is not one of leisure and an attitude of sitting back, singing hymns, and waiting for the Rapture. It is tempting to have that kind of attitude, especially when, on the surface, nobody seems to care about the condition of their soul or the need for salvation. People seem to want to develop their own religion that puts emphasis on good works, right living, kindness, and obeying the laws of society, figuring that these things are good enough to please whatever deity they choose to honor. Some people believe that this type of lifestyle will get them in good relations with God as they figure out from what little information they possess of the Bible or what some preacher in the past imposed upon them. There are a lot of people who have read the Bible at some point in their life, and believe that it is a series of rule-keeping and futile obedience that they interpret as surefire keys to entering heaven.
This column is not designed to be a book review nor a philosophical examination of the nature of man and his quest for peace. I want the reader to stop and realize that as a believer, the LORD expects us to fight the enemy and listen to His direction and counsel as explained in prayer and the study of the Word. There should never be a case of a believer going AWOL and expect someone else to do the fighting. That kind of thought cannot be tolerated, especially in this day and age where it seems that the enemy has the advantage. Of course, we know better, but when we observe events with merely fleshly eyes, it does seem futile to keep fighting and waiting for reinforcements from the King’s headquarters in heaven. In this drama we call the Invisible War, those who have been fighting are getting weary and the new crop of soldiers looks woefully unprepared to go the distance and establish trust in the supply and strength of our LORD. Many new Christians have been swayed by the things of this world, which is a weapon of evil, and have figured out that God allegedly wants them to be prosperous and healthy and not be concerned with the fact that serving Christ is a call to the sacrifice of self-indulgence.
What we must realize that, as soldiers of the LORD, dependent upon His direction and objectives, is that the history of man as recorded in the pages of Scripture is a battle between truth and deception, good and evil, the work of God and the schemes of Satan, and self- established ides of salvation and the fact that we are saved upon the established conditions that God has proclaimed through the finished work of Christ on the cross. Something that I presented in my Bible study class at church this week was that we also need to see the Invisible War as a clash of religion versus relationship. If you read the Bible through, it is obvious that this idea was a factor in the history and development of Israel as a nation. They started out proclaiming that the LORD was God and that His commandments should be obeyed, which was the start of a relationship that was meant to mature as the nation relied more upon the provisions of the LORD to get them to the Promised Land. However, the Word of God also shows us that this devotion lasted about as long as it took to make a golden calf that was worshipped at the very foot of Sinai. Their concept of religion and what they thought was worship of God resulted in calamity and later, a forty year trek through the wilderness.
Go forward a few hundred years when Israel was in the land and under the rule of kings. At first, there was the sometimes godly reign of David who desired to build God a house of worship as a way of giving Him glory and honor. The idea was honored by God, but He also told David that because he had shed blood in warfare and the taking of an innocent life like Uriah the Hittite, he was not allowed to build it, but to gather the materials and give the responsibility of the Temple’s construction to Solomon. In the opening narrative of 1 Kings, we see Solomon dedicating the Temple to the LORD with numerous sacrifices, prayers, worship, and the visible glory of God coming upon the Temple, approving the events of that day. It would seem that this episode in the life of Solomon would have kept him on the road of total obedience and unswerving devotion to the goodness of the LORD in giving Solomon the gift of wisdom that was the envy of the ancient world. Sadly, this was not to be. As Solomon grew older and obtained an army of wives, they started to persuade the king to give devotion to the foreign gods of their respective countries of origin, even going so far as to worship demonic gods that demanded human sacrifice. Solomon’s tolerance of religious practices foreign to the standards of God resulted in the split of the kingdom into two nations after his death. In the ongoing history of Israel, we see the Temple gradually becoming a place of ritual and acceptance of other gods and being closed and desecrated by kings who decided to pursue the worship of obvious demons and ignore the warnings of God through the prophets that this religious game would end in certain doom for the nation and the destruction. What was the glory of the Temple had now corroded with the stain of mere religion without the foundation of authentic worship and the need for a relationship with the LORD. In 586 B.C., the LORD had enough and destroyed the Temple and the nation of Judah, sending it into exile in Babylon. This drastic action purged the survivors of any idea of idolatry and reinstituted a need to re-establish communion with the true God.
When the Persians allowed the Jews to go back to their homeland and rebuild cities and settle down, there arose a cry for a new temple, this time to be centered in authentic worship of the LORD. Like all notions of genuine piety, the idea of worship from the heart gave away once again to rote ritual and the idea that sacrifices and offerings did not have to be presented in the way God expected. The post-exilic Jewish settlers had abandoned idolatry but embraced half-hearted devotion that was rebuked by prophets such as Malachi. We read in the final book of the Old Testament that there would be the predicted arrival of the forerunner of God’s Messiah, who would make all things righteous. With that proclamation, the era of the Old Testament came to a close. For the next four hundred years the LORD was silent in direct revelation, but active in the progress of history.
During the intertestamental years, the Jewish people found themselves under the rule of the Persians, then the Greeks through the conquests of Alexander the Great, who presented Greek culture, education, and language into the known world. Greek became a universal language and it was in this language that the New Testament would be written. There were a succession of Greek rulers who governed Judea, but events took a drastic turn for the worse when the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes came to power with a fanatical zeal for Greek culture that included getting rid of anything that stood in opposition to it. This tyrant, whose actions were prophesied by Daniel, desecrated the Jewish temple by sacrificing a pig on the altar, instituted harsh penalties for having a copy of the Scriptures, performing circumcision, holding worship services, and enacted random slaughter of those Jews who would not obey. The temple had once again fallen victim to the cancer of religion based on idolatry and the expectations of a pagan civilization. It was the revolt of the Maccabees, a priestly family that drove out the Seleucids, cleansed the Temple, re-established sacrifices and worship, and instituted the holiday of lights known today as Hanukah.
In 163 B.C. the Jews established an independent state with a succession of rulers and high priests for the Temple who were chosen not because they were descendants of Aaron, but by favoritism, bribery, and treachery in a power grab that marred the purpose of genuine worship. Once again, the Temple had become a place of religious tradition and expectation with the collapse of authentic worship and in its place focus on keeping the Law of Moses and traditions while neglecting the obvious need for reform and repentance. The Scriptures took a back seat to legalism and a form of religious tyranny that was still in practice when the Lord Jesus began His ministry decades later when the hand of Rome governed the known world. When we read of the events of Luke 1 where Zacharias, a godly priest, was informed by the angel Gabriel that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son who would call for repentance from the people, God broke His silence and would now speak through the proclamations of John the Baptist and the arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ, whose life and ministry would be centered in focusing the people’s spiritual eyes on the need to love God and not rely on self or alleged righteousness by rule keeping and traditions that looked good, but were spiritually rotten and putrid in the sight of a holy God.
Through the words and deeds of the Lord Jesus as presented in the Scriptures, some of the Israelite’s eyes were open to the fact that worship is not a set of rules and religiosity, but a deep, personal relationship with the Lord God. For example, Sabbath keeping had developed into a rigid system of rules and penalties that no one could keep, turning what was supposed to be a day of rest into something that became dreaded by the people. With Jesus, the concept of the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship was reopened to the truth that the Sabbath honored God, not what we think is accepted and proper based on interpretations of religious dogma. When Jesus taught, He freed the people from the burden of religion and legalistic demands and expectations. This was seen in His last week before His crucifixion at the hand of religious leaders who despised His teachings and rebukes as well as someone who Rome might have seen as a possible insurrectionist, defying the authority of Caesar.
The nail in Jesus’ coffin as far as the religious authorities were concerned was when we read in the gospels of His righteous anger over what the purpose of the Temple had become. The Pharisees had turned what was to be a period of worship, sacrifice, and devotion, into a money making scheme that involved high rates of exchange for approved coins used for the upkeep of the Temple and the selling of supposed blemish free livestock for sacrifice, telling the worshipper that their lamb was no good and that they needed a lamb from their pens exclusively. Then the sellers would turn right around and sell that same allegedly blemished lamb for a hefty fee to the next group of pilgrims coming into the Temple. These actions occurred in the area known as the Courtyard of the Gentiles. Non-Jews who wished to worship and honor God were drowned out by the sounds and smell of livestock, the jingling of coins, revelry, and the smug look of the high priest and others who saw that religion was a good way of making a living. The worship of God and the wonder of the Temple had turned into a racket run by hoodlums in religious attire.
Jesus saw the chaos and, with a whip, supernaturally drove out the moneychangers and livestock keepers, overturning tables, and no doubt looking at the Pharisees and the high priest with a holy anger that would be satisfied at the coming Day of Judgment. He tore into the Pharisee’s hypocrisy and godless living in Matthew 23, confining them and all of their legalities into the fires of hell along with all who supported them. We need to remember that the same Lord Jesus who forgave adulterers and tax collectors also served His anger and judgment upon those who played the game of religion at the expense of a relationship with God that would transform their lives and give them a place in the kingdom of heaven. The point made when we study the life of our Lord is that He hates any religious practice that enslaves people into a dead ritual of words, actions, and deeds that never cleanse the person from sin or open their eyes to the reality that our God does not desire empty, dull procedures that amount to nothing, but a loving real encounter with Him that transforms their live and makes them eager to do those things that enrich their soul and bring true peace to their lives and with the God who created them.
Our Lord’s mission of sacrifice for the sins of the world and the re-establishment of eternal peace for our lives, free from the bondage of sin, was not done so we could have a plethora of denominations and fellowships that demand that you toe the ecclesiastical line or face the fires of legalistic judgment and man-made dogma that has nothing to do with the pure message of salvation found only in the Lord Jesus Christ and the convicting yet liberating truth of Holy Scripture under the teaching of the Holy Spirit. This in no way negates or diminishes the need for brothers and sisters in Christ to meet and worship (Hebrews 10:25). The teachings of our Lord and the Apostles are to be learned as a family of those who realize that they are great sinners, but Christ is a great Savior. We need to support and pray for those churches who have not compromised their testimony by approving of worldly behaviors that end up ruining their walk with the Lord and have become no more than social centers and assemblies that go through the motions and say they have religion, yet are dead, like the church at Sardis (Revelation 2).
The true church of Jesus Christ is not a place to soothe wounded egos or get a weekly dose of morality disguised as biblical teaching. It is not a place to be affirmed in self-centeredness masking as holiness. It is instead a place where the wounded soul finds comfort in the loving hands of the Lord who will wipe away his tears but expects him or her to repent and live a life that is pleasing to Him. The church is a school of developing Christian maturity and faith based on Scripture and the wisdom of godly pastors and elders whose walk with God is sure and true. It is to be a place that when the enemy tries to get in with error, it is stopped dead in its tracks by those who have sharpened their spiritual swords and will fight off anything that would harm or deceive the spiritual child or returning believer who has had enough of the world’s garbage. When someone truly follows Christ and is being taught the truths of the Word and grows, they will not harbor a nostalgia for their sinful past. I do not read anywhere in Scripture that the Prodigal Son, once he had been restored to the love of his father, ever looked back and wished for the “Good Old Days” when he would wallow in the dung and mud of the pigsty, starving for slop. We must emphasize the importance of relationship over man-centered religion which is no better for the spiritual health of a person than a remodeled pigsty, consuming garbage disguised as religious insight. This is the fight we face in these days before Jesus comes back. The Invisible War is drawing to a close, and we need to thank God and praise Him that we are on the winning side. Let’s pick up the wounded, rescue the perishing, rebuke evil, and keep our swords sharp. The great General is coming to put a stop to the spiritual bloodshed and declare eternal victory. Let me close with a proclamation I made from my pulpit when I finished my sermon. It is this: “Isn’t He Wonderful?” Glory, Amen, and Praise be to the living Lord. See you soon, fellow soldiers.
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