The Virus and the Powers
The real COVID-19 battle is behind the scenes
Dear friends and supporters:
My post “The Coronavirus and Culture” addresses the cultural dimensions of the human responses to the contagion occupying wall-to-wall media coverage, and literal wall-to-wall coverage in our houses and shops and hospitals.
Just now I want to delve into an additional factor more significant than even the vital ones in my earlier post: more significant because it deals with a more significant culture — the invisible culture that surrounds and permeates our visible culture. But before we consider it, we must glance at a neglected truth taught by the apostle Paul.
My subsequent newsletters will be shorter than this one, but the COVIDCrisis warrants extra attention.
Paul and the Person
Paul was convinced that the overarching battle for the earth was not between godly and ungodly men, but between God and his people on the one side and Satan and his people on the other. Salvation is about fulfilling the protoevangelium (the first Gospel) pledged in Genesis 3:15 after the Fall: the seed of the woman (Jesus) would crush the head of the seed of the serpent (Satan). The Gospel is the good news of God’s victory in Jesus Christ over the world’s sin.
The Protestant Reformation saw Paul as the great champion of justification by faith alone. To be justified is, quite literally, to be “righteoused.” We are born into sin, but how do we become righteous? This is necessary, because God is a holy God. To rescue us, he must make us righteous. The late medieval Roman church had come to believe that we become righteous by cooperating with a seed of existential righteousness planted at (infant) baptism. As we cooperate with God throughout our life, we are able to gain the righteousness that God will find acceptable on the final day. While the church might not have set out to teach salvation by both faith and works, this is precisely what happened.
The Reformation recovered the Pauline stress on justification. We do not stand righteous by what we do, but what Christ has done on the Cross and from the empty tomb. Christ’s righteousness is imputed (counted) to us when we cast ourselves on him. Our sins are imputed to him, and he suffered and died for them. His righteousness is imputed to us, and we are accepted before a holy God as though we had never sinned. Perhaps no verse in the Bible states it as succinctly as 2 Corinthians 5:21:
For He [God] made Him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin for us [sinners], that we might become the righteousness of God in Him [Christ].
We can call this transactional soteriology. (Soteriology is salvation doctrine.) A transaction is business language for an economic exchange. Transaction in soteriology means that in his redemptive work Jesus exchanged his righteousness for our sin. This is a big part of how sinners get eternal life. Transactional soteriology is biblical; there can be no true grasp of salvation without it.
But it is not the only soteriological dimension in the Bible, and unfortunately over time much of the Protestant tradition shouldered aside other valid dimensions. By the 20th century, salvation was almost reduced to “Trust in Jesus for your personal salvation,” which in elaboration meant “salvation by justification by faith alone.”
Paul and the Powers
After WWII theologians started mining the Bible for truths that had been tucked underground since the 17th century. One was Paul’s teaching on the “principalities and powers” or sometimes just the “powers,” “rulers,” or “authorities.” This was language devised by Jewish apocalypticism in Paul’s time, and he used it to refer to two main things: (1), angels and other created beings between God and man, and (2) earthly political rulers. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which one he’s talking about. It’s clear, however, that Paul saw Jesus’ death as taking down the angelic powers. In these cases, the angels are obviously fallen angels that have aligned themselves with Satan. Colossians 2:13–15 is an obvious example:
And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He [God] has made alive together with Him [Christ], having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of [old covenant] requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.
Paul seems to depict the powers as accusing the saints of sin. On the Cross, Jesus wiped out our law-breaking sin debt, thereby exposing the false accusations of the powers. (Recall that Satan is the great accuser of the saints; see Rev. 12:10; Job 1:6.)
Another better known statement by Paul is in Ephesians 6:12 —
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
He goes on to refer to the metaphor of spiritual armor and weapons by which we defeat the powers, which are set on our destruction. Our very salvation is at stake in the battle (see vv. 15, 17).
Paul wasn’t the only one to see salvation as partly the vanquishing of Satan and his minions. Jesus himself, when referring to his impending death, told his disciples much the same thing (Jn. 12:31):
Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world [Satan] will be cast out.
And the apostle John later wrote (1 Jn. 3:8):
He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.
This understanding of salvation as Jesus’ victory over Satan and the powers is sometimes called Christus Victor (Christ the Victor).
We might term this warfare soteriology. Recall that transactional soteriology is about God’s placing our sins on Christ and his righteousness on us. It is what happens in the individual sinner’s life, his movement from sinner to saint.
But warfare soteriology is about what happens in history: God dethrones Satan the imposter and replaces him with the rightful earthly ruler, Jesus Christ. It’s more about objective history than the subjective human heart, though both are important.
In our highly individualistic age, we shouldn’t be surprised that most Christians seize on transactional soteriology. It pertains to how God saves individuals. They are less interested in warfare soteriology. It pertains to how God has definitively vanquished and is now incrementally crushing Satan under foot (1 Cor. 15: 20–28; Heb. 2:5–9).
Jesus defeated Satan on the Cross, but this doesn’t mean that Satan’s attacks are entirely finished. A helpful metaphor is D-Day in World War II. After the Allies invaded Normandy and moved into interior France, the war’s victory was assured. But there were battles left to fight. The war was over in principle, but the battles — some of them the bloodiest of the war — certainly were not over.
Satan knows he has a short time and, therefore, he fights more fiercely (Rev. 12:12). We live in a cosmic war zone.
Warfare soteriology is broader than transactional soteriology, which is possible only because of the former. Let’s pray that in the 21st century, warfare soteriology becomes as important as transactional soteriology.
Plagues and the Powers
Now back to the virus. If you’ve read the gospel accounts carefully, you might have noticed that Jesus spends a seemingly inordinate amount of time exorcizing demons and healing the sick. Actually, the latter is almost a form of exorcism, because Jesus sometimes identifies illness as due to Satanic assault (Mt. 17:14; Lk. 7:21; 13:16). We know that ultimately all illness is the result of the Fall, the curse, provoked by Satan.
God is always sovereign and in control of history, so he sometimes uses illnesses, a Satanic assault, for his purposes. Even Satan and the powers must report their evil deeds to God (Jb. 1:6–7, 2:1–2), and God allowed Satan to afflict Job with illness. Illness is a Satanic work God sometimes employs in a fallen world.
God also sends plagues on the wicked. The most memorable example is the pagan Egyptians just before the Exodus. He sometimes sent plagues to judge his apostate people Israel.
In every case, plagues are anti-creational. They are the result of the Fall and of Satan’s success in turning Adam and Eve against God. They are a blitz by the powers on God’s good created order.
Human sinfulness alone can’t account for all the evil and corruption of the world. Man is fully blameworthy, of course, but Satan and the powers, while defeated at the Cross and empty tomb, still spread chaos and disease and hatred and addictions and sexual enslavement. Satan is at war not only with man but with all of the God’s creation. He is the great anti-creational force against God’s good world.
It is a mistake to assume that Satan is only interested in twisting the Gospel. He has bigger designs. He wants to subvert and wreck God’s created world. If he could do that (and he can’t, though he might think he can), the Gospel would be meaningless.
This is why the abolition of illness is God’s covenant promise when redemption comes in great earthly fullness:
In that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book,
And the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity and out of darkness. (Is. 29:18)
In his first public sermon Jesus cites Isaiah in teaching that he himself is launching that promised fulfillment:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Lk. 4:18)
Warfare soteriology includes the gradual abolition of diseases unleashed by the powers against God’s good creation.* Warfare soteriology includes the profound fact that the Gospel is incrementally reversing the curse, including illness and plagues and viruses, that is, the Gospel is crushing Satan and the powers. Jesus tells his disciples:
“The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (Jn. 10:10)
Peter declares in Acts 10:38 —
God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.
This brings us to COVID-19. Why is it here? For the secularists (and too many Christians), it is a random event of nature, originating in the Wuhan wildlife market or the virology lab there. We live in a chaotic world, and viruses are part of the chaos. The most we can do is try to mitigate their effects or hide from them. This is the paltry and pitiful and pessimistic explanation of many secularists.
God’s judgment and decretal theology
For some Christians, on the other hand, the virus is indisputably God’s judgment. They point to texts like Deuteronomy 28:–22, 27, 35, 61 in which God threatens covenant curses on his disobedient people, or the plagues of Exodus or texts like 1 Samuel 6:4 where we discover God’s judgment of plague on the wicked. COVID-19 might in fact be God’s on the world and/or his people.
But apart from God’s revelation unique to a plaguing event, we cannot know that God is judging. We can read only God’s open revelation, not his secret plans.
This is an example of the danger of decretal theology: doggedly identifying specific events in history by reference to God’s specific covert decrees. This is a well-intentioned mistake (Job’s “friends” made it). We don’t know God’s secret eternal decrees (that’s why they’re secret), but we do know Satan’s obvious temporal strategy: to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. We also know God’s temporal promises in Jesus Christ to his people: that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. Similarly, while God threatens judgment on the finally unrepentant wicked, he doesn’t delight in their death (Eze. 18:23). Judgment is his abnormal work, not his normal work (Isa. 28:21). God desires man’s repentance, not judgment (see also Jn. 3:16–21).
When we encounter viruses, plagues and pestilence, we can be certain that it is a Satanically launched, anti-creational assault against God’s good world (even if God is using it for his purposes). Despite their defeat at the D-Day Cross, the powers are still at work in a fallen world.
Politicians and the Powers
But there is more to say, and it’s especially relevant to the nearly global “lockdown,” the coercive political decisions to combat the effects of the virus by a radical deprivation of civil liberty and consequent blow to economic livelihood.
Paul sees the state, even a pagan state like the Roman Empire, as God’s minister (Rom. 13), to the extent (of course) that it punishes external evil (crime) and thereby rewards external obeyers (law-abiding citizens).
But the problem is that the state is not a naked, autonomous force. Just as the family and church can be demonically corrupted, so can the state — and in history, especially the state. Very often depraved, power-hungry politicians unknowingly open themselves to demonic influence. Anything God can create, Satan can pervert. The state has a monopoly on violence, so it’s understandable why Satan, who loves to steal and kill and destroy, wants to commandeer it so badly. By coopting politicians, he can madly and blindly attack the kingdom of God, persecute Christians, and dehumanize man as God’s image.
This is precisely what happened in ancient as well as in the modern world. All the ancient empires from the Egyptian to the Roman savaged their own population and persecuted God’s people.
For this reason, Paul speaks of the powers in such proximity to the civil magistrate that it’s clear he sees them as often collaborating, even if the politicians don’t know it. The principalities and powers he warns against in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 1:16 and mentions especially Titus 3:1 include the supernatural authorities motivating powerful political rulers. This wasn’t an invention by Paul. In Daniel 10 we read of “the Prince of Persia,” who delayed the angel sent to answer Daniel’s prayer, and who was almost certainly a fallen power once given jurisdiction by God over a political region but who had sided with Satan. He was one of the powers.
In Revelation, moreover, John depicts the ancient Roman Empire persecuting Jesus Christ and the church as puppeteered by and aligned with Satan (see Rev. 12 ). John’s vision is suffused with the conviction that Satan is at work behind the political powers to thwart Jesus Christ and his people and to unleash destruction and havoc in creation.
Statism as Satanism
This truth exposes a weakness of non-Christian political conservatives: they recognize the dangers of Leftist statism in epidemics and other crises, but because they have no use for the Christian worldview they don’t see that behind the propensity of the state to expand power and harm families and deprive religious liberty stand the powers.
While, therefore, quarantine of the sick and vulnerable is suitable and in fact required (see Lev. 13), the global political lockdown, unleashing economic devastation on families and children and the most vulnerable, and bringing the church to its knees in depriving it of public worship, its earthly lifeblood, is a diabolical work, calculated, just like the virus itself, to steal and kill and destroy.
On Easter 2020, the vast majority of churches in the world were empty. This was a historically unprecedented episode that neither Nero Caesar nor Islam nor Marxism nor Nazism nor secularism has ever been able to accomplish. Satan was able to accomplish with a plague what no merely human enemy of Jesus Christ has ever before been able to accomplish. This is not a criticism of churches that cancelled worship services. In many cases it was the only prudent action to protect elderly and immunocompromised attendees against Satanic assault. Nonetheless, this deprivation of public, communal worship (and church worship is by its nature public and communal, not private and individualistic) that the powers inflicted was a devastating blow to the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.
One of the great victories of Satan in today’s world has been to convince both Christians and non-Christians alike that the state (politics) is the savior of the world, the protector and provider of first recourse. The state is the new god. In almost all crises, whether real or perceived, Satan has convinced man to default to the state, which really means defaulting to the powers. As Satan commanded Jesus, “Fall down and worship me, and I will give you ….” And the world falls at Satan’s statist feet to worship.
Plundering the Powers
Thank God, Jesus came to vanquish the powers, and he did, and he will eventually crush them. We read in Matthew 12 of Jesus’ healing a demon-possessed man, blinded and mute. Jesus refuted the Pharisees who accused him of casting out demons by the power of Satan:
[I]f I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house. (vv. 28–29)
Satan was the strong man, and Jesus entered the strong man’s house, bound him, and then plundered him. Healing the sick who’d been incarcerated in the powers’ house is plundering Satan’s domain. In short, Christ plunders Satan’s domain by rescuing the demon-controlled sick.
Christians are co-warriors in this task. After his resurrection Jesus Christ ascended to his heavenly throne from which he rules the cosmos (Eph. 1:15–23), but we are seated and ruling there with him (2:4–6). Daniel had already been shown a vision of the ascended Son of Man (Jesus), who assumed his heavenly throne (Dan. 7:13–14).
And the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven, Shall be given to the people, the saints of the Most High. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom….
“I was watching; and the same horn [ancient pagan king] was making war against the saints, and prevailing against them [the saints], until the Ancient of Days came, and a judgment was made in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came for the saints to possess the kingdom.” (vv. 18, 21–22)
Daniel’s vision wasn’t about Christ’s Second Advent, but his first. As a result of Christ’s great redemptive victory, the saints join him in his present rule over the rebellious world and the powers standing behind them. Christians are to rule and overcome the powers. How?
First, we must resist the powers. “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (Jas. 4:7). Meet the powers and the virus on their own ground, and resist them.
This doesn’t mean we should avoid wise precaution. When Satan tempted Jesus to throw himself from a mountain and trust God to deliver him, Jesus cited the Old Testament law forbidding presumption (Mt. 4:5–7). We shouldn’t throw ourselves recklessly into danger. However, looking evil right in the face, working to heal the sick and prevent further contagion, isn’t presumption: it’s resisting evil.
Ours must always be a theology of resistance, not a theology of resignation. The idea that Christians should passively acquiesce to the overreaching statist God or to the virus as indisputably God’s judgment is pious poppycock. Much of the time, “accepting the [unrevealed] will of God” is laziness and cowardice, not godly submission. In his obviously relevant “Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague,” Martin Luther wrote:
I am of the opinion that all the epidemics, like any plague, are spread among the people by evil spirits who poison the air or exhale a pestilential breath which puts a deadly poison into the flesh. Nevertheless, this is God’s decree and punishment to which we must patiently submit and serve our neighbor ….
Luther’s letter makes clear that even if we believe plagues are God’s judgment, we must fight against them as Satanically unleashed with every fiber of our being.
Second, combating the powers requires prayer (Eph. 6:10–18). The fiercest battles in the war for the physical world stand just behind it in the non-physical world of the Triune God and the holy angels versus Satan and the unholy powers. Our prayers are God’s appointed way to enlist his powers-crushing warfare.
Third, healing from virus and other diseases is a holy work. God granted the apostles the authority to heal (Mt. 10:1). James requires the sick to call for the church elders to anoint them so that they’ll be healed (Jas. 4:14–15). This healing doesn’t compete with medicine. Jesus himself used ordinary means to heal (Jn. 9:6). Luke was a physician who accompanied Paul’s mission travels. Healing by vaccine or ventilator or the very direct hands of God is a work of holy resistance to the powers. Whether by God’s common grace at the hands of non-Christian physicians or sacrificial Christians, healing is a blow for holy warfare against the powers. It’s mystifying how many Christians who otherwise oppose the secular and naturalistic spirit of modernity become flaming naturalists when it comes to disease and illness. Sickness is highly personal; it is always demonic, even if used by God; and in most cases God desires its abolition and always desires our opposition to it.
Finally, we must take dominion of the world under the authority of Christ the King. Man’s prime calling at creation was dominion (Gen. 1:28–30). In the Fall, Adam failed, but Christ sent the Second Adam (Rom. 5:12–21), the new Dominion Man, who succeeded — and is succeeding (Heb. 2). In Genesis 3 God promises that Christ will crush Satan under his feet. But we read in Romans 16:20 —
[T]he God of peace will crush Satan under your [Christians’] feet shortly.
Since we are united by faith to God’s Dominion Man, his work of dominion is ours, his battles are ours, and his victories are ours. Christians are peacefully to dispossess the wicked by the preaching the Gospel of grace and by obeying his word aggressively and by beating down the powers still squatting on God’s property.
This biblical view meets with outrage by secularists, who are suckled on Enlightenment naturalism. They consider this view an example of vestiges of superstition by knuckle-dragging Neanderthal Christians. Yet few ideas are more superstitious than believing the physical, visible world constitutes all of reality. The notion that reality can be reduced to blood and bone and rocks and trees and chemicals is an incredulous fairy tale to anyone who ponders hard the multiformity and complexity and mystery and good and evil of the universe. The cosmic conflict is not modern science versus Christian superstition, but biblical truth versus secular superstition.
The COVID-19 battle is between the invisible forces of God and the holy angels on one side and the invisible forces of Satan and the powers. At question is with whom each visible human will align himself in the battle.
But there is no question about who will win the war in the end.
* This is not “signs and wonders” theology, as though Christians should obsess over Benny Hinn and similar “healing ministries.” These are self-centered, reductionist claptrap, a pale, man-centered image of God’s true cosmic war on illness.
Sharon and I returned in late February from visiting long-time as well as new friends in Alabama and Georgia. If you know us at all, you won’t be surprised that we drove. We hate flying, the intrusive TSA, the cattle-car bustle, and the stuffy planes. Conversely, we love the uninterrupted time together traversing the long, lonely freeways in desert California, New Mexico, Arizona, and far west Texas. We relish few places more than Marathon, Alpine, and Marfa, Texas.
She and I have been spending more time lately with our grandchildren: Ethan (14), Haley (12), and Boaz (10). They visit one or two weekends a month, and Sharon delights to cooks for them — and they delight to eat what she cooks.
In this quarantine time, I’m reading more than ever. I’ll mention only one book here: William Milligan’s The Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of Our Lord. Milligan was a 19th century theologian at the University of Aberdeen, of which my CCL colleague Brian Mattson is a Ph.D. alumnus. I’ve read so many books that few now add substantially to my knowledge or oblige me to think down wholly new paths. This one did. It’s a remarkable book.
My Dad was able to drive over and spend Easter with us. You can check out his devotional blog here. Here’s a 2017 photo of us taken at my Mom’s funeral:
As I write this, 2020 speaking engagements are up in the air. My brother-in-arms Joe Boot has postponed the Church & Culture Conference until Nov. 16–20. He and the Ezra Institute board will decide soon about the second Runner Academy scheduled for this summer. I’ll update the other speaking engagements in the next newsletter.
I hope you enjoyed this first issue of CultureChange. If you know of anybody who might benefit from this newsletter and subsequent ones, I’d be grateful if you asked them to sign up here.
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Until next time …
Yours for the King,
Founder & President
I’m not a bestselling author by any standards, but I’m grateful to God that this is by far my best-selling book. It’s the most important book I’ve written or likely will ever write. You can get it here.