May 20, 2018
Every believer dwells in the spiritual realm and will encounter battle with our adversary, the devil, until Christ’s return. Alistair Begg urges us to remain alert to Satan’s subtle, fiery darts and outlines a practical strategy to employ in the midst of the struggle. As students of God’s Word, we can persevere, conscious of our weakness but strong in the Lord, resolute because of His goodness, and with every confidence in our unity with the one who reigns victorious.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, I invite you to turn with me to Ephesians chapter 6 and to the portion that we began to look at this morning and said we would continue to fly over it this evening before we begin a more detailed study in the weeks, and probably the months, that remain to us in the year.
Let me just read the opening section of this, Ephesians 6:10:
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Father, close us in with your Word, we pray. Grant to us a right listening, a proper speaking, a Spirit-led responding. For the sake of your Son we ask it. Amen.
Well, we’re just a week away from the celebration of Memorial Day weekend, when we give thanks and remember those who served the cause of our nation in the giving of their lives. And some of those who gave their lives were involved in the landing of the Allied forces in June of 1944—a landing which, in the history of the Second World War, ensured victory for the Allied forces. History also records that although victory, particularly then, on the Western Front was absolutely assured, the Allied forces continued to fight the Germans all the way to Berlin until they finally surrendered on the fifth of May 1945, so that although victory was absolutely assured almost a year before, the V-day, the final triumphant declaration, came a year later.
And in many ways, that is a very helpful picture for us of what it means when we turn to a consideration of the battleground that is the experience of the genuine believer. And as we began this this morning, I’m not sure that I articulated this important point, which is why I begin with it now. And it is this: that in the cross Christ has defeated Satan summarily. There is no question about his defeat. But nevertheless, Christ has left us here, and the battle continues against the world and the flesh and the devil until finally, on the day that Christ returns, we will move, as it were, from the D-day landing to the V-day of the triumphant victory that is then established and made clear in Jesus. I say that so that we might be very, very clear that we are operating in Jesus, then, from a position of victory. With that said, however, we recognize, too, that we are up against, as we said this morning, stiff opposition.
And I want to quote again from Calvin’s Institutes, which—and this is book 1 and section 15, for those of you who follow up. And in this he is describing the irreconcilable struggle which is the experience of the Christian, because the devil is our adversary. And he makes the point that “in sum, we experience in all of Satan’s deeds what Christ testifies concerning him”—namely,
that “from the beginning he was a murderer … and a liar” …. For he opposes the truth of God with falsehoods, he obscures the light with darkness, he entangles [our] minds in errors, he stirs up hatred, he kindles contentions and combats, everything to the end that he may overturn God’s Kingdom and plunge men with himself into eternal death. From this it appears that he is in nature depraved, evil, and malicious. For there must be consummate depravity in that disposition which devotes itself to assailing God’s glory and man’s salvation. This, also, is what John means in his letter, when he writes that “the devil has sinned from the beginning” …. Indeed, he considers him as the author, leader, and architect of all malice and iniquity.
It is no surprise, then, that Paul moves very, very quickly in this section to the armor which has been provided for us in Christ and which we are to make sure that we put on. You will notice that this is an imperative here in verse 11: “Put it on.” It’s not going to be put on for us; it is something that we, then, in turn must do. And when he mentions this in 11 and then again in verse 13, you will notice that he says, “Put on the whole armor of God.” In other words, it’s not mix and match; it’s not pick and choose. The soldiers of Christ are to make sure that they avail themselves of the provision that has been made for us in order to do battle against this most evil and powerful foe.
And so, in the spirit of this morning, I want to move more swiftly than we might do later on and just notice what we’re provided with here in terms of this armor.
First of all, putting on “the belt of truth.” We’re down in verse 13: “tak[ing] up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day …. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth.” Now, this belt was absolutely crucial, because other pieces attached to it. For example, the breastplate would attach to that belt. The sword would be hanging from that belt. Therefore, if you like, the belt is foundational to the armor.
And when you read the commentators, as you may choose to do, you will discover that there is a great debate that really needn’t take place about whether this belt of truth is objective or whether it is subjective. In other words, are we dealing here with 1:13, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth”—that this “word of truth” which is outside of us and objective to us, which is, of course, a reality for us, for it is by the same “word of truth” that, having heard it and believed it, we have been changed by it. Or is he referring to it in a subjective sense, which would be Ephesians 4:25: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor.” My inclination is that we need not choose between them—that this belt of truth is the truth of the gospel, objective to us, and the truthfulness of our relationships with one another are foundational to our engaging in the warfare.
And then, with that, the breastplate of righteousness, there in verse 14. Now, again, we can see this objectively and subjectively—objectively, considering it in the terms that we have just sung: “Behold him there, the risen Lamb, my perfect, spotless righteousness.” So it is objective to us that we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ; therefore, the breastplate of righteousness, in its objective dimension, is in indeed in that spirit. For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:30, where Paul writes, “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption.” And you will identify this not only from your knowledge of 1 Corinthians but also because this truth comes up again and again in our songs.
Now, the subjective element is absolutely crucial as well. Because what is true objectively, in that there is a righteousness which is ours in Christ—what is true objectively will then be revealed subjectively. In other words, whoever practices righteousness is righteous; so that to declare that I am clothed with the righteousness of Christ and then to live an unrighteous life is at least to call in question the reality of my understanding or of my profession. We could actually summarize the book of Ephesians in this way: that the believer is at peace with God and is at war with Satan. The believer is at peace with God and at war with Satan. So, if I find myself at peace with Satan and happy to be engaged in the things that he suggests and tempts me to, and therefore at war with God, then I have to give very, very careful attention to where I stand. That’s why the Bible says to us, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith,” whether that public profession is then matched by a righteous life.
Now, the breastplate obviously covered the chest, covered vital organs, the heart and the lungs—and a very strong reminder to us of how the completeness of the pardon of the Lord Jesus for our sins combined with the integrity of his work within our lives in terms of our character, these two things are then, as one old commentator says, “woven together [in] an impenetrable mail,” m-a-i-l, i.e., chain mail; so that the objective righteousness of Christ and the subjective experience of our growing in our understanding and profession of that then is coalesced in order to provide the protection for the very center of our being.
And then, along with that, in verse 15, “shoes for your feet, … the readiness given by the gospel of peace.” Josephus, the Jewish historian, writes of how it was that Caesar’s military success had a tremendous amount to do with the footwear that he provided for his troops. Apparently, he used to give them what essentially were like hobnailed boots, and they had studs in the bottom of them, allowing them then to make progress over long distances and with significant speed, and so that in doing so, they would then be able to catch the enemy off guard, or they would be enabled to put themselves in a position where they could withstand the enemy.
Now, you’ve got to imagine—I think you perhaps imagine along with me—that Paul is not reaching for illustrative material. He didn’t go to a book, you know, and said, “I need an illustration about the Christian life, and the battle, and so on.” No, he lives in the middle of this. In many cases, he’s chained to one of these characters. And so, as he sits there, he’s looking at the fellow or sees them on parade, and he just says, “You know, this makes perfect sense: a belt that would be secure in the waist, a breastplate that would secure the vital organs, and shoes that would be ready for action.”
And so he says, “That’s how God has equipped us: the readiness that is given to us by the gospel of peace.” In other words, he equips his soldiers to be ready. As he writes to Timothy, remember, he says, “It is important that you would be prepared in season and out of season; when you feel like it, when you don’t feel like it.” Or as Peter writes, “ready”—in 1 Peter 3—“ready with an answer for those who ask a reason for the hope you have.” Well, where is that to be found? Well, it’s to be found in the fact that we have been given these shoes, if you like—gospel shoes. “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of [those] who [bring] good news.” And in order to facilitate our ability to do that, we are kitted out at that level.
And then, immediately, in verse 16, he says, “In all circumstances take up the shield of faith.” It’s interesting, actually, how categorical he is in these things—his use of the equivalent of the little word “all”: “in all circumstances” to “extinguish all the flaming darts.” “All circumstances,” “all the flaming darts.”
Now, what is the shield of faith? Well, the picture here is not of the little shield that you sometimes see when you watch old movies of the Roman Empire, where the fellow had, like, a little heart-shaped gizmo, and he was using a dagger. There is a word for that; that is not the word that is used here. The word that is used here is for a shield that would have been at least four feet in length and two and a half feet in width. It was constructed by two layers of wood, and the wood was then glued together. It was covered, first of all, by linen, and then the linen was covered in hide, and then it was bound on the top and on the bottom with iron. Now, if you just think about that for a moment, and think about how strong you are or you’re not, it was really like walking around holding a kitchen door. And that’s how much protection there was behind it. There was enough that you could get behind it, or you could hold it up like this, you see.
And remember the corporate dimension in this. This is not being written to an individual; this is being written to a church. So we can’t have people showing up not in their uniforms. That’s why we say to one another, “One for all, and all for one.” That’s why we matter together. That’s why gathering together matters. Because as we’re together, then together we can hold up this shield. When the enemy warfare is coming against us, when the flaming darts are coming against us, when a brother or a sister is overwhelmed by stuff and has found that their shield has fallen on the dust of the battle, all they are longing for are two or three brothers or sisters to come around them and take their shields and protect them from further onslaughts. That’s the picture that is here. It’s a wonderful picture. In the warfare of the time, the flaming arrows would have been dipped in pitch, then set alight; and because of the construction of the shield, the shield was capable of absorbing and in turn extinguishing these flaming darts.
Now, what a wonderful picture that is. I hope you get it. And again, we’ve sung about it, haven’t we? “When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within…” What do I do? I take the shield of faith. I hold up my door. And what does it say on the door? It says, “Christ is my perfect righteousness.” When someone comes and says, “You don’t possibly believe that Bible, do you?”—I hold up the door, and on it is inscribed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” You see the picture?
When I am buffeted by anxiety and by panic—and some of you have panic attacks, I know; I’ve only had one that I could identify, but it wasn’t good—when I am confronted all of a sudden and out of the blue with memories of sin in the past, when bad thoughts invade my mind, when doubts and fears arise, when crushing disappointment seeks to take hold of me, what do we do? We do what Paul says to do: “In all circumstances take up the shield of faith.” Take it up! Take it up! Put it on; take it up.
I remember some years ago now, I was in the dry cleaners. And I can’t remember what the subject was, but I got involved in conversation with the lady who was helping me out. She was an African American lady. I don’t if she knew what I did; I don’t think she did. But we were only talking about something, and I think I said something, and she said, “I resist that.” That’s what she said: “I resist that.” And she was actually talking about how it was some antagonistic thought that would come from the dark side, and she said, “I resist that.” And I remember walking out and thinking, “That’s what I’m supposed to say: ‘I resist that!’”
In other words, here again is the importance of reminding ourselves of what is true of us: I’m not saved on account of anything done by me; I’m not saved on the basis of anything done in me; I’m saved on the basis of what has been done for me. So that I don’t look into myself, then, or to how well I’ve been doing, but I look to Christ. Because the peace which God has made through the cross of Christ does not come with an exemption from the battle; it is actually only experienced in the midst of the battle. You get that? The peace which is ours through the cross of Christ does not come with an exemption from the battle; it is only experienced in the midst of the battle.
So, again I say to you, do not give much interest to those who want to suggest to you that if you really were a good and a successful Christian, you wouldn’t have any notion of these battles at all—words like doubt and disappointment and fear and rebellion and mistrust and anxiety and so on would all have been a thing of the past. Well, you’re sensible people; you can read your Bibles.
You see how important it is that he comes in verse 17 and says, “You better get your helmet on”? “The helmet of salvation.” “The helmet of salvation.” What a helmet this must have been. The more I considered the armor, I realized I couldn’t wear this armor. I couldn’t hold my head up. Because this helmet was made of bronze or of iron. It had a lining that was constructed by either felt or by sponge, which would lessen the weight and make it more bearable. It was so reinforced, many of them—as you’ve seen in movies, again—had a hinged visor that closed down at the front, almost like a motorcycle helmet. And nothing short of an ax or a hammer could pierce the helmet. Nothing short of it. “The helmet of salvation”: protection for the head, protection for the mind.
Perhaps we should think in terms of Paul when he writes in 1 Thessalonians when we take this picture. First Thessalonians 5:8: “Those who sleep, sleep at night, … those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” Now, again, when he uses that word “hope,” he’s talking about a reality that is only experienced in part, but the ultimate reality of it still awaits us.
That’s why I’ve never really got much beyond my Sunday school class and that great day when whichever teacher it was explained to us the three tenses of salvation: I have been saved from sin’s penalty; that is justification. I am being saved from sin’s power; that is sanctification. I will be saved from sin’s presence; that is glorification. And again I suggest to you the vital importance of learning to talk to ourselves. Because our minds need to be transformed constantly, don’t they? “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind[s].” It is in our minds that the attacks come. That’s why we’re supposed to “gird up the loins” of our minds, as Peter puts it; it’s a kind of old-fashioned notion. But gather these thoughts under the rubric of God’s power. Because it is in my mind that I’m attacked by guilt. It’s in my mind that I’m attacked by doubt. It’s in my mind that I’m attacked by fear. So what are we to do? Don’t leave home without the helmet. Don’t get caught somewhere saying, “I don’t need to wear my helmet.”
You know, I have a scooter; it goes very fast—about twelve miles an hour flat out. And everyone tells me, “Why, you must wear your helmet.” I said, “Goodness, if I fell off, I would do more damage to the tarmac than it would do to me.” “No, no,” they said. “Put the thing on.” And so I do, most of the time. It would be foolish not to.
So when I have on the helmet of salvation, and the attack comes, I’m going to say what the lady said to me: “I resist that. I will not be overcome by this.” Then we have to get theological, you see. Then we say out loud, if we’re driving in the car, “Jesus saves sinners. I know that. And I have asked him to save me. I know that. And the whole shooting match is not finished yet, because I am in process. It’s not yet complete. And I know that. But one day he will complete what he has begun—the promise of Philippians 1. And I know that too.” That’s all part of wearing the helmet.
Martin Luther has a wonderful passage in one of his writings where, in relationship to this thought, he said, “You should tell the devil”—and then this is what you should tell the devil:
Just by telling me that I am a miserable, great sinner you are placing a sword and weapon into my hand with which I can decisively overcome you …. For if you can tell me that I am poor sinner, I, on the other hand, can tell you that Christ died for sinners and is their intercessor …. The burden of my sins and all the trouble and misery that were to oppress me eternally, he very gladly took upon his shoulders and suffered the bitter death on the cross for them. To him I direct you. You may accuse and condemn him. Let me rest in peace; for on his shoulders, not on mine, lie all my sins and the sins of the whole world.
You see how vital the gospel is, how foundational it is.
Perhaps there’s somebody here tonight, and this night is akin to the night that has been described a couple of times for us in these baptismal testimonies—that you’ve actually walked in here this evening on the basis that a good God will reward nice people if they do their best. And deep in your heart, you know it’s not true, because it hasn’t worked. And it will never work. Because it is only on the shoulders of his dearly beloved Son that he placed all the burden of your sin. And in him there is forgiveness.
Well, that really brings us to the end of the armor. I know that people include the sword with the armor, but the sword is really a weapon, isn’t it? “And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” In other words, do what Jesus did when he was confronted in the wilderness. Do what the psalmist says we should do: hide God’s word in our hearts. Because here’s the deal: if we don’t know it, we can’t use it. If you don’t know the formula in your math class, there’s no way you can pull it out when the test comes. You have to know. Therefore, we have to know the Bible. If we’re not Bible men and women, if we’re not young Bible people, then we’re out there with no weaponry. You can be all kitted out with the armor, but why would you go out without your sword? “I have stored up your word in my heart,” says the psalmist, “that I might not sin against you.” I stored it up so that on the day when the Evil One comes, I will be able to respond him in the same way that Jesus responded with the Word of God to the attacks of the Evil One. “I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life.”
And the other part of the weaponry to which we’ll come, because our time is gone, is the prayer, and “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication”—exactly what Paul has done in this letter, following the pattern of all that Jesus did in his earthly ministry.
But let me end in this way. In going through this day, I found myself saying, “But what about the person”—and it may be you, it may be me—“that we come to the end of the day, and we come to the end of the day more conscious of having been defeated rather than having triumphed?” What are we to do?
Well, we’re going to end with a hymn, but before we sing it, I want you to read it along with me—not out loud, but I want it to go on the screen if we can. Because this is an amazing hymn by Newton. And I’m just going to read it as the verses come; you can see it, but I’m going to read it.
So, remember, Newton was a horrible slave trader. He had blasphemy down to a degree that was just exemplary, in a bad way, in his day. All of his friends would have said, “There’s no hope for Newton,” and yet he became the author of “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” “Amazing Grace! (How Sweet the Sound),” and this. And he’s talking to himself here. You see, again, this is the importance of talking to ourselves. The reason some of us are in the predicament we’re in is because we’re listening to other people talk to us rather than talk to ourselves.
Approach, my soul, the mercy seat,
Where Jesus answers prayer;
And humbly fall before his feet,
For none can perish there.
Your promise is my only plea;
To you alone I cry;
For burdened souls in you are free,
And such, O Lord, am I.
Bowed down beneath the weight of sin,
By Satan sorely pressed,
From outward foes and fears within,
I come to you for rest.
Lord, be my shield and hiding place,
That, sheltered near your side,
I may my fierce accuser face,
And tell him you have died.
Those two lines are worth the price of admission.
Amazing love! to bleed and die,
To bear the cross and shame,
That guilty sinners, such as I,
Might plead your gracious name!
So I suggest to you that in a moment, as we sing this, we might ask God to help us to really make this our own—perhaps in a way that we’ve never, ever done before, laying hold of it.
And let me encourage you to, if you’re tempted to be always taking your spiritual pulse, just stop it. Okay? Getting up in the morning: “I wonder if I’m alive today. Am I alive today? Am I spiritually alive today? How many chapters of the Bible have I read today? How much witnessing have I done today?” Goodness, you’re not even out of your bed! What’s wrong with you? Do you see how easy this is to do? What is our answer to the Accuser? He accused us in the night. We awakened at three o’clock; we had a dreadful time to get back to sleep. Now it’s half past six, and we must get up, but the remnants of the accusation remain. We don’t get up to take our pulse, but we get up to declare, “No, you take this up with the captain of my salvation.” Remind yourself that you’re in a war. Who said this was going to be easy? See your strength in the Lord Jesus. Identify the enemy. Put on the armor. Take your weapons. Quick march. That’s it.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (1960; repr. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 1.14.15.
 Charitie Lees Bancroft, “Before the Throne of God Above” (1863).
 1 Corinthians 1:30 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 13:5 (ESV).
 George Gillanders Findlay, The Epistle to the Ephesians, 4th ed. (New York, 1899), 415.
 2 Timothy 4:2 (paraphrased).
 1 Peter 3:15 (paraphrased).
 Isaiah 52:7 (NASB).
 Bancroft, “Before the Throne.”
 John 14:6 (paraphrased).
 1 Thessalonians 5:7–8 (ESV).
 Romans 12:2 (NIV).
 1 Peter 1:13 (KJV).
 See Philippians 1:6.
 See Psalm 119:11.
 Psalm 119:11 (ESV).
 Psalm 119:93 (ESV).
 John Newton, “Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat” (1779). Lyrics lightly altered.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.