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POWER OVER DEMONS: AUTONOMOUS AUTHORITY OR CRUCIAL DEPENDENCE ON THE HOLY SPIRIT?
by bruno sebrechts
3/16/2021 / Bible Studies
In addressing evil spirits in deliverance ministries today, we see one approach that emphasizes the use of powerful, authoritative proclamations and another that emphasizes the need for counseling and personal education.
Some advocates of the first approach claim that having the name of Jesus at our disposal gives us the authority to cast out demons whenever we want, and they encourage believers to take the initiative in Jesus’ name. Is his name intended to be some kind of stamp to validate our own actions (see Matt 7:22–23)? Our new identity is indeed accompanied by a new authority, but it also requires a new submission. To offer an analogy, anyone who becomes a citizen of a powerful country does not become a hero just because his new country is a superpower. That person may obtain new rights, but he has to exercise them properly and legally.
To weigh the practice in light of Scripture, we will first examine the terms authority (Greek: exousia, hereafter ex.) and power (Greek: dunamis, hereafter dun.), both used in the context of casting out evil spirits. Then we will explore how the gifts of the Spirit function in our current post-Pentecost era.
The twelve apostles had a specific task in the founding of the new kingdom (Rev 21:14), and the Synoptic Gospel writers record Jesus sending them out to announce it, commanding them to cast out evil spirits and to heal the sick. They all mention the authority (ex.) he gave them; only Luke 9:1 adds the gift of power (dun.). So at the beginning of their ministries, the emphasis seemed on the entrusted authority. Their mission reflected the proclamation of the true Jubilee (Luke 4:19). They were authorized to heal and cast out demons as a sign that the aftermath of Israel’s exile could be concluded.
Though they got a general mandate, its scope was limited. The casting out of demons was a sign, and such signs were to be given at the right time and for the right purpose, not just to anyone at any time (see Luke 9:1&5; Matt 12:39; Mark 8:12).
It is striking that neither the Great Commission, Acts, nor the letters mention entrusted authority (ex.) with regard to healing or deliverance, while they continue to mention the power (dun.) of the Holy Spirit. We read about a "gift of workings of miracles” —workings of powers (dun.) —, but not of a "gift of authority" (1 Cor. 12:10). Anderson explains this shift by noting that during the Gospels’ time frame, Satan had not yet been defeated at the cross. So before Pentecost, “to confront Satan and his demons, a specially endowed agent of authority was required” (see John 12:31). The disciples were not yet familiar with the spiritual gifts, such as the gift of discernment. Their initial mandate and authority were related to their initial mission.
After Pentecost, casting out demons became more occasional. Christ was “working with them,” and confirming their words by signs, or in church context, as manifestations of the Spirit (Mark 16:20; 1 Cor 12:10–11). During Jesus' earthly walk, signs mainly confirmed the dawn of a messianic age (Matt 16:3), but after Pentecost, signs confirmed the message of personal salvation.
For the disciples, recognizing the role of the Holy Spirit and their dependence on him became crucial.
Consider following analogy. Caesar held absolute authority in ancient Rome, while the entrusted authority of his army commanders was relative; i.e., it depended on their mission. Tertullian wrote that in triumphal parades for victorious Roman generals, a slave was in place to whisper constantly in the general’s ear: "Remember that you're only human!" This was so the emperor could keep generals’ unauthorized ambitions and attitudes in check, reminding them that they were still subordinate to him!
Or consider this: A father may entrust his eldest child with responsibility and authority over the younger ones if he sends them on a trip, granting him an authority that expires upon their mother’s arrival. But should that child then refuse to relinquish his authority, he would be disregarding parental authority. He should recognize his mother’s authority from the moment she arrives and submit to it.
Moses exemplifies how specific time frames can require different approaches. His mandate to perform miracles “before the Pharaoh” (Exod 4:21) did not authorize him to perform them in the desert through personal faith initiatives, for the miracles during the desert wanderings required dependence on and leading by God.
After his victory through his death and resurrection, Jesus declared that he was given all authority (ex.) in heaven—in the heavenly realm—and on earth (Matt 28:18). His authority is unique and unlimited, as his teaching already showed; he alone is the stronger One (Luke 11:22). He did not transfer that authority to his disciples, but he assured them of his continued presence and involvement.
The Holy Spirit was poured out in power (dun.) at Pentecost. This was not a vague force, but the long-awaited personal presence of God. Jesus had promised to be with them always (Matt 28:20). The early church was fully aware of his unique authority. "Jesus is Lord" became the core of their confession, and God's reign was clearly expressed in their prayers: “O Lord, you are God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all that is in them; ... you stretch out your hand to heal” (Acts 4:24,30).
Mark’s Gospel closes not with authority being entrusted to the disciples, but with an announcement that they will cast out demons and that even deadly drink would not harm them—promises to be fulfilled within specific contexts, not mere authorizations.
Jesus had told his disciples to wait for the promise of the Father—the power (dun.) of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4, 8). Why were they told to wait for power if Jesus had already entrusted them with power (dun.) and authority (ex.) in Luke 9:1? This indicates that the first endowment related to a pre-resurrection task, while after the resurrection they received a second endowment.
At Pentecost, the disciples did not receive the authority (ex.), but the power (dun.) of the Spirit, who came to indwell them. The Spirit was not a courier to transfer something, a spectator, or one who simply plays an incidental role. Hence, authority belongs to the Spirit and cannot be claimed. The Comforter has arrived to lead us (John 14:16, 26), so we no longer have to rely on delegated authority (John 16:7). We are explicitly urged to be “led by the Spirit of God” (Rom 8:14), "be filled with the Holy Spirit" (Eph 5:18) and to "live by the Spirit" (Gal 5:25; 1 John 2:27).
Emphasis on the Presence and the Power of the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit’s outpouring created a new relationship situation and, as in the previous example of the eldest son’s need to relinquish authority upon his mother’s arrival, we must also recognize his proper place. Reports of genuine revivals in church history emphasize the presence and authority of the Holy Spirit rather than human authority.
John Wesley and the early Methodists frequently dealt with people afflicted by evil spirits. The deliverances were attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit working through believing prayer, sometimes even through simple songs of worship.
Paul emphasized God’s power (dun.)—not personal authority—to withstand the enemy (Eph 6:10, endunamoo). We have been delivered from “the power (lit. authority (ex.)) of darkness” (Col 1:13) and now we live under the authority of Christ and the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:14). We are positioned in Christ, above the evil powers, and we get power (dun.) to remain in that position. But Christ remains our head, and God himself will put spiritual enemies under Christ’s and our feet (Acts 2:35; Rom 16:20). When, for instance, Paul executes a supernatural act on the wicked Elymas in Acts 13, it is not Paul’s authority that is mentioned, but merely that he was filled with the Holy Spirit (13:9).
The same is also true of healing, for where Luke 9:1 (= pre-Pentecostal era) emphasizes the disciples’ authority over sickness, James 5:15–18 affirms the prayer of faith—rather than any authority—that should bring healing when the elders anoint with oil. It is compared with the prayer of Elijah, who was led as a prophet to pray for the right miracle at the right moment.
After Pentecost we find no encouragement to desire personal, intrinsic authority (ex.). There is one mention of such a desire, in the case of Simon the sorcerer, but he did not count as an example (Acts 8:19). Early church sources teach us how a magic mindset crept in when autonomous authority became their focus. A believer’s true authority is never intrinsic (part of himself), but always extrinsic (derived from Christ). So, any authoritative acts should be guided by and subjected to the Holy Spirit’s will (2 Cor 12:9; 2 Thess 1:11–12).
Curiously, there are some in deliverance ministries today who focus on free authority rather than emphasizing dependence on the Holy Spirit. They often rely on a few Gospel verses about casting out demons—before Pentecost, that is—while neglecting the applicable principles of the gifts of the Spirit in the church age.
The conquest of Canaan illustrates a right balance. The general mandate for God’s people was to take the whole land, but they were not guaranteed success in every random battle. Victory was only assured when they respected God’s laws and fought under his guidance (see Josh 7:12; 23:10; Judg 2:2–3).
Grace-Gifts as Manifestations of the Spirit
The Holy Spirit’s gifts are "grace-gifts" (charismata) and "manifestations of the Spirit” (pneumatica, see 1 Cor 12:1, 4). They are manifestations of God’s grace; they are not bestowed because someone deserves them, claims them, or has achieved a high level of spirituality. “The same Spirit works all of these, distributing to each one separately as he desires” (1 Cor 12:11). They are not personal skills or natural talents. Believers should be receptive and cooperative, while attributing any results to the grace and work of the Holy Spirit.
For example, the charisma of healing is not an ability to heal in just any situation, but a guidance of the Holy Spirit to release healing, in certain circumstances, and to a certain receiver.
The special work of the Spirit was seen in the nineteenth century in hundreds of deliverances that accompanied the gospel breakthrough in China. John L. Nevius (1829–1893), an American missionary pioneer, saw many being delivered from severe torture by evil spirits through the prayers of young indigenous Christians or even just because the demonized came near a place of worship. To those who took offense that these miracles happened through young converts, Nevius replied that it was ultimately all the work of Christ. “It is not for us to say when, or through whom, Christ shall work miracles”, he said. Dependence on God, humble faith and prayer were at the heart of these deliverances.
Being positioned in Christ above the powers gives us defensive authority (see Eph 6:13), for God has provided abundant blessings, protection, and wisdom to defy any confrontation with the powers of darkness, but the ultimate subjugation of these forces is a work of God.
Rather than claiming that Jesus has given us all authority to cast out evil spirits, we’d better say that he has all authority and gives us, or will give us, the necessary authority whenever needed. He is our head, and therefore he rules (1 Cor 11:3). Christ’s authority over us is the legitimation of our authority by him.
Even in the secular world, someone in a high position can only exercise authority within his assigned area, and he should act according to the interests of the one who granted him that authority. Only a dictator can do whatever he wants. The believer should remain humble and dependent on God (e.g., 2 Cor 12:7–9), following the example of King David, who remained dependent on God, unlike King Saul, who exercised authority beyond his mandate. Believers who execute authority autonomously will experience unnecessary stress or even danger, because God cannot cover such authority. Stubbornly continuing along these lines can open doors for deceiving spirits to put on a show: they create seemingly positive short-term results that ultimately result in the loss of God's protection.
Recently, a pastor told us his dealings with a Satanist who came for help. Whenever this man tried to call on the name of Jesus Christ, his vocal organs were blocked by demons. With the help of fellow pastors, he started to combat the evil spirits. But after hours of addressing the demons, binding them, and claiming authority in Christ, they were exhausted. Desperately, they prayed: “Lord, for some reason we cannot help this man. We just can’t get it done. If you do not intervene, he will remain in big trouble.” Immediately after they had confessed their inability, God stepped in, and the man was able to freely call on the name of Jesus.
Another minister shared with us a similar story. While addressing an evil spirit and commanding it to leave in Jesus’ name, some young believers who were present asked if they could sing a song. He thought this was disturbing and exhorted them to be quiet, but he was unable to cast out the demon. As the young believers kept insisting, he finally relented, and at the moment they began to sing about the redemptive power of the blood of Christ, the evil spirit left.
Sticking to the Core Message
Jesus demonstrated God’s omnipotence over the kingdom of darkness. But believers should not be fixated on instant miracles. We must be willing, if necessary, to persevere in prayer, so we may enjoy a stable victory over darkness.
Biblical truth remains unchanged, but our situation and our epoch may influence how we should apply these truths, as Jesus showed in his parable of the wineskins. John the Baptist’s disciples and Jesus’ disciples were both serving the same God, but they dealt differently with prayer and fasting. Jesus’ physical presence created a festive wedding atmosphere: an epoch with specific characteristics (see Matt 16:3; John 9:4–5; 12:35; 16:12). In certain ways, things would become more difficult for us (Luke 17:22), and Jesus told his disciples that the need to fast would arise again (Mark 2:19–20). He warns us against clinging to methods, for just as new wine needs to be stored in the right wineskins that can handle the wine’s active freshness (Luke 5:37), we should also discern the right context for ministering, while living in dependence on the Holy Spirit (John 14:26).
Text is available in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Chinese, Russian, Arabic and Farsi.
For a general treatment of the theme of spiritual deliverance, see
"Light In Our Darkness, Essentials of Spiritual Deliverance" – Bruno Sebrechts.
Humble Joy Publishing ISBN 9789083136400
Spanish Edition ISBN 9789083136417
Bruno Sebrechts is a counselor and Bible teacher with over twenty-five years of pastoral experience. He saw God at work, especially in the healing and deliverance of the most damaged believers. His writings are the result of his extensive experience and continuous study. www.LightInOurDarkness.net
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