October 29, 2020

Can Christians Cast Out Demons?

Nathan W. Bingham & Sinclair Ferguson
Can Christians Cast Out Demons?

When we come to certain parts of the Bible, it seems that the casting out of demons is commonplace. Should Christians expect to have the power to drive demons away? Today, Sinclair Ferguson appeals to Scripture and church history to provide an answer.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Well, calling in from his home in Scotland is Ligonier Teaching Fellow Dr. Sinclair Ferguson. Dr. Ferguson, as Kacey asked, should Christians be casting out demons today?

DR. SINCLAIR FERGUSON: Well, I think with questions like this, I think I might be able to be briefer if I were sitting beside the person who was asking the question, because I think my first instinct would be to ask a series of other questions. It might be helpful for me to explain why that is the case. With questions like this, Should Christians be doing this? with reference to things that happened in Scripture, I think it's always important to go back to first principles and actually to see what kind of paradigm the person is working with, what kind of framework of reference. Now, the question here is, you go on a mission trip, should you be casting out demons? I think it's helpful if I say several things here.

First of all, I think there is a notion around in the evangelical church that demon possession and casting out demons was a commonplace event in Scripture. If I can put it boldly, the truth of the matter is that demon possession and casting out demons is hardly ever referred to in Scripture. It's very rarely referred to in the pages of the Old Testament and it's hardly referred to in the New Testament either, outside of the Gospels. So if someone were to sit down, say with a concordance or some electronic method of looking through the number of times demon possession, exorcism of demons, evil spirits are mentioned, and for example, to print them out, I think they would be absolutely astonished by the result. I say that because we live in a subculture, or at least there is a subculture, or evangelical subculture, where demons are being cast out every day of the week and demons are being associated basically with almost everything that goes wrong. There are some amazing stories about how wrong things can be that are attributed to demon possession.

The fact of the matter is almost all the references to evil spirits and possession by demons and to the exorcism of demons is found within the four Gospels, almost exclusively within the four Gospels"a couple of references in the Acts of the Apostles, a reference in 1 Corinthians to the worship of demons, a reference in 1 Timothy 4:1, I think it is, to the doctrine of demons. So, I think that statement is bound to make us ask this question: Why is there so little demon possession referred to in the Old Testament, and why so little outside the pages of the Gospels? The answer to that question, I think, is pretty clearly the presence of Jesus Christ. The presence of Jesus Christ in the flesh, come to bring our redemption"and you can almost work out what the conclusion of this sentence will be"was bound to draw the most ferocious attack of the evil one in order to withstand the coming of the kingdom of God and Jesus Christ.

If you think about, for example, the Gadarene demoniac, when he is asked what his name is, he says, "My name is Legion" (Mark 5:9). Even if it doesn't mean an entire Roman legion, which I think was about eight thousand soldiers, it is an indication of a vast number of demons. The number of pigs that the demons go into is an indication of a vast number of demons. But it only takes one demon to drive a man out of his mind. So why this phenomenal concentration of demons? I think the answer is that the demons are not so much interested in the man we know as Legion the Gadarene demoniac as there is this upsurge of demonic activity in order to withstand the presence of Christ and to destroy the purposes of God. Thereafter there is very little exorcism that takes place. So, I think those things help us to understand that there is a framework of reference here and we need to be very cautious for that reason when we hear people attribute all kinds of things to demon possession.

Speaking for myself, I do not think I have met anyone that I could be sure was demon possessed. Occasionally, I have wondered. My guess is that would be true of most Christians. So, I think first of all one needs to be on one's guard about people who have "the gift of exorcising demons." I say that partly because apart from the seventy who were sent out by Jesus in Luke 10 and said that the demons were subject to them (v. 17), there seems to be no gift in the New Testament apart from the Apostolic ministry of the exorcism of the demons. And so, I think all of this helps us to develop a framework of great caution about the framework of reference that many Christians employ today in thinking about the way in which there is evil in the world. Of course, that statement needs to be balanced by the fact that the New Testament says a great deal about satanic activity. But, emphasizing satanic activity, it doesn't emphasize demon possession.

Now, there are questions here that I think are difficult for us to untangle. But, one of the things I think is important to understand is that something happens to the kingdom of Satan in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In terms of what John sees in Revelation chapter 20, at least as I understand Revelation chapter 20 and Revelation chapter 12, the coming of Christ binds Satan so that he no longer deceives the nations. In that sense, wherever the gospel has been preached, the nations in a sense have been set free from that demonic activity. That does not mean that there will be no demonic activity. But, I think what it does mean is that on the analogy of the demonic activity and the Gospels, we would expect to see that demonic activity either where the kingdom of God has not already come and where the church, Christians, are not already present or where that kingdom has been so beaten back where it seems to be in danger of being destroyed. I think all of those thoughts should be going around in our minds.

Now, having said that, the idea of us as ordinary Christians going somewhere else, perhaps even discovering demon possession and thinking that we can cast out demons, again I think we need to be cautious and listen to the wisest voices in the church who have actually of some kind reflected on this. Since this answer has gone off long enough, let me refer to a nineteenth-century American Presbyterian missionary in China called John Nevius, who dates, I think, 1829 to 1893. He was a missionary in China. He wrote a very, very fine book on demon possession, in which he had spoken to many missionaries, asked counsel of many missionaries, reflected on the phenomenon for years. One of the things that's very striking about that is that the presence of Christians, the presence of Christians in areas where the gospel has not penetrated, in the case of people who are demon possessed, will arouse the presence of the demon to such an extent that the demon will react to their presence. And as far as I remember, in the vast majority of cases where demons were cast out, they were actually cast out by prayer and only in moments of confrontation. In the sense that when Christian missionaries said that their backs against the wall, have they directly, as it were, in the name of Jesus cast out the demon. In all of these cases, sometimes they've been actually quite young Christians, sometimes older Christians, but they've taken to heart Jesus' words. Remember when the disciples failed to cast out the demon? "But this kind goes out only by prayer" (Mark 9:29). Prayer is our resource in every instance.

I think this very, very wise, extraordinarily wise, Christian missionary really helps us to see that we shouldn't be thinking about, in terms of going overseas and I'm going to cast out demons. If we were to encounter this, I think we would be naive if we just dealt with the situation on our own on a mission. But the way people are delivered, it is by prayer and by their consecration to Jesus Christ. Because of the one thing that we can be absolutely sure of is that it's not possible to be possessed by a demon when you're possessed by Jesus Christ. So prayer and repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, in a sense, are the simple answer to this question. But it's a question that has a great deal of complexity about it.