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Power Encounters

Book Review

What do demons have to do with counseling?

Mar 23, 2021

What do demons have to do with counseling? Dr. David Powlison’s book, Power Encounters: Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare, answers that question thus: “A lot, but not in the way some have supposed.”

The main thrust of the book is an irenic but critical interaction with a particular mode of ministry he calls EMM: Ekballistic Mode of Ministry (ekballō is Greek for “cast out”). EMM sees evangelism, sanctification, and discipleship-counseling being fundamentally helped through the casting out of demons allegedly responsible for a person’s sins. Demons like Lust, Anger, Pride, and Self-Accusation require deliverance, and self-deliverance can be a learned way forward in growing in holiness. EMM sees demons in every corner of a sinner’s heart where there is a foothold, stronghold, or an entrenched and besetting sin. The remedy provided by EMM advocates is some level of exorcism: a prayer-bathed binding in the name of Jesus after an individual’s specific sin-demons have been identified.

Dr. Powlison advocates what he calls the Classic Mode of spiritual warfare (CM). Without undermining the spiritual warfare being waged from within and without the human heart, Powlison promotes what Scripture promotes: “reliance on the power and protection of God, embracing the Word of God, specific obedience, fervent and focused prayer, and the aid of fellow believers” (page 36). This mode is the prescribed and regulated way for addressing real spiritual evil manifested both morally and situationally. This is the way of Scripture.

A basic difference between EMM and CM lies in hermeneutics and exegesis: the fields of interpreting the Bible. The priority of this fundamental difference is made clear through Powlison’s devotion to the matter in one of the chapters (Chapter 3, “Ask Questions of the Text”) and throughout other chapters in which Powlison exegetes key texts such as Job 1-2, 1 Samuel 16, Zechariah 3, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ exorcisms, Ephesians 6, James 5, and many others. His practice in the book proves his profession, “The text must have the first say” (page 41).

Can a counselee claim that the devil made him lust after a woman, react angrily to his spouse, or eat excessively? Certainly not, Powlison would answer, as he unfolds Jesus’ own purposes in His ministry of exorcisms. The bread and butter of Powlison’s contribution is his theological precision based on all that Scripture says concerning spiritual warfare. He lays out differences between the moral evil of demons and the situational evil that befalls victims of demon possession. The main problem with EMM is its theological misunderstanding and hence its misapplication of the categorical differences between the two, which differences account for Jesus’ united approach to demons and sin. According to Powlison, “The result of an ekballistic deliverance is relief, peace, and the restoration of mental and physical capabilities. It does not lead directly to moral improvement, except as the miracle prompts grateful faith in Jesus” (page 67).

Should Christians expect to emulate Christ and His Apostles with respect to ekballistic encounters? The reality is that “not a single example in the Bible shows Jesus or the apostles using EMM to deal with moral evil” (page 69), and that “James teaches the classic mode of warfare in its distilled essence: repentance, faith, and action” (page 118). We should expect specific teaching on how to engage in ekballistic encounters, but God does not reveal that for us. A different path is laid instead.

Powlison illustrates this better way by concluding his book with two cases studies: Allison, a 34-year-old female who struggled with anger, and Bob, a 42-year-old who cited a demon of lust. These case studies describe and prescribe the way forward, which does not employ exorcism but exercise in the spiritual disciplines of thinking rightly of God as sovereign of evil, finding refuge in Christ, digging deeply into God’s Word, involving others in the fight, examining the intentions of the heart, and striving to use words and deeds in a manner pleasing to the Lord and edifying for the believer. These are not “quick fixes [but] heroic dramas played out in tiny corners of life” (page 151). It’s through these seemingly mundane ways that Christians can rightly reclaim spiritual warfare to the glory of God and the good of the believer.

Helpful Quotes

  1. “Our society wallows in its atrocities and pathologies” (page 15).
  2. “This deep commitment [to prayer] rebukes the feeble prayers and feeble theology that so often reveal a Christian sleepwalking on the battlefield” (page 37).
  3. “Knowing that the devil is God’s devil brings us incalculable joy and confidence in battle with our adversary” (page 59).
  4. “EMM theology makes a serious misstep because it does not follow the Bible’s clear distinction between sin and suffering” (page 74).
  5. “The ultimate exorcism takes place on the cross, where Satan’s power to hold us in bondage to sin and death was destroyed” (page 83).
  6. “When the missionaries’ movie projector does not work and they learn that the local witch doctor has cursed their meeting, they should both cry out to God for help and check their wiring” (page 120).
  7. “The dragon in the back room can intimidate an isolated individual, but must fall before a platoon” (page 148).