Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Power Encounters: A Book Review

Those who practice biblical counseling know David Powlison well. He is eminently qualified to write a book on spiritual warfare because he has a reputation for sound hermeneutics, exegesis and application. Powlison’s books on various aspects of biblical counseling exhibit his belief in the sufficiency of Scripture for every aspect of the Christian life. Power Encounters is no different.

Power Encounters is a book that seeks to correct many of the modern church’s errors in the realm of spiritual warfare. It definitely accomplishes its purpose. David Powlison has thoroughly and graciously exposed and corrected the unsound hermeneutics that is the foundation of most contemporary teaching on spiritual warfare. Unfortunately, the shelves at Christian bookstores are full of this flawed and even dangerous teaching. It is too bad Powlison’s book is out of print, because it is one of the few available on the subject that is theologically, hermeneutically and practically sound.

In the first chapter of Power Encounters, Powlison explains the necessity of reclaiming spiritual warfare from well-meaning Christians who have strayed from the truth. Powlison sets the groundwork for a careful, scriptural evaluation of this movement and promises a more biblical view.

The second chapter compares the contemporary deliverance movement, which Powlison labels EMM, an acronym for “ekballistic” mode of ministry, with the classical mode of spiritual warfare. “Ekballistic” is a term Powlison created from the Greek word ĕkballō, which means to “cast out.” EMM practitioners base their methodology on the idea that demons, like lust, rage and rebellion dwell in the human heart and that they can get rid of them. In contrast, Powlison explains that the classic mode of spiritual warfare depends upon provisions such as God’s protection, his word, prayer, repentance and obedience for deliverance.

Chapters three through eight of Power Encounter comprise a section where Powlison examines what the Bible actually teaches about spiritual warfare. He looks closely at key passages in the Old Testament, the Synoptic Gospels, Acts and the Epistles. Powlison employs sound hermeneutical principles to unpack the biblical truth. He demonstrates that the fundamental mistake EMM advocates make is resorting to proof texting rather than interpreting Scripture in its context. Also, rather than letting the text speak for itself, they read their own theological conclusions into the text.

Chapter nine takes the biblical principles that Powlison uncovered in preceding chapters and skillfully applies them to eight specific questions concerning EMM. Then in the final chapter, Powlison illustrates the classical mode of spiritual warfare through two case studies. In both cases, EMM failed, but when the individuals faithfully practiced classic mode spiritual warfare, they grew in grace and began to experience real victory for the first time in their Christian lives.

Powlison does a masterful job of exposing the serious flaws in the contemporary deliverance movement in Power Encounters. Yet his manner is gracious and his tone irenic and non-combative. Clearly, his aim is to humbly expose and correct error, while at the same time edifying the body of Christ. It is obvious that Powlison does not view those immersed in the contemporary deliverance ministry as foes, but as erring brothers whom he loves and shares a common goal. Both seek to deliver God’s people from the enemy, but Powlison’s way is biblical.

The brief rundown Powlison provides describing the history, players and strengths of the contemporary deliverance movement in chapter two is helpful. One would be wise to consider how the different players’ theological systems influence their variation of EMM. Sadly, but all too typical, one of the key influences in the contemporary deliverance movement is actually a novelist and not a theologian. Novelist Frank Peretti has wrongly influenced countless Christians’ views on spiritual warfare over the last twenty-plus years.

Unfortunately, poor hermeneutics, as evidenced in EMM and Peretti’s novels, is epidemic in the contemporary church. In twenty-two years of ministry, I have read a shelf full of books on spiritual warfare from numerous theological perspectives, and all were essentially based on EMM. Without exception, those books failed to remain true to the Scriptures and propagated ideas and practices that were inherently unbiblical. In every case, I could trace these unbiblical ideas and practices to the fact that the books’ authors were not doing proper hermeneutics, which led to their espousing bad theology and practice.

In contrast, Powlison bases his scriptural arguments in Power Encounters on sound principles of biblical interpretation and exegesis. He looks at relevant passages in both the Old and New Testaments, and does a thorough but succinct job of unpacking them. His conclusions are well stated, and supportive of his proposition that classical spiritual warfare is indeed the biblical mode of warfare. In fact, after reading Powlison’s scriptural arguments, one cannot help but conclude that EMM’s problems are fundamentally a matter of bad hermeneutics, which have resulted in unscriptural theology and practice.

Powlison’s hermeneutical skills are especially evident on page 128 where he unpacks two EMM, proof texts, Eph. 4:27 and 1 Cor. 10:4. He rightly interprets Eph. 4:27 when he states that this verse is not about the devil gaining a foothold in the life of an individual, but about him gaining the opportunity to bring division in the body of Christ through unresolved anger. And then in unpacking 1 Cor. 10:4 in its context, Powlison correctly points out that this text is not about strongholds in the life of an individual, but about the stronghold of false teaching in the Corinthian church. False teaching which the apostle Paul was seeking to destroy with the truth of the gospel. I cannot begin to count number of sermons, Bible studies, books, commentaries and prayers I have observed where these two Scriptures have been misinterpreted and misused. Powlison’s careful hermeneutics are refreshing indeed.

One of the critical theological points that Powlison makes is in chapter five, where he examines Jesus’ ministry in the Synoptic Gospels. In this examination, he unpacks the difference between situational evil and moral evil. He explains that situational evil includes aspects of life like suffering, hardship, death and demonization. These aspects are situational because they are the result of external circumstances. In contrast, moral evil is due to the wickedness that resides in the human heart. Powlison demonstrates that Jesus dealt with the situational evil of demonization by casting out the demons, but he dealt with moral evil by calling people to repentance and faith in himself as Messiah and Lord. This point is critical because it destroys the primary scriptural and theological basis which EMM adherents claim for their practice of spiritual warfare.

In addition to dealing with hermeneutical and theological issues, Power Encounters makes a couple of important points about EMM that we dare not miss in chapter nine. A significant point that grabbed my attention was that Christians who have turned to psychology and those who have turned to EMM have much in common. Each has turned away from the classic spiritual warfare and embraced a system that cannot help them. Psychology redefines sin and EMM blames it on evil spirits. Both of these enable one to avoid responsibility for sin. Therefore, there is no confession or repentance, just continuing bondage to sin and ignorance concerning the sufficiency of Scripture to deliver and heal.

Another critical point that Powlison makes in chapter 9 is in response to a question; If EMM is unbiblical, then why have some experienced success with it? Powlison’s short answer is the grace of God. His long answer is that God will honor that in EMM which is true, and will grant grace and deliverance to someone who has a truly repentant heart. I know this to be true from my own experience. Many years ago, under the influence and direction of EMM books, I sought deliverance from a particular besetting sin. The Lord in his mercy delivered me, even though I was theologically confused and misinformed.

Powlison’s Power Encounters is a book with which I am highly impressed and will recommend without reservation. Frankly, it is the best the book I have ever read on the topic of spiritual warfare. Every pastor and biblical counselor should read it. I wish I had read the book in 1995 when it first came out. Reading it would have saved me from learning many of its truths the hard way. My hope is Power Encounters will soon be reprinted so many others in the body of Christ will have the opportunity to be edified by it.


Keith Crosby said...

Great (helpful) book review. Now I'll buy the book. I'm getting ready to "have a sit down" with one of Bethel's missionaries on this very matter.

Victoria said...

Thank you for leaving this post available. Powlison's book is a reference necessary to answer a NANC counseling question, but as you know, it is out of print. Blessings in your continued musings.