A Biblical Perspective on Demons and Deliverance Ministry

“Deliverance ministry” is enjoying increasing popularity in the church. Don Dickerman is a notable advocate, and teaches a “deliverance process.” For Dickerman, the basic thrust is as follows: Salvation is a first step to being free, but many Christians are oppressed by demons in their bodies, wills, minds, etc., resulting in ailments of all kinds. The demons don’t get into the spirit, Dickerman says, because the Holy Spirit indwells the spirit. But while Dickerman insists a believer cannot be demon possessed, he does assert that believers can have demons in their soul, by appealing to certain legal rights to get in. These rights can come by unforgiveness, generational curses, secret society oaths or pledges, childhood traumas, and anxieties. If doors are opened to allow demons in, in they will come. Those same rights can be revoked, Dickerman asserts, but they must be handled by closing the legal-rights demonic doorways, and by binding and casting out the demons themselves.

The prescribed solution for demonic oppression is not counseling nor medication, but rather is “deliverance,” which includes intercessory prayer and binding and casting out demons, and which can allow Christians to be free from demons who lay claim to the Christian’s body, will, mind, or soul. The process works like this: the believer must confess the doorways, have a genuine desire to close the doorways, and the deliverance minister will cast out the demons. Dickerman speaks of a “courtroom of deliverance” in which he represents the oppressed believer and prosecutes the demon(s) before God. He leads the oppressed in a prayer of confession and repentance. Then he binds demons, commanding them in the name of Jesus to depart to the abyss after having fixed what they damaged in the oppressed person.

What is the biblical teaching on demons? Can Christians be oppressed or even possessed? Is deliverance ministry the solution? There are three contexts of demonic activities discussed in the New Testament: first, interactions in the Gospels between demons and Jesus and His disciples; second, references to demons in general, without reference to specific people they effect; and third, post-ascension personal activities of demons.

The Gospels contain 67 references to demons and a number of references to unclean spirits, having to do with Jesus casting out demons (Mk 1:34), His disciples casting out demons (Lk 9:1, 10:17), or, ironically, Jesus’s rejecters accusing Him of working in the power of demons (Mt 12:24). Jesus’s ministry included casting out demons for an important prophetic purpose. He came proclaiming that the kingdom of the heavens was near (Mt 4:17). The signs He performed was a prophetic evidence of His right to come as the King. This is why in Luke 4:18-19 he quoted Isaiah 61:1-2, which included the phrase, “To proclaim liberty to captives, and freedom to prisoners.” Jesus freed people from demons as a sign that He was qualified to offer and fulfill the kingdom. This is why in Matthew 12:28 He said, “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

Not only did Jesus’s ministry have miraculous authentication, but He also endowed His disciples, who were to travel throughout Israel proclaiming the kingdom (Mk 3:14-15), with authority over demons to confirm their preaching of the kingdom. Because of the very narrow purpose for casting out demons during Jesus’s ministry, we have no grounds to assume that the confirming work of Jesus’s ministry continues into the church of today. Notice, for example how the author of Hebrews acknowledges signs, miracles, and wonders accomplished by the eyewitnesses of Jesus, but notes that they were confirming of the message, and implies that even during the writing of Hebrews (probably around AD 67-68) there were no further confirming signs (Heb 2:3-4).

Paul acknowledges His apostolic ministry to be confirmed by signs, miracles, and wonders (Rom 15:18-20), so it is notable that in Acts we find him interacting with unclean spirits in Acts (Acts 16:16-18, 19:12-16). Of particular note is the last of these recorded instances, when an evil spirit trounces the seven sons of Sceva even though they are trying to cast out demons in the name of Jesus. The result was “the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them and subdued all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded” (Acts 19:16). The signs, miracles, and wonders Paul performed were to confirm Paul as sent by God (like the other disciples). God had not sent these other men, and they paid a dear price for assuming authority over demons (even Michael the archangel assumed no authority over the devil [Jud 9]).

Outside the Gospels, there are only 10 references to demons, and all of those pertain to demonic activity in general—their existence and false teaching (1 Cor 10:20-21; 1 Tim 4:1; Jam 2:19, 3:15; Rev 9:20, 16:14, 18:2). Unclean spirits make three brief appearances in Acts, one with Philip (8:6-7), and twice with Paul (16:16-18, 19:12-16), and then they are not mentioned (outside the context of deceit and false teaching) until they return to the scene in Revelation, during a final period of signs, miracles and wonders (Rev 16:13-14, 18:2). In our present age, “the prince of the power of the air…the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” afflicts unbelievers (Eph 2:1-2), but believers have no such affliction.

There are some specific spirits and unclean spirits discussed in the context of church age believers, specifically in the context of warnings. Paul warns the Thessalonian church against the false teachings of spirits that would distort biblical eschatology (2 Thes 2:2), and warns Timothy that deceitful spirits will teach falsehood (1 Tim 4:1). John warns believers not to be deceived by spirits that do not confess Jesus Christ as having come in the flesh (1 Jn 4:1-3). In each of these cases the threat from evil spirits is false teaching, not oppression or possession.

Satan himself is described as oppressing some during Jesus’s ministry (Acts 10:38), manipulating the heart of Judas to betray Jesus (Jn 13:2), and as presently roaming the earth seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet 5:8). The warnings for believers are clear: never are we told to bind or cast out, but rather we are warned to handle anger properly and not to give the devil an opportunity (Eph 4:27), to put on the full armor of God to stand against the schemes of the devil (Eph 6:11), to avoid pride and to have a good reputation, to avoid the devil’s errors (1 Tim 3:6-7), to submit to God and resist the devil—causing him to flee (Jam 4:7), to be sober (1 Pet 5:8), and finally, to avoid practicing sin (1 Jn 3:8). Spiritual warfare is very real, but it is also very specifically defined.

How then does a believer deal with demons and unclean spirits? Simply, do not be deceived by false teaching. How does a believer deal with the devil? Resist him by obeying God. Anything more goes beyond the scope of what Scripture prescribes. We don’t need anyone to stand before God as our attorney—Jesus Christ has already done that. “For there is one God and one mediator also between God and men the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). Believers have already been delivered from the authority of darkness and have been transferred into Jesus’s kingdom (Col 1:13).

How then does a believer help another person dealing with spiritual threats? “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth and they may come to their sense and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will” (2 Tim 2:24-26).

Kindness. Teaching. Patience. Gentleness in correction. These are the tools of biblical deliverance ministry.