Baptismal vows and spiritual warfare

By Shane Raynor

You can learn a lot from reading just one sentence. Consider the first of the United Methodist baptismal vows: “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?”

If you read it quickly, you might think this is a basic promise to “be good,” stated in three different ways, but it’s not. There’s a lot of information packed into this one question. In these 17 words, you find the three basic evil influences with which Christians struggle, and three things we have to do (the three R’s) to help us overcome them. You’ve got to wonder if most of us knew what we were really getting into when we said yes to all this.

As we travel the road to become more like Jesus, we run into three main obstacles: the world, the flesh, and the devil. By “world,” I mean the negative human influences and the corrupt, unregenerate culture around us. By “flesh,” I mean our own human tendency toward sin. And by “devil,” I mean Satan himself as well as demons.

Reject. The world is referred to in the baptismal vows in the phrase “evil powers of this world.” We promise to reject these evil powers. These powers don’t include anything supernatural, but they are often under demonic influence. Evil powers of this world include evils like slavery, abortion, sexual abuse, persecution, oppression, corruption, systems that perpetuate poverty, drug trafficking, exploitation…the list is endless. Cultural influences such as various movies, television shows, video games and music could also be included as part of the evil powers of this world. Rejecting these means refusing to accept them, rebuffing them, discarding them as useless, or casting them out or off. How many of us are truly rejecting the evil powers of this world?

Repent. It’s been said that each of us is our own worst enemy. This makes sense to me, because a lot of times we don’t even need an outside influence to make us sin—we manage to handle that just fine on our own. When we become Christians, we still have to deal with the flesh—that part of us that, if not disciplined and brought under the power of the Holy Spirit, will take us down the wrong road every time. I think of our flesh like a car that isn’t in proper alignment. If we take our hands off the steering wheel long enough, we’re usually going to wind up in a ditch, or worse, in another lane crashing into some other vehicle. The Holy Spirit helps us control our flesh and keep it in check. Repenting is what we do when we make an active choice to change both our hearts and our lives—a choice that helps transform us both on the inside and the outside.

Renounce. This is a strong word. It means something along the lines of disavow, disown, forsake, or repudiate. When you renounce someone, you’re publicly declaring that they have no authority over you anymore and you’re dissociating yourself from them. In the baptismal vows, you’re not stopping at merely condemning forces of evil (denouncing), you’re severing any and all ties between you and those forces completely (renouncing). When you say you renounce something and you mean it, you’re doing something powerful in the spiritual realm, even if you only feel like you’re saying words at the time.

Our war with evil is happening on three fronts: between our spiritual nature and our corrupt one, between us and the world, and between us and spiritual forces of wickedness. We can’t focus on only one front and be effective. As with other parts of the Christian life, balance is a major key to maximum effectiveness.

Shane Raynor lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is an editor and blogger at MinistryMatters.com.