How are we to look at the workings of Satan, the Devil, our great enemy, Lucifer – that most beautiful of angels swelled by pride and cast out of heaven, in the life of the believer? And, how are we to understand it correctly without the pendulum of our thoughts swinging into either the error of thinking too highly of him on the one side, or not even considering him at all on the other? The Apostle Paul seems to suggest (at least) in 2 Cor. 2:11 that we are not to be ignorant of Satan’s devices and, so, be outwitted by him, so we should at least consider the matter at some level. I’ll offer a few thoughts on both the negative and positive side of the issue – not as an exhaustive treatment of the doctrine of Satan by any means, but more as a cursory drive-by – and then see where we land.
On the negative side
The great Reformer Martin Luther wrote in one of his more well known hymns, “For still our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe – his craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.” Luther’s own battles with this ‘ancient foe’ are well documented and are not surprising considering the ‘gate’ at which he stood; ready to swing open the dungeon and allow the light of Scripture to flood in. In fact, had he not been more opposed by the corrupt church at the time and Satan himself, one might have even rightly wondered if he was in the right theologically (or mentally).
Countless Scriptures flesh out our understanding of Satan as well. To name but a few, Peter tells us to be “sober minded” and “watchful” for “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8), Jesus speaks of him in John’s gospel saying, “He [the devil] was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44), and we see him in Genesis 3 coming in the form of a serpent to the garden and deceiving the first people, ushering sin and death into God’s good and perfect creation (Gen. 3:1-7). Paul later calls Satan the “prince of the power of the air” and the one who is “at work in the sons of disobedience.” (Eph. 2:2), and Jesus is tempted for 40 days by Satan after the inauguration of His ministry; he even claims to have authority over all the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4:1-13). So we have this powerful, fallen angel (Luke 10:18) and ‘grandmaster’ of evil and father of lies who is, from the beginning, against God and works against His good purposes. Along with this, he is – as Luther rightly penned – a foe no mere mortal can withstand and has no equal on earth.
*We will, for the present discussion, leave out Hollywood-ish or cartoonish ideas about Satan, for neither – it seems – treat him as a real being beyond a character in story, or mythology, or a gag of some kind, and are thus irrelevant to this discussion.
On the positive side
This is where i’d like to spend the bulk of what space is left – for i feel this is where the real hope and freedom the gospel offers on the subject can be found. And, saying that, it seems to me that no hopeful discussion of evil or it’s father – for the believer in Christ – should begin anywhere but with God’s sovereign control over all things, as Ephesians 1:11 so gloriously states, “… Him [God] who works all things according to the counsel of His will.” Now, it is not my intention to ‘rabbit’ off into a discussion on the subject of sovereignty at this point – i will, for the purposes of this post, assume the sovereign control of God over all things as both understood and agreed upon. But it serves us well in this, and many other subjects, to begin with the reminder that God is on His throne (Rev. 4:2) and there is nothing that happens that is outside of His knowledge and/or will; Scripture tells us that even a sparrow does not fall without His knowledge (Matt. 10:29) nor does the roll of dice end up in the hands of chance (Prov. 16:33). This is itself would be more than sufficient knowledge to silence any fears over the work of Satan, along with the fact that god has given us everything we need to battle the enemy, not in our own strength and by our own devices, but by His (Eph. 6:10-19, 2Pet. 1:3,4). More than this, Scripture tells us that Satan is a defeated foe; defeated even from the moment he thought he’d won (Gen. 3:14,15). Beyond this, we have the ‘end of the story’ as it were in Revelation, which describes the fulfillment of Satan’s destruction (Rev.12:9, 20:10).
But – returning to the first point of God’s ultimate rule over all things – something that has always driven home the point, and illustrates this ‘dog on a leash’ picture so well, is the testimony of Scripture that Satan does nothing without the permission of God. Two passages that demonstrate this clearly are Job 1:8-12, 2:3-6 where Satan is “allowed” to afflict Job, and Luke 22:31 where Jesus tells Peter that Satan had “demanded to have you” or, as it is rendered in some translations, “Satan has asked to have you that he might sift you like wheat,”. In both cases, though both men ARE afflicted/sifted/etc by Satan, it is done so only by the express permission of God and only so far as it works toward His own purposes. *as a side thought, it’s a wonder Satan doesn’t just sit and wait for his ultimate destruction, for you’d think by this time, he’d see that every victory he thinks he’s winning is used to achieve God’s glory and the increase of his kingdom in the end!
With all this in view, it is no wonder then – after admitting the fearsome and formidable power of Satan in this world, Luther then responds with this reply:
And tho this world, with devils filled Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us,
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him,
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.