“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List.
God Rules Over the Devil
Satan cannot do anything against the will and consent of God. For example, in the book of Job, Satan appears before God to receive his commands and cannot execute anything until he is authorized. In the same way, when Ahab was to be deceived, he came in the form of a lying spirit in the mouth of the prophets. But he only did so when he was permitted by the the Lord. For this reason, the spirit which tormented Saul was called an evil spirit from the Lord. Because the evil spirit, as it were, the scourge by which his evil deeds were punished. In another place, God inflicts the plagues upon Egypt through the means of wicked angels. In line with these examples, Paul declares that unbelievers are blinded by God, though previously he described it as the work of Satan. It’s clear, then, that Satan is under God’s power and ruled by his authority. He must yield in obedience to it.
Moreover, while we say that Satan resists God and works against God’s will, he only does way according to God’s permission. I’m not speaking of Satan’s will or work, but only the result. The devil is only bent on evil. Therefore, in himself, he eagerly opposes God trying to things which do the most damage to the will of God. But he can only do those things which God allows him to do because God curbs his power. So Satan ends up obeying his Creator by force whenever he is required to do God’s service.
Therefore, God uses demons at his pleasure. He uses them to keep his people alert. He allows them to war against them, assault them, press close in upon them, disturb, alarm, and occasionally wound believers. But they never conquer or oppress them. They enslave unbelievers, exercising dominion over their minds and bodies. They use them as slaves to accomplish all kinds of sins. Because demons disturb believers, God exhorts his people: “Give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:27) and “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Paul acknowledges that God did not exempt him from spiritual battle. In fact, a messenger from Satan was sent to attack him in order to subdue his pride (2 Corinthians 12:7). Therefore, spiritual warfare is common to all the children of God.
But God promises to crush Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15). The promise applies both to Christ and to all the members of his body. Therefore, I deny that believers can ever be oppressed or vanquished by the devil. They can be disturbed, but never beyond recovery. They get knocked down, but they get up again. They are wounded, but not fatally. They press on throughout their lives and gain ultimate victory, though they meet occasional defeats along the way. God allowed David to be left for a time to Satan. By the devil provocation, David numbered the people against God’s will (2 Samuel 24:1). Paul also holds out hope of forgiveness for anyone who has become ensnared in the devil’s trap (2 Timothy 2:26). In other place, Paul shows that the promise is available for this life where the struggle carries on, and that it is completed when the struggle ends. Paul promises, “The God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly” (Romans 16:20). In Christ, our victory is always perfect because the prince of the world “had nothing” on him (John 14:30). But our victory is only partially obtained in this lifetime. We will receive the complete promise when we put off our sin-stained bodies, which are always a liability now, and filled up with the energy of the Holy Spirit.
In this way, when God raised up and established the kingdom of Christ, the kingdom of Satan fell. Jesus expresses it this way: “I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven” (Luke 10:18). When he said this, Jesus confirmed the power of the apostle’s preaching. In another place, he says, “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil” (Luke 11:21-22).
Christ, by dying, overcame Satan who held the power of death (Hebrews 2:14). He triumphed over all Satan’s demons so that they would not fatally injure the Church, which otherwise would suffer every moment. We are so weak and he is so angry. How could we ever withstand all of his assaults, if we did not trust the victory of our Leader? Therefore, God does not allow Satan to have authority over the souls of believers, but only gives him authority over unbelievers who are not part of his people. The devil is said to possess the world until he overthrown by Christ. In a similar way, he blinds all who do not believe the gospel and does his own work in the children of disobedience. Satan’s torment of unbelievers is just because all the wicked are vessels of wrath. To whom should they obey but to the supreme example of someone who will receive God’s wrath? Therefore, they are said to be children of the devil. Just as believers are called sons of God by bearing his image, so also, the wicked are called the children of Satan because they degenerated into his image.