Satan & Demons

11. Why Does God Permit Satan's Warfare Against Believers?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
God's sovereign permission of Satan's acts is within the scope of His eternal, unchangeable plan for all things.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part eleven (final) of a series. Read part ten.

The key to the answer is to understand the Bible's teaching on God's sovereign permission of Satan's acts within the scope of His eternal, unchangeable plan for all things.

In response to our recent series on the doctrine of Satan, readers have raised questions that can be summarized thus: "Since God is completely sovereign over all things, can it truly be said, as you did in some of your articles, that God 'permits' Satan to tempt and afflict believers? And if this is true, why does a holy God do it?"

These are important questions, not obscure details of theology. They go to the very heart of what the Bible says about the nature of God - and how, and to what degree, He controls the universe He created.

2,400 Years of Discussion

Theologians have written thousands of pages on this question. The earliest record we have of such discussion is in the scribal commentaries on the Old Testament that developed in Israel beginning 2,400 years ago, after the return from the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities. Debate and discussion have continued through the centuries.

In our day, the question of God's sovereignty is an area of theology where there is often more heat than light. Theological textbooks are full of terms such as "secondary causes" - "the liberty of indifference" - "contingency" - "determinism" - "necessary condition" - "concurrence" - "effectuation" - "ab extra influence" - and so on. Man (perhaps especially the theologian) is at his most inventive in creating terminology! Each new book adds words to the discussion, but rarely adds clarity. Even the best theology books (that is, the ones most faithful to Scripture) are often filled with such terms and their definitions. While theological terms can be useful when defined Biblically and employed judiciously, many times they can obscure Biblical truth.

Given all of this, attempting to answer the question of God's permission of Satan's acts within the space of a single article may seem an impossible task. The best we can do is to make the attempt, by God's grace and by resorting to Scripture alone. Brevity and clarity will be best served by letting Scripture speak for itself, keeping the use of theological terminology to a minimum, and avoiding un-Biblical speculation.

Approaching the Question

So, to return to the main question: Is it Biblical to say that God "permits" Satan to tempt and afflict believers? And if this is true, why does a holy God do it? Scripture makes three facts that bear upon this question abundantly clear.

First, the sovereign God of the universe has ordained in detail everything that has ever happened, is now happening, or will happen in the future, and that plan does not change in any manner or respect.

Second, our sovereign God is not in any sense the author of sin.

And third, God's sovereignty over all things extends even to the sinful acts of man and of Satan, for which man and Satan are nevertheless fully responsible.

Considering each of these points in turn from Scripture will lead us to the Biblical answer.

God Is Completely Sovereign

First, the sovereign God of the universe has ordained all things - everything that has ever happened, is now happening, or will happen in the future. And what God has ordained is unchangeable in any manner. Here are but a handful of the pertinent Scriptures:

"In whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind?...With Him are wisdom and strength, He has counsel and understanding. If He breaks a thing down, it cannot be rebuilt; if He imprisons a man, there can be no release. If He withholds the waters, they dry up; if He sends them out, they overwhelm the earth. With Him are strength and prudence. The deceived and the deceiver are His. He leads counselors away plundered, and makes fools of the judges. He loosens the bonds of kings, and binds their waist with a belt. He leads princes away plundered, and overthrows the mighty. He deprives the trusted ones of speech, and takes away the discernment of the elders. He pours contempt on princes, and disarms the mighty. He uncovers deep things out of darkness, and brings the shadow of death to light. He makes nations great, and destroys them; He enlarges nations, and guides them." (Job 12:10-23)

"The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations." (Psalm 33:11)

"There are many plans in a man's heart, nevertheless the Lord's counsel - that will stand." (Proverbs 19:21)

"A man's steps are of the Lord; how then can a man understand his own way?" (Proverbs 20:24)

"There is no wisdom or understanding or counsel against the Lord." (Proverbs 21:30)

"The Lord of hosts has sworn, saying, 'Surely, as I have thought, so it shall come to pass, and as I have purposed, so it shall stand.' " (Isaiah 14:24)

"For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?" (Isaiah 14:27)

"Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man who executes My counsel, from a far country. Indeed I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it; I will also do it.' " (Isaiah 46:10-11)

"Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered." (Matthew 10:29-30)

"In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will." (Ephesians 1:11)

"Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel [i.e., the fact that it is unchangeable], confirmed it by an oath." (Hebrews 6:17)

"Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning." (James 1:17)

God Is Not the Author of Sin

However, God's sovereignty does not mean that He is in any sense the author of sin. Scripture also makes this clear, as we see once again from just a few of the pertinent passages:

"For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness, nor shall evil dwell with You." (Psalm 5:4)

"Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone." (James 1:13)

"This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all." (1 John 1:5)

God's Sovereignty Encompasses Man's and Satan's Sinful Acts

Thirdly, God's sovereignty over all things extends even to the sinful acts of man and of Satan, for which man and Satan are nevertheless fully responsible. The prophet Habakkuk acknowledged this, even while asking a question that is often upon our hearts:

"You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness. Why do You look on those who deal treacherously, and hold Your tongue when the wicked devours a person more righteous than he?" (Habakkuk 1:13)

The Most Challenging Case in Scripture: David's Census

We must begin by addressing what many view as the most challenging case in Scripture. In 1 Chronicles 21:1, we read that "Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel." But the parallel account in 2 Samuel 24:1 opens with these words: "Again the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, 'Go, number Israel and Judah.' "

Some commentators, especially Bible critics, imagine a discrepancy in the Word of God, since 1 Chronicles attributes David's numbering of Israel (a military census to determine the number of fighting men) to a moving of Satan, while 2 Samuel declares it to be a moving of God. Actually, the two parallel statements are not in conflict, but they reveal an important aspect of the sovereign workings of God. We see this as we compare Scripture with Scripture.

Neither God nor Satan forced David to sin. The book of James affirms this: "Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death" (James 1:13-15).

To put it in today's vernacular, no one can legitimately say, "The Devil made me do it." But in this case, God allowed Satan to tempt David, and David chose the path of sin. Earlier, in 2 Samuel 21, we read that God's wrath had been kindled against Israel on account of the murderous acts of the house of Saul. In that case, God brought famine upon the land for three years. And as we come to chapter 2 Samuel 24, we find that "again" the Lord's anger was aroused against Israel.

What was the cause this time? We read in the preceding chapters of both 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles that God had given David and his men miraculous victories over the Philistines against humanly impossible odds (for example, one man defeating three hundred - 2 Samuel 23:18). But the context in both books makes it clear that David had moved into a way of thinking that put more trust in numerical human forces that in his wonder-working God.

David was, as James puts it, "drawn away by his own desires and enticed." Within God's sovereign permission, Satan "moved" (KJV "provoked") David to send Joab his commanding general to take a census in order to ascertain the military strength of Israel and Judah. The word translated "moved" in this passage is in the imperfect tense, indicating incomplete or unfinished action. But Satan's incitement came to completion when David succumbed to the temptation and commanded the census, for which God had given no instruction.

God used this incident, and His chastening of David and the nation for it, to accomplish His purpose by restoring David's undivided loyalty to Himself, and to remove his reliance on human strength: "And David's heart condemned him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the Lord, 'I have sinned greatly in what I have done; but now, I pray, O Lord, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly' " (2 Samuel 24:10). "And David said to God, 'Was it not I who commanded the people to be numbered? I am the one who has sinned and done evil indeed; but these sheep, what have they done? Let Your hand, I pray, O Lord my God, be against me and my father's house, but not against Your people that they should be plagued' " (1 Chronicles 21:17).

And so, through His sovereign permission of the operation of Satan, God restored within the King of Israel and Judah the heart of trust that he had expressed in Psalm 20:6-9 - "Now I know that the Lord saves His anointed; He will answer him from His holy heaven with the saving strength of His right hand. Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the Lord our God. They have bowed down and fallen; but we have risen and stand upright. Save, Lord! May the King answer us when we call."

God Sovereignly Uses Satan in Many Ways

As we search God's Word, we find that He uses Satan in many other ways, in the lives of both the unregenerate and the redeemed.

God uses Satan to make manifest the judgment of sinners:

"Hold not thy peace, O God of my praise; for the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful are opened against me: they have spoken against me with a lying tongue. They compassed me about also with words of hatred; and fought against me without a cause. For my love they are my adversaries: but I give myself unto prayer. And they have rewarded me evil for good, and hatred for my love. Set thou a wicked man over him: and let Satan stand at his right hand." (Psalm 109:1-6)

God uses Satan to refine and purify the saints. We see this in the life of Job:

"And the Lord said to Satan, 'Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person.' So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord [and struck Job's possessions and family]...Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. And he said: 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.' In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong." (Job 1:12, 20-22)

"And the Lord said to Satan, 'Behold, he is in your hand, but spare his life.' So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and struck Job with painful boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took for himself a potsherd with which to scrape himself while he sat in the midst of the ashes. Then his wife said to him, 'Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die!' But he said to her, 'You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?' In all this Job did not sin with his lips." (Job 2:8-10)

We also see it in the lives of the apostles:

"And the Lord said, 'Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you [plural in the Greek, speaking of all the apostles], that he may sift you [plural again] as wheat. But I have prayed for you [here Jesus addresses Peter singularly], that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.' " (Luke 22:31-32)

God uses Satan to discipline the seemingly incorrigible in the church:

"It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles - that a man has his father's wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." (1 Corinthians 5:1-5)

"This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme." (1 Timothy 1:18-20)

God uses Satan to further mature even the believers we would consider to be the most mature:

"And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

"Does This Offend You?"

When Jesus taught the doctrine of the sovereignty of God during His earthly ministry, "many of His disciples...said, 'This is a hard saying; who can understand it?' When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, 'Does this offend you?...The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you who do not believe' " (John 6:60-61).

Our natural tendency is to be offended by these truths, and not to believe. They are indeed "hard sayings" to our finite minds. But when God confronts us with such hard sayings, may we bow the knee before the authority of the Word of God, which tells us clearly that these things are so. Believing these things does not mean embracing a "Biblical paradox" in any sense. God is not the author of paradox any more than He is the author of sin. Believing these things means believing the God who says them, who is absolutely consistent in everything He says and does. May we trust in the One whose wisdom and knowledge are deep and rich beyond measure, whose judgments are unsearchable, and whose ways are past finding out (Romans 11:33).


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