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Worldviews in Conflict: Christian Cosmology and the Recent Doctrine of Spiritual Mapping (Part 2)

 

The Apostle Paul was acquainted with Satan’s strategy, having experienced it firsthand (II Cor. 12:7; I Thess. 2:18). He realized the need for believers to watch their lives carefully and resist the influence of the Enemy, Satan (e.g., I Cor. 7:5; Eph. 6:11; I Tim. 3:7). Moreover, he recognized that demonic activity can account for people’s tendency to yield to false doctrine (I Tim. 4:1; cf., II Tim. 2:24-26). Despite Paul’s negative dealings with the devil, however, he affirmed the absolute power of God over the demonic forces and the inevitability of Christian triumph and the defeat of Satan (Rom. 16:20; cf., II Thess. 3:3).

A more complicated issue involves two other verses from the Pauline corpus that mention people being handed over to Satan “so that the sinful nature may be destroyed” (I Cor. 5:5; I Tim. 1:20). Was Paul pronouncing a curse on these individuals? Was he personally handing these sinners over to Satan’s custody? The most common interpretation of these words sees them as an expression of excommunication. Although these passages remain an enigma to the church and are highly controversial among scholars, a couple of implications are worth noting.

First, Paul apparently saw the act of handing one over to Satan as a means of ultimately restoring the unrepentant sinner. Outside the protective covering of the church lies a world influenced and—to some extent—directed by the devil (II Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:1-3; I John 5:19). Paul must have felt that exposure to darkness would force a reawakening in the wayward soul. Second, Paul apparently realized the subordinate nature of Satan’s handiwork to the ultimate plan of God. For while he acknowledged the power of darkness, he confidently assumed God’s sovereignty was infinitely greater.

In essence, Paul believed that the work of Satan might actually produce a positive change of heart in the one being disciplined. Ironically, what is understood to be essentially harmful, is used to bring about a greater good. Using Satan to promote God’s purpose should not totally surprise us in view of what has already been presented about God’s sovereignty and dominion. As Donald Bloesch insightfully remarks about God’s overarching providence:

The Bible makes unmistakably clear that behind the tribulation and discord in the world is a demonic adversary of God and man. He is a divine anti-divine being, superior to man but inferior to God. Yet behind the work of the devil is the wrath of God, for God is still ultimately in control. Indeed, God accomplishes his secret will through the perverse will of the devil. God works through the devil but not in the same way as he works through the church. Luther rightly distinguished between the alien work of God, by which he brings suffering and tribulation, and his proper work, by which he offers mercy and salvation. Sometimes it seems that God must do the former before he can do the latter.47

One issue that has plagued our Pentecostal heritage is whether Satan and the demonic world stand behind all maladies and sicknesses from which believers suffer. Certainly the New Testament reveals a number of instances where demonic activity was stated to be the source of illness, debilitation, and even insanity,48 though these accounts occur prior to the birth of the church. Given the picture as a whole, it seems that some sicknesses are caused by satanic oppression (Luke 13:16), but other illnesses may simply be the result of natural causes. This appears to be the best explanation for the case of Epaphroditus, who “almost died for the work of Christ…” (Phil. 2:30). More interesting, Paul offers no explanation for Timothy’s frequent stomach ailments (I Tim. 5:23), only that he should avoid the water and “use a little wine” (v. 23). Once again, this points out the fact that our world is real, both physically and spiritually, and that the appropriate remedy must fit the correct diagnosis.

The Apostle John characterizes some sins in the church as being the work of the devil (I John 3:8,10) and Paul specifically warns individuals that undeterred anger provides “the devil a foothold” (Eph. 4:27). Grudem makes this observation concerning the devil’s role in human sin:

When we combine all of these statements and see that Satan is thought of as the originator of lies, murder, deception, false teaching, and sin generally, then it seems reasonable to conclude that the New Testament wants us to understand that there is some degree of demonic influence in nearly all wrongdoing and sin that occurs today. Not all sin is caused by Satan or demons, nor is the major influence or cause of sin demonic activity, but demonic activity is probably a factor in almost all sin and almost all destructive activity that opposes the work of God in the world today.49

Even though the Bible clearly acknowledges the power of demonic forces and the evil influence of Satan in the world, the emphasis is surprisingly placed on human behavior and personal decision-making.50 In other words, the argument, “the devil made me do it” is unacceptable to God. Instead, the excuse represents a weakness of character and unwillingness to accept personal responsibility for one’s actions. The devil could not make Judas become a traitor unless the rebellious disciple willfully responded to temptation. God permits individuals to pursue evil desires (Rom. 1:24). The Scripture places implicit responsibility on the person who is expected to make the right choices.

 

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Category: Living the Faith, Winter 2002

About the Author: Larry L. Taylor, M.A., D.Min., is Affiliate Faculty at Regis University in the Denver area and formerly professor of humanities at Portland Bible College. Larry Taylor founded a church in Colorado and has 17 years of pastoral experience.

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