Look around. See the evil. There can be no doubt that real, palpable evil exists in this world. There are child molesters, murderers, torturers, liars, cheaters, thieves, abusers of the innocent and helpless and so many more disgusting and abhorrent people and actions in this world. How did evil come to be in the world? The Bible clearly teaches that the devil is responsible for the evil that is in the world (Gen. 3). But how does the devil operate in this world today to bring about evil? How does satan work?
First, satan does not bring about evil through miraculous means. Maybe you’ve seen a movie which portrays satan taking over the mind and body of a person, causing them to do some terrible thing. While evil spirits have possessed people in the past (e.g. Matt. 8:16, 28-34), this does not occur today. The reason for this is that the age of the miraculous has ceased (Zech. 12:1,2; I Cor. 13:8-13; Eph. 4:7-16). God does not now work miraculously in the world (i.e., invoking a superior law of God in a way superseding the laws of nature for to teach some spiritual truth). But if God does not work in this world today through the means of the miraculous, then neither does satan for, if he did, that would leave Christians without a viable defense. However, the Bible teaches that God has made a way of escape from every temptation (I Cor. 10:13; II Tim. 3:16; James 4:7; Eph. 6:10-17).
Second, satan does not act immediately. By “immediately” I mean he does not act directly, without mediation or agency. To be even more precise, satan does not act directly upon the human heart. Again, this question can be settled by understanding how God operates on us as Christians and on the unbelieving world. God does not act directly upon the heart of the alien sinner or of the child of God. If He did, then individuals would cease to be free moral agents but would become puppets instead. The false doctrine of Calvinism teaches that God operates directly on the human heart and some chosen few are irresistibly saved, but the Bible nowhere teaches this. In fact, many passages like the Great Commission teach just the opposite (Matt. 28:18-20; cf., Gal. 5:4).
In fact, clear examples can be shown where God worked on the heart of the alien sinner through the agency of His word. In Acts 8, God did not work directly upon the heart of the Ethiopian Eunuch but rather through the agency of His revealed word. Philip began in Isaiah 53, and, using others scriptures, preached unto him Jesus (Acts 8:35). This was even during the time when miracles were available to first century Christians. It was only through the agency of God’s written and spoken word that he learned what he needed to do to be saved (Acts 8:35-39).
Even in the case of Cornelius and his household, even when God allowed him to miraculously speak in tongues before he was forgiven of his sins, he first had to send for Peter to have him tell him words whereby he would be saved (Acts 10:6; 11:14). In Acts 2, those present for the Pentecost feast likewise were “pricked in their heart” when they heard the words of scripture Peter quoted and correctly applied (Acts 2:37). If God does not act directly upon your heart, then neither does (or can) satan.
The truth is, even I can move you to do things through the agency of words. If I tell you I would like you to come over because I have freshly baked, chewy, chocolate chip cookies, if you have any desire for freshly baked, chewy, chocolate chip cookies, you might be tempted to come over. If I, with an angry tone in my voice, called you a stupid idiot and told you I despised you, I think I would be able to incite an emotional, if not a physical, response from you. On the other hand, if a man whispers in a woman’s ear, among other sweet enticements, that she was a desirable, gorgeous creature with unsurpassed beauty, he might well move her heart amorously. These actions would all be precipitated through ideas conveyed through words.
Ideas conveyed through the medium of words have great power. Just as a man can influence another man through words, God influences us through the agency of His revealed Word. And, by the way, we also influence God through our words in prayer (Phil. 4:6).
Therefore, satan works through words and the ideas these words convey, to move us to act upon our own lusts. James said, “Every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (James 1:14,15). Notice that it is our own lusts that entice us. When satan tempted Eve, he did so through the medium of words (Gen. 3:1 – “and he said unto the woman…”) because she saw that the tree was good for food and a tree to be desired (Gen. 3:6).
Observe how this works in the following examples. Luke states that satan entered into Judas’ heart (Luke 22:3). How did he enter Judas’ heart? Directly and immediately? No. Judas was already a thief at heart (John 12:6). When he saw the precious ointment being used to anoint Jesus instead of being used to line his own pockets, he balked (John 12:1-5). But notice, when he finally realized his own transgression, Judas said “I have sinned in that I have betrayed innocent blood” (Matt. 27:1-5), indicating his own culpability. In the same way, Peter asked why satan had filled the hearts of Ananias and Sapphira to lie to the Holy Ghost (Acts 5:3). But in verse 4 he asks why they, themselves, had conceived this thing in their own hearts.
How exactly satan initially prompts people, the Bible does not explicitly say. He used Peter’s fears to tempt Christ not to go to Jerusalem (Matt. 16:23). In His response, Jesus said Peter did not savor the things of God but the things of man. We also know that God works in this world through His divine providence (i.e., using natural laws to bring about His purposes) to aid us, otherwise there would be no efficacy in prayer (Matt. 7:7). The working of satan in this world could never be anything more than what God is doing. The Bible says that angels are ministering spirits sent forth to minister to those who will be the heirs of salvation (Heb. 1:14). There is spiritual activity going on at a level we do not normally or naturally comprehend (Rev. 12; II Kings 6:16,17; etc.). As Christians, we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph. 6:12). But one thing is clear: neither the Holy Spirit nor satan work directly upon the human heart.
(More on this issue later)
Eric L. Padgett