The devil isn’t a popular subject nowadays. The argument is made that we’ve progressed as a culture. We’ve evolved as a society. Primitive superstitions don’t help anybody. It’s not healthy for people to believe that God kicked one of his angels out of heaven, who now works behind the scenes to ruin and destroy us and all our plans. Even among Christians who preach on the subject, Satan is misrepresented. He is most often portrayed as a bogey-man or possessor of god-like power. He is either described as causing mischief for Christians, like a pagan trickster god, or locked in combat with God Almighty for people’s souls. But, in the Bible, the Holy Spirit paints a very different picture of Satan. In Scripture, Satan is described as having a singular purpose befitting his title, “Accuser.” Satan attacks God’s Word to destroy faith.
Whatever God does, Satan tries to destroy it. But God turns all the devil’s plans to his advantage. No matter what he tries, Satan is made to serve his Creator. It’s true that when Satan stirs up a war, or afflicts someone with a bodily disease, or blight destroys crops, God allows this to happen. But, not to punish us. God allows this to happen so that sinners are humbled, made to fear him, and cry out to him. Then, when we have been repented, God makes the devil stop. What Satan had intended to use to injure and kill us, God uses to rescue us and give us new life.
The devil is not a bogey-man. His attacks are real. And as we learn from Job, they have very real consequences for our lives. On the other hand, Satan is not a god or equal to God in power. Satan is a creature of God. And like all creatures, Satan is under the power and authority of the Word who created him. The same Word who died on a cross outside Jerusalem. The Word of God who descended into hell, ripped the doors off their hinges, emptied out hell, and rose from death three days later, the master of sin, death, and the devil.
So what does this mean for Christians today? It means that when Satan comes, accuses us, and says, “You are a sinner. God hates sin. You are damned to hell!”, we can say, “You’re right. I am a sinner. A terrible sinner. In fact, I am the worst of all sinners. But I will be saved.” And when the devil says, “No, you’re damned. There’s no help for you,” Christians can say, “No, there is a helper. His name is Jesus Christ, who gave himself for my sins.”
When Satan tries to hurt us, make us lose faith, scare us about our relation to God, to hate God, to point a finger at other people and say, “But look, God, they’re worse than me! How can you judge and damn me when they’re so much worse then I’ve ever been?”, we can say, “You’re right again, Satan. I am a sinner. But now you’ve given me armor and a shield to protect me against your attacks. You’ve given me a sword that I can use to slit your throat. When you accuse me of being a terrible, damnable sinner, you’re preaching the sweetest words to me. You’re declaring the Gospel. You’re reminding me that I am a poor, miserable, condemned sinner. That I need a Savior. That Jesus is that Savior. He loved me so much he died for me and shed his blood for me on the cross (John 3:16). Christ is my Redeemer, and you’ve reminded me of that.”
Martin Luther, at his pastoral best, said that when the devil comes and attacks us, give him this answer: “‘Dear devil, I have heard the record. But I have committed far more sins which do not even stand in your record. Put them down too…’ If he still does not stop accusing me as a sinner, I say to him in contempt: ‘Holy Satan, pray for me! You never have done anything evil and alone are holy. Go to God and acquire grace for yourself. If you want to make me righteous, I tell you: Physician heal yourself.’”
Christians have nothing to fear from Satan. He has been judged. He has been overpowered by one who is stronger than the devil and all angels, Jesus Christ, who defeated and crushed Satan’s head under his heel. The devil can work, show his teeth to us, and make a racket, but he’s no more a threat to us than a wild dog on a chain. He can bark and he can run back and forth and he can strain to bust loose. But God Himself has chained the devil up, and so long as we avoid him, he can’t bite us. The chained dog, Satan, can’t hurt us so long as we cling to Christ Jesus in faith. Then when the devil barks and snaps at us, and says, “You’re damnable sinners,” we can say, “Thank you, Satan, for such a wonderful sermon. If it wasn’t for you I would treat my sins as a small thing. I wouldn’t know of my need for a Redeemer. But now, you have preached so well to me, and with such seriousness, that I am comforted by the knowledge that Christ is my Savior and on his shoulders, not mine, lie all my sins” (Isaiah 53:6,8).
For more on this topic, see Martin Luther’s Galatians Commentary (Luther’s Works, volumes 26-27), from which I’ve drawn upon for this article.
Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.