Does God control Satan?

Brother Reggie,

I’m involved in a very good discussion with some Jewish Counter-Missionaries at the moment. We are essentially debating the relationship of Satan to God, in terms of whether Satan is a free-willed adversary to God, or whether Satan is merely executing God’s bidding. They make a good case from Hebrew scripture that it’s never more than the latter, and that the notion of a free-willed “enemy of God” comes only from Christian theology.

Any thoughts?

He is free-willed in his evil nature. In that sense, he is like any other angel. However, just as Jesus said to Pilate, “you could have no power at all against Me, except it were given you from above (Jn 19:11); the same could be said of Satan.

Like the Antichrist, Satan is God’s instrument of judgment and chastisement (Isa 10:5; 28:2) whose bounds are set by the sovereignty of God who makes wise and glorious use of Satan’s malice to fulfill His own predestined ends. Therefore, God’s elect can say of Satan what Joseph said to his brothers: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen 50:20). It is a mystery, but Satan and the demons are not only instruments of redemptive chastisement to bring God’s elect back under the bond of the covenant, they are also agents of divine wrath upon the impenitent through the permission that they receive through the broken law of God.

So when we speak of Satan as a free agent, we must understand that he is free only within the orbit of his own fallen evil nature. It is the law of genesis that every seed brings forth ‘after its own kind’, and that is true of the nature and character of Satan. Therefore, Satan’s choices cannot transcend the predisposition of his evil nature. In that sense, he is not free, since he can only act according to a particular nature. He is NOT coerced, but his nature predicts the character of his actions. I believe the conversion of Satan’s evil designs into the service of God’s own ends in judgment and blessing subsists in His unlimited ability to perfectly anticipate and perfectly govern the outcome of any free action without violence to the will of the creature.

It is the age old question of God’s wise use of evil, yet this more than anything else provides the greatest demonstration of His unlimited power to accomplish His ultimate and highest purpose in glory. God’s ability to bring the greatest good out of the worst evil (Acts 2:23; Rev 13:8) is His glory. This ‘bright side of the dark picture’ is basis of hope in Isaiah, Habakkuk, Daniel, and all the prophets, since the gospel does not begin in the New Testament. That the glory of grace should be revealed against the backdrop of an undiminished severity of holy justice demonstrates something about the power and character of God that nothing else could ever do.

So yes, Satan is indeed ‘free’ in the sense that he is not coerced. However, in keeping with God’s over-ruling use of evil, Satan, like all created things, is perfectly “ruled over” in the sense of God’s sovereignty. As the wrath of man is made to praise Him (Ps 76:10), so too is the rage of Satan made to serve the plan of God. He is always made to hang on his own gallows and to fall into the snare that was prepared for the just (Prov 28:10; Est 7:10), as God has also prepared a snare for all pride, both human and demonic, in the prophetic mystery of Christ (compare Isa 8:14-15; 28:13 with 1Cor 2:7-8).

So, if I’m understanding correctly, your orthodox partners in dialogue may have the better of the argument here. I’m actually very surprised that they are willing to ascribe so much to the sovereignty of God, since they are usually far stronger on defending free will than most Christians. In fact, they are usually quite humanistic in their optimism concerning the sufficiency of human nature to choose the good and reject the evil.

Let us just say that due to his nature, Satan must do what he must do. But, due to God’s sovereign power, what Satan does is not only limited but turned into the service of His eternal purpose in Christ. That glorious end, so perfectly conceived in the Godhead before creation, would never have been possible apart from His pretemporal decision to permit His creatures the freedom to manifest another mystery, i.e., “the mystery of iniquity,” the full expression of which His coming now awaits (2Thes 2:3-4, 7-8).
Mon, May 24, 2010

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