Bible Study: Sin & Satan
If weve been Christians for any length of time, eventually we come to the realization that we knowingly do things we shouldnt do and keep on doing them even though we know better. And we also have to face the fact that we do not live up to the high standard of perfect love that Jesus set while He was on the earth. A point will come, if it hasnt already, when we have to take an honest look at ourselves and compare our lives to that of Jesus in the gospels; we come up short. The Holy Spirit in us will not allow anything less from us, and if we dont shut out His voice, we begin to feel a certain dissatisfaction with our lives. A right dissatisfaction, because deep inside we know that we are not right. Even though we trust in Jesus for our salvation, we know that life in the here and now is not right and we begin to look at what is wrong in ourselves. After all, without a good diagnosis of the problem, how can we expect to find the answer?
In short, the problem is sin. Of course, you say, I already know that! That much is obvious. But for most believers sin is merely an action that breaks one of Gods commands. And at one level that is true. A sinful action that breaks a divine command is called a transgression, which refers to crossing a boundary illegitimately or illegally. In other words, Gods law provides us with limits or boundaries, which we violate when we sin. But sin is more than breaking a law or an act of disobedience. It is not just an isolated act unrelated to anything we did beforehand or anything we do afterwards. Our disobedience to a single command is a symptom of the deeper problem of rebellion. Rebellion is a determined attitude to resist and act contrary to Gods will, to assert our independence and go our own way, to do our own thing, without anyone telling us what to do. Most of us can identify this attitude as particularly characteristic of adolescence, (though I am sure the present readership can only identify with this secondhand!). Eves act of eating the apple was a transgression of a divine command, but she was deceived and did not intend rebellion against her Creator. Adams sin went deeper — he was not deceived and so his choice represented a carefully determined act of self-assertion and rebellion, to go his own way and not Gods.
This fixed attitude of rebellion had an immediate spiritual consequence for Adam (and consequently for Eve as well): guilt or spiritual death. I am not speaking of guilty feelings here, though Adam and Eve may have felt guilty, but of a fact: Adam and Eve were guilty whether or not they felt guilt, in the same way that when a court pronounces the guilty verdict on a criminal, their guiltiness has nothing to do with feelings. This guilt alienated Adam and Eve from God and put up a wall of separation between God and humanity. This guilt is part of what the Bible means when it talks about sin. In fact, the Biblical word which emphasizes our guiltiness for sin is called iniquity. This guilt and separation from God has consequences that run down the generations. When you throw a large stone into the middle of a pond, ripples are created that last long after the stone has sunk to the bottom. In the same way our actions have spiritual consequences that go on and on like the ripples, even if we never see those consequences. In fact, Adam and Eves sin had consequences that will last until the end of human history, because everyone born from them is born a sinner and continues the cycle of sin and guilt, the cycle of iniquity.
But even iniquity does not exhaust the Biblical idea of sin. The Apostle Paul writes about sin as a power that enslaves in Romans 6-7. In Romans 3:9 he says that all humanity is under the power of sin, and in Romans 6:12 he commands us not to let sin be our masters and so enslave us. In Romans 7:15-20, Paul realizes that he is no longer the one in control of his own actions because he does what he doesnt want to do and doesnt do what he wishes to do. In fact he goes so far as to say that it is no longer him who does the sinful deeds but the sin dwelling in him! For a long time I wondered what Paul meant that it was no longer him that was acting but the sin dwelling in him. Augustine (400 AD) understood Paul to be saying that human nature had become defective as a result of the fall and produced sin because it did not operate correctly. The human will had become twisted and evil and this was the source of human sin. When we became Christians we received the Holy Spirit who began the work of gradually renewing human nature and would eventually restore human nature to perfection when we are raised from the dead at Christs return. Most Christian teaching has followed Augustines understanding of Paul.
But it seems to me that Augustine has not taken Pauls words seriously enough: It is no longer I who do it but the sin dwelling in me. It seems that Paul distinguishes sin from the I and that sin is not just a part of the I or some defect in the I. No, sin is a power greater than the human self which has invaded the human world (Romans 5:12) and taken over humanity from the outside, though not dwelling within human beings. Sin is not a defect in human nature; it is a misuse and abuse of human beings by a spiritual power. In fact Paul describes sin as a spirit of slavery in Romans 8:15.
But what is this spirit that controls and operates human beings from within? Paul identifies the spirit of sin in another letter: You were dead because of the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, when you followed the way of this world, and the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that now operates in those who are disobedient (Eph. 2:1-2). Almost all interpreters understand this as a reference to Satan. Satan is the ruler of the power of the air — what does this mean? Just as air is universal and inescapable and is the element we breathe in and out all the time, so Satan is the spirit which sinful humanity breathes as its atmosphere and air. Just as I am in the air and the air is in me, so sinful humanity is in Satan and Satan dwells in them. But wait a minute, you might object, Satan is not omnipresent like God is; he is limited in space and time. And so he is. But just as the atmosphere of the earth is one place at one time, but as far as human beings are concerned it is universal, so Satan is everywhere that human beings are, but unlike God he is not in the plants and rocks and animals and stars. Satan is not omnipresent, but everywhere he needs to be.
Satan is also described as the one who is at work in or operating in the disobedient. The phrase at work in or operating in is a translation of the Greek word energo, from which we get our word energy. Satan is the source of every motivation to sin; he is the energy or power of sin. So when Adam chose to rebel against God, he thought he was choosing to go his own way but he did not realize he was handing himself over to a power greater than himself, the serpent, Satan. In Eph. 2:3 Paul mentions that all of us once lived in the passions of our flesh, following its desires and our senses, so that we were children of wrath by nature. But flesh is not the source of sin; it is merely the place where the spirit of sin dwells and stirs up sinful desires to indulge our senses and pursue pleasure at the expense of what is right. It is not human nature that is the problem, but the spirit dwelling in our humanity that is the problem and that ultimately makes us children of wrath.
The apostle John also talks about the devil and sin in his first letter. In 1 John 5:18 he says that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one, and in 4:4 he says: Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world. Satan is not just floating around in the atmosphere somewhere, no, he is in the world of human beings, dwelling in human hearts. In 1 John 3:8, he says that the one who sins is from the devil, and the well-known British evangelical scholar, F. F. Bruce says in his commentary that this means that the one who sins has his spiritual source in the devil. If the devil is my spiritual source when I sin, that means that Satan is the source of my motivations, that he is the power operating me and causing me to do what I do. When I sin, I am participating in a spiritual reality far greater than myself. At the same time, we have to remember our part, our responsibility in all this. The devil doesnt just make me sin against my will. On the contrary, Satan can only enslave humanity because Adam and Eve willingly gave themselves over to him, and in so far as we fail to repent and turn to God, we continue to allow Satan to run and operate us. We are fully responsible for everything that Satan does through us.
In fact, Satans power comes from human guilt, since, as was written above, sin includes the idea of guilt. It is our guilt before God that gives Satan his authority to continue operating us. Fortunately, however, God has a solution: Christ laid down his life as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, a ransom for many (Mark 10:45; 1 John 2:2). Because the problem of guilt was dealt with decisively in the blood, Satan lost his authority over humanity, so Jesus could say: Now shall the prince of this world be judged and cast out (John 12:31; 16:11). How did this happen? In his body, Jesus took on the spirit of sin that had invaded humanity, Satan himself, and brought it down into death, into the grace. On the Cross, Jesus was made sin, that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). In the ancient world this was called an exchange curse: the animal or human being to be sacrificed would take on the curse or plague or evil that afflicted the community, who would then be delivered from it. In Leviticus 16:21-22 the scapegoat would take all the sins of Israel and bear them out into the wilderness, the place of death. So Jesus took on the curse of the spirit of sin and in exchange we received His spirit of righteousness. The prince of this world, Satan, was cast out of human hearts and bodies through the death of the body of Christ.
But this is not the end of Satan by any means. Satan continually tries to regain a foothold in our lives (Eph. 4:27) and attempts to operate us from the outside and once again produce his sins through us. First through temptation he gets us to disobey God, and then attempts to hold us through our guiltiness. Satan is the accuser of the brothers (Rev. 12:10). I am not speaking about guilty feelings here, though Satan may use them as well, but rather about our objective guilt before God when we sin. Until we confess our sin and repent, we remain in our guilty state and Satan continues to operate us. It is only when the blood is applied that we are freed from Satans continuing power over us. That is why the sacrificial death of Jesus is so important. In Revelation 12:11, John says that we overcome him by the blood of the lamb and by the word of our testimony. By confessing our sins and repenting of them and placing them under the blood of Christ, Satan loses the authority to accuse us and establish any lasting foothold in our lives. The word of our testimony is our faith that this is so and that now another spiritual power has come to live His life through us, namely Christ Himself, if only we take this truth for ourselves: For it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal. 2:20). The Son of God keeps us from sinning if we just trust in His faithfulness to keep us.