Not until recently had I ever felt the weight of the fact that those outside Christ have no defense against the devil. God can restrain the devil from doing his maximum worst. But the world cannot. They are helpless before Satan’s supernatural power. They are utterly in his sway, except for God’s restraining providence.
This should make us tremble for the hopelessness of the world and marvel at the magnitude of God’s power and grace to keep the world from being ten thousand times more violent and miserable than it is. Consider these passages to show the plight of the world:
We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. (1 John 5:19)
In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers. (2 Corinthians 4:4)
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following . . . the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. (Ephesians 2:1 -2)
The World in the Providence of God
Nevertheless, the world is not nearly as vicious and wretched as it could be. Millions of unbelievers are civil and courteous and honest and kind. How can this be, if they are defenseless against the supernatural power of the most wicked being in the universe? The answer is that God restrains the evil one and uses many natural means to prompt unbelievers toward outward conformity to his laws. Here are some biblical examples.
When Abraham told king Abimelech that Sarah was his sister and not his wife, Abimelech took her into his harem, but against ordinary expectations, did not have sexual relations with her. Then he found out Sarah was Abraham’s wife and was frightened before God. But God said to him, “It was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her” (Genesis 20:6). That is a picture of God’s restraint on sin in the world.
Not only does he restrain evil, he also prompts good. For example, “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia . . . the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation . . . :‘Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord . . . has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem.’” (Ezra 1:1-2). Later the people rejoice that “the Lord had . . . turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God” (Ezra 6:22). And again: “Blessed be the Lord . . . who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king” (Ezra 7:27).
So the Old Testament makes sweeping summary statements like, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1), and, “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples” (Psalms 33:10).
So in the providence of God, the world does not sink into as much wickedness and misery as it would if it were given over entirely to the power of the evil one. The world does not have any power in itself to resist the devil, but God in great patience restrains the evil one and prompts much good behavior.
The Christian in the Person of Christ
The Decisive Triumph
The reason that union with Christ makes a great difference for the believer is that Christ achieved a decisive triumph over the devil at Calvary. He did not remove Satan from the world, but he disarmed him to the extent that the weapon of damnation was stripped from his hand. He cannot accuse believers of unforgiven sin. And therefore, he cannot bring them to utter ruin. He can hurt them physically and emotionally, even kill them. He can tempt them and incite others against them. But he cannot destroy them. Here is what happened at the cross:
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:13-15)
This decisive triumph is owing to “the record of debt that stood against us” being nailed to the cross. The devil made that record his chief accusation against us. Now he has no accusation that holds. He is helpless to do the one thing he wants most to do—damn us. He can’t. Christ bore our damnation. The devil is disarmed.
Another way to say it is in Hebrews 2:14-15: “[Christ became human] that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” Death is still our enemy. But it is defanged. The sting is gone. The sting of death was sin. And the damning power of sin was in the demand of the law. But thanks be to Christ who satisfied the law’s demand (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:56-57).
The Consequent Promise
“Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
The Triumphant Conflict
The conflict with the devil that results from being in Christ is brutal, but the outcome is certain. He may kill us, but he cannot conquer us in the end. We rise and live forever in joy with Christ, while he is finally cast into the lake of fire. Consider two texts that show we can be killed but not utterly ruined.
They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Revelation 12:11)
Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation.Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)
In this battle with the devil, therefore, we are to resist him by faith and put on the armor of God. “Submit yourselves therefore to God.Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:7-8). “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:8-9). “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11).
In conclusion, weep for the helplessness of the world the way Jesus wept over Jerusalem’s blindness: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42). Rejoice that the providence of God is so massively active in restraining evil and prompting so much external conformity to righteousness. Trust in the triumph of Christ at Calvary. Resist the devil in faith that the one in you is greater than he. Risk your life to spread the liberating news as far as you can.
- John Piper