Satan and Sovereignty

I am a Presbyterian; an Evangelical-Charismatic-Presbyterian to be exact. As you surely know, Presbyterianism is founded on Calvinism, which has at its core a belief in God’s Sovereignty. John Calvin speaks of God’s sovereign providence as the decisive will in all events, even those enacted by Satan. For some time now I have been trying to reconcile this belief with my personal experiences with the awful reality of the evil Satan causes: theft, death and destruction. Could it really be that these things are ultimately caused by God?
This paper begins with a personal encounter with demonization that served to drive me into the question at the center of this writing. Namely, given the freedom and influence of Satan in this world, how can I affirm God’s sovereignty? I will survey biblical testimony regarding the authority of Satan and juxtapose this to the biblical testimony on God’s sovereignty. I will then consider differing perspectives on the sovereignty of God and conclude with a definition of God’s sovereignty that accounts for Satan’s activity.
II. Satan in a Presbyterian Church: A Personal Encounter
We were sitting in the church library and now he was rocking back and forth in his seat, and I just kept thinking, “we have no idea what we are doing.” Norm had walked into University Presbyterian Church off the street and asked to speak to a pastor where I was serving as an intern. Because it was clear that he was disturbed, I asked the female pastor, the only one around, if she would like me to accompany her in talking with him. As we talked, it was as obvious from one perspective that Norm was mentally disturbed, and from mine, that demons were involved. Norm told us he had been involved with internet child pornography and was now being harassed by what he called an “orb” and two other presences, each with names. He described them to us. He said also that he was being bothered by the dead spirit of someone who had died in his apartment building. Norm told us he was being punished by these harassing presences because of his sins.
The Pastor led Norm into a prayer of confession. After this prayer, Norm rocked back and forth in silence. I just kept thinking “we have no idea what we’re doing. She’s even been to seminary and she seems to have even less idea than me!” Finally Norm started talking, “God has spoken to me and told me that I will be punished for my sins...”. I broke in “That is not God’s voice!” I proceeded to claim authority in Jesus’ name over whatever evil was speaking to Norm, demanding it to stop and leave. But nothing changed. The Pastor didn’t know what else to say, and Norm got up and walked out of the church.
I was disappointed. For one, I was disappointed that the Pastor seemed so unprepared for this type of encounter, one which was commonplace for Jesus and his disciples. Second, I was disappointed that my efforts had been futile. Admittedly, I was flying by the seat of my pants, but hadn’t I spoken almost exactly what Jesus and his disciples had? Why then did it not seem to work? Didn’t Jesus have all authority in heaven and on earth?
This episode, as well as a another somewhat similar, was significant in my decision to come to Fuller Theological Seminary, rather than Princeton, where the Pastor had studied. I had read about Wimber’s classes and Fuller and was hopeful that Fuller was somewhat better at addressing this area of ministry. And so I found myself taking Power Encounter with Dr. Charles Kraft.
This course took as its premise that God and Satan are in an ongoing battle, which was being played out on earth, and in which we were commissioned with God’s authority to oppose the “infinitely” inferior power of Satan. Kraft used that work “infinitely” in order to comfort and encourage us, but it only stoked my query: “If we have infinitely more power, shouldn’t deliverance be as easy as Jesus makes it look?”
These questions, ones tied up intimately with the meaning of God’s sovereignty, propel me in this paper to search the resources of my traditions, Presbyterian, Evangelical and Charismatic, to come to an understanding of God’s sovereignty which allows for my experiences as well as the biblical testimony to Satan’s influence.

III. Satan and Sovereignty in Scripture
In order to arrive at a satisfactory of definition of God’s sovereignty in relation to Satan, we must survey the biblical witness regarding Satan’s freedom as well as its witness regarding God’s authority over Satan.

a. Satan’s Freedom and authority
As the context for Satan’s freedom and authority, we must first establish a basic framework for understanding Satan’s nature and identity. According to Dr. Charles Kraft, Ezekiel 28:11-19 and Isaiah 14:12-15 form the basis for believing that Satan is a powerful fallen angel. Thus, Satan was created by God and endowed with power by God, but rebelliously set himself up against God. With this framework we can consider biblical treatment of Satan’s power.
A striking collection of scriptures, all found in the New Testament, present Satan as the ruler of this world. 1 John 5:19 says “We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.”[1] In John 14:30 he speaks of Satan saying “I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming.” Satan is the “god of this world” in 2 Corinthians 4:4and the “ruler of the power of the air” in Ephesians 2:2. In his temptation, Jesus seems to accept Satan’s claim to be able to give him “all the kingdoms of the world,” not contradicting Satan when he says, “for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.”[2] So the first, and most important element of Satan’s freedom and authority is related to Satan’s rule over this world.
In addition to the general assertion of Satan’s lordship over the world, the bible describes Satan’s various activities. As we see throughout Scripture, Satan is free to tempt.[3] Satan is a deceiver; the “father of lies” “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers.”[4] Third, Satan is an accuser. This is most evident in Job, where Satan charges Job with conditional loyalty. Forth, Satan has the power of death, according to Hebrew 2:14.[5] Fifth, perhaps often through deceit and temptation, Satan is a manipulator. Satan is the spirit at work in that is now at work among those who are disobedientand somehow achieves manipulative power over disciples Judas and Peter, leading them to do his bidding.
Jesus tells us in John 10:10 that “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” This he is expected to do in Revelation 2:10, “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.” We see Satan’s hand in working death and destruction in the lives of the many who had demons, often manifesting in ways similar to psychological or physical illness.
Clearly Satan is not powerless. Scripture warns us to be on our guard against our adversary, the devil, who prowls around, looking for someone to devour.”[6] According to the Bible, Satan has freedom and authority to act in this world.

B. God’s Sovereignty over Satan
Scripture repeatedly presents God as all powerful. The Psalmist writes, “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.”[7] In Daniel and elsewhere it is continually asserted that God is sovereign over the kingdoms and rulers of the world.[8] This foundation is important, but our question centers on how Scripture portrays the relationship between God and Satan. How does God exercise his authority over Satan?
The first biblical indication of God’s sovereignty over Satan is found in Genesis 3, where God, by virtue of his authority, curses Satan. As Satan’s superior authority, God can punish Satan.
Job provides a helpful insight into the dynamics of the relationship: Satan is only free to do as much to Job as God allows.[9] This puts an important qualifier on the seemingly open-ended verbiage of the New Testament which calls Satan ruler of world.
Perhaps the most pertinent testimony to God’s sovereignty over Satan lies in the accounts of Jesus exorcising demons. As emissaries of Satan’s will, demons afflicted people with disease and madness, but Jesus easily takes authority over these, commanding them to be silent, or leave. Further, Jesus gave this authority to his disciples and they had similar results, though not without some difficulty.[10] Jesus relations with demons is modeled well in the words of the Roman centurion: “For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.”[11]
Jesus teaches his disciples to pray “Deliver us from the evil one,”[12] directly indicating that such deliverance is within God’s hands, while not denying the reality of the danger.
Paul asserts the sovereignty of God over whatever other spiritual powers exist in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6:
 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one. Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
In this passage as a whole, a troublesome one for deliverance ministers, Paul seems to be dismissing Satan and demonic powers as relatively insignificant in the light of God’s ultimacy.
To summarize this survey of Scripture regarding Satan’s freedom, authority and subordination to God let us note two seemingly contradictory assertions. First, Satan has freedom to harm and authority over this world. Second, God is the source of all authority and whenever God is seen to have confronted Satan’s will, it is thwarted with ease.

IV. Searching My Traditions
As I mentioned at the outset, I am an Evangelical-Charismatic-Presbyterian. I’m sure some from each of these groups would wish to dissociate from me, but nevertheless I find myself at home within the distinctives of each, and it is from within these traditions that I must seek to resolve my quandary. This section will search each tradition for its perspective and useful insights. Because the crux of the issue springs from the Presbyterian-Reformed understanding of sovereignty, it is here that I will begin, and give the most lengthy attention.

A. Presbyterian-Reformed
John Calvin is the Father of Reformed faith, and so it is to his writings that I will turn initially for a Reformed definition of sovereignty. Calvin calls God the praecipuus autor, or principal author. As such, all events find their ultimate cause in God. It is by God’s sovereignty that all that God wills, occurs.
In speaking more specifically about the actions of Satan in the world, which he does not deny, Calvin writes that God “himself is said to give men over to a reprobate mind and cast them into vile lusts, because he is the principal author of his own righteous vengeance, and Satan is only the minister of it.”[13] Calvin goes to particular lengths to combat the position that Satan acts by permission, preferring instead to describe Satan’s actions as the “executions of God’s judgments”. In other words, whatever Satan is able to do, he does not only with the permission of God, but because God willed it to be so.[14]
Calvin admits the dilemma of evil, committed by humans or Satan. Here, he is forced to confess a mystery whereby God both wills and does not will the same action. By his prohibition, his will is exposed as opposing the action, and yet by virtue of it happening, it is understood to be within God’s will.
John Piper, a contemporary Calvinistic Presbyterian voice wrote an article titled, “Ten Aspects of God’s Sovereignty Over Suffering and Satan’s Hand in It.”[15] In this Piper asserts God’s sovereignty over Satan’s delegated world rule in ten dimensions. Namely: God is sovereign over Satan’s hand in persecution; God is sovereign over Satan’s angels; God is sovereign over Satan’s life-taking power; God is sovereign over Satan’s hand in natural disasters; God is sovereign over Satan’s sickness-causing power;
God is sovereign over Satan’s use of animals and plants; God is sovereign over Satan’s temptations to sin; God is sovereign over Satan’s mind-blinding power. For Piper, God sovereignty is so complete that he can say “even if Satan caused the earthquake in the Indian Ocean the day after Christmas, he is not the decisive cause of 100,000+ deaths, God is.”[16]
I will give voice to one other expression of this view of sovereignty which I find so hard to reconcile with the repugnance of Satan’s action. Miles J. Stanford, in a scathing review of Kraft’s I Give You Authority, quotes Samuel Chadwick:
So the Father holds the soul and regulates the stroke. Sometimes He makes the devil His hammer man. Satan strikes to smash. Our sovereign Father regulates the stroke, and turns his malice to our perfecting, and the devil sweats at the task of fashioning saints into the likeness of Christ.[17]
These various Reformed voices all exemplify the way in which Calvinism tend to take each doctrine to its logical conclusion. This happens most notably with the doctrine of double predestination, whereby some are elected for salvation, and some for damnation, but is just as apparent here. This perspective teaches that whatever Satan gets away with is not simply by God’s permission, and certainly not in opposition to God’s will, but rather the very outworking of it. Satan cannot do anything against the will of God.[18]
One would expect that with such a strict leash, Calvin would find Satan rather impotent. This is not entirely the case, rather, Calvin marvels at the mystery of how God achieves his ends by Satan’s various activity. Calvin speaks in some detail about the warfare between Satan and God, and which believers are called to warning against sloth or the foolish belief that demons are nothing more than bad moods or mental illness. He warns that we war against an almost infinite number of enemies, who aims at the end of God’s glory.[19]
Ultimately though, Satan is able to do only what God himself wills and Christ’s death is understood to have dealt the decisive blow, whereby Satan can not injure the church or have dominion over believers, but only the non-elect.

B. Charismatic
The second tradition which I will survey, I am here calling Charismatic. This is perhaps a mis-designation, but by it I mean to include all those perspectives which have a somewhat greater view of Satan’s freedom and authority, and free God from considerably more blame when it comes to the works of the devil.
Writers, teachers and deliverance practitioners like Dr. Charles Kraft speak often about the prevalence of demonization, even among Christians. While pains are taken not to remove individual responsibility, the assumption is present that demons can and do exert considerable influence in the lives of believers and unbelievers alike. Throughout his writing he teaches that demons can put thoughts in human minds[20], be inherited[21], infest objects[22], cause disease or death[23] and afflict Christians.[24]
As Kraft stresses in his writings, he comes to these conclusions on the basis of numerous experiences. He finds, as I have, that deliverance is not as simple as Jesus made it look.
Despite the significant attention given in Kraft’s books to the threat that Satan’s demons pose, he insists that there is no need to fear, for “we have infinitely more power.” He makes no definitive statements about the reaches of Satan’s power, but speaks of it as a “long tether” indicating that it is ultimately limited by God, but quite substantial. These teachings add up to a significantly different picture of Satan than that presented by Calvin, Piper and others. For Kraft, God’s sovereignty means that God’s power, when applied is always greater than Satan’s. To compare, Kraft would say that God’s will can always trump Satan, where as Calvin would say God always does trump Satan.
I wish to add one more voice here, but one which neither my Presbyterian, Charismatic or Evangelical friends would likely wish to be associated. Because it represents a position in which Satan is relatively more free, and Sovereignty is more generally understood, as opposed to seen as evident in every evil event, I will include it here. Open Theist John Sanders has written about tragic events and God’s will:
The overarching structures of creation are purposed by God, but not every single detail that occurs within them... God intends an overall purpose for the creation...[but] does not have a specific divine purpose for each and every occurrence of evil...the possibility of gratuitous evil has a point but its actuality does not. … When a two-month-old child contracts a painful, incurable bone cancer that means suffering and death, it is pointless evil. The Holocaust is pointless evil. .. God does not have a specific purpose in mind of these occurrences.[25]

C. Evangelical
Stanley Grenz, evangelical and author of Theology for the Community of God describes God’s sovereignty with two pairs of phrases. The first is “Present and Final Sovereignty,” in which he discusses the future and present orientations of God’s sovereignty. ““Sovereignty” means that God is at work bringing to pass the final goal of his creative activity. But if God is sovereign in the future, we can affirm his sovereignty in the present as well.”[26] Grenz affirms the present aspect of sovereignty in two ways. First, because history is progressing toward the fulfillment of God’s intent, we can view each moment as a step along that path, thus it participates in movement of history which God is directing toward finality. Second, God’s sovereignty is present in the times and spaces that we see God overcoming evil, healing, giving glimpses of the eschaton.
The second pair of phrases Grenz uses to describe God sovereignty are De Jure and De Facto. In De Juro[27], we see that God is sovereign by right; God is the rightful ruler of the world. In De facto[28], we acknowledge that though God is the rightful sovereign, all does not now conform to his sovereign will. We would then expect that Grenz would consider Satan the default De facto ruler, but this is not clear.
Grenz’s treatment of Satan and demons allows for two biblical perspectives. Namely, that they are real and unreal. The perspective that they are real has been assumed by all previous contributors, so I will simply address the later. On the basis of 1 Corinthians 8: 4-7, Grenz offers the perspective that demonic powers “have no objective existence whatsoever,” and yet they gain existence and influence whenever they are honored by people.[29] Central to Grenz’s view of Satan and sovereignty is his belief that Jesus’ resurrection changed everything. Whereas previously Satan may have been a real cause for fear, after, we are to live confidently.
Grenz concludes with two relevant conclusions. “Whatever principalities and powers there are in the spiritual realm are under the authority of the risen Christ.” “Christ has exposed the powers for the non-realities that they are.”[30]

V. Defining Sovereignty
The preceding inquiry has resulted in three distinct, but somewhat overlapping, understandings of the relationship between Satan’s authority and God’s sovereignty. From the Reformed perspective comes the belief that even Satan’s actions are subsumed under the will of God. From the Charismatic perspective, Satan has significant power, but only a delegated authority that can be overcome by God’s own authority with some effort. From the Evangelical perspective, God’s sovereignty is seen to be presently only on occasion and in principle, but is ultimately expressed in the eschaton, thus Satan may act, but he cannot avoid his coming end.
As I seek to come to a satisfactory definition of God’s sovereignty which takes into account my own experiences, I want to draw attention to the primary area of agreement among Reformed, Evangelical and Charismatic thinkers. Namely, all agree that God has much greater power and authority than Satan, and therefore Satan’s scope of influence is limited. While this is basic to Christian belief, it is an important place to start. Whatever else we struggle to say about Satan and sovereignty, I know I can say this: God’s power is greater than Satan’s and will reign eternally.
To this central statement, I wish to add several more. First, in contradiction to Reformed belief, I do not believe that all history, and therefore all evil, find their cause in God’s will. In effect, I prefer to accept the notion that evil happens by God’s permission, rather than commission. I do not pretend that this therefore excuses God of responsibility, nor to I discourage Christians from taking their complaints to God, but I prefer it to the dilemma in which Calvin is forced to have God at the same time both willing and not willing the same action. I can not imagine that God would engineer any event apart from his love; even the exile was not sheer evil, but merciful discipline.
The second addition is this: I believe that God’s sovereignty means that God can assert his will against Satan’s. This is in keeping with Charismatic understanding. Implied is the assumption that God does not always assert his will. This may be tied to the cooperative role which humans play in the distribution of spiritual authority.[31] It is this application of God’s authority which I believe Christ’s disciples were invited when they were taught to pray “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth at it is in heaven.”[32] Furthermore, we apply God’s power when we command demons to leave or heal. It is important to note that, for whatever reason, God’s power is not fully applied by mere formulas; there are no magic guarantees that God will apply his power in a given situation. The reason may be situational or hidden in God.
Third, I believe, with Grenz, that God’s sovereignty is primarily future-oriented, with present implications. We have certainty regarding Satan’s coming demise and God’s final victory. Satan may be the ruler of this world, but we know that this world is passing away. All of past and present reality can be seen through this hope and expectation. Because God is at work bringing history to its climax, in which God’s sovereignty will be everywhere apparent, today’s events, though they be caused by Satan or evil men, can be seen as the path toward eschaton, and hence under God’s sovereignty. They are sanctified by their conclusion. This builds on Sanders perspective, but infuses today’s evil with meaning, if only as they participate in the movement of history toward completion.
Fourth, Satan, in all his freedom and authority, can do nothing so evil that it is beyond the sovereign redemptive power of God. This is similar to my third point, but also emphasizes God’s ability to bring good from evil. This is seen penultimately on the cross, simultaneously history’s most terrible evil and greatest cause for celebration.

VI. Conclusion
Satan’s impact on this world is everywhere apparent and it can not be denied. Meanwhile, God’s sovereignty shines through in glimpses, overcoming Satan whenever it is unleashed, telling of the coming day of in which God’s will is fully done, and his kingdom fully come. With this knowledge, we are able to see all history, even its evils, as steps on the redemptive path toward the complete rule of God’s will.
There is still much work to be done to give more definite shape to the limits of Satan’s freedom and authority, as well as to the contours of the way in which God exercises his sovereignty presently over Satan. Indeed, the questions addressed in this paper will no doubt continue to become troublesome at each new experience of evil.
Allow me to conclude with a reflection on the famous words of Martin Luther’s hymn, A Mighty Fortress:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate, On earth is not his equal.
And though this world with devils filled Should threaten to undo us We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim We tremble not for him, His rage we can endure For low his doom is sure. One little word will fell him
It is those final words that had so puzzled me, for, I thought, how can it be that my use of that little word, “Jesus,” has failed to be effective? Was not God’s truth to triumph through me? After the reflection of this paper, I have a new perspective on these words. It is not my voice that speaks the definitive word against Satan, but it is the voice of the Lord. This is a confirmation of the way in which God’s sovereign power, when God asserts it, is always effective. What a glorious day that will be when the last word is spoken, Satan and his works cease, and we will spend all eternity in a world where God’s will is always perfectly realized!

References Cited
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. London: Bonham Norton, 1599. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Available from http:/// books/institutes (accessed 3/16/2006).
Grenz, Stanley. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994.
Kraft, Charles H. I Give You Authority: Practicing the Authority Jesus Gave Us. Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 1997.
__________. Confronting Powerless Christianity: Evangelicals and the Missing Dimension. Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 2002.
__________. Defeating Dark Angels: Breaking Demonic Oppression in the Believer’s Life. Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1992.
Murray, John. Calvin on the Sovereignty of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Fellowship lecture given in 1959. Available from (accessed 3/15/2006).
Piper, John. “Tsunami, Sovereignty, and Mercy.” Posted: 12/29/2004. Available from http://www.desiring (accessed 3/15/2006).
_____­____. “Ten Aspects of God’s Sovereignty Over Suffering and Satan’s Hand in It.” Posted: 10/7/2005. Available from sermons/05/100705.html (accessed: 3/15/2006).
Sanders, John. The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
Stanford, Miles J. “I Give You Authority.” Available from igiveyou.pdf (accessed 3/15/2006).

[1] All Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
[2] Luke 4:5-7
[3] Genesis 3 and Luke 4 are examples.
[4] John 8:44; 2 Corinthians 4:4
[5] Perhaps it is also in reference to Satan that Jesus says “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” in Matthew 28:11. Many feel that his speaks of God, rather than Satan.
[6] 1 Peter 5:8; note here that it is assumed that we can resist Satan.
[7] Psalm 115:3
[8] Daniel 4:17
[9] Job 1:8-12
[10] Mark 9:29
[11] Luke 7:8
[12] Matthew 6:13
[13] Murray, John. Calvin on the Sovereignty of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Fellowship lecture given in 1959. Available from (accessed 3/15/2006).
[14] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, Chapter 14: “God is called the author of all these things which these censors wish to happen merely by his idle permission.”
[15] Piper, John. “Ten Aspects of God’s Sovereignty Over Suffering and Satan’s Hand in It.” Available from Posted: 10/7/2005 (accessed 3/15/2006)
[16] Piper, John. “Tsunami, Sovereignty, and Mercy.” Posted: 12/29/2004. Available from (accessed 3/15/2006).
[17] Stanford, Miles J. “I Give You Authority.” Available from (accessed 3/15/2006).
[18] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, chapter 14, section 17.
[19] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, chapter 14.
[20] Kraft, Charles H. Defeating Dark Angels. Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1992. (p. 103).
[21] Kraft, Charles H. Confronting Powerless Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 2002. (p. 187).
[22] ibid, p. 196.
[23] Kraft tells of a pain in his chest that began after visiting a place of non-Christian worship.
[24] Kraft, Charles H. Defeating Dark Angels. Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1992. (p. 61).
[25] Sanders, John. The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998. (p. 261-261).
[26] Grenz, Stanley. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994. (p. 108)
[27] Latin for “by right” or “by law.”
[28] Latin, referring to what is actually the case.
[29] Grenz, Stanley. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994. (p. 239-240).
[30] ibid. p. 241.
[31] Kraft, Charles H. I Give You Authority. Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 1997. (p. 128)
[32] Matthew 6: 10

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