Ann and I have just spent the weekend (October 7-9) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, attending the third National Conference of Desiring God Ministries. The first (October, 2003), at which I spoke, was in celebration of the 300th anniversary of Jonathan Edwards’ birth. Last year, the theme was Sex and the Supremacy of Christ. This year the theme was Suffering and the Sovereignty of God.
This week I will be sending out to you brief summaries of several of the more significant sessions.
At the first session on Friday night, John Piper provided an overview of the conference theme by focusing on the reality of God’s sovereignty. His point was that God not simply has the right to exercise exhaustive sovereignty over his creation; he actually does it. “My purpose tonight,” said John, “is not to solve the problem of God’s sovereignty over evil, but to celebrate it.” To do so, he articulated ten principles of God’s power and sovereign oversight of all things, in particular, his sovereignty over Satan and all his nefarious schemes.
Here is a brief summation of John’s call for us to celebrate God’s sovereignty.
(1) First, let us celebrate that God is sovereign over Satan’s delegated world rule. As you know, Satan is described in 2 Corinthians 4:4 as “the god of this world.” In 1 John 5:19 we are told that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” Therefore, it was no fluke or lie when Satan tempted our Lord in the wilderness with the promise of authority over the kingdoms of the earth.
But whatever power Satan exerts over this world, he does so by divine delegation. He has no more power than God allows. He holds sway only by divine permission and within divinely ordained limits. Satan is not ultimately sovereign. Only God is.
(2) Second, let us celebrate that God is sovereign over Satan’s demons and evil spirits. Whenever Jesus confronted the enemy during his earthly ministry the gospels record that the spirits “obeyed” him. There was no debate, no bargaining, no eluding his rule by an appeal to some spiritual loophole. Demons are subject to the sovereign authority of Jesus. Paul made this explicitly clear in Ephesians 1 when he declared that all “rule and power and authority and dominion” have been subjected to the risen Christ and placed under his feet.
(3) Third, let us celebrate that God is sovereign over Satan’s hand in the persecution of believers. Satan can incite the oppression of God’s people and cause them to be cast into prison (Revelation 2:10). He can stir the hearts of the wicked to arrest and inflict considerable harm on the followers of Jesus, as well as slander them and unjustly accuse them. Peter clearly indicates that when this occurs it is only by the permissive will of God. “It is better to suffer from doing good,” he said, “if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17). So, yes, Satan can do great physical harm, but only if and when God wills it.
(4) Fourth, let us celebrate that God is sovereign over Satan’s life-taking power. Satan can kill Christians, but again, only with God’s permission. We read in John 8:44 that Satan has been a murderer from the beginning. Job’s children were slaughtered by the hand of the enemy, but only because God first willed to grant him access to their lives. And James 4:13-16 makes it crystal clear that God’s will ultimately determines whether we live or die, whether we will conduct successful business or fail, indeed, whether we will continue to breathe beyond the time it takes to read this sentence.
(5) Fifth, let us celebrate that God is sovereign over Satan’s hand in natural disasters. According to Job 1, Satan was responsible for “fire” falling from heaven (probably lightning) and a great wind blowing, all with the result that Job’s family and servants were killed. But Satan’s power was derivative, not primary. For Job, there was more security and relief and hope and truth in despising Satan’s hateful hand and looking beyond him to the sovereign purpose of God. Thus, when he suffered all these tragedies, he declared, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
(6) Sixth, let us celebrate that God is sovereign over Satan’s sickness causing power. We read in Acts 10:38 that Jesus went about healing all who were oppressed by the devil (see also Luke 13). So, yes, Satan can cause sickness and much physical distress. But he is not sovereign in such affairs. God is. Again, in the case of Job, Satan’s access and ability to inflict Job with sore boils was only by virtue of God’s permission. In the final analysis, Satan has no power or authority of himself, but only by the decree and determination of God and his infinite wisdom.
(7) Seventh, let us celebrate that God is sovereign over Satan’s use of animals and plants. The enemy is often portrayed in Scripture as using animals and plants to inflict harm and sickness and death. But Satan cannot make them do what God does not will them to do. It was God who appointed a “great fish” to swallow Jonah. It was God who caused the fish to “vomit out” Jonah. It was God who appointed both a plant to provide Jonah with shade and a worm to eat and destroy it.
(8) Eighth, let us celebrate that God is sovereign over Satan’s temptations to sin. Whereas Judas was prompted to betray Jesus by the power of the enemy (see John 13), what he did was ultimately in fulfillment of what God had prophesied in Scripture (Acts 1:16). Whereas the rulers of Rome and Israel were enticed by the devil to crucify Jesus, it was God who delivered up his Son by a predetermined plan (see Acts 2 and 4).
(9) Ninth, let us celebrate that God is sovereign over Satan’s mind-blinding power. Satan’s only hope to thwart the success of the gospel is by blinding and deceiving the minds of those who hear it. But God’s sovereign grace shines a light into the hearts of sinners to make known to them his glory as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:4-6).
(10) Tenth, and finally, let us celebrate that God is sovereign over Satan’s spiritual bondage. How does Satan seek to hold people in spiritual bondage? By two means: either pleasure or pain. In the former case, he tries to deceive us into believing that the world and the flesh offer greater and more satisfying pleasures than God does. In the latter, he uses pain and discomfort to convince us that God is not worthy of our trust. But God provides joy that is infinitely full and spiritual pleasures that never end (Psalm 16:11). As for pain, he promises that he will orchestrate all things, even trials and tragedies and disappointments, to work for our ultimate spiritual good (Romans 8:28).
Our enemy is great, but God is greater. Let us then celebrate God’s sovereignty over all things and find in him the strength and joy our souls so desperately crave.