Pondering the Mystery of Satan’s Fall
2 Part Article by John Piper – Founder / Teacher desiringGod.org
Two Unassailable Truths
(Continuing from yesterday) But notice what question I am not answering here. I am not answering the question, How did the first sin happen in the heart of a holy angel? The why question I have answered by saying the first sin happened as part of God’s wisdom and purposes and planning. But that assumes God was able to see to it that the first sin happened without himself being a sinner, and without making the first sinning angel into a machine. I do not know the answer to the question of how God did this.
This, to me, is one of the great mysteries of biblical teaching that I cannot explain — how God governs the will of sinful beings, yet, in doing so, does not sin, and does not take away their responsibility. I see that it is true, because the Bible teaches it, but how God does this remains a mystery.
Recall that above I said that “free will” — ultimate self-determination — is the name some people put on this mystery. Then I added that this is not the biblical name. Because the Bible never teaches that there is such a thing as ultimate self-determination, except in God. The Bible doesn’t give the mystery a name. Rather it teaches two truths again and again: God governs the hearts and minds of all sinful beings without himself sinning, and they are truly and justly accountable for all their sins.
Sovereign over Satan
Since we are not told explicitly how things transpired in the fall of Satan, it is illuminating to study how God relates to Satan’s will now. Is God helpless when a satanic will chooses to do evil? Can God restrain that will? Or would that only turn the will into a machine? The biblical answer is that God has the right and power to restrain Satan anytime he pleases. Consider these examples.
2. Though unclean spirits are everywhere doing deceptive and murderous things, Jesus Christ has all authority over them. “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:27).
3. Satan is a roaring lion, prowling and seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Peter explains that the jaws of this lion are, in fact, the sufferings of persecution: “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9). But this suffering, Peter says, does not happen apart from God’s sovereign will: “It is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will” (1 Peter 3:17).
6. Satan is the great tempter. He wants us to sin. Luke tells us that Satan was behind Peter’s three denials. “Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31). But Jesus is sovereign over this tempter’s work, and its outcome. He says to Peter, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). Not “if you turn,” but “when you turn.” Christ rules over all of Satan’s designs. Satan aims to fail Peter. Jesus aims to fit him for leadership.
7. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:4 that Satan “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers.” But two verses later, God removes that blindness. “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
So now back to the question about the origin of Satan’s sinfulness. Is God helpless before the will of his own angels? Is there a power outside himself that limits his rule over their choices and plans? My conclusion is that, from cover to cover, the Bible presents God as governing Satan and his demons. He has the right and power to restrain them any time he pleases.
Guarding the Mystery
The sum of the matter, then, about where a sinful Satan came from is this: He was a holy angel who mysteriously came to prefer self-exaltation over God-exaltation. He fell into the delusion that ultimate self-determination was possible for a finite creature, and that it was preferable to submitting to God. This fall was part of God’s all-wise plan. It did not take him off guard. How God saw to it that this part of his plan came to pass, without himself sinning and without turning Satan into a machine, I do not know.
“From cover to cover, the Bible presents God as governing Satan and his demons.”
Trying to explain this mystery with so-called “free will” — that is, ultimate self-determination — is unbiblical and vacuous. It is unbiblical because the idea that any of God’s creatures has ultimate self-determination is not taught anywhere in the Bible. And it is vacuous because it does not explain anything. Simply asserting that a holy angel had the “power of choice” offers no explanation of why a perfectly holy being in God’s infinitely beautiful presence would suddenly be inclined to hate God.
We should probably take our cue from the reticence of the Bible to speak about Satan’s origin. He is there in the first pages of the Bible with no explanation. The mystery of his first sin remains just that. We surround it and guard it with biblical truth, lest unbiblical and vacuous explanations spread like a smog over the Scriptures and obscure the glory of God’s saving purposes.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.