Satan's Designs: The Corrosive Power of Sin
- 2007 23 Feb
Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs. (2 Corinthians 2:10,11)
From my earliest days as a Christian, now almost forty years, I have heard warnings about “Satan’s designs,” the various schemes and machinations by which he seeks to circumvent the rule of Christ, deceive and oppress the faithful, and imperil the progress of God’s Kingdom.
End-times novels and prospectuses featured prominently during my early years in the faith. I was encouraged to see the devil pulling the strings behind everything from the European Union to the Chinese army to computer chips to the mystical combining of the letters in JFK’s name in order to produce the numerical sign of the Antichrist.
Later, as I entered theological studies, I was warned against the subtle efforts of the Roman Pontiff to undo the progress achieved since the days of the Reformation; in not-always-so-subtle ways some of my peers and certain theologians encouraged me to hold to the original form of The Westminster Confession, which proclaimed the pope to be the Antichrist and the agent of the devil (a clause long since and happily deleted). Demon possession also featured large at times, and certain Christian writers and pop theologians made a handsome living chumming the waters of that frenzy with their fantastic tales and reports of demons and the devil lurking behind every bush (remember anointing your church windows with oil to keep the demons from invading the service?).
The practical effect of these various exposés of the devil’s ploys has been a kind of crying wolf about his wiles and ways. Hardly anybody takes the devil seriously these days, a situation noted by Andrew Delbanco in his book, The Death of Satan. It turns out the devil wasn’t in any of these things, at least not as patently and brazenly as was previously thought. We hardly ever hear about the European Union as the ten-headed dragon anymore — especially since its membership has expanded far beyond that number. Pope John Paul II was loved and honored by Christians from virtually every communion — and rightly so — and it seems the present pope might be just as highly regarded. And everybody’s talking about demons and ghosts and dragons and other sorts of trans-physical and fantastical realities these days, so much so that the terrifying uniqueness of those Biblical ne’er-do-wells appears to have been watered down and mitigated considerably. Indeed, the netherworld, it turns out, can be downright fun.
Hardly anybody worries much about these once-popular perspectives on the devil’s designs. But that doesn’t mean we should relinquish the notion that the devil still has designs on God’s people and throne. I’m certain that he does. He was probably beside himself with pleasure to see the followers of Christ frenzied and on guard against all these places where they perceived him to be most active. For these apparent schemes of the devil were but diversions, mere demonstrations meant to make us marshal our resistance against a perceived threat that didn’t really exist, while the enemy of our souls sapped the walls of the Church and established his cancerous presence within the Body of Christ by other, more subtle and destructive means.
The Danger of Sin Tolerated
Paul’s mention of the devil’s designs occurs within a context of dealing with sin in the church. Where known sin is not exposed and excised, and where repentant sinners are not fully restored to the local church, there the designs of the devil are prevailing.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul exposed the work of the devil in that fragmented congregation by chiding the Corinthians for looking askance at scandalous sin in their midst (1 Corinthians 5:1-7). For the Corinthians it was no big deal that a member of the congregation was sleeping with his father’s wife: “Sure, I wouldn’t do such a thing, but who am I to judge someone else? We’re all sinners, after all, aren’t we?” In fact, the members of that church had come to pride themselves on their tolerance (1 Corinthians 5:2). They were so non-judgmental and non-confrontational that they surely must have been about the most spiritual people they knew!
Paul shamed their arrogance and rebuked their tolerance. He knew that one sin tolerated in the congregation would be merely the camel’s nose. If they would tolerate this shameful situation, they’d soon be making allowances for just about everything else. He also knew that such tolerance of sin would lead to corruption of the whole body of believers. No one would escape the taint of sin as it leavened every member with the acceptability of lawlessness and evil in the name of tolerance and love (1 Corinthians 15:33). The prayers of the Corinthians would soon go unheard (Psalms 66:18). Their worship would become a stench in the nostrils of God (Isaiah 1:12-13). And even though their church might continue to grow (what sinner would not find a happy haven in a house of God that condoned his preferred lifestyle?), Paul knew they would be piling up kindling for the fire of God’s wrath that would fall on their works of wood, hay, and stubble in due course (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
Making matters worse, the Corinthians were in danger of sinning against the one whose sin had resulted in his being put out of the church. Turned over to the ravages of the devil, that scandalous sinner had apparently come to true repentance, but the now very- righteous-feeling Corinthians would have none of it. They tarried in forgiving him, thus giving more place to the devil’s designs by withholding proper forgiveness and restoration. Paul begged the Corinthians to reaffirm their love for this repentant one and restore him to full status in the body. Otherwise, their sin against him would be yet another means whereby the designs of the devil would rob the church of its blessing (2 Corinthians 2:5-11).
“We are not ignorant of his designs,” Paul wrote concerning the devil. He designs to give the lie to the faith of Christ, to make a mockery of the claim that Christianity is unto holiness and love in a body of people devoted to God. Whenever churches tolerate sin, they compromise holiness — which is the very essence of what it means to be “saints” of the Lord. When they withhold forgiveness, they compromise love, and deny the One who forgave us when we were His enemies. Thus sin in the church, unacknowledged and unaddressed, is the devil’s greatest scheme for accomplishing his diabolical designs against the Lord. And we are the unwitting pawns who do his sinister bidding.
We will never be able, this side of glory, to keep sin from appearing within the body of Christ. The church, after all, is populated by sinners. But we must not tolerate sin when we become aware of it, and not just the more scandalous sins such as the Corinthians experienced. Sins of lying, backbiting, fomenting schism, neglect of duty, and all others are equally destructive of the integrity and witness of the local congregation. To become complacent about such sins is to tolerate unrighteousness in the midst of the very people set apart for righteousness. Happily, the Lord has provided means of dealing with known sin, so that the devil’s designs may not hold sway among the churches of the Lord.
Proper recourse for dealing with known sin is through the channels of church discipline, as outlined in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. A known sinner — one who persists in a particular transgression — is to be confronted in love, and shown his transgression. If the accused will not acknowledge his sin before his brother, let the latter bring another who has also witnessed the transgression, so that they might agree together in calling the sinner to repentance. If he still refuses to be corrected, bring the elders of the church into the dispute. Let them weigh the claims and evidences against the teaching of God’s Law and make a pronouncement as the Spirit leads them. And if they rule against the accused, and he still refuses to confess and repent, then let him be put out of the fellowship, until such time as the torment of his sin leads him to repent and seek restoration (Psalms 38:1-12).
Church discipline, as taught by Jesus and Paul, is the proper way of dealing with known sin in the church. And it doesn’t matter if the sinner is the newest member of the church or the pastor; where sin abounds grace can abound unto forgiveness and restoration, but only by the proper channels prescribed in God’s Word. When church discipline is ignored and sin is allowed to find safe harbor, the church can expect its compromises to lead to corruption and calamity as the Lord Himself moves to discipline His people for their wickedness. Church discipline, therefore, is the loving response to known, persistent sin.
Today the practice of church discipline languishes. Churches no longer take seriously the call to holiness; sin — even scandalous sin — tends to be winked at in the name of “love” and “toleration.” When was the last time you recall anyone in your church being publicly confronted with a known and persistent transgression, much less put out of the church for refusing to repent?
While church discipline thus languishes, the devil’s designs against the Lord and His body make great strides. Are we ignorant of his designs? If so, then let us agree with Paul that the devil has simply outwitted us (2 Corinthians 2:11), and let us agree to get back on track in dealing with sin the way Jesus and the apostles prescribed. We would not say it is loving to allow someone to drink poison and encourage others to do so as well. Just so, it is not loving to wink at sin in the name of tolerance. To do so is to affirm corrupt and corrupting behavior, and to set the sinner and the church on a collision course with the Lord.
How would you proceed to confront someone in your church who was practicing known sin? Why does love require this of you?
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T. M. Moore is dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of seventeen books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are The Ailbe Psalter and The Ground for Christian Ethics, (Waxed Tablet). He and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Concord, Tenn.