Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Book Write-Up: God's Devil, by Erwin W. Lutzer

Erwin W. Lutzer.  God’s Devil: The Incredible Story of How Satan’s Rebellion Serves God’s Purposes.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

God’s Devil is about the origin of the devil, his motivations and agenda, and his work and capabilities.  The book also covers spiritual warfare, the ways that God uses the devil, the question of whether the devil can possess believers, and eschatology.

There are parts of the book that are rather speculative, yet they are sensible.  Erwin Lutzer  tends to psychoanalyze the devil in describing what he believes are the devil’s motivations.  Lutzer fails to engage biblical scholarship about how the Satan was a prosecuting attorney in the Hebrew Bible and later became conceptualized as God’s arch-enemy, as Lutzer sees the Satan as God’s archenemy throughout the Bible.  This does tend to close Lutzer off from alternative explanations of Satan’s motivations.  At the same time, from the standpoint of a Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and details about the devil in the New Testament, Lutzer’s speculations about the devil’s motivations are reasonable: that the devil wanted his own kingdom out of pride, that the devil seeks to destroy or rule God’s creation, that the devil is envious of human beings on account of the mercy God shows to them and the glory God desires for them, and that the devil aims to alienate people from God.

Lutzer is also speculative when it comes to the devil’s capabilities, as when he denies that the devil can read people’s mind, be in more than one place at once, and create life.  Yet, Lutzer’s speculations are sensible here, since the devil is a created being, not God.

Although there is speculation in the book, there are plenty of points that Lutzer supports with Scripture.  While Lutzer denies that the devil can read people’s minds, he still notes that, according to Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, the devil can take the word of God out of people’s hearts (Mark 4:15), meaning that the devil has some influence on people’s hearts.  Lutzer denies that demons can possess believers, yet he thinks that demons can oppress and influence believers, and some of what Lutzer describes sounds close to possession.  Lutzer refers to Acts 5:3, in which Peter says that Satan filled Ananias and influenced him to lie to the Holy Spirit.  Lutzer’s argument that giving into sin can provide the devil with a foothold in a believer’s life is consistent with Scripture, for Ephesians 4:26-27 warns that sinful anger can provide the devil with a foothold.

Lutzer also shows from Scripture, particularly the New Testament, that God can use the devil to discipline believers and to purify them.

The book says a lot of things that Christians have said before, yet there were occasions when I gleaned from it a fresh insight about Scripture (fresh for me, at least), or when Lutzer addressed intriguing questions.  Lutzer interacts with the question of how the devil could try to discourage Jesus from going to the cross, only later to participate in instigating Jesus’ death.  For the sake of thoroughness in examining this issue, Lutzer perhaps should have addressed I Corinthians 2:8, which presents the rulers of this age (arguably supernatural beings) as ignorant when they crucified the Lord of glory.  Lutzer still does well, however to address how Satan could oppose then support Jesus going to the cross.

Lutzer also asks when exactly Jesus bore people’s sins, and, on the basis of Deuteronomy 21:23, he concludes that Jesus did so right on the cross, not before that time (i.e., not in Gethsemane or when he started wearing the crown of thorns).  On the basis of Galatians 5:16, Lutzer contends that believers need the Holy Spirit in order to abstain from fleshly desire, which is different from saying that they need to starve the flesh before they can walk in the Spirit.  Lutzer is also unafraid to take possibly unconventional stances: he argues, for example, that the devil is still in heaven, whereas there are many believers who think the devil is in hell right now, or has already been cast out of heaven.  In addition, Lutzer denies that the devil will rule in hell, saying instead that God rules there, and that the devil will be punished in hell, like its other inhabitants.

The book is pastoral, in the sense that Lutzer offers compassionate and sensible advice.  To those who are afraid of the devil harming them, Lutzer says that the devil is under the sovereignty of God.  Lutzer also talks about how commitment to the truth of the Word of God can cleanse a person and serve as a basis for saying “no” to the devil.  Lutzer illustrates many points with anecdotes.

Lutzer leans heavily on God’s free grace, as when he says that believers need not strive to appease God, for Christ has already appeased God on their behalf.  Lutzer says that our righteousness does not make us more pleasing to God on good days, and our struggles on bad days do not make us more displeasing to God, for believers are accepted by God on the basis of the blood of Christ.  Moreover, Lutzer believes that believers who are influenced by the devil are still saved, even if they have fallen into spiritual pits.  At the same time, obedience to God is a prominent theme in this book.  Lutzer criticizes Cain for trying to please God on his own terms rather than out of obedience.  Lutzer also talks about how sin can open the door for the devil, and how obedience and commitment to God can provide one with power against the demonic, which would be lacking if a person were not under God’s authority.  And Lutzer maintains that the cross of Christ transforms the believer, not just offers believers forgiveness: “The cross was not merely to clean the impure water that comes from the fountain, but to fundamentally change the nature of the fountain itself” (page 200).  Lutzer perhaps could have integrated his feel-good grace message with his obedience message better than he did, but he still made thoughtful points.

I had slight areas of disagreement.  Lutzer criticizes one woman for rebelling against church authority, which was somewhat of a turn-off to me; at the same time, Lutzer told a compelling story about how he refused to obey a cult leader who was on a power trip.  Lutzer says that God’s rules on sex are for our well-being and happiness, and I wondered if that were truly the case for homosexuals who are pressured by conservative Christians to remain celibate for the rest of their lives.  On page 178, Lutzer refers to I Corinthians 7:5’s advice that couples limit the duration of their celibacy, so that Satan might not tempt them.  Would not such realistic advice be relevant to the debate over whether homosexual Christians should be celibate for the rest of their natural lives?  I am not criticizing Lutzer for his stance on same-sex relationships, as if I expect him to have a different stance.  I just have doubts about whether his stance accords with reality in the world.

As is the case with all of Lutzer’s books that I have read thus far, this book has a warm, inviting style.  Lutzer is an effective teacher and communicator.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

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