In contemporary popular spirituality, human beings are pure as the driven snow in their native state and any sin or evil comes from an outside influence. (This actually a heresy called Pelagianism.) Some think this is because we have a positive view of ourselves, but I think it is just a way of evading responsibility for our own acts. It makes us all into powerless victims, smaller than our sins and thus too weak to overcome them. It is a sophisticated way of saying, “the devil made me do it.”
In popular spirituality, Satan is the source of evil. In Christian spirituality, Satan is not the source of sin. As James says:
…each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death.
—James 1:14-15, NIV
The Church blames us for our sins and requires us to take responsibility for our own evil deeds—when we do that, it is called repentance. This makes us larger than our sins, it puts us in control of our lives, and it allows us to prevail. We do not argue that our sins are solely the result of a bad upbringing or a traumatic event, or even that Satan made us do it, because Satan has no power at all, except the power to lie, accuse, and deceive. Ultimately, by whatever means we have been deceived or tempted, we made a free choice to do evil and we were able to choose to do good. Our confession empowers us, because if we freely chose evil in the past, it means we can freely choose good in the present. Therefore, we can defeat Satan simply by affirming the truth and taking responsibility for our own acts.
If we confess our sins, [Jesus] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
—1 John 1:9, NIV
Biblically and historically, Satan is our accuser. The word Satan even means accuser in Hebrew. For you see, in a Jewish trial, there is no prosecution, there are only accusers who testify against the defendant. The role of the judge is to determine whether two or three accusers agree in their testimony, which establishes the truth, and then determines whether or not the accusation consists of an infraction. In Job we see this happening. God is the judge and Satan accuses Job.
This means that Satan is subordinate to God. Satan is not a god of evil, he is just a prosecuting attorney who serves at the pleasure of the court and who can be limited, disciplined, and overruled by the court. The court only has one judge, who is good; not two judges, one good and one evil.
Jesus defeated Satan on the cross. In a judicial sense, we would say that Jesus definitively refuted all of Satan’s accusations, so that any person who avails himself of Jesus’ services comes out of the trial with his name cleared. Imagine if you were justly accused of some horrible crime and when you came to trial, you found that the prosecutor has no credibility before the judge and is awaiting disbarment, while your defense attorney is the judge’s son. Imagine further that you find that the judge is nepotistic. Wouldn’t you get heady with optimism? That is precisely the scenario we as Christians face. We who are guilty have everything to gain and absolutely nothing to lose by admitting the charges and throwing ourselves on the mercy of the court!
However, this does not leave us morbidly contemplating our sinfulness. Rather:
...I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.
—1 John 2:1, NIV
The translation I used obscures something. The phrase “one who speaks to the Father in our defense” is a paraphrase for the Greek, which says, “a lawyer before the Father,” which brings up the judicial image we find in Job. In other words, God is the judge, Satan is the accuser, and Jesus is the attorney for our defense. And as an added benefit the deck is stacked in our favor, because Jesus is God incarnate and Satan is only a fallen angel whose ultimate demise is guaranteed.
The popular twelve-step recovery programs work because they have their origin in this historic Christian teaching. The first step is to take responsibility for the problem, then to live a lifestyle of conquering it. No one ever stands up at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and says, “Hello, my name is Joe. I’m not really an alcoholic—it was my mother-in-law who drove me to drink,” even if that was in fact the proximate cause. An alcoholic is tempted by alcohol, but a recovered alcoholic knows that alcohol is an inanimate object and that the temptation springs from within. He takes responsibility, thereby taking control, and conquers the problem. If he happens to fall, he has friends to call for support. In Alcoholics Anonymous, no one ever says, “I used to be an alcoholic, but now I’m cured,” because that is a lie, and it will cause them to cease their vigilance and ultimately succumb.
The Church is—or should be—Sinners Anonymous. Every morning I arise and say to God, “Hello, my name is Ken. I am a sinner, but today I choose not to sin.” Then if I do sin, I call upon Jesus for support and strength. I never say, “I am a sinless person,” but “I am a sinner who through the grace of God is redeemed.”