One way to clarify the meaning of a Christian act is to take note how much of the act the devil can do.
So, for example, when clarifying what it means to have saving faith, James says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder!” (James 2:19). In other words, saving faith has to be more than what the demons can do. So, take note of that, and find out what it is that they can do. Never settle for a definition of “faith” that requires only what the devil can do.
The Exegetical Devil-Principle
There is an exegetical principle here that is useful in numerous biblical contexts. The principle is: when you are seeking to discern the meaning of a biblical duty, ask how much of the duty the devil can perform; take note of that; and don’t equate the biblical duty with what the devil can do. Every Christian duty taught in the Bible involves more than what the devil can do.
In 1 Corinthians 12:3 Paul says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” So, applying my devil-principle here, we recall that the devil has no doubt about the lordship of Jesus over the world, and over the entire demonic realm. He knows Jesus is Lord. And his demons say as much.
“Never settle for a definition of ‘faith’ that requires only what the devil himself can do.”
In Matthew 8:29, the demons cry out to Jesus, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” And in Mark 1:24, a demon says to Jesus, “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God.” These phrases “Son of God” and “Holy One of God” clearly ascribe lordship to Jesus. This is even clearer when you see what the demons say Jesus can do: “torment us” and “destroy us.” The devil knows and admits that Jesus is stronger than he is and that the devil’s days of freedom are numbered.
The Devil Believes Jesus Is Lord
So, it’s clear that the devil can say, “Jesus is Lord.” In fact, he does say it. This is helpful in grasping Paul’s meaning in 1 Corinthians 12:3, when he says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” Since the devil can say, “Jesus is Lord,” we know that the duty of saying “Jesus is Lord” is more than believing and saying that he is supremely powerful. The devil believes and says that.
The same thing is true when we stir in Romans 10:9, where Paul says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Now we see that Christians not only confess that Jesus is Lord, but also believe in the heart that God raised him from the dead.
The Devil Believes Jesus Rose
Does the devil believe that God raised Jesus from the dead? Yes, he does. He devotes much of his energy to blinding the minds of people precisely so that they will not see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). And that glory is the glory of the crucified and risen Christ shining in the gospel. The devil knows God has raised Jesus from the dead.
So, the duty of confessing Jesus as Lord, and believing that God raised him from the dead, must mean more than what the devil confesses and believes. My point is that this devil-principle is a very helpful exegetical pointer to go deeper into the reality Paul has in mind.
Demonic Faith and Saving Faith
Romans 10:9 gives a clue to what that deeper reality is. “If you . . . believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” It’s true that the reference to confessing with the “mouth” and believing with the “heart” is taken from Deuteronomy 30:14 (“The word is . . . in your mouth and in your heart”). But what’s Paul’s point? That’s the question.
“Christians don’t just believe the same facts the devil believes. We love and embrace the truth about God.”
What Paul signals by the words “in your heart” is that you joyfully confess that Jesus is Lord and gladly embrace his resurrection as his glorious entrance into that saving lordship. We know this because Paul speaks in Romans 6:17 of being “obedient from the heart,” meaning, not begrudgingly but joyfully. And he explicitly contrasts willing something in the heart with willing it “reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Which is exactly the way the devil affirms the resurrection and the lordship of Jesus — reluctantly and under compulsion.
So, back to 1 Corinthians 12:3: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” What Paul means is that without the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, no one can say “Jesus is Lord” with a joyful and glad embrace of the Lord Jesus as one’s supreme treasure. The devil admits his power and final victory, but he hates it. Only by the Holy Spirit can we love it. And that is what makes us Christians — not just believing the same true facts that the devil believes.
Abide in Christ
I recently paused over these words in 2 John: “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 1:9). This is obviously supremely important, since not having God would result in perishing without God.
So, I pondered what “abide in the teaching of Christ” means. My eternal life hangs on this. If I don’t do it, I don’t have God. If I do it, I have “both the Father and the Son.” So, I applied my devil-principle. In what sense can the devil “abide in the teaching of Christ”? Well, he is very competent intellectually, he has a supernatural memory, and he was there when all the teachings were given. So, I assume he can “abide” in Christ’s teaching in the sense that he “remembers” them and “believes” them to be true. So this means that, when John says we must “abide in the teaching of Christ,” he means more than merely “remember it” and more than “believe it as fact.”
When the devil remembers the teaching of Jesus and believes it as fact, he hates it. He does not love the teaching of Christ. He does not cherish it or treasure it. But in the mind of Jesus and John, abiding in the teaching, or keeping the word of Jesus, flows from loving Jesus.
Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” (John 14:23–24)
Applying the devil-principle set me on a quest for what abiding in the teaching of Christ means in reality. It must be more than the devil can do. Indeed, it is more! It is holding fast to and treasuring and obeying because it is the teaching of the one we love above all else.
Needed Shock Treatment
My own conviction is that thousands of nominal churchgoers would be well-served if pastors asked, How is your faith different from the devil’s? How is your “abiding” in the teaching of Jesus different from the devil’s?
In fact, every believer, not just nominal ones, would do well to ask, How are my prayers different from the kind the devil would approve — or even perform? (The devil does ask God for things in Luke 22:31.) Satan has no problem with human beings praying for food and clothing and health and relational peace and financial success and good grades on tests, and so on and so forth.
“You don’t have to be born again to want food and clothing and health and success.”
The reason the devil is just fine with those prayers is that they express desires that we share with people who are not born again. You don’t have to be born again to want food and clothing and health and success. And you don’t have to be born again to ask God to provide them.
But the devil never prays or helps anyone pray, “Hallowed be your name.” Or, “Lord, cause your name to be honored, magnified, adored, revered!” The devil never prays or helps anyone pray, “Lord, advance your saving kingdom against the powers of darkness.” The devil never prays, “I am sorry for my sin. I hate it, and I confess it, and I ask you, Father, for forgiveness in Jesus’s name.”
So, we would do well to apply the exegetical devil-principle to the duty of faith, and the duty of abiding in the teaching of Christ, and the duty of prayer, and dozens of other duties.
Without some such shock treatment, the nominal Christian and the worldly Christian may never wake up to the fact that they are believing and abiding and praying the way the devil does.