And you know that God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. Then Jesus went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (Acts 10:38, NLT)
Christians are unclear on the relationship between God, Satan, and sickness, and how they ought to respond to sickness in the light of God's sovereignty over all things. This results in confusion, unbelief, and unnecessary controversy and suffering.
Those who claim to believe what the Bible teaches about God's sovereignty might say that sickness is the will of God, and therefore saints ought to endure it with patience for his glory. But those who claim to believe what the Bible teaches about God's healing power through faith and the gifts of the Spirit might counter that if sickness is the will of God, then why do they call on the doctors to fight the will of God? Why would they call on the doctor to help them get rid of the will of God, but they would not believe and receive healing directly from God, or lay hands on the sick for their healing?
As stated this way, each side offers an incomplete understanding of the topic and an unfair assessment of the other. For the discussion to move forward, we must recognize the distinction between God's decree and God's precept. Both are called the "will of God" in Scripture, but in different contexts and with different meanings. When God's will designates God's decree, it refers to his decision concerning what he would do. When God's will designates God's precept, it refers to his definition concerning what we should do.
God's decree determines all things, and nothing happens except by God's decree, including men's thoughts and actions, and even the fall of Satan and of Adam. On the other hand, God's precept does not determine what occurs, but it is only a definition of what is right or wrong. Therefore, God's decree can determine that a creature would transgress God's precept. For the sake of clarity, in what follows we will often refer to the decree and the precept of God instead of the will of God.
The Bible often declares that it is God's decree for certain people to sin, that is, to transgress God's precept and then be punished for it. He himself would never tempt anyone to sin, for he is not the tempter (James 1:13), and if he were to tell someone to do a certain thing, by definition it could not be a temptation to sin, since it would then become a precept for righteousness, because righteousness is to believe and obey what God says. Thus God commands Satan and the evil spirits to tempt men.
Contrary to the theologians, this does not mean that Satan is a "secondary" agent or any silly thing like that, because God is the one who directly controls him. The alternative is that Satan possesses the power to exist in himself and to control himself apart from God, which would make Satan into another God. Those who deny that God is the direct cause of all things, that he is the only real cause of anything, and that he directly controls Satan and all men – those who deny any of this – are in fact declaring Satan as deity, equal with God.
The Bible says that God himself sustains all things (Colossians 1:17). It would be unintelligible to say that he sustains a thing apart from its properties, because a thing's properties define that thing, and a thing that is without properties is nothing at all. If God sustains a thing – all its properties – moment by moment, this means that he sustains a man's evil thoughts and actions from this moment to the next moment. And if it is not the man who sustains his own thoughts and actions in this moment or in the next moment, then he is not the one who continues or transitions the thoughts and actions from this moment to the next moment (the man in this moment does not sustain or create the man in the next moment), nor can the thoughts and actions exist apart from his mind and body to sustain and transition themselves. Thus there is no inherent and necessary relationship between the man or the thoughts or the actions in this moment and the next moment. Rather, God must be the one who sustains, and in this sense even create, the man and the thoughts and the actions continuously, or moment by moment.
Therefore, God is the direct cause, even the only actual cause, of all things, including evil thoughts and actions; otherwise, evil thoughts and actions simply cannot exist. In this metaphysical or ontological sense, God is the author of sin, because he is necessarily the author of all things. Christians who wish to protect their own tradition or agenda sometimes complain that this biblical doctrine amounts to pantheism. However, although God directly controls Satan and evil, it does not mean that he is Satan or evil or that he becomes Satan or evil. Just as God can directly and completely control a rock without being or becoming the rock, he can control Satan without being or becoming Satan. The foolish accusation shows that these people either believe that God does not control anything, or that they themselves are the pantheists.
To illustrate the relationship, that God often causes Satan to carry out the divine decree, he sent Satan to destroy everything that Job had, but not to harm the man himself (Job 1:12). After a while, God sent Satan to inflict Job with sickness, but to spare the man's life (2:6). Thus it was God who sent Satan and gave him precise instructions on what to do. One might say that it was God who inflicted Job, and another might say that it was Satan who did it. Both could be considered correct, but not in the same way.
Then, 2 Samuel 24:1 says that God in his anger incited David to sin by taking a census. We know that God did not incite David by divine command or persuasion, because if he had, the census would be an act of obedience. Thus 1 Chronicles 21:1 says that it was Satan who "rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census." Both verses are correct, but they refer to the same event from different perspectives. It was indeed God who was angry and incited David to sin, but he did it through Satan, so that the census would be an act of sin and not obedience.
Micaiah told Ahab in 1 Kings 22, "And the LORD said, 'Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?' One suggested this, and another that. Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the LORD and said, 'I will entice him.' 'By what means?' the LORD asked. 'I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,' he said. 'You will succeed in enticing him,' said the LORD. 'Go and do it.' 'So now the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The LORD has decreed disaster for you'" (v. 20-23).
God is the one who controls evil spirits, lying spirits, the false prophets and their messages, to entice people to sin and to make harmful decisions, in order to fulfill his decree. As Ezekiel explains, when an idol worshiper goes to a prophet, "I the LORD will answer him myself. I will set my face against that man and make him an example and a byword. I will cut him off from my people. Then you will know that I am the LORD. And if the prophet is enticed to utter a prophecy, I the LORD have enticed that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him and destroy him from among my people Israel. They will bear their guilt – the prophet will be as guilty as the one who consults him" (Ezekiel 14:7-10).
God himself would entice the prophet to do wrong and then punish the prophet for doing wrong. This is because moral responsibility is measured not by God's decree (his decision on what would happen) but by God's precept (his definition on what is right or wrong). Thus God's decree could be that a man would transgress God's precept so as to incur guilt and then be punished. That this would occur only because God decrees and causes the transgression is irrelevant, because guilt is measured only by God's precept or command, not by the decree or the cause.
The Spirit of God had departed from Saul, and instead God had anointed David with the Spirit and with power. And we read in 1 Samuel 16: "Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him….Whenever the spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him" (1 Samuel 16:14, 23).
Just because something occurs by God's will (decree) does not mean that it is not in some sense of the devil (we will say the same about sickness), since God would even send evil spirits to torment people. And just because something occurs by God's will (decree) does not mean that we should embrace it and endure it, since it might be God's will (precept) for us to fight it – it depends on what it is and what he says to do about it.
A father may throw a ball to this son, but just because he is the one who throws it does not mean that he wants his son to be smashed in the head by it – it depends on what the father has told the son to do about the ball. Perhaps the point of throwing the ball over to the boy is so that he would hit it away with a baseball bat – HARD!!! But theologians are not known for understanding simple things.
By God's decree and power, an evil spirit tormented Saul. But David, anointed with the Holy Spirit, countered the evil spirit and drove it away. And David did not sin or rebel against God's "will" by this. It was God's decree to send that evil spirit to torment Saul. And it was God's decree to send David so that he could carry out God's precept in driving out that evil spirit by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Although the evil spirit came from God, from the perspective of God's precept, David was not fighting God when he played the harp, but he was fighting the evil spirit. From the perspective of God's decree, which explains all that occurs, it would be wrong to say that the evil spirit did not come from God. And from the perspective of God's precept, which defines what we ought to do, it would be wrong to accept the evil spirit without fighting it by the power of God.
God is also sovereign over all sicknesses. He causes them and controls them. He inflicted people with barrenness, with boils, and he would strike them dead. He told the Israelites that if they disobeyed him, "The LORD will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores and the itch, from which you cannot be cured. The LORD will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind" (Deuteronomy 28:27-28). God could – and would – afflict people with both bodily and mental diseases. And the same God is the Lord who heals their sicknesses (Exodus 15:26). All things are in his power.
However, God's sovereignty over sickness does not in itself suggest what we should do about sickness. Paul said that many of the Corinthians were weak, sick, or even dead because God was disciplining them (1 Corinthians 11:30-32). But his point was not that they should endure this; instead, he wanted them to repent and change so that they would no longer be weak, sick, or dead.
At least some sicknesses are said to be of Satan. On one occasion, Jesus said, "Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?" (Luke 13:16). Is no one bound by Satan in the form of sickness today? What are our preachers and theologians doing about it? Are all the people today sick because of "God's will"? So what? All the people who were ever sick in the history of mankind were sick because of God's will, as in his decree, but what does his precept say we should do about it? Are these preachers and theologians doing it? Or do they use God's sovereignty to excuse their unbelief and failure, just as some use God's grace to excuse their licentiousness?
Jesus said that a daughter of Abraham ought to be set free, and Paul wrote that we are the children of Abraham by faith in Christ. Then, James said that the prayer of faith will heal the sick. God's precept instructs us to believe for healing, to pray for it and to receive it, and to pray for others so that they will also receive healing. Regardless of where sickness comes from, or where a particular instance of sickness comes from, God's precept is that we should fight it by prayer and faith, so that a miracle could occur by God's power. Are the preachers doing this? Are the theologians teaching this? How about you? What are you doing about God's instructions on sickness? What do you do for someone who is sick because he is disciplined by God? What do you do for someone who is sick because he is oppressed by Satan?
Again, the fact that something is God's will does not mean that it does not come from Satan in some sense, and where something comes from, whether God or Satan, does not automatically tell us what we should do about it. Both sides that we mentioned in the beginning are wrong. The first is wrong in that although sickness may occur because of the decree of God, it is the precept of God that instead of endlessly enduring it, we should be fighting it in faith, even by repentance, by prayer, and by miracle power. The second is wrong in that although it is the precept of God that we fight sickness with repentance, prayer, and miracle power, sickness indeed occurs by the will and decree of God, because all things occur by the will and decree of God. Thus both divine sovereignty and the healing ministry are maintained.
When it comes to receiving and preaching salvation from sin, we would never tolerate someone who consigns the whole matter to some unknown will of God, as in his decree. We would realize that someone like this is using divine sovereignty as an excuse for his rebellion against God's command to believe and to preach the gospel. This is because we have the precept of God that tells us to believe in Jesus Christ and to preach him to all nations, even though according to the decree of God, not everyone could believe when he hears and not everyone is converted when we preach.
Likewise, when it comes to receiving and ministering miracle healing, there is no reason to tolerate someone who consigns the whole matter to the unknown decree of God. We should realize that someone like this only pretends to respect God's sovereignty in order to resist God's instruction and to cover up his own unbelief, rebellion, and spiritual deficiency. He is a failure and a hypocrite. Whatever the decree of God is concerning a specific case, we have the precept of God that tells us to seek and to minister miracle healing through faith in Jesus Christ.