Question: The devil tempts the righteous, but does he actually tempt the wicked?
I can see the rationale behind such a question. If the wicked are totally depraved, and if, therefore, they love sin and hate righteousness, why would the devil need to tempt the wicked? Do they not sin without his input? We understand that when the devil tempts us, he is tempting us to depart from God’s truth and righteousness, and that his temptation initiates in us a struggle. But no such struggle exists in the wicked. What then is Satan’s role in the sin of wicked unbelievers?
We need first to explain what temptation is. When Satan tempts, he lures a person into sin, usually by presenting sin in a good light, and by presenting righteousness in a poor light. For example, he shows how advantageous sin will be. He presents to us the happiness of sinners, the fun that iniquity offers, and the pleasures of sin. At the same time, he hides the misery that sin brings upon sinners. He fails to mention that the pleasures of sin are deceitful and fleeting, and that the wages of sin is death (Heb. 11:25; Rom. 6:23).
The Bible teaches that the devil tempts both believers and unbelievers. Satan tempted Peter to deny Christ (Luke 22:31), but he also tempted Judas to betray Christ. In fact, Satan entered into Judas to entice him to that heinous deed (Luke 22:3; John 13:27). Satan lured wicked king Ahab to his death by being a lying spirit in the mouths of his (false) prophets (2 Chron. 18:19–22). Satan filled the wicked, covetous hearts of Ananias and Sapphira to lie to the Holy Spirit, thus tempting God (Acts 5:3). Surely, the wicked thieves who robbed Job of his flocks and herds were stirred up by Satan to do that (Job 1:12, 14–17).
Why then does Satan tempt? What is Satan’s role in temptation?
First, we must understand that Satan is not sovereign, nor is he almighty, omniscient, or omnipresent. Satan cannot force a person to sin in a specific way. If he could, man would not be responsible for his sin, but a helpless puppet on Satan’s string. The wicked are “taken captive by [Satan] at his will” (2 Tim. 2:26), but they are still free moral rational agents. Satan could suggest to Ananias and Sapphira to lie to the apostles, but he could not force them to that wicked deed. Satan could take possession of Judas, but he could not force him to betray Jesus.
Second, we must recognize that all men, whether believers or unbelievers, sin because they want to. James explains, “Every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed” (1:14). Sin is willful, wicked, conscious rebellion. Of course, sin is in our nature, but the act of sin is always willful. Judas willfully betrayed Jesus; Ananias and Sapphira willfully lied; Cain willfully murdered Abel. If Satan desires that anyone commit a certain sin, he has to entice, lure, and deceive that person, in harmony with their depraved will. Although men are totally depraved, Satan plants into their minds the suggestion to commit particular sins. To one he suggests the sin of adultery. To another he suggests the sin of murder. To a third he suggests the sin of dishonesty.
Third, Satan is cruel. The devil delights in destroying sinners. Think of Satan as a cat that enjoys playing with and tormenting a mouse before devouring it. The mouse will die (its doom is certain), but the cat makes the mouse suffer. Satan knows that sinners will perish, but he desires to plunge them into as much sin as possible, so that they are as miserable as possible in sin here and in eternity hereafter. That is why he tempts unbelievers, who are already on the broad road to hell, as well as believers, who are on the narrow road to life.
Fourth, there is no reason to believe that Satan knows the identity of God’s elect. Only God knows them that are His (2 Tim 2:19). Certainly, when a person seems to be a Christian, the devil will target that one with great temptations. But Satan tempts everyone, not restricting his temptations to Christians.
Fifth, Satan tempts unbelievers out of his hatred for the church. When Satan tempts unbelievers, this affects Christians. Satan tempts wicked men to persecute the church. Satan tempts the man who mocks his Christian coworker. Satan tempts the ungodly judge who condemns the Christian and vindicates the cause of the wicked adversary. Satan tempts the unbelieving legislator to pass laws that make the work of the church more difficult in the world. Satan tempted Pharaoh to cast Israel’s baby boys into the Nile. Satan tempted wicked Nebuchadnezzar to build an image and to threaten Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Satan tempted Haman to seek to destroy the Jews. And Satan will tempt the antichrist to persecute God’s church in the future. Satan will be the instigator of antichrist’s wickedness, as well as the agent his destruction. In the end God will destroy the antichristian kingdom by turning it against itself (Rev. 16:12–14; 20:7–10).
Satan has a wide scope. “As a roaring lion [he] walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (I Peter 5:8). A useful little book in this regard is Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, by Thomas Brooks.