How Jesus Defeated Satan
Have you ever thought of the death and resurrection of Christ as terminating on Satan? It is not a popular thought today because we usually think of defeating Satan individually and personally. However, there is a sense in which Jesus defeated Satan on the cross and in the resurrection.
In 1999 Sinclair Ferguson gave a guest lecture at Highland Theological College in Scotland on this topic. For what it’s worth, I had heard of Jesus defeating Satan on the cross before but only in passing. Ferguson notes this limited attention to Christ’s victory over Satan is the result of two theologians in the late-medieval church: Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109) and Peter Abelard (c. 1079-1142). In the minds of theologians and believers alike, the debate over why Jesus came into the world and why He died was settled then. Either it terminated on God (Anselm’s argument) or terminated on man (Abelard’s argument). Their debate is settled in our modern minds because we have come to accept both as true, although Anselm’s argument is losing weight due to deterioration from modern liberalism.
Anselm’s argument was Jesus’ death is a substitutionary atonement, appeasing God the Father’s wrath, which is the objective truth of Christ’s death and resurrection. Abelard’s argument was more subjective, claiming Christ’s death terminated on man. He argued Christ died a substitutionary death for man, ransoming and saving us.
Ferguson points out how our modern hymns carry these themes. Think of Philip P. Bliss’s hymn, “Man of Sorrows What a Name,” particularly this line:
In my place condemned he stood, sealed my pardon with his blood
This is Anselm’s argument. Abelard’s argument is captured in Isaac Watt’s hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,”
Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.
Both these are vital to a biblical understanding of the gospel. Anselm’s argument ties into the plan of God from before the world began. It binds God’s justice and mercy together, and it retains every attribute of God. Abelard’s argument applies salvation to us that as the recipients of the atonement we are transformed and translated from darkness to light.
However, the early church fathers and the apostles add another vital emphasis: Jesus’ death terminated on Satan as well. They believed it was necessary to understanding the atonement that we consider Jesus’ defeat of Satan.
One such instance is in the Apostle John’s first letter:
“The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8b).
Or think of Hebrews 2, wherein the writer says,
“Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Our problem is we have taken these great gospel truths and applied them only to our personal and present dealings with Satan. This is largely due to the Puritan’s application of Anselm and Abelard’s arguments to our daily contention with the world, the flesh, and the devil. But we need to think of Christ’s defeat of Satan as happening primarily at the cross, because it ties together the biblical narrative for us.
Jesus died as a ransom payment to Satan. He died to free us from the devil; He died to reverse the curse; He died as a fulfilment of Genesis 3:15.
“And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.”
Paul brings all the aspects of Christ’s death and resurrection together in Colossians, tying Abelard’s understanding of a substitutionary death, Anselm’s understanding of a substitutionary atonement, and now our understanding of Christ’s defeat of Satan into one.
“When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him” (Colossians 2:13-15).
Could you find each argument?
To add to our understanding of Christ’s death and resurrection the fact that Jesus defeated Satan does not mean we turn our understanding into a mystery; it means we add confidence to our belief in Christ. In the passage from Hebrews (mentioned above), death is the great enemy and fear of death is the fountain of fear. Therefore, when we go to Christ, when we believe in Him and understand the grace He has for us, our fear of death is diminished. Christ overcame death, destroying the works of the devil, and all our anxieties about this life are swallowed in that death blow.
 I highly recommend listening to this lecture. Ferguson goes in-depth into the historical arguments from early church fathers and how they apply to us today. You can find his lecture here: https://www.htc.uhi.ac.uk/t4-media/one-web/htc/news-and-events/sf-1999.mp3