We’ve all heard before of someone allegedly “selling” their “soul to the devil.” The theme appears in popular movies: Crossroads with Ralph Macchio comes to mind, as does a character from O Brother Where Art Thou. Both of these in fact draw from the legend of Robert Johnson, the blues guitarist who allegedly sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for his fame and fortune. It’s popular thinking, but is there anything to it?
This stuff of legend is surprisingly pervasive in people’s thinking. I’ll never forget several years ago when I worked at an engineering firm, an older coworker came to me in private. He knew I was a seminarian, and though I’d never tried to talk religion with him, the very fact of my faith always made him uncomfortable. He came to me acting concerned. He said he was Christian, but that he had made a big mistake. He also knew that I knew he was a vulgar man, and that his claim to be a Christian was specious. He said he had been at the hospital where his nephew was gravely sick. He said he then made a deal with the devil: he’d give the devil his own soul in exchange for letting the kid live. Then, the kid got better! Now he was asking me what in the world he should do, because he had just sold his soul to the devil.
I told the man he was full of nonsense. And this is likewise true for everyone who fantasizes about such scenarios, or anything like them. It is impossible to “sell your soul to the devil.” Here’s why.
In biblical terms, you don’t own your soul to begin with. You can’t own your soul. You either belong to God, or you are under the dominion of the evil one already. There is no bargaining with the devil, or with God, or with anyone—certainly not for the possession of your soul.
A major theme in the Bible is redemption. To redeem means to pay the price to buy something back from slavery or captivity. God’s people are a redeemed people. We are bought back from sin and death, and thus from under the power of the one who had the power of death (Heb. 2:14–15).
Christ redeemed us from sin by the price of his own blood (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 7:23; 6:19–20; Gal. 3:13; Eph. 4:5; Heb. 9:12; 2 Pet. 2:1; Rev. 5:9). For this reason, the Bible says that you do not belong to you:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor. 6:19–20).
All the passages listed above, and more, confirm this concept: you are not your own. Being redeemed in and of itself means this.
Since this is true, for all those in Christ, this means that your soul is not yours to begin with. You don’t have title to it, and therefore don’t have the right to sell it even if you wanted to.
When Adam was created, he was God’s property, placed under God’s dominion. When Adam rebelled against God, God placed him outside the garden and under the dominion of the devil. At no point was Adam’s his own to sell or to bargain with.
Today, nonbelievers are by default already under the dominion of Satan. There is no bargaining here. If you are a nonbeliever and tried to offer your soul to the devil, he’d laugh! “I’ve already got it.”
When we come to faith in Christ, it is all of his grace. It is his gift to us to liberate us from sin and death, and from the power of the devil. But when this is done, we are bought back with a price. We are liberated and free in Christ, but we are still not our own. We are his.
My vulgar coworker really thought he was being clever. Who could condemn him for giving himself to save a child? Sounds like a Christian thing to do! Yet he gave himself to the devil, so now what? It was supposed to be a real dilemma.
No, it was real nonsense. If he was really a believer (doubtful), then his soul was bought with a price and not his to sell. If he was not a believer, then the devil already had him. Either way, there was never anything about which to bargain.
Whether the child recovered or not is entirely coincidental.
Let’s also never forget the reality that God is provident and in full control of all of creation. This means even Satan himself is expressly under the full power and authority of God, at all times. I have always found great comfort in the teaching of Calvin here:
With regard to the strife and war which Satan is said to wage with God, it must be understood with this qualification, that Satan cannot possibly do anything against the will and consent of God. . . . Satan is under the power of God, and is so ruled by his authority, that he must yield obedience to it. . . . [A]s God holds him bound and fettered by the curb of his power, he executes those things only for which permission has been given him, and thus, however unwilling, obeys his Creator, being forced, whenever he is required, to do Him service. . . . God thus turning the unclean spirits hither and thither at his pleasure, employs them in exercising believers by warring against them, assailing them with wiles, urging them with solicitations, pressing close upon them, disturbing, alarming, and occasionally wounding, but never conquering or oppressing them. (Institutes 1.14.17–18.)
So, can you sell your soul to the devil? Absolutely not. But it may well be the case that he already has you, and holds you captive at his will (2 Tim. 2:26). In fact, the very consideration of selling your soul to the devil may itself be evidence that you have no faith in Christ to begin with.
If you are unsure of this, you need to know that Christ shed his blood for his people, and that his people are his. His people will have no fear of the devil whatsoever, and also no engagement or intercourse with him, but simply resist him.