Free Will and Free Grace

Let’s continue our blog series on Paradise Lost by looking at Book 3.

Sitting on His throne, God observes Satan’s progress toward the newly created world. Foreseeing Satan’s success in perverting humankind, He speaks with the Son, who is sitting at His right hand. God the Father proclaims that grace cannot be granted to mankind without the satisfaction of divine justice (and yet even in this announcement, He foreshadows the grace that is to come to man.) Only if someone can answer for Adam’s sins and receive mankind’s punishment can Adam and his progeny be saved. God the Son offers Himself as man’s ransom and the Father accepts, proclaiming the supremacy of the name of Jesus. In response, the angels celebrate the Father and the Son. Meanwhile, Satan travels through Chaos and makes his way to the sun, where the angel Uriel is stationed. Disguising himself, Satan feigns an innocent desire to view God’s new creation. Uriel gives Satan directions to where earth—and its two human inhabitants—can be found.

Two themes stand out to me in this book: the will of man and the grace of God.

First, the will of man. Mankind was created with the ability to obey God and the ability to disobey God. As the Father Himself says, “I formed them free, and free they must remain / Till they enthrall themselves” (lines 124-125). Their freedom will be lost only if they “enthrall themselves”—which is clarified as being “enthralled / By sin” to the allurements of “foul exorbitant desires” (lines 176-177).

The freedom of the will—though not the existence of the will itself—would be lost if and when such a thing were to happen. Alas, such a thing did happen, and the free will with which man was endowed was lost to the tyranny of sin. Yet, even as He foresees the fall of mankind, and even as He points out the atrocious nature of the Fall, the Father hints at the grace to come: “Man shall not quite be lost, but saved” (line 173), “Yet not of will in him, but grace in me” (line 174). The salvation will come from grace, for the human will was perverted by the Fall, disabling humanity’s ability to reconcile itself to God without God’s personal and direct involvement. As the Father says in lines 180-182,

By me [mankind will be] upheld, that he may know how frail
His fallen condition is, and to me owe
All his deliverance, and to none but me.

And this leads us to the second theme: the grandeur of the grace of God. Milton beautifully communicates the message of the gospel from God’s perspective. This gospel starts, of course, with the bad news: “Die he [Adam] or justice must” (line 210). The guilty must not go free. If Adam, the perpetrator, is not punished, justice will be perverted. Therefore, it is not possible for God to be both just and the justifier of the ungodly…or is it?

A solution can be found, says the Father, only through an innocent party that is both willing and able to take man’s place and act as a ransom. God (rhetorically) asks the heavenly assembly, “where shall we find such love?” (line 213). Heaven remains silent for a spell, the question suspended in the air, its gravity falling hard on the ears of the angelic host. No one is able; no one is worthy. Mankind must be lost.

But then the Son, man’s willing and appointed Mediator, offers up Himself. In lines 236-240, He proclaims the following:

Behold me then, me for him, life for life
I offer, on me let thine anger fall;
Account me man; I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom, and this glory next to thee
Freely put off, and for him lastly die.

Jesus prophesies His own death and resurrection, His victory over Satan, and His satisfaction of God’s wrath so that peace, reconciliation, and joy will be assured to all the redeemed. With these words, Christ “breathe[s] immortal love / To mortal men” (lines 267-268). “So heavenly love shall outdo hellish hate” (line 298).

Next week, we will observe one of the best depictions of euphoric perfection ever penned by man.