Of all the questions people have about the theology of the Protestant Reformers and the Reformed tradition, perhaps the most common is the question regarding human free will. If God has ordained whatsoever comes to pass and we make choices according to what He has planned, how can we have free will? Moreover, if we do not freely choose what we choose, how can we be held guilty for our sin? Are we not being forced to do whatever God wants us to do even when we do not really want to do it?
Answering these questions requires us to consider whether Reformed thought teaches that we have free will as well as the nature of human freedom. First, as Westminster Confession 5.2 affirms, free choices by human beings are among the secondary causes established by the first cause, namely, God. Some of what occurs in creation occurs because moral agents such as human beings freely choose to make things happen.
Second, the biblical view of human free will says that we do what we want to do but that our desires originate in our nature. Due to the fall, human nature has been radically corrupted. Apart from God’s gracious intervention, we do not want to please Him and are capable only of sin (Rom. 3:9–18; Eph. 2:1–10). We are free to make choices and to do what we want to do, but until God gives us new hearts, we want only to sin. Having been redeemed, we are capable of choosing what is good, but we still battle the remnants of sin, and sometimes we choose disobedience. But the Lord works in His people, and as they grow in Christ, righteousness more and more comes to drive their choices (Rom. 7:7–25; 1 Cor. 15:10; Gal. 2:20). But in any case, human freedom means that we always do what we most want to do given the options we have in a particular situation. No one in heaven wants to be elsewhere, and people in hell are there because they have willingly chosen to reject God and His authority over their lives.
The biblical view of human freedom shows us that while people ultimately choose what God has ordained, their reasons for their choice do not always coincide with what God finds pleasing. In today’s passage, for example, we see that God chose to send Assyria against Israel as His rod of wrath. But Assyria was not forced to war against Israel. That empire did so willingly, though it was motivated not by a desire to be God’s instrument of judgment but by a desire to line its own pockets and expand its territory (Isa. 10:5–7). Both God and Assyria wanted Assyria to invade Israel, but not for the same reasons.