In our modern day the Lord has explained, "That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment" (D&C 101:78).
The idea that man has the moral agency to freely decide for himself what choices he wants to make is not unique to the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In fact, most Christian denomination believe that man will be punished for his sins precisely because he has freely made the choice to disobey God's law. However, the LDS Church has a more profound understanding of the purpose and importance of man's moral agency than that of most other Christian faiths.
Latter-day Saints believe that we lived with our Father in heaven as spirit children before coming to earth and in that world we were able to freely make moral decisions for ourselves. As such we believe that man's free agency has always existed. As part of the teachings of the LDS Church, we believe that when we lived in heaven there came a point when our Father presented us with a plan that would allow us to progress to become just like Him, meaning that we could inherit all that He has, including the priesthood office or position of godhood. When this plan was presented, the sons of god "shouted for joy" at the prospect of participating in it.
However, those who chose not to participate in the plan would not be forced to do so. And the reason why some would hesitate to fully embrace the plan is because it had some serious risks associated with it. While the rewards of this plan were wonderfully glorious to contemplate, only those who voluntarily made the right choices here on earth would received them. If we chose to make the wrong choice then the consequence of our decision would be to lose even that glory we already had. And it was because of this negative consequence that some sons of God voluntarily decided that they didn't want to participate in the plan, at least not the way it had been presented to them.
There was one person in particular, name Lucifer, who proposed his own plan which included taking away man's ability to choose once he came to earth. It was his contention that if no one was allowed to make wrong choices then no one would forfeit their right to receive the highest reward God was offering. Because of these two competing plans, the sons of God had to make a choice of which one they wanted to accept. However, choices have consequences attached to them both in heaven as well as here on earth. That's an eternal law that no one can escape or avoid.
When our Father in heaven rejected this alternate plan that left only one of two choices allowable and that was to either participate in His plan and thereby accept the risks associated with it or not participate in it and remain as spirit children in heaven for all eternity. However, Lucifer convinced one-third of our Father's children to make a third choice - one that was not allowed - and that was to rebel against God, their Father, and force Him to accept the alternate plan. And the reason why Lucifer could do this is because he had the right to freely decide whether to obey or disobey God's commands. In speaking of this incident the Lord has revealed, "and also a third part of the hosts of heaven turned he (Lucifer) away from me (God) because of their agency " (D&C 29:36, emphasis added). Thus, it is clear that even in that pre-mortal world we had the agency to freely make our own decisions concerning what we wanted to do.
However, the consequence of that decision was that those who voluntarily chose to participate in our Father's plan would come to earth and live in mortality. Those who voluntarily chose to support the plan but did not want to participate in it would remain as spirits in heaven forever, while those spirits who voluntarily chose to openly fight against the plan were cast out of heaven forever. Yet, in each of these cases the consequences that resulted was precisely because each person was allowed the freedom to decide for themselves what choices they wanted to make. No one was forced to do anything they didn't want to do.
However, while that is true in the broad sense of the term, the choices we made back then were not entirely free of coercion.
To understand why, we can liken the decisions we make to the fruit that comes from a seed. Before there can be any fruit the seed must first be planted in good soil. Then the seed has to be nourished and cared for or else it will die. Thus, in order for a seed to grow to maturity and produce fruit, it must be placed in an environment that will support and encourage its growth. If that kind of an environment is missing then the seed will not grow and no fruit will be produced.
The same principle applies to sin. In order for a person to willfully sin they must first have the thought to do so. This "thought" can be likened to a seed. However, just having a thought doesn't mean it will produce sinful fruit. It is only when that thought is nourished, nurtured, cultivated, encouraged, cared for, and supported will it grow. Without such careful attention the seed of sin will die and therefore not result in producing any undesirable behavior.
The reason why sin cannot exist in heaven is because the environment that exists there is not conducive to producing sinful action. And the reason why is because "the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance" (D&C 1:31). As a result of this, it is difficult to find even the thought of sin existing in heaven because if one did spring up, the environment is such that it would find nothing there to encourage and promote its growth. That is why heaven is a sinless place.
Perhaps we can understand this concept better by way of an illustration. Suppose there was a five-year old child who lived in an affluent, happy, loving home where everything they needed or wanted was freely and easily provided for them. The idea to leave that comfortable home and go live on their own is a thought that would never enter that child's mind. And should someone even suggest such an idea, the child would instantly dismiss it as something completely unworthy of consideration.
In the same way, when we lived in the perfect environment of heaven the idea to disobey our Father was something that never occurred to us. And should someone have suggested doing that, we would have quickly rejected such an idea and deemed it wholly unworthy of consideration.
Therefore, when our Father presented His plan whereby we could inherit all that He has, in our child-like innocence most of us unquestionably accepted the wisdom of what He was proposing. After all, we had no reason to question His wisdom because it was always perfect.
But there was one person who had the thought that something was wrong with the plan and he cultivated that thought and nourished it and allowed it to grow. And as it grew, he shared it with others, and through much persuasion he managed to cultivate and encourage that idea to grow in the minds of some of his brothers and sisters until it began to bear the fruit of sin, which culminated in willful and deliberate defiance against God.
However, not everyone nourished Lucifer's idea to the point where they join him in his rebellion. There were no doubt some who didn't allow their thoughts to turn into full-blown sinful action, perhaps out of fear of defying their Father, yet they still agreed with Lucifer's ideas. And there were no doubt others who agreed with our Father's plan but who were nonetheless fearful of participating in it because of the risks involved. But, with everyone else shouting for joy over the plan, some of these more hesitant spirits may have felt ashamed or intimidated into speaking out, so they went along with the crowd even though they didn't fully support the plan.
In cases such as these what we see people doing is making decisions, not freely but out of fear or coercion. However, our Father will not force anyone to make a choice they do not want to make and neither will He allow others to do that. Although He had provided a way for each of us to inherit all that He has, yet He needed to make sure that no one was forced into doing something they didn't really want to do. Therefore, He had to ensure that only those who truly wanted to become exalted were given that chance while those who didn't want such glory were allowed to make a different choice. Because of this consideration, His plan also included a way to make certain that we were truly free to decide all things for our self.
To accomplish this goal God placed a veil of forgetfulness over our minds when we were born into mortality. In heaven we could clearly see and understand what exaltation was and therefore it became almost too easy to say that's what we wanted. But when there is only one choice offered or when one choice clearly stands out above all the others, then, in effect, we have no freedom to choose. For example, if a hungry man is offered the choice of having a prime rib steak or a mud cake, there is no real choice being offered him. In reality, he only has one choice. Therefore, what God's plan did was give us a wider selection to choose from.
As we have already discussed, in heaven we had the freedom to choose but those choices were limited. However, on earth God has reversed that situation. Now we are confronted with a multitude of choices - some good and some evil - and we are given the right to decide for ourselves which of these many choices we want to select, of which eternal life is only one of them. Thus, only those who truly want to have eternal life will seek after it while those who only have a passing interest or no interest at all in such a goal will choose to follow a different way of living.
It is in this way that man has now become truly free to decide for himself what he wants to do. This is what Father Lehi was referring to when he told his family, "Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil" (2 Nephi 2:27)
But there is another reason why God put a veil of forgetfulness over our mind. It has been said that success is achieved by those who try and keep trying. The scriptures phrase it as "he that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved" (Mark 24:13). In a sense, both of these sayings are making the same point. To truly be successful at anything requires perseverance and diligence. Those who give up easily or quit when they encounter problems almost invariably fail at what they want to accomplish. On the other hand, what makes most people successful is that they keep trying no matter how many times they fail.
It's been said that most millionaires have gone bankrupt at least three times in their life, and usually their loses have been quite extensive. Most people under less trying circumstances would give up the first time they went bankrupt for fear of losing money again but the truly successful person does not let the fear of bankruptcy deter his efforts to keep trying until they succeed.
This same principle applies to achieving exaltation. It takes perseverance and diligence to obtain and only those who are willing to put forth the necessary effort will succeed at inheriting it. Those who are only willing to put forth a minimal effort or who give up when they encounter problems will not achieve the greatest glory possible but will have to settle for a lesser reward.
The Lord revealed to Abraham that the reason why the earth was created and man was put on it was to "prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them" (Abraham 3:25). God wants us to prove - more to ourselves than anyone else - that we really do want to have eternal life and the way He proves that our desire for exaltation is genuine is by seeing if we are willing to do whatever He commands us.
Although the idea of becoming an exalted person may sound wonderful yet it brings with it a demanding duty that carries an eternal weight of grave responsibility. And the consequences of not properly fulfilling those eternal duties are more terrible than one can imagine. Therefore, those who wish to obtain this kind of an inheritance must be willing to learn and develop all the necessary skills needed to become worthy of fulfilling the obligations that such a reward requires.
It would be foolish and dangerous to allow someone to have such a position of responsibility if they were not capable of fulfilling its duties. Therefore, to make sure that only those who sincerely want eternal life receive it, God deliberately makes it difficult for us to obtain our exaltation. And the way He does this is by placing us in an environment where we have to struggle to keep our thoughts on heavenly things and where everything works against our efforts to do that. In heaven it was almost impossible to have sinful thoughts but in our earthly environment sinful thoughts come naturally and are easy to cultivate.
On the other hand, heavenly thoughts in an earthly environment take much effort to plant and even more effort to cultivate and nourish to keep them alive. And without the memory of our former life we can no longer clearly see and understand what we're striving to accomplish. Instead of having tangible proof of our ultimate goal as we once had, now we are only given an intangible concept through the preaching of others. As a result, it now requires faith rather than knowledge to believe that such a reward even exists. With all of this going against us, only those who make a committed decision to unfailingly seek after eternal life, regardless of the difficulties involved, will achieve it.
But where our Father has taken away the memory of our former life, thereby making it more difficult for us to attain exaltation, in return He has given us something else to compensate for our loss. And that something is the atonement of Christ. Notice what Lehi told his family. He said that man is "free to choose liberty and eternal life, through (or, in other words, because of) the great Mediator of all men."
If it wasn't for the atonement of Christ we could not be free to choose eternal life and the reason why is because no matter how much we may desire to have exaltation and no matter how hard we might strive to reach that goal, if we make one wrong decision we will have then sinned. Even if we repented of that sin and never did it again that still doesn't erase the fact that we have sinned. As we have already discussed, all choices have consequences and since not even the least degree of sin can exist in heaven that means the moment we made one wrong choice we would then be barred forever from returning to heaven. And when that happens then the option to choose eternal life would have been eliminated from our list of choices.
However, Christ's atonement has the power to erase our sins as though we had never committed them. And because of that, we are able to repent. That is what the scriptures means when it says, "For, behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might [be able to] repent and come unto him" (D&C 18:11). If it wasn't for the atonement of Christ we could still repent but it would be meaningless because even if we repented all day long, every day of our life it would not erase one sin. Once we have been stained by sin, that stain is there forever and no amount of repentance can remove it. Therefore there would be no point to us repenting
But, because of the blood of Christ that He shed for our sins, His atonement has the power to wash away all of sin's stains and make us pure and spotless again. And because of that, when we do make a wrong choice, we now have the ability to have that choice erased as though we never made it and are then free to make a better choice.
The reason why we so often make wrong choices is because, in our blindness and lack of faith, we don't always clearly see or understand where we want to go. And even when we do, we have a tendency to so easily give into our human weaknesses. As a result of this we don't always remain steadfast on the path to exaltation and tend to stray from it, even when we don't want to. Nephi saw this very condition in a symbolic vision where he saw people following a path that lead to the tree of life but he also saw that many of them lost their way and never reached their goal. And the same thing happens today. Many times people have the sincere desire to follow the path to godliness but then, for a variety of reasons, they change their mind and begin to follow a different course in life. Yet, in time, they may change their mind once more and make the decision to come back to the strait and narrow path that leads to exaltation.
However, without the atonement of Christ, this would not be possible. Because of the consequences of our decisions, one wrong choice would forever doom us from ever returning to heaven. It is only because of what Christ did for us on the cross that allows us the opportunity to repent (if that is our desire) and allows us the ability to make another choice.
But there is yet another blessing that comes to us because of the atonement of Christ. Not everyone has the same abilities and talents as everyone else. For example, there are people in the business world who struggle to make their company become successful but never grow it beyond a small operation, while others are able to expand their company into a national industry. And we see this same situation in spiritual matters. Some people sincerely love the Lord yet find themselves struggling to follow His ways while others seem to easily go beyond doing more than what the Lord requires. Not everyone has the spiritual qualities to become an apostle or a General Authority. Not everyone is qualified to be a stake president or even a bishop, yet despite this fact all members of the Church are given the hope that they can someday inherit exaltation regardless of their spiritual talents.
However, without the atonement of Christ, this would not be possible because all of us fall short of living up to God's glory and, as such, none of us would succeed in inheriting all that God has. But because of Christ's atonement, He is able to make up the difference where we fall short, thereby insuring that all who sincerely want to become exalted are able to do so.
The story of the widow's mite is perhaps the best illustration of this principle. One day while at the temple "Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living" (Mark 12:41-44).
To put this in perspective, a farthing is equal to the value of one-quarter of a penny. So what we find in this story is that this widow gave one fourth of a penny to the temple treasury while many rich people contributed large sums of money. Yet Jesus remarked that she had put in more than all the others combined! From outside appearances this doesn't make sense since each rich man had obviously given far more money than the widow had. But the rich gave money from out of their surplus or excess - that which they didn't need - while the widow gave "all that she had, even all her living." While the widow was willing to give 100% of her money to God, the rich were willing to part with only a very small percentage of their wealth.
And the same principle applies to inheriting eternal life. What God looks for is not how much we do for Him as He does the percentage we give of what we have. Those with little talent are not expected to do what those with greater talents can do. But what God does require of everyone is to give 100% of themselves to serving Him. And when we do that then, where our efforts fall short of what is needed, the atonement of Christ makes up the difference and He accepts our offering, as being sufficient to allow us to inherit all that the Father has, no matter how small or as great it may be.
Therefore, the atonement of Christ has allowed man to become truly free to act for himself concerning those doctrines and principles that pertain to our eternal future because God has given us our moral agency to decide for ourselves what we want to do. But with that freedom also comes the responsibility of being fully accountable for the consequences of our choices. This is what Jesus meant when He said, "That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment."
While many churches believe that man is responsible for obeying God's commandments, only the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints understands the profound importance and purpose of why God has given us our free agency.
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