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RS/MP Lesson 4: “Freedom to Choose” (Gospel Principles Manual)

Posted by joespencer on February 8, 2010

What follows is mostly ridiculous. That is not to say that the content is ridiculous (though that may be true), but that the length of the discussion of this lesson and the detail to which I ended up attending are ridiculous. As it turned out, an assignment in my ward got me studying this lesson a month in advance, and these notes materialized over the course of a couple of weeks. Having that much time to work on it, the notes grew and grew. But the length and detail of what follows can be taken as an indication of what has become my conviction that we, as Latter-day Saints, have not done a whole lot of serious thinking about the doctrine of agency. As such, what follows inevitably hovers between (1) a terribly inconclusive theological reinvestigation from the ground up of what the scripture, combined with the prophets, have presented as the “doctrine of agency” and (2) an exposition of the material in the manual, aimed at providing food for thought for those preparing to teach the lesson. My apologies for the complexity and particularly the length, but I think there is a good deal of work that needs to be done in our thinking about agency.


The lesson is divided into three parts: a first part focuses on the role of agency in premortality; a second part focuses on the role of agency in mortality; and a third part explores the basic tensions at work in agency as such. This very organization of the material raises, I think, very interesting questions. Agency is one of the few aspects of the “plan of salvation” that we find it important to assign as much to the premortal as the mortal stretch of existence; and it is one of the few aspects of the same plan that we don’t particularly find it important to assign as much to the postmortal as the mortal stretch of existence. There is something curious about this.

What makes all of this so interesting is the fact that agency has to be, as the third section makes quite clear, set up. I find it fascinating that we think of agency as something that mortality is meant to set up, and yet we are quick to assert that agency was a crucial aspect of premortality. That either means that our premortal experience was itself set up (and so came after some still earlier form of existence), or that agency has two strongly different meanings in premortality and mortality.

Whatever direction one might go in making sense of these basic problems, I think the whole of this lesson allows one to stage the premortality/mortality problematic in very productive and interesting ways. What does agency mean before mortality, and what does it mean in mortality, and how does the difference between these two meanings help us to make sense of the “plan of salvation”?

Before turning to the first section of the lesson, though, let me also make this note about changes to the manual. I did some careful work of comparison between this version and the previous version of the manual. Rather than deal with these changes all together, I will deal with them as they come up. I think there are some really significant alterations here that should not be overlooked.

Agency Is an Eternal Principle

A structural change to the manual is worth mentioning from the very beginning. In the older manual, the initial quotation from Moses 3 as well as the whole subsequent paragraph were positioned before the first section, as a kind of introduction to the lesson. Only the last two paragraphs of what is now the first section were a part of the first section then. For the most part, I think this was a good change, and the continuity between what was originally introductory and what was originally the first section is tightened up by the addition of the question at the beginning of what is now the first section. More than anything, though, the effect is that agency’s definition serves now as preparatory to understanding what was at work in premortality, rather than as preparatory to thinking about agency’s various ramifications in the plan.

God has told us through His prophets that we are free to choose between good and evil.

I’m not sure how comfortable I am, in the end, with the word “choose” here. Agency, as the Latin root of the word makes clear, is more a question of acting or doing than a question of choosing (agere is the verb from which our word “agency” ultimately comes, and agere means “to act” or “to do”). I don’t think it is entirely inappropriate to speak of choosing here, but I think it is important to recognize that one’s choice is made by one’s doing something, by someone’s acting in a particular way. In other words, the danger of the word “choose” is that it too easily yields the image of someone abstracting herself from a situation in order to weigh possibilities, when I think agency is more a question of a lack of external inhibition when we go about acting or doing.

This new edition of the manual, incidentally, will go on to correct this “mistake” at the end of the paragraph. (See below.)

We may choose liberty and eternal life by following Jesus Christ. We are also free to choose captivity and death by following Satan. (See 2 Nephi 2:27.)

As anyone familiar with the referenced passage can recognize, these two sentences are together a paraphrase of the verse cited. It is, I think, the reference to this passage that allows one to speak of choosing rather than of acting, because 2 Nephi 2:27 uses the word “choose.” Importantly, though, as both the paraphrase and the original text make quite clear, here it is not a question of choosing good or evil, but of choosing life or death, of choosing liberty or captivity. In effect, by acting in a certain way, we have chosen—I think I would like to say: decided for—life or death, liberty or captivity.

2 Nephi 2 is one of the more complex texts in scripture, and I can hardly begin to mine it here (though I’m quite tempted!). But I do think it worth making quite clear that for Lehi this “freedom to choose” between life and death is explicitly a consequence of the resurrection. It is perhaps too easy for us to think of agency, of this “freedom to choose” (especially when we think that what we choose is good or evil), as a kind of zero-point state of affairs: in the beginning, we were free to choose whether we would be good or evil. But for Lehi, this freedom to choose follows from the resurrection: inasmuch as death is overcome, it becomes possible for us to choose life (to act in a lifely way) or death (to act in a deathly way).

It is also worth pointing out an irony that might too easily be missed: we have the freedom, according to Lehi, to choose captivity. Given that, as Lehi explains, this freedom is only mobilized by the resurrection, then this means that we are free to go back to what the resurrection trumps. The resurrection overcomes death, but we can still live towards trumped death. This, I think, is one of the richest doctrines in the scriptures, but it deserves full articulation elsewhere. Here I want only to point out that agency, set in motion by the resurrection, is precisely what allows for a rejection of the resurrection. Interestingly, this is what the manual summarizes as “following Satan.” Given what will be articulated in the manual’s subsequent two paragraphs, this might be an important point.

The right to choose between good and evil and to act for ourselves is called agency.

Here I see the new manual making an important corrective to the over-simplistic implications of the word “choose”: the new edition adds the phrase “and to act for ourselves” to the earlier edition. Agency, at last being defined in a straightforward sentence, calls now only for the question of “the right to choose” but also the ability “to act for ourselves.” Agency is a question of acting. But what is to be made of this idea of acting “for ourselves“? This strange little two-word supplement to acting makes a huge difference, and it opens up what seems to me to be the entire difficulty of agency. Let me see if I can say something productive—or at least coherent—about this.

To speak of one’s “agency” is ultimately to speak of one as an “agent.” And to be an agent, strictly speaking, is not to be free from commitments. Generally speaking, to be an agent is to be a commissioned representative of some person or organization, but to be that particular kind of representative who has the freedom to handle things however one sees fit (I’m thinking here of real estate agents, travel agents, etc.). Importantly, this understanding of the word “agent” saturates the Doctrine and Covenants: the word “agent” most often appears there as a description either of the bishop (as a representative, in precisely the above sense, of the Lord) or of those running stores in Kirtland or Zion (and again, then, functioning as representatives in precisely the above sense). To be free to act for oneself here seems to mean that one can go about one’s commissioned task however one sees fit, always with the understanding, of course, that one is not one’s own.

But this is not the only possible meaning of acting “for oneself.” Another is to be what has traditionally, in Mormon theology, been called a “free agent.” Recognizing that this phrase has come under fire in some ways in Mormon discussion, I think it is important to think about what it implies. To be a free agent (think, here, of sports) is to be without particular commitments and, so, to be free to select one’s agency, to determine where one would like to make one’s commitments. Here, acting for oneself seems to be a bit stronger in meaning: rather than having the freedom to accomplish a commissioned task however one sees fit, one has the freedom to decide among various agencies, and in the meanwhile functions as a representative only of oneself—acts entirely “for oneself.”

These two conceptions of acting “for ourselves” must, I think, be distinguished. It might not be inappropriate to say that “free agency” is followed—inasmuch as one actually does act for oneself, and thus commits oneself—by an agency in the narrower sense: one gives up being a “free” agent in order to become an agent pure and simple. One thus gives up the absolute sense of “for oneself” in exchange for a more “limited” (but unavoidable) sense of “for oneself.” Before, one’s “for oneself” had reference only to one’s ability to commit oneself; now, one’s “for oneself” has reference to one’s freedom to go about the fulfillment of one’s commission in whatever way one sees fit. If “free agency” seems more absolute (more free), it is also more abstract, and ultimately not a question, really, of doing anything; hence, concrete freedom only takes shape as one gives up “free agency” to take up “actual agency,” a particular commission with its particular expectations, etc.

Would it be inappropriate to read the sentence I’m here discussion as identifying both parts of this operation? “The right to choose between good and evil” might be said to have reference to the status of agency as free agency: here one can determine to which agency one will commit oneself. “The right . . . to act for ourselves” might be said to have reference to the status of agency as actual agency: here one can act as one sees fit within or in fulfillment of the commission one has elected. That the sentence ends by assigning both this question of “choice” and this question of “acting” to the single term “agency” might be significant: agency is ultimately the play between the freedom (in light of the resurrection) to elect whatever agency we want and the freedom (within the elected agency) to fulfill one’s commission however one sees fit.

From the above, it should become clear that I’m not particularly averse to the use of the phrase “free agency.” The trick is not to think that all agency is free agency. But perhaps we should be careful to avoid the other extreme as well: not only should we not reduce agency to free agency, we should not reduce agency to committed agencies. The play between the two—which, I think, amounts to the play between the premortal and mortal realms—is perhaps crucial.

In our premortal life we had moral agency.

Here we make the turn to premortality (and here we enter what, in the previous edition of the manual, was the first paragraph under the “Agency Is an Eternal Principle” section). Moreover, here we encounter no fewer than three changes to the text made for the present edition of the manual. What was:

“In the premortal life we were free agents. That means we had power to act for ourselves (see D&C 93:29-30).”


“In our premortal life we had moral agency.”

The largest change here, of course, is the complete removal of the second sentence. I assume that this was done because of the change in the arrangement of the first section. Since these two sentences introduced a new section in the earlier edition, I think the second sentence was used primarily by way of introduction. The “to act for ourselves” has now been removed to the first paragraph (see above), so that it serves there as part of the introduction of the doctrine of agency. (I’ve already commented on how I think the coupling of “choice” with “acting” rounds out the doctrine appropriately.) I think, then, that this was primarily a structural change, but I think its consequences are important: the doctrine of agency is much clearer here.

The smallest change here replaces “the premortal life” with “our premortal life.” This marks a desire for increased intimacy with premortality, as if the editors of the manual want to make sure the premortality isn’t an abstract “the,” but a personal “our.” This attention to detail is interesting.

But the third change is the one that needs the most comment. There are two aspects of it, one I will deal with quickly, and one that calls for a longer discussion. The simpler aspect: “agents” was replaced with “agency”; “were” was replaced with “had.” I think this is interesting: there is a move to focus on agency as a gift, as something one has or comes to have, and a deemphasis on the status one thereby gains (as an agent). I’m not entirely sure what to make of this change, but I think it is significant. For now, I’ll leave that as an open question so I can turn to the much more drastic change.

The most drastic change here, then, is this: free agency has been replaced with moral agency. I assume that this is a consequence of a talk by President Packer, which can be found here. In the talk (from 1992), President Packer said (under a heading that reads “No Free Agency”): “The phrase ‘free agency’ does not appear in scripture. The only agency spoken of there is moral agency, ‘which,’ the Lord said, ‘I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.’ (D&C 101:78; italics added.)” (Note that the italics are all President Packer’s.) This talk has led to a lot of (all too often self-congratulatory) correcting of “careless” Saints in LDS classrooms (who foolishly believe there is something like “free agency”). I suspect, also, that this talk led the Correlation Committee to ensure that references to “free agency” be removed from talks, articles, and manuals whenever possible. I think we ought, however, to be careful about this. So I would like to offer a few words of commentary on the meaning of “moral agency,” and a few points of clarification about how I think President Packer’s talk should be used.

While it is certainly true that the term “free agency” does not appear in scripture, it should be noted that “moral agency” only appears once, and in a highly specific context. It’s one appearance is in D&C 101:78, where it serves to clarify the relationship between—as I read the passage—non-Mormons and, of all things, the United States Constitution: “And again I say unto you, those who have been scattered by their enemies, it is my will that they should continue to importune for redress, and redemption, by the hands of those who are placed as rulers and are in authority over you—According to the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles; 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 101:76-78). As I read this passage, the pillaged and scattered Saints are being told that they have the task of petitioning for redress through constitutionally appointed channels, and that it was precisely for this kind of thing that the Constitution was established (through some measure of divine influence, though the fact that the Lord uses the words “which I have suffered to be established” ought to give us some pause about how far we ought to take that notion of “divine influence”). The Constitution, the Lord goes on, “should be maintained,” by Latter-day Saints I presume, “for the rights and protection of all flesh.” Why? That “every man“—and here, I assume, the whole of the American population, not the Latter-day Saints alone, are in view—may act “according to the moral agency . . . given unto him,” this with an eye to an eventual accountability before the judgment bar.

The claim here, it seems to me, is that everyone (and hence, not necessarily those who have heard anything of the Gospel message, of the word concerning the resurrection) has this “moral agency,” and that what allows it to be set in motion specifically in the American setting is the Constitution. It is almost as if the Constitution serves as the secular counterpart to the spiritual word about the resurrection: being aware of the Constitution sets “moral agency” in motion the same way that the angelic word concerning the resurrection sets (what might be called) “free agency” in motion. At any rate, I think it is crucial to draw a distinction between moral agency (which is highly specified and categorically secular) and other kinds of agency—particularly, the kind of agency this lesson deals with.

What, then, of President Packer’s talk? It should be noted, first, that it is an emphatically political talk: it deals with “morality” in precisely the sense set forth in D&C 101 (with “morality” as a secular issue with which God is nonetheless concerned). Moreover, the passage where President Packer deals directly with the concept of “free agency” is not an attempt to suggest that “free agency” should be replaced with “moral agency.” Rather, he is making clear that a muddled notion of “free agency” should not be used to counter what the Lord has actually said about “moral agency.” His point is well taken, I think: the scriptures never talk about free agency as something that we have right now (indeed, as I will discuss further below, “free agency” is something the scriptures present as a construct of something we had in the past but that we have now foregone through our having decided on some actual agency); the scriptures suggest that we have actual agency right now, and that one of those—though secular—is precisely this question of moral agency. In short, I think President Packer is exactly right in what he has to say in his talk.

However, I don’t think it is quite right to take President Packer’s highly contextualized point of clarification as reason to dismiss “free agency” as a concept and always and inherently to replace it with “moral agency.” Indeed, I think this only muddles, rather than clarifies, the doctrine—while President Packer’s talk itself does clarify the issues. Indeed, I think the older manual is better at this point for this reason: “In the premortal life we were free agents,” though we are now only agents (and one of the agencies of American Saints is a secular “moral” agency). I’m not even sure that “In our premortal life we had moral agency” makes any sense.

I applaud the (sometimes unthinking) faithfulness exhibited by those attempting to follow President Packer; but I think we would do better to read both President Packer and the scriptures more carefully. In the premortal existence, before we had “taken sides,” we were indeed free agents.

One purpose of earth life is to show what choices we will make (see 2 Nephi 2:15-16). If we were forced to choose the right, we would not be able to show what we would choose for ourselves. Also, we are happier doing things when we have made our own choices.

I have relatively little to say here. I do find the reference to 2 Nephi 2:15-16 a little odd. I would have expected Abraham 3:25. But I guess the Second Nephi passage works well in that it puts an emphasis on acting for oneself (while the Abraham passage puts an emphasis on showing).

Agency was one of the principal issues to arise in the premortal Council in Heaven. It was one of the main causes of the conflict between the followers of Christ and the followers of Satan.

The first sentence has been changed from the earlier edition: “Agency may have been one of the first issues to arise in the premortal Council in Heaven.” I assume the change was made to avoid sounding speculative: it matters little whether agency was first; but it matters a great deal that it was central. Its centrality is spelled out over the remainder of the paragraph. Even the second sentence here identifies it at the crux of a full-blown conflict.

Satan said, “Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor” (Moses 4:1). In saying this, he “rebelled against [God] and sought to destroy the agency of man” (Moses 4:3).”

Here there is a major change from the earlier edition, and a change that is definitely for the better: an actual quotation from scripture has replaced a simple declarative sentence. The earlier version read: “Satan said he would bring all of us back to our Father’s presence, but he would have taken away our agency.” That the scriptural text is richer and more pregnant with meaning than the bland declarative is, I think, obvious.

The story of this event as it is told in the Book of Moses is vital, I think. Really, it is the only telling of the story that provides us with anything like a detailed picture. Importantly, while the Book of Abraham version (3:27-28) makes it sound like Christ and Satan had plans presented on an equal level (and the story is often told in this way among Latter-day Saints), the Book of Moses version (4:1-4) suggests otherwise. Here, Satan’s proposal is entirely a question of rebellion—something made quite clear by Christ’s counter-response to Satan’s proposal, in which He says “Thy will be done.”

One wonders what Satan could have meant by “I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost.” It is usually assumed that this means that Satan was going to force everyone into righteousness (whatever that could even mean), and that he was thus going to force everyone back into the presence of God (as the older version of the manual seems to suggest). However, I’m not at all sure this kind of a picture is coherent. Joseph Smith, in the King Follett discourse, suggests that the story was more complicated. In the middle of talking about the sons of perdition, about how they have to become worthy of the celestial glory before they can become doomed to outer darkness through their absolute betrayal, Joseph explains the following: “The contention in heaven was Jesus said there were certain man would not be saved[;] the devil said he could save them. he rebelled against God and was thrust down.” From this, I gather that Satan’s contention was less that he could force everyone to the Celestial Kingdom than that he would ensure that no one made it to outer darkness, that no one would not be saved in some degree of glory. Unless we are to assume that Satan’s proposal was sheer absurdity, it seems to me the only way we can make sense of his proposal is as follows: he intended to keep the Celestial Kingdom out of things, precisely so that, since no one could become that good, no one could betray the celestial and so be condemned to outer darkness. Satan’s plan, it seems to me, was less one of forced excellence than one of forced mediocrity. What Satan wanted, I think, was a basic heaven/hell split (a terrestrial/telestial split): the Father’s plan (which involved Jesus) would have set up the possibility of someone like Satan (!) being thrust forever into outer darkness; Satan’s counter-proposal would have made sure that no such possibility remained.

In the end, of course, I don’t know at all if this is right. I do think it makes sense. At any rate, it is quite clear from the passage that Satan was after God’s “honor.” I take it that, at the very least, this means that Satan saw God’s plan as inherently flawed, and that its outline meant that someone else ought to be running things. But if my interpretation here isn’t too far off, it might help to explain what it means to say that Satan’s idea would have “destroy[ed] the agency of man”: in a world without extremes—without genuine opposition set up by the angelic commission—one would have had only a free agency that, because there were no real actual agencies to choose among, would have meant nothing. Human beings would simply have been either “honorable” folks or simply “wicked.”

His offer was rejected, and he was cast out of heaven with his followers (see D&C 29:36-37).

A slight change here deserves passing mention. The older version read: “When his offer was rejected, he rebelled and was cast out of heaven with his followers (see D&C 29:36-37).” The change was made, I assume, to make the flow of the quotation added in the previous part work better.

I don’t really have anything to say about this line, but I will note that D&C 29 was likely given at about the same time that Joseph “translated” Moses 4. The timing is certainly significant.

Agency Is a Necessary Part of the Plan of Salvation

Agency makes our life on earth a period of testing.

Given that the next sentence will quote Abraham 3:25, it is clear that there is here a return to the theme of “showing” obedience. But the language of “testing” (of “proving” in the next sentence) is far more fruitful.

What is ultimately so curious about this notion is that it seems to presume something like the following: (1) we are of some kind of nature, already, in the premortal existence, one that seems not to change; (2) that nature is not fully discernible, even to God it seems, in the premortal state; (3) mortality is a set of affairs that allows what was to some extent indiscernible in the premortal existence to become discernible; (4) what becomes discernible in mortality is precisely what must be interpreted or judged by God when the “test” comes to its end; (5) what has become discernible and has thus been named (in judgment) will determine how one’s postmortal experience unfolds.

Moreover, this language of testing or proving links up with Alma’s sermon in Alma 12-13, where the “space of probation” is opened up precisely between the two divine words announcing death and resurrection, an echo of Lehi’s teachings discussed above. At the very least, it would seem that what does not allow one’s actual nature to make itself fully discernible in premortality is its not being caught up between the two poles of this fundamental opposition. The tangle of death and resurrection is precisely what allows the indiscernible of our nature to become discernible, interpretable, and judgeable—perhaps particularly because that resurrection itself opens onto the rest of eternity.

But this would seem to mean that the entrance into the test is irreversible: inasmuch as the test is a question of being caught up between death and resurrection, and inasmuch as the latter of these two poles is an irreversible reality, it seems that even to take the test is to give oneself forever to the revelation of one’s actual nature. This seems to be what is meant in Abraham 3 in the language of adding one “estate” to another. And speaking of Abraham….

When planning the mortal creation of His children, God said, “We will prove [test] them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:25). Without the gift of agency, we would have been unable to show our Heavenly Father whether we would do all that He commanded us.

Here the question of one’s “nature” is made a question of willingness to do all God commands. I find it interesting that, while the Book of Mormon places such a heavy emphasis on the tangle of death and resurrection, this snippet from the Book of Abraham seems only to be concerned with obedience to commandments. The two notions (death/resurrection and obedience) are not entirely distinct, but it is significant to see how different the two approaches to the question ultimately are. The Book of Abraham speaks so much more directly from the perspective of eternal spirits that it seems less concerned with the tangle of death and resurrection. But Alma focuses so much on how agency itself is set in motion that it seems less than completely concerned with the sovereign position of obedience per se.

The two are nicely intertwined here: if obedience is what must be shown, and if agency is a necessary condition for any real showing, and if agency is caught up between the poles of death and resurrection, then obedience and the death/resurrection thing are ultimately intertwined through the doctrine of agency precisely.

How that works, though, is not the lesson’s concern at this point. That is what is discussed in the third section (“Agency Requires That There Be a Choice”). For now, then, I’ll get back to what this section is actually focused on.

Because we are able to choose, we are responsible for our actions (see Helaman 14:30-31).

Turning from questions of how agency works, it is necessary to recognize what agency implies. And one of the crucial things it implies is responsibility (translated: the judgment becomes possible). The passage from Helaman is, I believe, the last Book of Mormon sermon that deals with these themes, and it nicely summarizes everything that had been said before Samuel the Lamanite made this statement. I’ll quote it in full:

“And now remember, remember, my brethren, that whosoever perisheth, perisheth unto himself; and whosoever doeth iniquity, doeth it unto himself; for behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free. He hath given unto you that ye might know good from evil, and he hath given unto you that ye might choose life or death; and ye can do good and be restored unto that which is good, or have that which is good restored unto you; or ye can do evil, and have that which is evil restored unto you” (Helaman 14:30-31).

Samuel here makes reference to Alma’s doctrine of “restoration” (in Alma 40-42) and ties it to the longstanding Nephite doctrine of choosing life or death (which appears as early as 2 Nephi 2). And all of this is rooted in the resurrection having set human beings free: “ye are free . . . . he hath made you free.” But again, I’m getting ahead of myself, anticipating the last section of the lesson. For now it is only necessary to note that this freedom, set in motion by the resurrection (and the “knowledge” of the resurrection that comes with the announcement of the resurrection), grounds the judgment: one’s freedom implies one’s responsibility.

When we choose to live according to God’s plan for us, our agency is strengthened. Right choices increase our power to make more right choices.

This, I think, is one of the most crucial statements in the lesson, but it must be interpreted carefully. Because of the complex relationship between what I’m here calling “free” agency and what I’m here calling “actual” agency, and because the workaday concept of agency equates all agency with free agency, it is too easy to hear this snippet from the lesson as saying that when we do what’s right we have more inherent freedom. (This, at any rate, is what I learned from a rather silly seminary video when I was a youth.) But I think it is more appropriate to read this in terms of an actual agency. Having given up free agency through electing to take up with God’s work—and so having become His agent—one finds oneself confronted by the truth laid out here: when one follows God’s plan, one’s actual agency—that is, one’s granted freedom to go about doing God’s work in whatever way one sees fit—is increased. It might be put this way: the more we do in the work of God’s kingdom, the more latitude He allows us in our work.

This seems to me to be clearly stated in the second sentence here. It is not that “right choices increase our power to make whatever choices we want,” but that “right choices increase our power to make more right choices.” The more one gives oneself to one’s work as God’s agent, the more facility and freedom within that agency one has: God trusts the agent more and more, and allows that agent increased liberty in the work.

As we obey each of our Father’s commandments, we grow in wisdom and strength of character. Our faith increases. We find it easier to make right choices.

Here is a bit of expansion on the preceding point. I don’t know that I have any particular comments to make here. Things seem pretty straightforward at this point. (I’m tempting to get into an aside about what it could possibly mean to say that one’s faith “increases.” But I’ll leave that for a more appropriate occasion.)

We began to make choices as spirit children in our Heavenly Father’s presence. Our choices there made us worthy to come to earth. Our Heavenly Father wants us to grow in faith, power, knowledge, wisdom, and all other good things.

Because this follows on the two paragraphs preceding it, it would seem that the lesson intends to make this a kind of example of what it has just been talking about. If agency is “strengthened” through one’s commitment to that particular agency, then it perhaps follows that the very freedom we have in this world is a consequence of our having earned some kind of trust in the premortal realm. The point, I think, is interesting. It might be put thus: one agency (premortal agency, whatever that is), because of the way it is employed, leads to another agency (mortal agency). I’ve already pointed out that there is at least some sense in which genuine agency can only appear in mortality because it has to be set up by the circumstances of the fallen world, but perhaps this is precisely the point here. There was some kind of limited notion of agency in the premortal realm, but our choices within that limited sphere of agency led to this place where we have a much more robust sense of agency.

Perhaps one could then speak of the “plan of salvation” as follows: God’s work and glory is to open up larger and larger spheres of agency, proving us in each stage; wherever we employ first our free agency in order to take up with God and then our actual agency with God to do His work in full consecration, we are “added upon” and given another “estate” in which agency becomes more robust or larger. Might it be that the celestial kingdom is only another agency, a still larger one that gives us all that much more power? At any rate, this might be read into the last sentence of this snippet.

If we keep His commandments and make right choices, we will learn and understand. We will become like Him. (See D&C 93:28.)

Q. E. D.

Agency Requires That There Be a Choice

Finally, the lesson gets to the question of how agency works, how it is set up. Here, I believe, we are dealing with the question of how mortality “adds upon” one’s agency by doubling it with a more robust sense of agency. I don’t know what agency would have been or would have meant in the premortal sphere, but this section nicely lays out what it means to speak of agency here. This may be, in the end, the most important section in the lesson.

We cannot choose righteousness unless the opposites of good and evil are placed before us.

First, let me mention a small change made in this edition: the word “righteousness” was added to this sentence. On the one hand, this might simply be an attempt not to let the lesson teach that agency is simply the freedom to choose good or evil, but rather the ability to act; and that, given that one has already heard the commissioning word of the angel (whether personally or through the scriptures/prophets), that ability to act is a question specifically of following out one’s actual agency, one’s position as God’s agent.

But moving on to the larger question being raised here: agency is a question, we are told, of opposition. It is a classic Book of Mormon doctrine, generally recognized, and usually tied to 2 Nephi 2. In fact, the lesson goes on immediately to quote 2 Nephi 2, so let me quote the next part before making any comments on this point.

Lehi, a great Book of Mormon prophet, told his son Jacob that in order to bring about the eternal purposes of God, there must be “an opposition in all things. If not so, . . . righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad” (2 Nephi 2:11).

(I’ll note in passing that the word “Jacob” was added with the new edition, I assume simply for clarification.)

This passage quoted here is actually not the one from 2 Nephi 2 that I think speaks most directly to the issue. I’m surprised that the lesson doesn’t rather quote verse 16: “Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.” Here, to act (to employ agency) or to choose (to decide between agencies) is rooted in one’s having been enticed by opposed commissions. But the lesson dwells instead of the root notion of opposition, on its centrality as an almost ontological category: there must be opposition in all things.

But this almost ontological emphasis means that something more must be said in order fully to explicate the idea not only that there must be opposition, but that, as the line from the lesson above puts it, the opposites must be placed before us. And so the lesson goes on next to quote Moses 4. Let me quote that bit as well before really commenting on the idea.

God allows Satan to opposed the good. God said of Satan:

“I caused that he should be cast down;

“And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice” (Moses 4:3-4).

Here it is clear that agency is not just a question of there being opposites, but of those opposites being presented to us. Agency must, in a word, be set up—it is not simply a brute fact of existence. Agency follows from our having been commissioned to opposed tasks.

If this seems straightforward enough, though, the lesson will go on, a moment later, to complicate things. Rather than presenting Satan as merely the necessary commissioning counterpart to God’s divine commission, and so as the necessary opposed position that allows for actual agency, the lesson goes on at length to make quite clear that Satan is bad, bad news. I think this is interesting: Satan’s opposed commission is necessary for there to be agency, but it must be understood that the two options presented are not therefore equal. Agency is not a question of making a simple choice between two possibilities, but rather a question of making an immensely difficult choice to do good, even when we are being blinded and tempted and commissioned to do evil.

Here I think it becomes relatively clear that the necessity of opposition in agency is complex. Rather than simply painting a picture in which there are two categorically opposed possibilities and the freedom granted to choose whichever of the two one desires, the lesson provides us a mortal scenario in which it seems that Satan has us cornered and in which it is immensely difficult to choose anything but what Satan wants us to do. Free agency, or agency as a kind of freedom, here seems to be a question less of being the dispassionate electors of whichever camp we want than of being—despite all appearances—actually free, if we can receive it, of breaking free of Satan’s grasp.

These points of clarification are, I think, quite helpful. If “free agency” can be defended (as I have attempted to defend it to some extent above), it must be defended only as an abstract philosophical category, something that we can only project into the past from our current position. From what is being said here, it is necessary to recognize that we never experience free agency as such, that we never find ourselves fully conscious of a choice about which we can be dispassionate. I think the scriptures are equally clear on this point: though free agency is often described there, it is always described as something Adam and Eve had in the Garden of Eden, or as something we theoretically had long before we’re actually reading about and understanding the idea. Again: free agency is a theoretical construct that we can read back into a primordial past, but not something we ever encounter in our actual experience. Given that we grow up in a world that is, for the most part, under Satan’s thumb—ruled over by death—we abandon free agency very early in life.

Agency as we actually experience it, then, is the ability to choose good, against the constant appeal of Satan’s blinding temptations. Agency is the remarkable power granted through faith, the gained ability—an almost paradoxical ability—to break free of the hold of the Fall in an act of doing something good and positive and productive. What we deal with here and now is actual agency, either our being able only to do what Satan leads us to do, or our being able to go about God’s work in whatever way we see fit. Agency is that gift granted us by the resurrection, which outstrips the power of death (which Satan wields in his temptations more than anything else), that comes when we give ourselves to the word of life. If we abandon or ignore that word, then we remain within the actual agency of Satan, an agency with remarkably strict rules—so increasingly strict that it isn’t even clear whether it can be called an agency in the end (it is something more like work on the assembly line).

In a word, and here I am perhaps emending what I argued towards the beginning of this lesson: agency is the granted ability to break free of Satan by doing something that ignores the reign of death, that produces something genuinely eternal. Agency is thus strengthened by our doing more and more good.

At any rate, so it seems to me as I’m working through this. I wonder whether I’ve painted this picture at all clearly. For now, let me take up the actual discussion of Satan’s frightening power.

Satan does all he can to destroy God’s work. He seeks “the misery of all mankind. . . . He seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself” (2 Nephi 2:18, 27). He does not love us. He does not want any good things for us (see Moroni 7:17). He does not want us to be happy. He wants to make us his slaves. He uses many disguises to enslave us.

I’ve already commented on this in general terms. Let me point out briefly that there are three changes to this snippet in the new manual. The word “for” was dropped from the quotation of 2 Nephi 2 (“the misery of all mankind. . . . For he seeketh”). That, I think, is just stylistic. The reference to Moroni 7:17 was added. I assume that was to make the lesson a bit more scriptural. And the word “enslave” replaced the word “capture.” This last one is interesting: it turns what sounded like a battle into what sounds like a question of direct subjugation. It is not a question of Satan making us immobile prisoners, but a question of his making us mobile slaves that do his work.

Next comes the long illustration of all this, which I will quote all at once.

When we follow the temptations of Satan, we limit our choices. The following example suggests how this works. Imagine seeing a sign on a seashore that reads: “Danger—whirlpool. No swimming allowed here.” We might think that is a restriction. But is it? We still have many choices. We are free to swim somewhere else. We are free to walk along the beach and pick up seashells. We are free to watch the sunset. We are free to go home. We are also free to ignore the sign and swim in the dangerous place. But once the whirlpool has us in its grasp and we are pulled under, we have very few choices. We can try to escape, or we can call for help, but we may drown.

I think this illustration is, for the most part, nicely done. There is a danger here, though, it seems to me. Because the illustration deals with natural sequences of cause-and-effect, it is too easy to take the point to be that agency is a question of natural consequences: I have the freedom to act, but not the freedom to choose the consequences for my actions. The lesson goes on to make this same point, unfortunately. Let me quote the next paragraph, and then I will explain why I think the lesson misunderstands itself at this point.

Even though we are free to choose our course of action, we are not free to choose the consequences of our actions. The consequences, whether good or bad, follow as a natural result of any choice we make (see Galatians 6:7; Revelation 22:12).

This is precisely the temptation here, and the lesson itself gives into it. But it strays from the point being worked out in the paragraphs preceding. There it is clear that it is lesson a question of learning to deal with natural “laws,” and more a question of learning that agency is the power granted for us to do good and so to break free from Satan’s enslaving rule. So long as we heed the word concerning the resurrection (the sign indicating the whirlpool), we are freed from slavery and given to do good things (seashells, sunset, etc.). But if we disregard the word, we become slaves, unable to do anything genuinely productive.

Here though—and in every appropriation of the metaphor that I heard in the mission field, for example—the illustration has been turned into a question of cause-and-effect. Satan, as it were, drops out of the picture, and it is less a question of demonstrating that “when we follow the temptations of Satan, we limit our choices” than it is a question of learning that whatever we do has consequences, and that those consequences naturally follow from our choices. The point about consequences seems to me to be either a kind of aside or an essential distraction from the real point the lesson has been trying to make.

But there is, of course, something rather interesting about the idea of natural consequences as well. There is something interesting about eliminating Satan from the equation. Here again the model of free agency is at work: so long as I am told how things are, I am made free to choose without passion. While I think there is something nice, though, about all that, it overlooks a major factor, one that Saint Paul points out in particular: the very existence of the sign all too often makes me obsess over what I “can’t” do, and that works on me. Satan’s work is precisely to get me to think of nothing but what the sign prohibits. And here is where the illustration fails, I think. In an attempt to illustrate Satan’s role, it provides a picture and never points out the role Satan would actually play in the scenario: Satan would be the one pointing out over and over that the sign is a prohibition, drawing the person’s attention to that prohibition over and over again, keeping one from enjoying any of the other choices available, etc. Where Satan can’t get us actually to swim and so to drown, he spends all of his time getting us to ruin whatever else we might have enjoyed by keeping us focused on what we’re not doing.

In short, I agree that there are consequences, and that we often can’t choose what those consequences are. But the function of the word (the law) in drawing lines between what I should and shouldn’t do is precisely what allows Satan to step in and to begin his work. Consequences are the last thing one thinks about. And I don’t think the point is that we ought to obey God because we rationally recognize the negative consequences of something, but because we have faith in Him.

All that said, I should point out that there are couple changes to the last paragraph I’ve quoted here. First, the reference to Galatians 6:7 was added. This is helpful, I think, because the passage is the one about reaping what one sows. It has more to say to the issue than Revelation 22:12, which only points out that we will be judged by our works. The second change is that the paragraph used to end with the following additional sentence: “If we touch a hot flame, for example, we are burned.” I’m not at all sure why this sentence was dropped. I suppose that it was just seen as excessive, a kind of too-short and tacked-on extra illustration that didn’t really add anything. At any rate, it’s gone.

Heavenly Father has told us how to escape the captivity of Satan. We must watch and pray always, asking God to help us withstand the temptations of Satan (see 3 Nephi 18:15).

Here there is a clear return to the theme of a few paragraphs before: the task here is to recognize that agency is the power granted to escape from Satan. I’ll confess that I find myself a bit baffled, though, by the focus on watching and praying always—not just here, I mean, but in scripture generally (as in the passage cited: 3 Nephi 18:15). Nonetheless, watching and praying are almost always associated in scripture with escaping the grasp of Satan: Matthew 26:41; Mark 13:33; 14:38; Luke 21:36; Alma 13:28; 15:17; 3 Nephi 18:15, 18. (Note that in 3 Nephi 18, the chapter cited in the text, Christ twice mentions watching and praying, once directing the disciples to do it, and once directing the multitude to do it.) I suppose, though, that my concern is that such an emphasis on trying to escape makes our task seem so desperate, and I worry that it would focus us more on Satan than on the work God is calling us to do.

At any rate, it is clear to me that I need to study this theme out soon so that I can make some sense of what is at work in such passages.

Our Heavenly Father will not allow us to be tempted beyond our power to resist (see 1 Corinthians 10:13; Alma 13:28).

In light of the entire lesson, I take it the point here is that resurrection overpowers death: no aspect of death is so strong as to rule over the remarkable power of the resurrection. Note that the reference to Alma 13:28 has been added. I find that interesting, because it ties the question of not being tempted above one’s capacity to the question of watching and praying. That probably deserves closer attention: it is only if one watches and prays that one receives the promise of not being tempted above one’s abilities. I also find it interesting that the lesson here uses the language of resistance. What might be read into that word?

God’s commandments direct us away from danger and toward eternal life. By choosing wisely, we will gain exaltation, progress eternally, and enjoy perfect happiness (see 2 Nephi 2:27-28).

The entire lesson in sum.

Questions and Additional Scriptures

In the above commentary, I didn’t say anything about the several questions scattered through the lesson. I’ll let them speak for themselves.

At the end of the lesson there is of course a list of additional scriptures. If this weren’t already enormously long, I’d offer a few thoughts about each one. For now, I’ll let them speak for themselves, noting only that Alma 41:3 was added to the list (on judgment by works) for the new edition.

35 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 4: “Freedom to Choose” (Gospel Principles Manual)”

  1. I will have to read this again. You touch on a number of issues that have been bouncing around my head related to agency. It is a rich topic. Thanks.

  2. I have only scanned through some of this. I will have to read it after work tonight. A few quick thoughts on Agency:

    I prefer to use the definition of Agency which is found in the dictionary. (I like that you have Webster’s 1828 dictionary as a link above.) In the church we tend to use a definition which comes to us by way of the term, “free agency,” which is not found in our scripture. We focus on the Free Will aspect of Free Agency, and never get around to defining what Agency actually is. (Free Agency in sports is a new concept, and so it’s use, in my opinion, doesn’t help us to learn what Agency really means.)

    I like where you tie the word Agency to an Agent. An Agent has Agency, therefore we must define what an Agent is to understand Agency. You mentioned Agents in the D&C, and that Agents represent others. The D&C and the Book of Moses always define who the Principal is–Men are, “agents unto themselves.” We are both the Principal and the Agent in the Agency relationship. We are allowed to act for, and legally represent, ourselves. Accountability, Consequences, etc., are therefore built upon the foundation of Agency. Free Choice is necessary for Agency, but is not its definition.

    When men as, “agents unto themselves,” (as the D&C says) “act for themselves,” (as the Book of Mormon says), they are legally representing themselves and as a Principal is bound to the contract entered into by his Agent, so we become accountable for our actions. God’s plan requires that we be accountable. Satan’s proposal would have destroyed our accountability and our instrumentality, not necessarily our choice.

  3. Rob Osborn said

    You did a great breakdown on “agency”. I have a few things I have worked out over the years. Here they are-

    First off from the book-

    “One purpose of earth life is to show what choices we will make (see 2 Nephi 2:15-16). If we were forced to choose the right, we would not be able to show what we would choose for ourselves. Also, we are happier doing things when we have made our own choices.”

    This to me is still not right. It leaves us with the incorrect thinking that without our agency we would have been “forced” to obey. A lot of bad conjecture here on the manuals part. I did a very indepth syudy of the word “agency” and have found a few interesting aspects to it.

    Every action word has it’s opposite- The antonym for agency is guess what? That’s riagth- it is “captivity/ bondage”. “Agency” is most synonymous with the word “freedom”- the action phrase would be “free to act”. The antonym phrase of agency is “to be acted upon”. 2 Nephi words this very well understanding it’s true meaning. So, when our agency is destroyed or limited, what we mean literally is that we are in “bondage” and are no longer free to act for ourselves. 2 Nephi also points out here that in the beginning we had our agency intact, but that through sin we come under bondage to be “acted upon”. At this point we have no true agency. But, because of the atonement, we can through Christ be freed from that eternal bondage and once again activate our agency. Because of this established principle we can thus further clarify what “agency” is and how it applies.

    “Agency” is a right and privelage for those acting within law to preserve that ability to freely act and choose. It is when misuses that power that the priveledge gets limited or taken away. Think about this- As we sin our choices to “freely act” become more and more limited. We may even get to the point to where we are both held physically in bondage because of moral law(in the public jail) and spiritually (addictions that control us).

    So, when Satan sought to destroy our agency, all he was literally seeking was to bring us into physical and spiritual bondage. He does this through causing us to fall in mortality through sin. He hasn’t changed any aspect of his original intent- he is still seeking to destroy our agency through bringing us into his chains by the allure of sin. Because he sought to bring evryone into captivity he was cast out. He “continues” his ill intentions still to this day- he has not changed at all!

    • Rob Osborn:

      Have you actually found a dictionary or thesaurus which says that the opposite of agency is captivity, or that agency and freedom are synonymous? I have seen old dictionaries that say that the opposite of agent (used as an adjective) is patient and patient is that which is acted upon, which nicely fits Lehi’s words in 2 Nephi 2.

      • Rob Osborn said


        What I have done is taken the definition of words and used them to find the antonym and synonym that best fits the biblicaldefinition and how they are used. Here-

        Agency: the state of being in action or of exerting power; operation

        Bondage: the state of being bound by or subjected to some external power or control.

        Now lets look at the Mormon definition of both as used in 2 Nephi-

        Agency/freedom: to act for themselves
        (Book of Mormon | 2 Nephi 2:26)

        Bondage: be acted upon
        (Book of Mormon | 2 Nephi 2:26)

        You will notice that I coupled the word “freedom” with agency. lets look at the dictionary definition of “freedom”-

        freedom: the power to determine action without restraint.

        As you can see through comparison, freedom and agency are used synonymously to describe the ability as Lehi uses in 2 Nephi 2:26 as “free forever…to act for themselves”. This verse is describing “agency” and how it applies scripturally. Needless to say, the word “agency” doesn’t appear in scripture until modern times- Joseph Smith’s day. That is why the word is used exclusively only in latter day interpretation as found in the D&C and PoGP. The BoM did not use the word, or, Joseph elected to use a different term. As such, we can substitue words in the BoM for how “agency” may apply. “free to act” is one such use in the BoM in place of agency. In each use of this term in 2 Nephi 2:26, 2 Nephi 10:23, Helaman 14:30, it specifies that men are free because of the atonement has made them free, without the which, they would still be in bondage.

  4. J. Madson said


    im surprised you didnt quote alma 34 in conjunction with the statement below ( I think the words means in this verse speaks specifically to how the atonement which i see bundled up with the resurrection gives us the agency/ability to change)

    ” this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.”

    “Agency as we actually experience it, then, is the ability to choose good, against the constant appeal of Satan’s blinding temptations. Agency is the remarkable power granted through faith, the gained ability—an almost paradoxical ability—to break free of the hold of the Fall in an act of doing something good and positive and productive.”

  5. joespencer said


    I’ve been wrestling a good deal for the past month or so with that very verse from Alma 34. I’m not at all sure what to make of it. In fact, I’ve worked through a series of (so far 8) podcasts (and many more on the way) trying to work out the character and position of Amulek in the Book of Mormon, all with an eye to making sense of that single verse. (The basic reason, without enough explanation to make any real sense, is that I find that verse to be at odds with everything else said about atonement in the Book of Mormon.)

    At any rate, my reasons for not drawing on Amulek are rooted in my complete bafflement at what he has to say.

  6. J. Madson said


    thats interesting.very interesting. I actually think that chapter and that verse is some of the clearest stuff ive read on the atonement.

    i always felt it ties in really well with alma 42 (and 41 since I think 42 only makes sense when read with 41 in mind).

    It seems to me that Amulek is saying that the atonement operates on an entirely different principle than penal substitution earlier in that chapter and concludes that what the atonement does do is give us the ability to change so that the demands of “justice” that alma 42 talks about (law of harvest, restorative justice not retributive justice) can be overcome.

  7. joespencer said

    I should clarify: I find it rather clear what Amulek is saying in the passage you cited if I take it out of the Book of Mormon. But if I take within the larger stream of Nephite thinking about atonement, it seems to be out of place or even at odds with most of what one finds in the Book of Mormon.

    I’m still wrestling with the earlier material in Alma 34 and what it might have to say about the penal substitution theory (which will require a full engagement of Jacob Morgan’s fantastic paper on the subject). There is a whole lot of work to be done on this.

    I’ll have more to say on this soon.

  8. J. Madson said


    Jacob’s paper is a good paper especially on many of the issues your grappling with here.

    I used to think that the BoM presented a pretty standard penal substitution model but the more I read Amulek and the later Alma dialogues with his son (which I think were influenced by Amulek’s ideas) there seems to be a move away from that model. I think we bring in a lot of modern notions of the atonement (anselm, luther, etc) that are not really there. You can certainly get some of it in 2 nephi 9 for example but even 2 nephi 2 seems to be talking about the distinction Jacob mentions in his paper between temporal (temporary laws) and eternal laws (like the law of harvest). If there are elements of penal subst. i think they prob came in through the translator (see Ostler’s expansion theory). Those later models are just so antithetical to the nature of God as demonstrated in Jesus and his passion. interesting stuff for sure. I look forward to seeing your thoughts.

  9. Rob:

    So you found it in the dictionary, just not as an actual definition.

  10. Andrew said

    disclaimer: i’ve only read the intro so far, going to finish reading it now

    I taught this class two days ago (Gospel Essentials). I actually didnt use the manual at all (I prefer not to). here’s what I did: I wrote down the title of the lesson, and the 3 subheadings given in the manual, and then we went to the scriptures.

    We started in 2 Nephi 2:24-30 for a brief overview of agency
    Then we read Alma 41:3-8 to draw the connection between agency and judgment
    Romans 6:12-23 an examination of consequences of agency, as well as the notion of slavery/servitude related to agency
    1 Chronicles 29:3-17 A historical example of agency in action, as well as the willing giving as a part of agency.

    not entirely sure what this might contribute to the discussion, but the lesson went well in any case.

  11. Susan said

    I always enjoy reading your discussions of the lessons, even when I don’t agree you provoke thought. And this entire discussion provoked intense thought and I thank you for it.
    I especially liked this summation: “Agency as we actually experience it, then, is the ability to choose good, against the constant appeal of Satan’s blinding temptations. Agency is the remarkable power granted through faith, the gained ability—an almost paradoxical ability—to break free of the hold of the Fall in an act of doing something good and positive and productive. What we deal with here and now is actual agency, either our being able only to do what Satan leads us to do, or our being able to go about God’s work in whatever way we see fit.”

    But it is this thought which has finally induced me to comment:


    I believe this whole heartedly. Most people are more prone to quote 1 Cor 10:13: ..”but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able”..the way of escape being Christ and the Atonement.

    But the reference in Alma states that there may in fact be situations where our abilities are not enough on their own to withstand the fiery darts of Satan, and if we do not watch and pray we may succumb beyond our ability to find faith in Christ and take hold of the power of the Atonement. And therefore our choice to seek God and ask for his love to sustain us may be one of the most basic ways in which we use our agency in this life.

  12. Susan said

    Sorry the quote didn’t show up:

    “Note that the reference to Alma 13:28 has been added. I find that interesting, because it ties the question of not being tempted above one’s capacity to the question of watching and praying. That probably deserves closer attention: it is only if one watches and prays that one receives the promise of not being tempted above one’s abilities”

  13. Andrew said

    slogging my way through the first section (and enjoying it). came across this:

    the answer lies in your earlier comment that for father Lehi, agency is possible only through the resurrection. I would extend that to the Atonement in general. In verse 26 (you know, the one we always skip over) we find the following:

    this ability to act for ourselves is granted us because we are redeemed from the fall. Agency is a gift of God, made available through the Atonement. for me its important in that everything we have in life is a gift from God. And the fact that agency also comes from God goes along with 1 Corinthians 6:19 and the idea that I am not my own (I have been bought with a price), and, having been paid for by Christ, i therefore fall more closely under the category of agent (even non-members), and will still give an accounting to God at the Judgment of how I used this agency (regardless if i used it to seek death or life).

  14. Andrew said

    k i’m still new to the formatting. here’s the selection from 2 Nephi 2:26

    “And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day,”

    and then the second blockquote i included =p

  15. joespencer said


    I should clarify again: I don’t see the penal substitution theory as being present anywhere in the Book of Mormon except—and then only with a very hesitant maybe—in Alma 34. I’m not at all an expansion-theorist (a la Ostler), so even if it can be shown to appear, I don’t see it coming from Joseph—but as coming from the ancient Nephites. (In the end, I think I’d be more comfortable with it coming from the ancient Nephites than from Joseph’s own cultural contribution!) Incidentally, for what it’s worth, my problem with the penal substitution is less a question of its being at variance with the “nature of God” as revealed in the Passion (a “nature” I think I read in a somewhat different way from you?), and more a question of its simply not actually appearing in scripture. (I think I’ll reread Morgan’s paper tomorrow or Thursday and do a post on it, trying to make sense of his claims in light of the work I’m doing on Amulek right now.)


    As I read the Book of Mormon, it is very difficult to draw a sharp distinction between the resurrection and the atonement. But to explain that would require a long aside that would largely be a distraction from the discussion here. I can, however, offer a brief synopsis of my reading if you like.


    Glad to see I finally provoked you to say something! And thanks for focusing on that particular snippet from the lesson. As I mention in the notes, this is one of the facets of the texts that seems a bit foreign to me. I like the way you’ve inflected the idea by taking it as a sharp clarification of the passage from 1 Corinthians. Very helpful.

    • J. Madson said


      I agree that its not in the scriptures. I think those who find it in there are only doing so because they are using the scriptures as a proof text. The problem with using Alma 34 is that he specifically says that a man cannot pay for the sins of another.

      There is of course the infinite and eternal line, therefore it must be… but I read that as explaining that the atonement works on an entirely different principle. As to God’s nature, Im not sure where we agree or disagree.

      • joespencer said

        Right. I’m not sure where we agree or disagree either in terms of Alma 34. What I’m wrestling with is precisely the “infinite and eternal” business. But I’m not sure how I read it yet. (I’m working through everything Amulek does and says in the Book of Mormon in order to be able to make sense of that one line, basically. And it’s a lot of work!)

        But I think we might differ in important ways on how we make sense of the passion, or perhaps on how we read Girard. It would be nice if we could get a chance to talk some of this out. I don’t remember where you live (I currently reside in Provo), but if we’re close enough to each other, we ought to do lunch sometime so we can talk Girard and Book of Mormon atonement theology….

      • J. Madson said

        Here is what I think we should avoid in reading “infinite and eternal”: ie. reading it with the same terminology that Anselm gave those words. St. Anselm in Cur Deus Homo used the idea that jesus was “infinite” and eternal to explain his satisfaction theory. What is interesting to me is how many of us take that meaning of those words that Anselm gave us, generally because of the protestant satisfaction/penal tradition that was inherited into mormonism to a degree. I just dont think the text reads that way. I dont think Amulek means by infinite atonement that men cant pay for others sins but a being with some ontological difference can.

        Im just up in Highland, 20 minutes. So yeah, lets get together sometime. Id love to discuss Girard, atonement, etc…

      • Might, “the Son of God,” be equated with, “infinite and eternal”? That could be a possible reading of Alma 34:14.

  16. joespencer said

    Re-read both Dennis Potter’s and Jacob Morgan’s articles from Dialogue on atonement theory. I’ll be writing a post in the next day or two addressing some of these questions quite directly.

  17. Andrew said

    im curious as why we should avoid the “infinite and eternal” terminology as used by Anselm?
    yeah i find it in the scriptures, but i find it there because i see similar ideas presented elsewhere (Romans 5 comes to mind).

    also, i see penal substitution theory all over Alma 42 (id have to think about others). then again, i tend to lean closer to Evangelical theology along the spectrum within mormonism.

  18. J. Madson said


    read Alma 42 with Alma 41 and it may read differently for you. Justice is not being used as retributive ( as it would be in a penal model) but as restorative.

    Also I suggest looking at NT Wright’s latest book on Pauline justification. It seems fairly clear that the early NT saints did not see penal substitution but either believed in a “cosmic battle” type analogy or later a ransom theory (which theory anselm was responding to directly in his Cur Deus Homo)..

  19. […] At Feast: “Freedom to Choose” 2010 February 11 by Karen RS/MP Lesson 4: “Freedom to Choose” (Gospel Principles Manual) […]

  20. a ghost said

    I submit that we have an inadequate understanding of agency as long as we synthesize opposition with dualism, as expressed in the dichotomy of good and evil. That is, unless, we want to describe agency as only being at work in decisions that are expressed in a dichotomy, while other decisions that involve opposition but that are not structured by this dichotomy exist in a context beyond, or outside of agency.

    “If we keep His commandments and make right choices, we will learn and understand. We will become like Him.”

    but what if God’s commandments are not consistent? What happens when a woman must choose between two opposing commandments of God? What happens when the author of all lies tells the truth and that truth provides the context for the woman’s decision, a decision that can’t not be made? It might be made differently, but one way or another it will be made. Certainly it would be wrong to call one of those commandments of God evil in such a situation? This context tells us a good deal about what it means to be human. The decisions that matter, are not a matter of calculation, or execution of a program, or even of knowing.

    I submit that the essence of agency or the structure of the decision, needs to be contextualized by the impossible. What is the decision that can’t be made but that must be made nonetheless? What is the decision that can’t be calculated, where calculations give an incomplete or incorrect answer? Opposition here is not the poles or outcomes that one is approaching or avoiding in the making of a decision. Opposition in this setting is our resistance to the structure of the choice itself, our recognition that no decision we make or action we take will be adequate to the challenge we have fallen into. And, or, that not acting or choosing is already caught up in the decision and moves in one direction or another despite our intentions. Even this under describes but perhaps it moves in the direction of agency.

    “Our choices there made us worthy to come to earth. Our Heavenly Father wants us to grow in faith, power, knowledge, wisdom, and all other good things.”

    Speaking of choices, one could ask the question of what God chooses. What is it in the human experience that finds God’s favor, that God chooses to align himself with? One answer in available to us in 1st Cor. 27-28 where God is not so sure of the goodness of knowledge, wisdom, or power.

  21. joespencer said

    Very nice points, Ghost.

  22. Robert C. said

    Joe, great stuff. Two thoughts for now:

    1. Regarding watching and praying, I wonder if Enos’s prayer might not be a productive model for thinking this: first praying out of fear for one’s own salvation, but then praying out of fear/love for others’ salvation.

    2. I think it is very important that making ourselves God’s agents preserves agency/liberty, in a significant sense, whereas Satan is so frequently described in terms that lead to our captivity. I think this is a very important part for any Mormon theology of agency, but I don’t think you really addressed this (though this is probably a critique of the manual more than your thought per se—so I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this point).

  23. BrianJ said

    “A four word reply from Joe? That’s just plain weird.” LOL!

  24. kirkcaudle said

    I also got a good laugh out of that. haha.

  25. Jim F. said

    Joe, no one has mentioned it, but I was very interested in your speculations about the plan that Satan offered: heaven or hell rather than the more gracious plan of the Father in which all but a few are given some kind of heaven. I like the idea.

    • joespencer said

      Thanks, Jim. It’s one of the only ways I can make sense of the whole thing.

    • Katherine P said

      That was my favorite part, too. I’m using parts of the Gospel Principles lesson as a supplement to my course 13 lesson “Our Choice to Follow Christ” tomorrow.

      So perhaps people who profess to believe merely in Heaven and Hell are missing the main purpose in life – to repent, and attain a better reward. One of the most wicked influences in the world today is that very acceptance of mediocrity that Joe spoke of. It’s the compromising of morals, rather than black and white principles. I like this reasoning that God’s plan involving the casting out to the darkest abyss is the plan we chose to follow.

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