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We have agency, which is the capacity and opportunity to choose. This truth is essential to God’s plan of salvation. Without agency, there is no opportunity to make covenants because covenants without agency are void. And the freedom to choose without the capacity to choose isn’t freedom at all. Therefore, an understanding of agency is the first step in a study of covenants.
Agency and freedom can be explained with everyday contracts. I can enter into an agreement to buy a car by offering money to the dealer in return for a car. I am free to refuse to buy the car, but if I take the car I must pay for it.
Agency is at the core of who we are, and it always has been. By exercising our agency, we progressed to where we are now, having successfully completed our premortal existence (the first estate) and moved on to our mortal existence (the second estate). How we exercise our agency will continue to determine our progress.
Some modern neuroscientists believe there is no real personal responsibility for decisions because there is no such thing as free will. To them, we are nothing more than animals because our brains are wired to respond without any real choice. Much like the beating of our hearts, the apparent choices we make are no more than a reaction based on our brain’s chemistry and architecture. If we could completely understand the brain’s chemistry and architecture, we could predict every action.
There is certainly some truth to the theory that our brain’s chemistry and architecture have a role in our thoughts and deeds, even to the extent that at times it leads us to think and do things out of our own control (think of the deeply depressed individual or the victim of brain damage).
But the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that we are agents unto ourselves. We are “free to choose” (2 Nephi 2:27). The Lord would not tell us so if we were preprogrammed for predetermined responses simply by our brain’s chemistry and architecture—creatures of nature having no real say in our thoughts and deeds or in our destiny.
The adversary leads us astray by suggesting that there is no right or wrong; there is no good or bad; indeed, there is no evil. He wants us to believe that there is no such thing as moral agency, only agency that allows us to do whatever we want or, as in the thinking of some neuroscientists, that our actions are determined solely by instinctive firing of neurons in the brain in reaction to outward stimuli. In many ways Satan has succeeded when society sees whether to water your front lawn as a moral decision while considering whether to have sexual relations before marriage simply a matter of personal preference.
Our Heavenly Father’s willingness to allow one-third of the heavenly host in the premortal life to choose Satan’s plan of eternal misery rather than our Father’s own plan of happiness is proof of how jealously He guards our agency. And the Savior is similarly prohibited from violating our agency. He can save us from our sins but not in our sins:
“The Lord surely [came] to redeem his people, but [he came not] to redeem them in their sins, but to redeem them from their sins. And he hath power given unto him from the Father to redeem them from their sins because of repentance” (Helaman 5:10–11).
We must choose to accept His atoning sacrifice by repenting. Only then can the Lord intervene in our behalf—after we have accepted His offered intervention. God commands everyone everywhere to repent (see D&C 18:9). But He compels no one to repent (see Alma 42:27).