“Next to the bestowal of life itself,” President David O. McKay taught, “the right to direct our lives is God’s greatest gift to man. Freedom of choice is more to be treasured than any possession earth can give. It is inherent in the spirit of man. . . . It is the impelling source of the soul’s progress” (1072). Agency is the power to choose; it is an eternal principle, a God-given gift to all of his children, an essential condition to the overall purpose and operation of the plan of salvation. Father Lehi, in the Book of Mormon, teaches that “the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself” (2 Nephi 2:16). All men are “free according to the flesh” 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; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself” (2 Nephi 2:27).
The scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon, teach that there are four imperative principles that likewise must exist for agency to be exercised and to ensure accountability. First, there must be sufficient knowledge of good and evil (2 Nephi 2:5; see also Moroni 7:16–17). Second, there must be opposition, or enticements. Lehi taught, “Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other” (2 Nephi 2:16). Third, eternal laws must exist that cannot be compromised or ignored—eternal laws of cause and effect, action and consequence. “And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God” (2 Nephi 2:13; see also Alma 12:31–32). Fourth, there must be freedom to choose between opposites—freedom to choose righteousness or wickedness, good or bad—and everything in between. “Ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves,” the prophet Samuel the Lamanite declared, “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; see also 2 Nephi 10:23).
Agency, the power to choose, is inextricably linked to freedom, the power and privilege to carry out our choices (Oaks, 37–47). Every choice has a fixed consequence. A person can exercise agency to make a choice, but agency does not mean that the person is able to choose, change, or be free from the attendant consequences. That is why agency and accountability always go hand in hand. Thus, a person’s freedom to make additional choices is affected by the use of his agency. One who chooses to use harmful drugs, for example, may retain his agency but lose his freedom to make other choices because of addictions or other restrictions, such as prison or death. Thus, the proper use of agency through correct choices always expands our freedom, whereas disobedience and wickedness always restrict it and, as Lehi said, “giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate, to bring you down to hell” (2 Nephi 2:29). “The further one goes in the making of wrong decisions in the exercise of free agency,” President Marion G. Romney taught, “the more difficult it is for him to recover the lost ground. One can, by persisting long enough, reach the point of no return. He then becomes an abject slave. By the exercise of his free agency, he has decreased the area in which he can act, almost to the vanishing point” (45). In contrast, President Romney taught, exercising agency to choose the Savior and follow in his way leads to “liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men,” not only in mortality but also in eternity. Eternal life is a perfect liberty—“the freedom of the soul”—where one is completely free to do whatever he wants because his wants are in perfect harmony with God’s will (45; see also Helaman 10:4–10).