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Agency: Human Responsibility, Bondage to Sin, and Freedom in Christ

Agency: Human Responsibility, Bondage to Sin, and Freedom in Christ

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“But once the whirlpool has us in its grasp and we are pulled under, we have very few choices” (Gospel Principles, 20).

 A. God Gave Us Our Capacity to Choose

The LDS Church rightly teaches that human beings have a capacity to make moral choices—to choose to do either good or evil. Mormons are also right in emphasizing that this capacity is essential to God’s plan for us. A sound understanding of this human capacity is crucial if we are to understand what Jesus came to earth to accomplish. In this study, we will look at what the Bible says about the human capacity to choose.

"Nothing about us was or is 'worthy' when we begin our lives on earth. Nor did we choose 'to follow Jesus Christ and our Heavenly Father' before we were born."

The first thing we need to understand on this subject is that the human capacity for making choices is a gift from God. It is not something eternally inherent in us. As we explained in the previous three articles, human beings did not preexist as spirits in heaven. Rather, God created us as physical beings “in his image” (Genesis 1:27), meaning that God created us to serve as his image-bearers, his representatives, in this physical world. God endowed us as his image-bearers with a moral and spiritual capacity that transcends the material and that is unique among all living things on earth. This transcendent capacity includes the ability to make morally and spiritually significant choices. Human beings have a faculty of choice, of being able to act intentionally, that separates them from the animal kingdom.

 Since we did not exist as spirits prior to the beginning of our physical lives as human beings, it is not true that “we began to make choices as spirit children in our Heavenly Father’s presence.” Nor is it true that “our choices there made us worthy to come to earth” (Gospel Principles, 19). Nothing about us was or is “worthy” when we begin our lives on earth. Nor did we choose “to follow Jesus Christ and our Heavenly Father” before we were born (Gospel Principles, 16). Each of us begins our earthly lives with neither good nor evil deeds to our account. For example, the apostle Paul tells us that when Rebekah was pregnant with her twins Esau and Jacob, they “were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad” (Romans 9:11). Such choices of good and evil begin only sometime after we are born.

 B. We Are All Slaves to Sin

Although God created human beings with a wonderful capacity for choice, that capacity has been severely compromised, or corrupted, ever since the first man and woman disobeyed God. Adam and Eve’s firstborn son, Cain, committed the first murder (Genesis 4), and wickedness has manifested itself in the human race ever since. Just two chapters later the Bible reports that human wickedness was so bad that God decided to wipe out everyone except Noah and his immediate family: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). One might have thought that starting over with one righteous man and his family would result in a good society. Unfortunately, human nature remained the same after the Flood: “the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). The Old Testament is one long tragic history of a people who saw great miracles, received wonderful revelations and teachings, and lived in a lush, fruitful land, yet broke God’s laws repeatedly. The apostle Paul in Romans 3 quotes a barrage of verses from the Old Testament, beginning with the statement, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10-18), and concludes, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).

Sin is pervasive in humanity: it affects our bodies, our minds, our emotions, and our wills—our capacity for making choices. The fact that, except for Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4:15), every human being who has ever lived long enough to make moral choices has made bad choices proves that something has corrupted our capacity to choose. Jesus himself stated, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). Since we all commit sin, we are, according to Jesus, all slaves of sin. Paul concludes: “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8, emphasis added). Thus, not only do all people sin, but all people are in bondage to sin. Paul’s description of human nature is rather discouraging:

“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (Ephesians 2:1-3).

Slaves to sin, dead in sin—this is how Jesus and the apostle Paul describe the human condition. Of course, the Bible does not mean that human beings are incapable of doing some good things. The point is that even those of us who are well trained to behave in a law-abiding, civilized manner are still incorrigibly self-centered, self-seeking individuals at heart. We cannot escape our sinful thoughts, desires, and tendencies; none of us is capable of living free of sin. Jesus put it this way: “you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children” (Matthew 7:11, emphasis added). We are evil, even though we know how to do good things, such as giving good gifts to our children. We can put on a good show on the outside, at least most of the time, but if we are honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that we are hopelessly stuck in sin. We are all in that “whirlpool” of sin and do not have the ability to pull ourselves out.

C. Freedom in Christ

Those who are slaves to sin cannot free themselves; they need redemption (a term that literally referred to someone purchasing the freedom of a slave). Likewise, those who are dead in sin cannot raise themselves out of it; they need to receive new life from a source beyond themselves. These are two biblical ways of describing what Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son, came to do for us.

Jesus promised, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Those who are united to Christ by faith are “freed from sin” and become instead “slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:18). That does not mean that Christians never sin, but that they are no longer its slaves. They now belong to God and are free to start living for him, assured of freedom from the eternal consequences of their sin. Christ came to free us “from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2), to “free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Hebrews 2:15). This freedom comes only in a relationship with Jesus Christ that is based on the truth: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).

This truth begins with the reality that we are all sinners, incapable of being good enough for God, unable to make ourselves worthy in his sight. Once we recognize and admit our helplessness, we are ready to receive salvation as what it is—the free gift of eternal life to those who do not deserve it and can never merit it. God’s way of saving us is to “justify” us—to establish us in a right relationship with him—“freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). In Christ “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7; see also Colossians 1:14). By his death on the cross, Christ paid the “redemption” price for our salvation that we could not pay for ourselves.

“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).

According to Gospel Principles, the way to eternal life is to obey God’s commandments: “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” (20). While obeying God’s commandments is a laudable goal, the reality is that our sinful corruption makes it impossible for any of us to “choose wisely” consistently in order to obtain eternal life on that basis. What God’s law, his set of commandments, does for us is not to provide a map to reach perfection and eternal life, but a mirror to show us our sin and expose our need for salvation: “for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).

When the LDS Church teaches people that they are free agents who already chose to follow Jesus when they lived in heaven as spirits, the larger message this teaching conveys is that people come into the world already “worthy” and simply need to confirm their worthiness by following Jesus again in a life of ever-improving obedience to divine commandments. This message is false, not only because we did not preexist as spirits in heaven, but also because it ignores the reality of our present enslavement to sin. The idea that we are heavenly beings who proved our worthiness once and can do so again distracts those who accept this idea from their need for deliverance from the bondage of sin. This makes it possible to be a devout Mormon, fervently affirm belief in Jesus Christ, and yet not know the grace of God that Christ died to give us. Tragically, many Mormons, when they fail to live up to their high expectations—as all of us do—often become disillusioned and abandon faith not just in the LDS Church but in Jesus Christ. Other Mormons, while remaining in the LDS Church, struggle with doubts and feelings of inadequacy.

If you have struggled with your own moral and spiritual shortcomings, or ever wondered—or even despaired—of working hard enough and being good enough to demonstrate yourself worthy of eternal life in God’s presence, the Bible has good news for you. Eternal life with God is a gift of God’s grace, not something we can earn, merit, or attain by proving ourselves worthy. We cannot obtain it by our own obedience to God’s commandments, as important as it is to make every effort to obey them. The most famous verse in the Bible tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). By “believing in him” the Bible means, not merely accepting mentally some facts about Jesus, but trusting in him, rather than in ourselves or something else, to rescue us from perishing. Since we all sin, what we deserve is eternal death; what God offers us in Christ is the free gift of eternal life: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23)

For Further Reflection

  • Where did we get our capacity for making morally responsible choices?

  • Is it true that all of us had already shown ourselves worthy when we were living as spirits in heaven?

  • How has sin affected our capacity to choose?

  • If we are all in bondage to sin, can any of us hope to prove ourselves worthy of eternal life in God’s kingdom of righteousness?

For Further Study

Salvation God’s Way. A collection of resources about the gospel of salvation.

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