Chapter 3: Freedom of Choice, an Eternal Principle
Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson, (2014), 58–67
During 2015, LDS members will be studying the latest manual published by their church, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson. We will evaluate this book regularly, chapter by chapter, by showing interesting quotes and providing an Evangelical Christian take on this manual. The text that is underlined is from the manual, with our comments following.
“Agency has been given to all of us to make important decisions that will have bearing on our salvation. Those decisions affect our happiness in eternity.”
According to Mormonism, agency is the ability to choose right from wrong, which goes back to man’s preexistence. The church manual Gospel Principles explains, “Agency makes our life on earth a period of testing to see whether we are worthy to become like our Heavenly Father. . . . Without the gift of agency, we would have been unable to show our Heavenly Father whether we would do all that he commanded us” (19). According to James Faust, a former member of the First Presidency, “Free agency, given us through the plan of our Father, is the great alternative to Satan’s plan of force. With this sublime gift, we can grow, improve, progress, and seek perfection. Without agency, none of us could grow and develop by learning from our mistakes and errors and those of others” (“The Great Imitator,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1987, p. 35).
The premortal Jesus Christ followed Heavenly Father’s plan of salvation, which preserved our freedom of choice.
Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson
Agency—freedom of choice—is a God-given, eternal principle.
I testify that we are the spirit offspring of a loving God, our Heavenly Father (see Acts 17:29; 1 Ne. 17:36). He has a great plan of salvation whereby His children might be perfected as He is and might have a fulness of joy as He enjoys. (See 1 Ne. 10:18; 2 Ne. 2:25; Alma 24:14; 34:9; 3 Ne. 12:48; 28:10.) I testify that in our premortal state our Elder Brother in the spirit, even Jesus Christ, became our foreordained Savior in the Father’s plan of salvation. (See Mosiah 4:6–7; Alma 34:9.) He is the captain of our salvation and the only means through whom we can return to our Father in Heaven to gain that fulness of joy. (See Heb. 2:10; Mosiah 3:17; Alma 38:9.)
Leaders explain how Jesus was the first created being of God the Father and should be classified as not eternally god. In fact, it is taught that Jesus was the firstborn son of God the Father in the First Estate, called the preexistence allowing for humans to have “freedom of choice. Lucifer was another son who wanted to become the savior of the world. One of the more offensive attributes designated to the Jesus of Mormonism is the claim that Jesus is the spirit-brother of Lucifer. Seventy Milton R. Hunter wrote,
The appointment of Jesus to be the Savior of the world was contested by one of the other sons of God. He was called Lucifer, son of the morning. Haughty, ambitious, and covetous of power and glory, this spirit-brother of Jesus desperately tried to become the Savior of mankind. (The Gospel through the Ages, 15).
Mormon educator Jess L. Christensen said:
On first hearing, the doctrine that Lucifer and our Lord, Jesus Christ, are brothers may seem surprising to some, especially to those unacquainted with latter-day revelations. But both the scriptures and the prophets affirm that Jesus Christ and Lucifer are indeed offspring of our Heavenly Father and, therefore, spirit brothers. . . . Both Jesus and Lucifer were strong leaders with great knowledge and influence. But as the First-born of the Father, Jesus was Lucifer’s older brother. (A Sure Foundation, 223–24).
Ironically, the same passages of the Bible that expound on Christ’s eternal deity also show that Lucifer could not be the brother of Christ. John 1:1–3 says that everything (including Lucifer) was made by Jesus, who was, is, and always will be God. Colossians 1:15, the one biblical verse used by Christensen, says that He (Jesus) “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.” However, this has nothing to do with Jesus and Satan being brothers. In fact, it proclaims Christ’s deity (“image of the invisible God”). Verses 16–17 show that Christ created all things and that He is before all things, holding them together. Just as a person can look into the mirror to see a reflection, so too is Jesus the exact image of God.
I testify that Lucifer was also in the council of heaven. He sought to destroy the agency of man. He rebelled. (See Moses 4:3.) There was a war in heaven, and a third of the hosts were cast to the earth and denied a body. (See Rev. 12:7–9; D&C 29:36–37.) Lucifer is the enemy of all righteousness and seeks the misery of all mankind. (See 2 Ne. 2:18, 27; Mosiah 4:14.)
BYU professor Charles R. Harrell explains,
Paul is not referring to premortal spirit birth, but to Christ becoming the firstborn in attaining God’s glory, a status which would subsequently be attained by ‘many brethren’ (i.e., disciples).(“This Is My Doctrine,” 168).
Lest there be confusion over the term firstborn, it should be pointed out that the Greek word used is not protoktistos (meaning first created) but rather prototokos (meaning firstborn). Both Hebrews 1:3 and 2 Corinthians 4:4 point out that Christ is the exact representation of God. Referring to Colossians 1, Harrell writes on page 171 that this is “an unmistakable reference to his [Jesus’s] preeminence in the resurrection from the dead.” He adds that “in the New Testament Christ is the firstborn in the sense of (1) being prior to and the source of all creation; (2) being the first to receive exaltation and glory, and (3) being the first to rise from the dead, ‘that in all things he might have the preeminence’ (Col. 1:18).”
The Bible adamantly declares Lucifer to be a creation of Jesus, not in any way the brother of Jesus. Besides, Jesus and Satan are as opposite as light and darkness. Satan merely tries to imitate an angel of light in order to fool as many people as possible (2 Cor. 11:14).
Referring to humanity’s premortal existence in heaven, Apostle Robert D. Hales taught that
while we can’t remember this time, we probably sat in meetings much like this, where the Father’s plan for us was explained. We cannot remember that Lucifer, a son of God the Father, a brother of Jesus Christ, rebelled against God’s plan and, in his rebellion, promised he would bring us all back home. But Lucifer would have denied us our free agency, the freedom to make decisions. We cannot remember that his plan was not accepted by us because, without choice, there would not have been a purpose for coming to this mortal probation. We would not have had opposition or repentance. We would not have learned obedience (Ensign (May 1990): 39).
Page 15 of Gospel Principles says, “After hearing both sons speak, Heavenly Father said, ‘I will send the first’ (Abraham 3:27).” Unfortunately, one third of the spirits chose Lucifer’s plan that denied free choice; everyone who would end up receiving bodies by being born on the earth apparently chose Jesus. Thus, in this great rebellion, Satan and all the spirits who followed him were sent away from the presence of God and cast down from heaven. A third part of the hosts of heaven were punished for following Satan (see D&C 29:36). They were denied the right to receive mortal bodies. Because we are here on earth and have mortal bodies, we know that we chose to follow Jesus Christ and our Heavenly Father. . . . In our premortal life, we chose to follow Jesus Christ and accept God’s plan.
As far as the issue of preexistence, there is no biblical support to show that there was ever a “war in heaven” or that there was choice before birth. This hasn’t stopped LDS leaders from using biblical verses, albeit out of context, to support their positon. For example, Jeremiah 1:5 is commonly quoted. It says, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.”
Does the fact that Jeremiah is told by the sovereign God of the universe that He has a plan for the prophet, and that plan was formed before Jeremiah’s birth mean that humans had a relationship with God in premortality? The answer is, quite simply, no. Notice that this verse says God knew Jeremiah before his birth; nowhere does it intimate that Jeremiah knew God. If God is omniscient (all-knowing) and sovereign, we would expect Him to know Jeremiah. The Bible is full of passages stating that God is in sovereign control, and, as such, His plans cannot be thwarted by anyone. In fact, it’s clear that God has a plan for everyone. It was God who determined who our parents would be (thus determining where we would be born), the color of our skin, the number of hairs on our head, and even our natural temperament. Nothing about our existence surprised God. He knew us, but nowhere is it inferred that we knew Him before birth.
Another verse sometimes used by Latter-day Saints is Ecclesiastes 12:7, which says, in part, “the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” This poetic book is describing how the body decomposes to “dust” and the spirit returns to God for judgment; this does not imply a preexistent state. Zechariah 12:1 states that God forms “the spirit of man within him.” The assumption is not that man was composed solely of spirit in some premortal state but that man has a physical body in which the spirit dwells.
The central issue in that premortal council was: Shall the children of God have untrammeled agency to choose the course they should follow, whether good or evil, or shall they be coerced and forced to be obedient? Christ and all who followed Him stood for the former proposition—freedom of choice; Satan stood for the latter—coercion and force. The scriptures make clear that there was a great war in heaven, a struggle over the principle of freedom, the right of choice. (See Moses 4:1–4; D&C 29:36–38; 76:25–27; Rev. 12:7–9.) The war that began in heaven over this issue is not yet over. The conflict continues on the battlefield of mortality.
For the Pearl of Great Price and Doctrine and Covenants, Christians don’t accept these books as scripture or authoritative. As far as Revelation 12:7-9, this passage refers to a future state of events and has never been interpreted as explaining something that happened in the past. In other words, the one biblical text provided does no good since it is taken out of context.
Freedom of choice is a God-given eternal principle. The great plan of liberty is the plan of the gospel. There is no coercion about it; no force, no intimidation. A man is free to accept the gospel or reject it. He may accept it and then refuse to live it, or he may accept it and live it fully. But God will never force us to live the gospel. He will use persuasion through His servants. He will call us and He will direct us and He will persuade us and encourage us and He will bless us when we respond, but He will never force the human mind. (See Hymns, 1985, no. 240.) This life is a time of testing in which we are free to choose between good and evil.
By saying “there is no coercion” about acceptance of the “plan of the gospel,” it almost feels like a straw man argument–as if some say that God coerces people to become Christians. Which Christian has ever taught that people are “coerced” into accepting the gospel? I know not one.
Abraham was shown the spirit children of our Heavenly Father before they came to earth. He, too, was shown the creation of the earth, and the Lord said to him: “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” (Abraham 3:25.) In that divine statement is embodied also the right of choice.
The Book of Abraham has been proven to be a fraud. For more, see here.
This life is a probation: a probation in which you and I prove our mettle, a probation that has eternal consequences for each of us. And now is our time and season—as every generation has had theirs—to learn our duties and to do them.
That the Lord is displeased with wickedness is true. That He desires that it not occur is also true. That He will help those who oppose it is true. But that He allows wickedness to occur at all through His children here in mortality is proof of His having given them their freedom to choose, while reserving for Him a basis for their final judgment.
There is no evil that [Jesus Christ] cannot arrest. All things are in His hands. This earth is His rightful dominion. Yet He permits evil so that we can make choices between good and evil.
Life is a testing time in man’s eternal existence, during which he is given … the right to choose between right and wrong. … On those choices hang great consequences, not only in this life, but, even more important, in the life to come. There are boundaries beyond which Satan cannot go. Within those bounds, he is presently being permitted to offer an unrighteous alternative to God’s righteous principles, thus allowing men to choose between good and evil and thereby determine the station they shall occupy in the next life.
For Mormonism, the time of first choice took place before this world was even created. All people had to make a decision in the so-called preexistence: Jesus or Lucifer. Because of our choice of Jesus, Mormonism teaches that we were not cast out of heaven with Satan. We had the ability to come to this earth based on our merit (how good we were) in this previous life. And now people have the choice, LDS leaders assert, to choose the best God has in store for us. This is called the Celestial Kingdom.
The problem? Anyone listening to LDS teaching will soon see that nobody can keep the covenants they make on a regular basis, whether at Sacrament and at the temple. While everyone may have agency and choice, what does it matter if nobody could ever attain the very best this religion supposedly has to offer? It’s the carrot in front of the horse: promised reward in an impossible setting.
We use our agency to make decisions that determine our happiness now and throughout eternity.
God loves you as He loves each and every one of His children, and His desire and purpose and glory is to have you return to Him pure and undefiled, having proven yourselves worthy of an eternity of joy in His presence.
Your Father in heaven is mindful of you. He has given you commandments to guide you, to discipline you. He has also given you your agency—freedom of choice—“to see if [you] will do all things whatsoever [He] shall command.” (Abr. 3:25.) His kingdom here on earth is well organized, and your leaders are dedicated to helping you. May you know that you have our constant love, our concern, and prayers.
Satan is also mindful of you. He is committed to your destruction. He does not discipline you with commandments, but offers instead a freedom to “do your own thing.” … Satan’s program is “play now and pay later.” He seeks for all to be miserable like unto himself [see 2 Nephi 2:27]. The Lord’s program is happiness now and joy forever through gospel living.
Again, notice how the only passages referenced are extrabiblical. Therefore, Christians cannot accept the basis of this teaching because it is not biblical.
We are free to choose, but we are not free to alter the consequences of those choices.
Clearly, there would be little trial of faith if we received our full reward immediately for every goodly deed, or immediate retribution for every sin. But that there will be an eventual reckoning for each, there is no question.
While a man may take some temporary pleasure in sin, the end result is unhappiness. “Wickedness never was happiness.” (Alma 41:10.) Sin creates disharmony with God and is depressing to the spirit. Therefore, a man would do well to examine himself to see that he is in harmony with all of God’s laws. Every law kept brings a particular blessing. Every law broken brings a particular blight. Those who are heavy-laden with despair should come unto the Lord, for his yoke is easy and his burden is light. (See Matt. 11:28–30.)24
But let’s be honest: How is it possible to be in “harmony with all of God’s laws”? Down deep, we all understand that we are all sinners. It is impossible to keep all of God’s laws, no matter how hard a person tries. (For more on this topic, see www.themiracleofforgiveness.com to see how Benson’s predecessor, Spencer W. Kimball, taught.) The Gospel means “Good News.” Being told that a person merely needs to keep all of the commandments and there is hope is not good news. Instead, what is needed is forgiveness of sins. Perhaps you ought to take the “LDS Repentance Quiz” and see how you do.
The biggest business of any life is making decisions. While one of the greatest gifts of God to man is … the right of choice, he has also given man responsibility for these choices. … We put our own lives in the direction of success or failure. We may not only choose our ultimate goals, but we may also determine and decide for ourselves, in many cases, the means by which we will arrive at those goals, and by our industry or lack of it determine the speed by which they may be reached. This takes individual effort and energy and will not be without opposition or conflict.
The fate of humanity and all civilization hinges on whether man will use his … agency to govern himself or ignore eternal laws at his own peril and reap the consequences. The real issues of today are, therefore, not economic or political. They are spiritual—meaning that man must learn to conform to the laws which God has given to mankind.
Agency has been given to all of us to make important decisions that will have bearing on our salvation. Those decisions affect our happiness in eternity. Our decisions have made us what we are. Our eternal destiny will be determined by the decisions we yet will make.
Mormonism’s version of the Gospel offers no hope. The onus is completely on the back of the individual Latter-day Saint. It is never possible to know if enough was done. This is a scary proposition. Instead of having to “do” for our justification of sins, the Bible teaches that the job has been “done” by none other than Jesus Christ.
Some Mormons misunderstand the gospel of grace and wonder if Christians believe they can just say a simple prayer and then have freedom (even permission) to sin like hell. After all, if salvation is free, why would good works even be necessary? Please toss this mistaken idea out the door and don’t let it back in! I have never heard this message preached at any Christian church I’ve visited. It is true that salvation comes by grace through faith and that this does not come by works. (See Eph. 2:8-9.) This is what is known as justification. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, a person becomes a new creation in Christ where old things pass away and all things become new. The believer becomes “born again,” something not conjured up through a person’s good works. Yet verse 10 says that the believer is “God’s workmanship,” created by Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared from the very foundation of the world. And James 2:14-26 says that faith without works is dead. These good works are part of what we call sanctification. As Philippians 2:12 says, Christians are to work “out” (not work “for”) their salvation with fear and trembling. Good works are the fruit of a true salvation; while they are not what a person does to cause justification, it certainly plays a major role in sanctification and proving the new birth to be genuine.
Decisions of crucial importance require our prayerful effort.
Without going any further to see how Benson explains this, may I add an “amen” to this sentence. Christians believe in prayer, for both the big things as well as the little things.
If we are to make proper, Christ-like decisions, we must first of all live so we can reach out and tap that unseen power without which no man can do his best in decision making.
One of the greatest decisions of this age was when the boy Joseph Smith decided that he would follow the admonition in James: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.” (James 1:5–6.)
It has been show very often how James 1:5 has been taken out of context. For example, see here.
It should be noted that Joseph Smith disregarded the immediate context of James 1:5, which speaks of gaining wisdom, not knowledge. Wisdom is the proper application of knowledge. In this verse James tells his Christian audience to ask God for wisdom when they are undergoing trials and temptations, not for testing various truth claims. First John 4:1 tells believers to “try [test] the spirits.” Why? Because many false prophets have gone out into the world. The Bereans in Acts 17:11 were considered noble because they “searched the scriptures daily” and tested Paul’s words against what God had already revealed. In other words, Christians are to test all truth claims with the Bible, not with subjective experiences, even if that experience involves a supernatural “vision.” For more on this topic, see here.
The very salvation of millions of men and women in the dispensation of the fulness of times depends upon that decision! We must keep in mind that individuals do matter and that decisions they make may greatly affect the lives of others.
The decision of whether or not to follow Joseph Smith is crucial. If Smith really was a prophet, then he should be followed at all cost. If he was a fraud, he should be soundly rejected. There is no middle ground. Your decision on Smith (and Mormonism as a religion) will have either considerable rewards or grave consequences.
The Lord said, “Knock and it shall be opened unto you” (3 Nephi 14:7; Matthew 7:7). In other words, it requires effort on our part.
Knock and see. This same Jesus in Matthew 7 also said,
15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
It requires effort on our part to do the research and make sure we’re not following a fraud. There is so much to lose by trusting wolves.
Wise decisions are usually arrived at following work, struggle, and prayerful effort. The Lord’s response to Oliver Cowdery’s ineffective effort makes this clear: “But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.” (D&C 9:8.)
The Bible makes it very clear that subjective feelings can be deceptive. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Proverbs 14:12 warns, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death,” while Proverbs 28:26 adds that only fools trust in their hearts. Because everyone is a fallen and sinful creature, it is possible to be swayed by emotions and desires. To believe something is true merely because one feels it to be true is no guarantee of truth. Jesus commanded His followers in Mark 12:30 to love God “with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.”
Paul explained in 2 Timothy 2:15 that the believer must make the effort to study in order to correctly understand truth. In the next chapter (3:16-17), he added that all Scripture given by inspiration of God is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” so that the man or woman of God might be competent an equipped to do good works. Christians are commanded in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 to “prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” While it is true that faith does involve believing things that can’t be proven, it is foolishness to believe something that has already been disproven. If the Bible disproves a spiritual truth claim, it must be rejected.
We are agents unto ourselves, and the Lord expects us to do good things of our own free will.
In 1831 the Lord said this to his Church:
“For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.
“Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;
“For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.
“But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned.” (D&C 58:26–29.)
The Lord wants us to use our agency to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause” (D&C 58:27).
The Latter-day Saint is required to be on best behavior and not have any “slothfulness.” Otherwise there is damnation (which, in Mormonism, typically is understood to mean that there will be no way to reach the celestial kingdom).
Since Benson is quoting D&C 58, let’s go down a few more verses. It reads:
42 Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more. 43 By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.
Many Latter-day Saints like to say that repentance is the cure-all for receiving forgiveness of sins. These verses say, however, that confession is only one part of the process. Forsaking them is the next. Indeed, as D&C 82:7 says,
And now, verily I say unto you, I, the Lord, will not lay any sinto your charge; go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God.
What a heavy burden this is!