In creating this earth and placing us upon it, God gave us the right to choose for ourselves. That right, known as agency, is an eternal principle, and it was given to Adam while he was in the Garden of Eden.
The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency; (Moses 7:32)
Agency was given to Adam when he was told he could freely eat of all fruit in the garden except that of one tree. Even though he was commanded not to eat of that tree, he was given his freedom to choose.
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. (Genesis 2:16-17)
After Adam and Eve left the garden and began to populate the earth, the Lord revealed to them that their children were free agents.
And it is given unto them to know good from evil; wherefore they are agents unto themselves, and I have given unto you another law and commandment. (Moses 6:56)
The Biblical prophets following Adam taught that we are free. For example, Joshua used his agency to choose to follow the Lord.
Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the Lord.
And if it seems evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:14-15)
The prophet Elijah encouraged the people to choose the Lord.
And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word. (1 Kings 18:21)
The Book of Mormon prophets also taught we are free to choose. Lehi taught his son Jacob that our freedom is God-given.
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. (2 Nephi 2:16)
Lehi continued by saying the Savior’s atonement freed us from the effects of Adam’s fall and we are free to make our own decisions. That is, we are not held liable for Adam’s decisions but are accountable for our own.
And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. 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, according to the commandments which God hath given.
Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free 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 2:26-27, emphasis added)
King Benjamin taught that God created us that we would be free to act for ourselves.
I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another–I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants. (Mosiah 2:21, emphasis added)
Samuel, the Lamanite prophet who lived just a few years before the birth of Christ, taught that God made us to know good from evil, and that he made us to be free agents. Because we are free, we can choose whether we will follow good or follow evil, but God will hold us responsible for those choices and will reward us accordingly.
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)
We are Accountable to God
Because God has given us the freedom to choose between good and evil, he holds us responsible for the decisions we make. Our accountability to God is clearly taught in the scriptures.
For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. (Matthew 16:27)
Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption: but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. (Galatians 6:7-8)
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad. (II Corinthians 5:10)
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 101:78)
Freedom to Choose is Limited
Through latter-day revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord revealed that our freedom is limited or bounded. In explaining this, the Lord used the metaphor of a sphere.
All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence. (D&C 93:30)
Through this metaphor, the Lord said he has placed truth and intelligence in “spheres of truth”, thus establishing boundaries around them. Truth and intelligence are independent within these boundaries, meaning that once established by God, truth and intelligence consistently follow the laws of God and appear to be the natural way the universe functions. The Lord went on to explain that these spheres of truth are the source of our freedom of choice.
Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they received not the light. (D&C 93:31, emphasis added)
That is, our agency is a result of truth and intelligence being bounded or limited. We are free to make choices, but our freedom is limited by the laws that govern our existence. Since these laws are bounded by God, then our freedom is also bounded. Consider for a moment a simple example. We are free to jump off a cliff, but we are not free to prevent ourselves from falling, unless we have chosen to invoke other laws by using, for example, a parachute or a hang glider. Our freedom is bounded and extends to our ability to jump off the cliff but not to the ability to prevent natural consequences from occurring. If truth were not bounded by God, chaos would reign and our existence would be unpredictable. In this situation, we would not be able to make rational decisions, because we could not predict the results we might expect and hence choose which results we wanted to experience. The effect of this would be that our freedom to make rational decisions would be destroyed. Thus, we only have freedom of choice because truth is bounded or consistent with itself. Because of these bounds, we can predict the consequences we will experience, and we can make rational choices about the consequences we wish to experience.
When first born, a baby’s sphere of freedom is small. The baby is free to move, cry, eat, and mess its diapers, and that is about all. As the baby grows, its sphere of freedom enlarges. As it learns, the baby tries to go beyond its sphere of freedom, but it is bounded by the laws of nature, by the laws of God, and by the laws of its parents and of society in general. One of our goals in our mortal existence is to continually expand our freedom while staying within the bounds set by God. We expand our freedom as we obey God’s commandments and gain access to additional truths. And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free [of your present bounds and limitations] (John 8:32).