In studying the final days of Christ’s life, I was struck by the implications of Christ’s kind teachings to Peter to prepare him for what was to come. He speaks to Peter during the Last Supper, shortly before the Lord goes on to Gethsemane and then Golgotha:
And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat:
But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren. (Luke 22: 31-32)
Here I had to think of conversations I’ve had with faithful Christians whose understanding of faith often left me puzzled. Concepts such as “once saved, always saved” seem so distant from the concern Christ expressed. He was worried about Peter, worried that his faith might perish, knowing that Satan still wanted to conquer this believing disciple. Faith can fail. This would not be a serious concern if the word “faith” meant what it seems to mean for millions today: mere intellectual acknowledgement of God or Christ. That can kind of faith can survive almost anything — dishonesty, adultery, betrayal, murder. But demons filled with the polar opposite of faith intellectually recognize God. But when the New Testament was written, the word faith, or pistis in Greek, as well as its Latin counterpart, fides, meant much more. It referred to faithfulness in a reciprocal relationship, even a covenant-like relationship, not mere intellectual belief. Here we might do well to turn to Dr. Brent J. Schmidt’s recently published Relational Faith, his masterful treatise on the ancient meaning of “faith” and its tragic erosion through centuries of theological confusion:
In the traditionally Protestant field of New Testament studies, where most scholars construe the pist- root words through traditions established by Augustine and Luther, pistis has been rendered in modern English as merely “belief.” However, the pist- root words carried ancient nuances that belief does not have today. These pist- words can connote, in addition to “faith” in the ritual or covenantal religious sense, faithfulness, steadfastness, and trustworthiness because of the underlying expressions of loyalty between parties in covenant relationships….
[I]n the first century, pistis implied active loyalty, trust, hope, knowledge, and persuasion in the patron-client relationship or within the new covenant brought about through Christ’s Atonement. Atonement or “at-one-ment” implies the restoration to a preexisting, covenantal relationship. Even in instances where the pist- words cannot be directly translated as “loyalty,” they frequently reflect active forms of conduct that are consistent with such meanings. (Relational Faith, Kindle edition, pp. 19-20.)
During what followed the Last Supper, Peter would be tempted not to lose his intellectual, mystical recognition of Christ as something divine, but would be tempted to act contrary to that recognition, to be disloyal, fearful, and disobedient. His faith faltered and began to fail in the hours ahead, but after bitter tears, it would revive, survive, and then thrive with the infusion of power the Savior would bring with His Resurrection.
Faith in Christ requires action, loyalty, obedience, and growth. Christ’s words to Peter imply faith as part of journey of spiritual growth. It’s not something to merely get once and be finished. It is a vehicle for growth, for becoming stronger, for becoming truly converted. And when we reach the stage of becoming solidly faithful and converted, our work is not over. “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” Their faith needs to be strengthened. They need to grow. We need to lift them and help them on their journey, that their faith also might not fail.
When we understand the most elementary aspect of the Great Apostasy, that the very meaning of the “faith” has been corrupted, as Dr. Schmidt shows with abundant, meticulous scholarship across the centuries, then we can also recognize how inspired, necessary, and fundamental the Restoration was. After centuries of darkness, the meanings of “faith” and “grace” are made clear, the power of the Atonement is more plainly manifest, the need for all men and women to repent and be baptized and keep the commandments of Christ is made obvious. It is not because works save us, but because faith in Christ requires loyalty to Him in a covenant relationship involving baptism and following Him by keeping His commandments and repenting, even with bitter tears like Peter, when we stray, The confusion about grace, mercy, and commandments is resolved. No longer can the theologians of our day wrest away the plain meaning of Christ’s words by repeating confused fables about empty grace and mystical faith without faithfulness:
[I]f thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. (Matthew 19:17)
As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love.
If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. (John 15:9-10)
Christ pleads with us to stay faithful and to continue in his love. We do that by keeping His commandments. Action. Obedience. Sacrifice. Life. It’s all part of faith. This is why faith without works is dead — the very definiti0n of the word anciently invokes action and works. Of course it is not faith at all if there is no action. If you are not acting boldly because of your faith in Christ, perhaps today would be a good day to start your journey of true faith in a loyal, covenant relationship with our Savior.
Understanding faith in God to be intricately tied to obedience and faithfulness not an innovation of Christians. The innovation came in later teachings of men that modified the very meanings of words like faith and grace and with it changed basic teachings on the importance of obedience and of seeking in our behavior and deeds to follow Christ, not just intellectually accept Him. The relation between grace or mercy and obedience was also taught in ancient Judaism. For example, from the Psalms, we have this:
But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children;
To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them. (Psalm 103:17-18)
Faith in Christ leads to repentance, a change in behavior, receiving His grace, and growing in love for Him. However, our faith in Christ and our love for Him can falter and fail. Christ wants our faith to grow steadily, and He wants us to endure to the end: “But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Matthew 24:13) and “he that endureth to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 10:22). The ancient understanding of faith and grace helps bring the New Testament more fully to life and helps us more clearly appreciate the power and beauty of the Restoration, including the clear and beautiful teachings on faith, grace, and salvation in the ancient and majestic Book of Mormon.
[Slightly updated with the citation of Psalm 103 on July 23, 2023.]