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How Did Paul Understand Faith?

KnoWhy #684 | April 18, 2024

“What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith.”

Romans 9:30

The Know

Faith is an essential element of righteous living often emphasized in Paul’s writings. The importance of faith in Jesus Christ has also been discussed repeatedly by modern prophets, including Joseph Smith, who declared it to be one of the basic first principles of the gospel (see Articles of Faith 1:4). Without faith, we would not be able to fully access the saving grace of Jesus Christ or reap all the rewards of eternal life that He offers us.1

True to form, Paul’s ancient discussions of faith have richer, deeper meanings than can be readily translated into English. The word faith, as it appears in the King James Version of the New Testament, is a translation of the Greek word pistis, which is best understood in terms of the ancient world’s patron-client relationship—as is grace. Brent J. Schmidt has observed that throughout the Greco-Roman world, pistis “meant knowing and understanding one’s patron and developing a relationship based on fidelity [to that patron] that ideally resulted in a lifetime relationship.”2 As such, many instances of pistis in the New Testament can be translated more accurately as “loyalty” or “faithfulness,” better reflecting this relational understanding.

This view was also reflected in many Greco-Roman attitudes toward humans’ relations with their gods, seeing the gods as patrons who would forge relationships with mortals, often for their betterment. For Paul and other New Testament Apostles and authors, faith likewise pertained to our relationship with Heavenly Father, the only true God. According to Schmidt, “the disciple client understands that God is the patron, shows faithfulness toward him and develops a relationship with him.”3 This relationship is mutually beneficial, as God desires a closer relationship with us and is continually faithful regarding His promises and as we are faithful and loyal to Him.

This relationship is formed as we make bilateral covenants with God, which are ultimately for our benefit, as “God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9; cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:24). Just as God is faithful to His covenantal agreements, He expects all who come to Him to share that faithfulness toward Him, accepting “no divided loyalties. Disciples should be faithful only to God the Father and not to anyone else.”4

This command to be faithful to God only was expressed in no uncertain terms by Paul as well as by Jesus Himself: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24; cf. 1 Timothy 6:9–10). All the cares of this world, including money and riches, are not to come between us and the Lord if we expect to properly maintain a faithful relationship with Him and receive the blessings that He has promised us.

Because loyalty is demanded for proper discipleship, faith can never be reduced to just passive belief in the Lord; it requires constant action to demonstrate our loyalty to and friendship with God. Thus, Paul told the Philippians that they must “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). Paul similarly taught in Romans 9:30 that “the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness” in times past had now “attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith,” or faithfulness to their covenants made initially at baptism.

This loyalty is discussed and demonstrated in depth in Hebrews 11. After declaring that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” the author of Hebrews lists multiple individuals who had demonstrated their loyalty to the Lord through their making and keeping covenants with the Lord (Hebrews 11:1). Included in this list are righteous individuals such as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, as well as countless others who “esteem[ed] the reproach of Christ” greater than any earthly reward (Hebrews 11:26). Because of this loyalty, they could be sure that the Lord would deliver them into “a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:16).

The Why

For Paul, faith in Christ was more than passive belief. It reflected a deep commitment that was focused on action. According to Schmidt, “Obedience was the proper response to the relational pistis that characterized Christ-centered, patron-client relationships as explained in Paul’s epistle to the Romans.”5 Although later theologians would declare faith to be an abstract, passive, or mystical belief that required no action on our part,6 the relational understanding of faith would be restored through Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon and other inspired teachings and revelations given through latter-day prophets.

Similar to Hebrews 11, Moroni teaches in the Book of Mormon that “whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God” (Ether 12:4; emphasis added). Covenantal loyalty and faithfulness allowed righteous individuals in the Book of Mormon to meet with the resurrected Savior, break free of bonds, baptize with fire and the Holy Ghost, and ascend into the presence of God.7

Faith is “the principle of action and of power” that must be exercised in all we do.8 In the end, we are told that “salvation is the effect of faith, [and] that without faith it is impossible to please God.”9 At the same time, God has declared that “this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). Thus, as we continue to exercise faith in Jesus Christ and in His Atonement, we can then rest assured that God will always be faithful to us. Through our loyalty and friendship, we can enter again into His presence and enjoy eternal relationships with Him and all the faithful (D&C 76:53).

Further Reading

Brent J. Schmidt, Relational Faith: The Transformation and Restoration of Pistis as Knowledge, Trust, Confidence, and Covenantal Faithfulness (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2022), 49–66.

  • 1. For a discussion regarding Paul’s views of the grace of Christ, see Book of Mormon Central, “What Did Grace Mean to Paul? (Romans 3:23–24),” KnoWhy 683 (August 8, 2023).
  • 2. Brent J. Schmidt, Relational Faith: The Transformation and Restoration of Pistis as Knowledge, Trust, Confidence, and Covenantal Faithfulness (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2022), 49.
  • 3. Schmidt, Relational Faith, 49, 52–53, 56.
  • 4. Schmidt, Relational Faith, 63.
  • 5. Schmidt, Relational Faith, 66.
  • 6. See Schmidt, Relational Faith, 119–134, for a discussion on this topic.
  • 7. See Ether 12:7–22. For another list of miracles wrought through faith, see Joseph Smith Translation, Genesis 14:11, available in Kent P. Jackson, ed., Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: The Joseph Smith Translation and the King James Translation in Parallel Columns (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2022), 77.
  • 8. Lectures on Faith 7:2. While the Lectures on Faith have traditionally been linked to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, authorship of these lectures remains unclear. See, for example, Larry E. Dahl, “Authorship and History of the Lectures on Faith,” in The Lectures on Faith in Historical Perspective, ed. Larry E. Dahl and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1990), 1–21; Noel B. Reynolds, “The Case for Sidney Rigdon as Author of the Lectures on Faith,” Journal of Mormon History 31, no. 3 (2005): 1–41; Wayne A. Larsen, Alvin C. Rencher, and Tim Layton, “Who Wrote the Book of Mormon? An Analysis of Wordprints,” BYU Studies Quarterly 20, no. 3 (1980): 229.
  • 9. Lectures on Faith 7:17; see Hebrews 11:6.
Faith
Paul
Grace
Covenants
Discipleship
Hope
New Testament
Hebrews
Romans

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