I sometimes regret the fact that we use the word "faith" in religious discussions.
Why? Because I think it's become a technical term that obscures for many what should be and is a very simple concept. This has created serious controversies and unnecessary misunderstandings.
The Greek word "pistis," which English Bibles typically render as "faith," also means "confidence" or "trust," and these ordinary, everyday terms convey very neatly what scriptural faith entails.
The first readers of the New Testament didn't have to ask what "pistis" meant. Paul hadn't invented the word. They knew it already; it had been common in Greek for centuries. And in the standard English lexicon of classical Greek, the first definition of "pistis" is "trust in others."
While theological factions might argue — and, in fact, have argued — for decades over the definition of "faith," we all have a reasonably clear idea of what it means to have "trust" in someone.
When the Greek New Testament was translated into Latin, "pistis" was rendered as "fides," which again meant "trust" or "confidence." Our English word "faith" comes from the Latin "fides," but today we tend to think of "faith" as "belief in something without proof," and, often, more as agreement with a set of propositions than as trust in a person.
But God is a person, and saving faith — although it surely entails agreeing with certain propositions — is trust in him, as a person, to love us and to keep his promises to us. Jane Borthwick's familiar translation of Katharina von Schlegel's 18th-century hymn beautifully captures this element of personal trust:
Be still, my soul: The Lord is on thy side;
With patience bear thy cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In ev'ry change he faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: Thy best, thy heav'nly Friend
Thru thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Be still, my soul: Thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as he has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: The waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.
Once we understand that faith in God is trust in a divine person, there can be no question of separating faith from "works." (C.S. Lewis once wrote that worrying which of them was most important was like asking which scissor blade actually does the cutting.)
We show our trust in someone by our willingness to act in a trusting way. If we tell a son that we trust him completely but then, for the car keys, refuse to yield them up because we fear to let him drive, we don't really trust him. If we profess complete confidence in another but then, when she asks for a $50 loan, turn her down because we don't believe she'll pay us back, we've spoken falsely: We lack confidence in her.
Trusting a person requires no particular number of "deeds" — maybe even none at all — but it does require, when that person calls upon us to act, that we try to do so.
Likewise, it's conceivable that a person could hear the gospel, sincerely repent, genuinely intend to keep the commandments … and die immediately thereafter. No time for any "good works." But the willingness was there, and that person's eternal state will be glorious.
When God asks us to do something, though, we show our trust in him by doing it if we can, even if we don't completely understand it: "And after many days an angel of the Lord appeared unto Adam, saying: Why dost thou offer sacrifices unto the Lord? And Adam said unto him: I know not, save the Lord commanded me" (Moses 5:6).
Moreover, as we trust others — including God — and find our trust rewarded and justified, it grows. Our relationship thrives.
Some people are, yes, too gullible. But hardened cynics are far worse. They trust nobody and nothing. They resemble the Dwarfs in "The Last Battle," the final book of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia: "'You see,' said Aslan. 'They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.'"
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of outreach for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of Mormon ScholarsTestify.org.