Chapter 17 of the Teachings of George Albert Smith deals with faith and especially its power. It cites example after example from both Scripture and LDS history of people doing great things through the power of faith. It ends with the exhortation to nurture such faith through the keeping of the commandments.
This is how Mormonism most often talks about faith. It defines it as “a principle of action and power” (True to the Faith, p. 54). The fact that Mormonism talks about faith is something many Mormons quickly point to when they are accused of not being Christian. “We are Christian. We talk about having faith.” This has led many non-Mormons to consider them Christian.
It’s right at this point, however, that it is important to make the distinction between faith in general and the specific faith that saves people from an eternity in hell. What is vitally important in saving faith is its object. Faith that saves is not just a general trust that God is good but the very specific trust that Jesus came as our substitute and did it all for us – keeping the commandments in our place and cleansing us from all our sins.
That type of faith is not what Mormonism talks about. It is not mentioned once by President Smith in the chapter cited above. Or take the following as an example. It is from the manual, True to the Faith , and is its entire treatment about faith in Jesus.
Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ
In order for your faith to lead you to salvation, it must be centered in the Lord Jesus Christ (see Acts 4:10–12; Mosiah 3:17; Moroni 7:24–26; Articles of Faith 1:4). You can exercise faith in Christ when you have an assurance that He exists, a correct idea of His character, and a knowledge that you are striving to live according to His will.
Having faith in Jesus Christ means relying completely on Him – trusting in His infinite power, intelligence, and love. It includes believing His teachings. It means believing that even though you do not understand all things, He does. Remember that because He has experienced all your pains, afflictions, and infirmities, He knows how to help you rise above your daily difficulties (see Alma 7:11–12; D&C 122:8). He has “overcome the world” ( John 16:33) and prepared the way for you to receive eternal life. He is always ready to help you as you remember His plea: “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36).
There are many good sounding statements in these two paragraphs. But look at the object, at what they tell people to have faith in. You can exercise faith in Christ when you have an assurance that He exists, a correct idea of His character, and a knowledge that you are striving to live according to His will.
And a little bit later: trusting in His infinite power, intelligence, and love. It includes believing His teachings.
Noticeably absent is any talk of trusting in his death for our sins. But that is what the Bible says is essential. “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.” (Romans 3:25) Saving faith is very specific; it’s trusting that Jesus, through his life and death, has saved us. It’s trusting completely in Jesus and not in our own works. “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” (Romans 4:5)
For all of its talk about faith, this is something Mormonism doesn’t talk about. Therefore this is something we need to talk to our Mormon friends about. They need to hear that saving faith is trusting in Jesus’ works, not their own.