How many times have we heard Hebrews 11:1 recited as the definition of faith? "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." And how many times have our eyes glazed over as we heard it? No, it doesn't really make any sense to me either.
I highly recomment using Webster's 1828 Dictionary as a study help for the scriptures in English, and for anything from Joseph's time. It is a wonderful dictionary, and a valuable resource to figuring out language and phrasing that is now foreign to us.
A Useful Definition of Faith
So when I started studying the Lectures on Faith earlier this year, I spent sometime looking up several of the words used in Hebrews 11:1, and came up with my own rendition of this idea: Faith is the conviction we have that things we hope for actually exist or will happen. It is the witness or testimony we can give about things we know or suspect, even though we don't currently see them.
Most babies go through a phase when they are extremely attached to one or both parents, and are unwilling to let them go out of sight for more than a few minutes or seconds. I've seen a couple children in our branch go through this phase. It is because they have not yet developed the capacity to believe that their mother is still there when they are not looking at or touching her or just very close by. They think that when their mother goes away, even if it for just a minute or two, that she is GONE. And the idea terrifies them, of course. What they have to learn to develop is faith.
Faith as a Principle of Action
The lecture goes on to describe how faith works in our lives, and explains how faith is the reason for every thing we do in this life: faith is a principle of action. Just thinking of my life the past day or so: I did some work for a client, because I believe they will eventually pay me for the work. I sent some emails, believing that the internet can somehow transmit the seemingly random movements of my fingers into a comprehensible message that will arrive and can be understood by the intended recipient. I went to bed, believing that the sun would rise and I would awake in the morning. I brushed my teeth, believing that it would improve my breath and prevent me from having to go to the dentist in the near future. (I even flossed!)
You get the idea. The way the lectures phrase it, moving on to include spiritual things: "Would you exert yourselves to obtain wisdom and intelligence, unless you did believe that you could obtain them? Would you have ever sown if you had not believed that you would reap? Would you have ever planted if you had not believed that you would gather? Would you have ever asked unless you had believed that you would receive? Would you have ever sought unless you had believed that you would have found? Or would you have ever knocked unless you had believed that it would have been opened unto you? In a word, is there any thing that you would have done, either physical or mental, if you had not previously believed? Are not all your exertions, of every kind, dependant [sic] on your faith? Or may we not ask, what have you, or what do you possess, which you have not obtained by reason of your faith?" (LoF 1:11)
And returning to the question of the doctrine of Christ, we read Mark 16:16: "he that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved." So baptism is specifically mentioned in the Lectures after all. At its most formulaic, the doctrine of Christ says that faith --> action --> salvation. In this verse in Mark, the action is baptism. The Lectures will proceed to define exactly what kind of faith is needed for this formula, and eventually the definition of the action will be expanded to include living a life pleasing to God and making covenants by sacrifice. So it makes sense now for Nephi to say that baptism is merely the gate by which we enter; it is the very first step, or action, we must take in faith, believing that God will fulfill his promises and guide us further if we do this one simple thing.
Faith as a Principle of Power
The next topic the first lecture tackles is faith as a principle of power. How is this different from faith being a principle of action? What is the difference between action and power? To act simply means to do something, while power is the ability or capacity to do that thing, and the force with which you do it. For example, Moses the man did not have any special powers, but yet he did any number of miraculous things, because he acted in faith. He raised his staff above the Red Sea and it parted (Ex 14:16, 21-22). Not only was he able to act (raise his staff) because he had faith, he also had the ability to divide the water so the camp of Israel could cross on dry ground. So maybe we could say that if you have faith, you can take that first step, and then through your faith, that step has the force and power to create the promised effect.
It turns out that this is even the way that God works; this is how he actually created the earth: he had faith, did what He knew He had to do, and because of the strength of the faith inherent in his actions, the world actually came into being.
Scripture references used in the first lecture to illustrate faith as a principle of power: Heb 11:3, Ether 12:13 (Alma 14:27), Ether 12:30 (Hel 5:45), Josh 10:12-13, Matt 17:19-20.
To conclude: "Faith, then, is the first great governing principle which has power, dominion, and authority over all things: by it they exist, by it they are upheld, by it they are changed, or by it they remain, agreeably to the will of God. Without it, there is no power, and without power there could be no creation, nor existence!"
Read the following post in this series here.