Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Righteous Will Live by Faith (Habakkuk 2:4)


As a young man, Martin Luther recognized that he had a serious problem. He took the Bible seriously, and knew that he did not live up to the righteous standard of the holy God who was revealed in the Bible. He knew that all the commands of Scripture stood written as an indictment of a well-deserved condemnation over his life. Desperate to find some way to placate God and rid himself of the burden of his sin-guilt, Luther decided to become a monk. Surely renouncing all worldly pleasures and possessions and devoting oneself fully to the service of the Lord would earn him God’s approval. Or so he thought. In the monastery, he was shepherded by a faithful mentor to devote himself to the study of Scripture. And that Luther did with all his heart and with his mind. In his study, he came upon this verse of Scripture, Habakkuk 2:4, and it lit a fire within him. As Boice writes, “He recognized that somewhere in these words was a revelation of a different way of pleasing God than by fastings, self-immolations, prayers, charity, and good works.”[1]

Not yet sure of the answer to all of the longings and questions of his soul, Luther set out on a pilgrimage to Rome. There at the church of St. John’s Lateran, a staircase can be found purporting to be from Pilate’s hall of judgment in Jerusalem. Plates of glass cover stains which are said to be from the blood of Christ. And there pilgrims come from all over the world, still to this day, to climb those steps on their knees, reciting prayers at each step, pausing to kiss the glass-covered stains. This is done as a means of receiving an indulgence – a minimizing of the penalty of sins. The most recent pope to issue such a promise of indulgence at the Lateran Stairs was Pius X in 1908. And it was for this reason that Luther went to visit the Lateran Stairs. But something happened midway up those stairs.

A handwritten letter from Luther’s son Paul is displayed in the Library of Rudolstadt today in which the following account is given: “my late, dearest father, in … his journey to Rome … had come to the knowledge of the truth of the everlasting gospel. It happened in this way. As he repeated his prayers on the Lateran staircase, the words of Habakkuk the prophet came suddenly to his mind: “The just shall live by faith.” Thereupon he ceased his prayers, returned to Wittenburg, and took this as the chief foundation for all his doctrine.” [2] Later, as Luther meditated on Paul’s quotation of this verse in Romans 1:17, he said, “although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him. … Night and day I pondered … the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning.”[3]
The words which are translated in the New American Standard as “the righteous will live by his faith” are just three words in the Hebrew Bible. In these three words, Walt Kaiser says, “one of the most triumphant notes of biblical revelation is sounded.” The fact that this short portion of a short verse in a short book of the Old Testament in quoted in three separate books of the New Testament gives us a hint of the significance of these words. Before we investigate the meaning of these words and their application to us, let us set them in their original context in Habakkuk.

Again, I will remind you that Habakkuk was staring at an unprecedented national crisis. Judah was infested with immorality, injustice, and idolatry. Habakkuk had cried out to God to do something about the problem, and God answered by saying that He was sending the Chaldeans – better known as the Babylonians – to overtake the nation as an expression of His judgment. To Habakkuk, this was hardly a solution, for he could not fathom how God could endorse or employ a nation which was (by human standards) more unrighteous than Judah to do His work. As if it were not bad enough that the righteous in Judah were being oppressed by the rampant wickedness within their own nation, now the message is that all of Judah – the righteous and unrighteous alike – are going to suffer an invasion, a conquest, and a deportation from their homeland at the hand of the vicious Babylonians. It was more than the prophet could bear. As Chapter 2 opens, the prophet withdraws to a place of isolation to wait for the Lord to speak further to him, and the Lord did just that. In verses 2 and 3, the Lord told Habakkuk to record the vision he was about to receive and inscribe it on tablets. What was Habakkuk to record and inscribe? At a minimum, it was the words of verse 4. Perhaps the first part of the verse would be recorded on one tablet, and the second part of the verse would be recorded on another. And these words would serve as a warning to the unrighteous and an encouragement to the righteous. The wicked would perish under God’s judgment, be they Jewish or Babylonian, or of any other ethnicity. But the righteous would not perish with them. The righteous would live by persevering in confident trust of God’s promises that He had made to them.

But the message that God gave to Habakkuk was not for that generation only. The Lord told Habakkuk to preserve these words because they were for an appointed time. Habakkuk lived to see part of it fulfilled. Others of his generation saw more of it fulfilled. But other portions of this message awaited fulfillment at a later time. The Apostle Paul said, “Now these things happened as examples for us” (1 Cor 10:6). And the three passages of the New Testament which quote Habakkuk 2:4 each sheds unique light on the three Hebrew words that formulate the primary thrust of this verse. So, as we seek understanding and application of Habakkuk 2:4 to our lives, we are helped by the New Testament and we should allow those verses to guide us in our study of this one. If the righteous will live by his faith, then we will answer three questions: (1) Who are the righteous? (2) How are they made righteous? (3) What does it mean to really live?

I. Who are the righteous?

By what standard do we determine if a person is righteous? Often we make comparisons of one person to another, and say (for example), “I am not as bad as this person is,” or “this person is a better person than that one.” We might say that Hitler would represent the worst of humanity, and say, perhaps, that Billy Graham or Mother Teresa would represent the best of humanity. And if that is the standard, then we might all say of ourselves that we rank somewhere in between. But this is not how God views righteousness. According to the Bible, God Himself is the standard of righteousness. He says that we are to be holy, as He is holy.

How are we to understand what it means to be holy according to God’s standards? God has given humanity a moral law which is a reflection of His own righteousness. According to Hebrew tradition, there are 613 moral laws or commandments in the Law. God seemed content to codify these commandments into a more concise list of ten commandments, recorded for us in Exodus 20. All 613 commandments (if that is actually the number) are contained within the framework of those ten. When Jesus was asked in Matthew 22:36 which was the greatest commandment, He stated that the greatest and foremost commandment is that “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (22:37-38). He was not quoting from the ten commandments, but from Deuteronomy 6:5. Moreover, Jesus said that the second greatest was to love your neighbor as yourself. This is also not from the ten commandments, but from Leviticus 19:18. Jesus said, “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (22:39). In other words, if a person can perfectly love God above all else with their entire being, and selflessly and unconditionally love their fellow man perfectly, they will never run afoul of any of the other commandments of God. One who loves the Lord in this way will not worship or serve idols, will not violate the holiness of God’s name or nature, and will always honor the Lord’s creative order of work and rest, caring for creation and the human body which bears the image of God. If one loves his or her neighbor as the Lord requires, then he or she will not dishonor parents, will not murder, will not commit adultery, steal, bear false witness or covet another’s belongings. In the keeping of these two commandments, all the rest will be kept as well.

So, it is somewhat good news that we do not have to maintain a list of hundreds of rules to keep. If we are to live up to God’s standard of righteousness, there are only two commandments with which we need to concern ourselves: loving God and loving our neighbor. I say that is somewhat good news, but there is also bad news in this, because none of us have ever been able to obey these two commandments perfectly. Stringing together an impressive collection of Old Testament scriptures, Paul says of the entire human race in Romans 3, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one” (3:10-12). In short, he says in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

The opposite of righteousness is set in contrast to it in the first portion of Habakkuk 2:4 – “Behold, as for the proud one, his soul is not right within him.” Pride is at the root of all unrighteousness, for pride says, “I do not have to obey anyone else’s rules. I can do whatever I want to do and I do not have to answer to anyone for it.” The Hebrew word for proud here is literally “puffed up,” or “bloated.” We can see the proud person, sticking his chest out and boasting of his or her own goodness and accomplishments. We can see that person so vividly because that person stares at us in the mirror every day. He or she says to us, “You’re pretty good. After all, look at all that you have done. And at least you are not as bad as some other people you know.” Interestingly, this same Hebrew word that means “puffed up, bloated, and proud,” can also mean “tumorous.” Pride is like a cancer of the soul that is deadly. It results in a serious condition that is simply described here as “his soul is not right within him.” This proud person is not right with God, and not right within himself. Their soul is, quite literally in the Hebrew, crooked, unable to reach God’s standard of righteousness.

So, if there is none righteous, then how is it helpful for us to know that the righteous will live by faith? It seems to be a promise made to no one who actually exists, does it not? It is like saying that Superman can leap tall buildings in a single bound. That would be good news if there actually was a person such as Superman, but there isn’t, so what’s the point? Well, the point is that there is a righteousness which has been revealed. In fact, Paul bases the entire book of Romans on this truth, and the place where he gets this point is from Habakkuk 2:4. In Romans 1:16-17, he says that he is “not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it (in the gospel of Jesus Christ) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’”

The word “Gospel” means “good news,” and Paul says he is not ashamed of this good news because it makes known to us that there is a righteousness that can be ours. Our righteousness, as the prophet Isaiah said, is but “filthy rags” (Isa 64:6) before God, but God is making His own righteousness known to us and available to us in the Gospel. So, the answer to our question, “Who are the righteous?”, is this: The righteous are not those who are better than others, not those who are good in their own proud estimation, but those who are as righteous as God is. And though none of us are able to attain that righteousness on our own efforts, God is making that righteousness available to us through the gospel of Jesus Christ. And this brings us to the second question.

II. How do sinful people become righteous?

The United States Constitution grants the President the authority to pronounce a pardon on a person convicted of a crime. George Washington issued 16 of them. Franklin Roosevelt issued over 3,500 of them. Pardons are not a means of reversing a wrongful conviction in which an innocent person has been declared guilty. There are other judicial avenues for that. Pardons do the opposite. Pardons declare guilty people who have been rightfully convicted to be innocent, and ensure that they must never be treated as though they were guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted. The presidential pardon is really the only way for a person who has been proven guilty before the law of the land to be declared not guilty.

But what about those who are guilty before the law of the Lord? How can one who is justly condemned as a sinner become righteous before a holy God? Paul said in Romans 1 that the righteousness of God has been revealed in the Gospel from faith to faith, in accordance with what Habakkuk has said here: the righteous will live by his faith. To understand this better, we turn to the second quotation of Habakkuk 2:4 in the New Testament, which is found in Galatians 3:11.

Paul’s point in this passage is that a sinner cannot be made righteous by keeping the Law, for the Law has already been broken. The Law, Paul will say, never existed to make a person righteous, but to show us that we are unrighteous because we have fallen short of God’s standard. He says that the Law has become our tutor, to lead us to Christ (Gal 3:24). Let me illustrate. When we wake up in the morning, we look in the mirror to discover that we have a condition known as “bed head.” Our hair is standing on end in some places, pressed flat in others, and is all messed up. We know this because we have looked into the mirror. The mirror shows us that our hair needs to be fixed. But no one then proceeds to rub their head on the mirror in order to fix their hair. The mirror cannot fix the hair, but shows us that the hair needs fixing. So it is with the Law. The Law cannot make us righteous, but it shows us that we are unrighteous, and in need of a remedy for our condition. And that remedy is found in Jesus Christ.

The Law is a condemnation of us, for it says, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them.” In Galatians 3:10, Paul is quoting from Deuteronomy 27:26. That condemnation stands written over all of us, because none of us have performed or abided by everything in the Law. So the Law, Paul says in Galatians 3:22, “has shut up everyone under sin.” That is, the Law silences our boasting of our own righteousness, because it shows us that we have none. So what can be done about this curse? Jesus Christ is the remedy for our condition because He bore our curse for us as our substitute under the judgment of God in His death on the cross. Paul says, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (3:13). So, righteousness cannot be earned by good works of keeping the Law, but rather by faith alone in Christ alone. And it is to this point that Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4, saying, “Now, that no one is justified (or made righteous) by the Law before God is evident; for “the righteous man shall live by faith.”

As an evidence of this, Paul points to Abraham. In Genesis 15:6, it is written of Abraham that he “believed God, and it was reckoned to Him as righteousness.” In other words, on the basis of faith in the saving promises God had made, God declared Abraham to be not guilty of sin, to be righteous before Him, and actually imputed righteousness to him. Abraham received this blessing and this promise before the coming of Christ by looking forward to what God would do to fulfill His promises. We who live on this side of the cross of Christ look back on how God has fulfilled His saving purposes in Christ. Nonetheless, for us and for Abraham and those of the Old Covenant, salvation from sin and righteousness before God is granted as a gift of God’s grace and received by us by faith – that is by believing God’s word and placing our faith in His promise, which is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

The same case is made in Romans, as Paul points repeatedly to the gift of righteousness being received by faith. In Romans (as in Galatians) Paul likewise points to Abraham as an example of this. Romans 3:24-26 makes the matter as plain as it can be: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood.” That word propitiation means that Jesus is the satisfactory sacrifice which atones for our sin. God is pleased with the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf – the righteous taking the penalty of the unrighteous upon Himself. And this is received “through faith.” So in the giving of Christ for our sins, God demonstrates Himself to be “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” That is, God shows Himself to be just in that He has rendered the full and final penalty for sin. Sin has received what it deserved in His justice, but in His mercy and grace, God allowed the substitute to take the penalty for us. Jesus did this in His death on the cross, which prompted Him to say as He died, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” He was undergoing the full outpouring of the wrath that we deserve for our sins. And He did this so that God may not only be just in punishing sin fully, but also the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. That is, the one who has faith in Jesus is declared not guilty before God, in fact is declared to be righteous, and actually imputed with the righteousness of Christ. It is as though all of our sin debts have been wiped clear from our account, and we have been credited with the full righteousness of God Himself.

Elsewhere, Paul says that his desire is that he may be found in Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God which comes through faith” (Php 3:9). This is what makes the Christian message so countercultural to the thinking of this world. If you ask the average person what their problem is and where their remedy can be found, they will likely say that they are victims of what others have done to them, and the answer or solution to the problem is to be found within themselves. The Christian gospel is the opposite of this, for it says that our primary problem comes from within us – the inherent sinful nature with which we are born; and the solution to the problem comes from the outside – the righteousness of Jesus Christ which can be applied to us judicially by God Himself on the basis of our faith in Christ. The theologians call this an “alien righteousness,” meaning that it comes from outside of ourselves. It comes only by Christ, and as Paul says in Galatians 2:21, if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly. In other words, if there were another way for us to be made righteous besides through faith in Christ, then the death of Christ was a great waste of time in the plan and purpose of God, for it was not necessary for Him to die to save us.

So, who are the righteous? They are those whom God has declared righteous and imputed with the sinless, perfect, righteousness of Himself that is manifested in the life of Christ. And how is that righteousness received or obtained? It is received by no other way than by faith in Him as our substitute sin bearer. We trust His promise to take our sins to the full measure of their just penalty in His death, and to give us His righteousness in exchange. So this righteousness is received by faith. This is not a new way of thinking, which would have been foreign to Habakkuk. Abraham himself, the patriarch of the Jewish people, was made righteous before God on the basis of faith alone, long before there was ever a law given by God through Moses. When Habakkuk speaks of the righteous, he is speaking of those whom God declares and makes righteous on the basis of faith in His saving promises which have been now fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

This brings us to the third and final question:
III. What does it mean to really live?

In the movie Braveheart, we hear those unforgettable words of William Wallace: “Every man dies, not every man really lives.” The Bible says that it is appointed unto all men to die (Heb 9:27). Death is inescapable, and it has come into the world and into human experience because it is the just wages of human sin. Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death,” and we see it happening from the fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden to the present day. In fact, because of our sinful nature with which we are born, we are essentially born dead. Spiritually, we are dead before God in our sins. That is how Paul describes the natural human condition in Ephesians 2. So, how then shall we live? The righteous will live by faith.

To understand this, we turn to Hebrews 10. There, the writer of Hebrews takes up our verse, Habakkuk 2:4 and says, “you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised. For yet in a very little while, He who is coming will come and will not delay. But My righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him. But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul” (Heb 10:36-39).

You see, the writer of Hebrews is telling us that saving faith is not something that is employed once and then discarded. It is not that we are saved by faith and then go on living by our own effort and our own attempts to be good. If we begin by faith, then we have to continue by faith. This was the error of the Galatians. After hearing the preaching of the Gospel that promised them that they could become righteous before God by faith, they fell under false teaching that said that they had to keep themselves right before God by law-keeping. Paul’s words to them were as strong as any words in the Bible. He said, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:3). No, as Romans 1:17 says, this righteousness of God which is made known to us in the Gospel is revealed from faith to faith. That is, it is received by faith initially, and then it continues in our lives by faith. We are justified by faith as God declares us to be righteous positionally. We are sanctified as we continue in faith as God shapes us into that righteousness practically.

Hebrews 10 is admonishing us that faith is not something that we look to the past for in our lives. It is something that endures and perseveres if it is genuine. As a pastor for almost twenty years, one of the most heartbreaking things I observe on a regular basis is the efforts of parents and grandparents to assuage the guilty consciences of their children and grandchildren who are living in sin that they are right with God because of a decision that they made when they were six years old in Vacation Bible School. Don’t get me wrong, many souls are born into the kingdom at a young age through things like VBS. But, when that saving faith is exercised genuinely, it perseveres to the very end of life. It is not without its peaks and valleys, but faith always triumphs in the life of the believer because it is God who is upholding and preserving them to the end. So, it is a very dangerous thing to offer empty promises of assurance to those who are not persevering in faith. If someone does not live by faith presently, it is futile to assure them that their past profession of faith was genuine and will save them eternally. Rather, we must challenge that one to examine himself or herself to see whether or not they are genuinely in the faith (2 Cor 13:5). If they have genuinely trusted in Christ in the past, that faith will be evident in their lives in the present.

After quoting Habakkuk 2:4, the writer of Hebrews goes on to describe many of those in the Old Testament who lived by faith. They were not made righteous by what they did, but they demonstrated the righteousness that they had been granted by faith through the things that they did as they lived in that same faith that brought them to God. Jesus said that He came into the world that we might have life, and life abundant. We only really live when we live by faith in Him. And it is only as we live by faith in Him that we can have the confidence of dying by faith in Him. The promise of life that Jesus offers us is not merely for the present time. It is everlasting life with Him beyond this world. He said, “He who believes in me will live even if he dies” (John 11:25). We have that life because of the righteousness that He gives to us, which is received by faith.

Habakkuk’s words to his fellow countrymen were simple. Things are bad. They are getting worse. But we will not die. We have been promised life. And those who have received that promise by faith have been declared righteous before God and can face life without guilt and death without fear, and truly live abundantly and eternally by faith. The same promise avails to all of us. Though we are all sinners, God has made a way for us to be granted His own righteousness so that we have assurance of life everlasting with Him when this fallen world has done its dead level worst to us. That gift of righteousness is received by faith, and that faith perseveres to the end as we live abundantly by faith in the Lord Jesus. By His death, He takes away the guilt of our sins, bearing the full penalty that our sins deserve in Himself as our substitute. In exchange He gives us His own sinless righteousness as a covering before God. We receive it by faith alone in Him alone. And having received Him by faith, we go on living – through dark and difficult days full of sorrow and suffering – because we live by that same faith day in and day out. It is life abundant. And it will be life eternal. Because the righteous will live by his faith.




[1] James Montgomery Boice, The Minor Prophets: Volume 2, Micah-Malachi (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), 408.
[2] Robert J. Morgan, From This Verse (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998). The book is a daily devotional, and rather than page numbers, each page is marked with a date. This page is the entry for June 17.
[3] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1950), 65.

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