The Righteous Shall Live by Faith: Conclusion
What God is looking for are people of character. You can read the Bible, pray, and go to meeting until you’re blue in the face, but unless it comes from a character of compassion, grace, patience, love, faithfulness, forgiveness, and justice, it is for nothing.
What does righteousness look like? We can make the mistake of thinking that if only I attend enough ecclesial functions, eat bread and drink wine every Sunday morning, read the Bible every day, and be a “good Christadelphian,” this makes me righteous.
However, when talking about spiritual growth, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Rom 5:3-4).1
What God is looking for are people of character. You can read the Bible, pray, and go to meeting until you’re blue in the face, but unless it comes from a character of compassion, grace, patience, love, faithfulness, forgiveness, and justice, it is for nothing. When we look at the righteousness of God throughout Scripture, we see a God who does things because He is all these characteristics.
What God is looking for are people of character.
So, when it comes to living by faith, we might ask, “What are we meant to be doing?” Hebrews 11 gives us insight into the answer. We commonly call it the faith chapter, but really, it’s the by faith chapter, a list of people who lived by faith. What is notable about Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Rahab, and others is they did acts of righteousness either before or outside the Law of Moses. Their faithful acts of righteousness weren’t born from adherence to law or ritual, but because they had a relationship with God, they were people of character and had faith in God.
With that in mind, let’s look at the context of the last time Habakkuk 2:4—“the righteous shall live by his faith”—is quoted in the New Testament, in Hebrews 10.
The words that lead into the “by faith” chapter first recall “the former days” when the Hebrews “endured a hard struggle with sufferings.” (Heb. 10:32). But it seems their initial desire to endure through trials was waning because the apostle then goes on to say “Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.” (v. 35-36).
To read this warning, it is clear something had gone awry with their faithfulness in God amid suffering. The exhortation to endure becomes the climax of the apostle’s list of faithful men, culminating in Christ himself, who “endured the cross.” (12:2). Jesus “endured from sinners such hostility against himself” (12:3), but the writer then goes on to say concerning his readers “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (12:4). They were missing something key in their walk.
So it is, back in chapter 10, that the apostle reminds his readers of Habakkuk 2:
Yet a little while, and the coming one 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. (Heb 10:37-38).
These words aren’t just from Habakkuk. They are a composite quotation that also includes the words “a little while” from Isaiah 26:20:
Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the fury has passed by.
It seems the writer to the Hebrews is correcting a misapplication with this quotation. The context in Hebrews has shown us they were enduring something like “fury” in their suffering. It would be easy to use a verse like Isaiah 26:20 to justify hiding away from that fury, just for a little while, until the threat had passed. However, look at the latter half of the quote from Habakkuk with the warning, “if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” The exhortation message is one of endurance under trial, not shrinking back, even if just for a little while.
What does it mean to shrink back? The apostle uses an unusual Greek word, once used by the Apostle Paul, and another time by the Apostle Peter. Looking at these two uses, we can see the contrast between enduring under trial and hiding away for a little while.
In Acts 20, we find Paul on his way to Jerusalem, where he is bound to suffer many things. Paul called the elders of the ecclesia in Ephesus and reminded them he “did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house.” (v. 20). There was no hiding away for a little while—Paul spoke boldly in public. Later he uses the same phrase when he says, “for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” (v. 27).
On the other hand, Paul uses the same word about Peter in Galatians 2. He writes, “For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came, he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” (v. 12). Here was Peter hiding away for a little time from the threat of persecution.
Why do we sometimes shrink back when threatened with trials? The children of Israel were guilty of it continually when faced with the rigors of the wilderness. They wanted to go back to Egypt and did so in their hearts, repeatedly. Why would anyone want to go back to slavery in Egypt?
Because it felt safe, they knew their boundaries in Egypt, but here they were in a big, vast desert, which was scary. And, for their lack of faith, they all died in the wilderness, as the writer outlines in Hebrews 3.
The honor roll of the Faithful is about men and women who got out of their comfort zone and chose to endure their wilderness sojourn. They understood the principle from Romans 5 that we started with—suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character.
And yet, we find it so easy to shrink from exposing our belief in God to the world and risk suffering. We prefer to hide away for a little while and establish our righteousness through the ritualism of our religion. The Hebrews were guilty of that by going back to the ceremonial aspects of the Law of Moses. At the beginning of chapter 10, the writer urges them to understand that ritualistic offering of sacrifices does not work.
Therefore, it is intriguing that the first illustration of living by faith is Abel’s. His example is that he “offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous.” (11:4). So, it’s not the rituals themselves that are the problem, but the attitude with which they are performed. It is still good for us to go to meeting, read the Bible, and pray.
In contrast, Cain’s offering was unacceptable, and there’s a hint as to why that was the case in the record from Genesis. In Genesis 3:23, God told mankind “to work the ground,” and Cain was “a worker of the ground” (4:2) and brought “an offering of the fruit of the ground.” (4:3). So, it seems as if Cain was following God’s instructions, but it was Abel who was righteous by faith. Likewise, by following the rituals of the Law, it seems as if that should make someone righteous. But, as the example of Cain and Abel shows, there has to be more to it.
Another clue is in the description of Abel’s offering as “a more acceptable sacrifice.” The same phrase translated “more acceptable” is used in Matthew 5. In the context of Jesus saying, “I have not come to abolish them [the Law and Prophets] but to fulfill them.” (v. 17). Jesus adds, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (v. 20).
Despite all appearances, looking as if they were following God’s instructions (like Cain), the righteousness of the Pharisees was one of rote ritualism and devoid of character. Their religion was their comfort zone, and they hid from the threat of persecution. Our righteousness must exceed that, despite the threat of those like Cain and how he treated Abel.
There is one other sacrifice worth mentioning which helps round out the issue when Abraham offered his son Isaac on the altar, mentioned in Hebrews 11. But before we get to that, consider the conundrum of the seeming contradiction between Paul and James. In Romans 4:6, Paul says, “God counts righteousness apart from works,” but James writes, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” (Jas 2:21).
However, note what Paul said earlier in Romans. In 2:6, he said, “He will render to each one according to his work,” and in verse 13 of the same chapter, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified,” which accords perfectly with James’s message that we should “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” (Jas 1:22).
So, why do we read in one place we are justified apart from works and in another that works are important for our justification, or as the word means, being counted righteous?
The answer is throughout Hebrews 11. Despite the divine record telling us “He believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15:6), in Hebrews, we learn that Abraham expressed his faith by works. His sacrifice of Isaac is a classic example of how he lived—or acted, did work—by faith. When the writer to the Hebrews says, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac” (Heb 11:17), he illustrates faith in action—works of faith.
Abraham didn’t simply have a passive belief in God; his faith provoked him into action by obeying God’s command. Yes, he followed God’s instructions, just like Cain, but his motivation was completely different. Whereas Cain acted by rote obedience to the law, Abraham was motivated by his faith that God can bring life out of death.
James explains the principle beautifully by writing the following:
Abraham’s works—the way he lived—illustrated his faith. And where James says, “the Scripture was fulfilled,” he means that the declaration of his faith in Genesis 15 wasn’t fulfilled until it was demonstrated in Genesis 22.
The righteous shall live by faith. The example of Abraham teaches us about faithful endurance. For many years Abraham kept the promise of a son in his heart, and then God tried him by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. Through life’s experiences, we too, if we don’t shrink back into the comfort zone of ritualistic religion, can live by faith and develop the character God wants in those with whom he wishes to share eternity.
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA
- All Scriptural citations are taken from the English Standard Version, unless specifically noted.