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The Righteous Shall Live By Faith – Part 2

To further understand the implication that the righteous shall live by faith, let’s consider the origin of the phrase found in the book of Habakkuk.
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One of the most fundamental doctrines outlined in Scripture is that God counts our faith as righteousness, and we can’t be righteous by following a list of rules or laws. Think of David—condemned twice over by the Law because of his adultery and murder. He had to have faith in the compassion and patience of God and God’s ability to save him; otherwise, he was doomed.

So, righteousness is not something that comes from attending ecclesial meetings and functions, reading, and studying the Bible, saying prayers, believing in the inspiration of Scripture, or accepting first principle teachings.

Without forming a trusting relationship and allegiance to God, understanding the spirit behind the things God asks us to do, accepting God working in our lives as good for our eternal well-being, and developing godly character, all the activities we engage in are meaningless.

To further understand the implication that the righteous shall live by faith, let’s consider the origin of the phrase found in the book of Habakkuk:

Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith. (Hab 2:4).1

Notice this verse contains two classes of people, like in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. On the one hand, we have someone so puffed up in pride he is blind to his failings, and on the other hand, despite his sinfulness, someone who goes to his home justified because of his faith in God.

Habakkuk is a rather obscure book tucked away at the end of the Old Testament, so it’s worth spending some time in the context to understand why the prophet wrote this foundational verse. The whole prophecy deals with theodicy, how a righteous and benevolent God can allow evil, wickedness and suffering. Habakkuk struggled with this question when he surveyed the situation in Jerusalem. He wrote in the first four verses of the book:

The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw. O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted. (Hab 1:1-4).

The prophet can’t understand what is happening because he sees iniquity and injustice in God’s people. Chapter 2 then highlights the details of their iniquity in a series of five woes:

Instead of righteousness, there is wickedness.

  1. Greed (2:6-8)
  2. Exploitation (2:9-11)
  3. Violence (2:12-14)
  4. Immorality (2:15-17
  5. Idolatry (2:18-20)

If you had to come up with a list of sins that illustrate how to break the law of God, this would work perfectly. It’s a summary of what the Law of Moses prescribed against, and yet the people are guilty of each one. Habakkuk doesn’t understand how people under the law of God are breaking it in every aspect. Instead of righteousness, there is wickedness.

Having aired his complaint in 1:1-4, God answers him in the next few verses. Verse 5 probably encouraged the prophet when Yahweh told him, “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.”

So, God is at work He tells the prophet. But then He goes on to explain that He is “raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own.” (v. 6).

This answer does not solve the conundrum from the prophet’s point-of-view. How can raising up an even more unrighteous nation solve the problem?

 Unsatisfied, Habakkuk complains against God in the rest of the chapter. In verse 13, he asks,

“You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?”

Why is unrighteousness dealt with by even more unrighteousness? It doesn’t make sense to the prophet, and in exasperation, he closes his complaint with the words, “Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?” (v. 17).

What are we to make of Habakkuk’s complaint? God did the same thing years later when He brought the Romans against Jerusalem in the first century. Paul alluded to that event in the chapter we looked at last month, Acts 13. Quoting Habakkuk 1:5 in verse 41, he tells the Jews to “Beware” (v. 40) that the same thing that happened in Habakkuk’s day will happen again.

Amid unrighteousness in the ecclesia and even more unrighteousness in the world around us, we can become as bewildered as Habakkuk. What are we meant to do when faced with iniquity? God’s second answer solves the conundrum. At the beginning of chapter 2, God answered Habakkuk with the following words:

And the Lord answered me: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie.If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith. (Hab 2:2-4).

God tells the prophet that He knows what He’s doing, and we simply have to trust that He is right. This is the essence of faith: trusting in the righteousness of God despite the paradoxes of life. Faith trusts God will save us, and we can depend on Him no matter what the tangible things around us seem to say.

The paradox for Habakkuk is summarized in 1:4, where he says, “the law is paralyzed.” Here were a people living under God’s law and yet unrighteous. The gospel message tells us we need to be freed from law to become righteous. That doesn’t make sense to the natural mind.

Surely, if you have a law, you will do the right thing as prescribed by its rules and statutes. If you’re not under a law, how will you do what is right? However, all the prophet had to do was look around him and see the Law was indeed paralyzed; despite what it commanded, people were doing the exact opposite.

 We have another conundrum to solve. In 2:2, God tells Habakkuk concerning the vision to “make it plain on tablets.” The only other times the word for “plain” is used in the Old Testament are both in Deuteronomy.

First, in chapter 1, where “Moses undertook to explain” (v. 5) the Law, and then in chapter 27 in the context of the blessings and curses of the Law expounded from Mounts Ebal and Gerizim. The people were told to “write on the stones all the words of this law very plainly.” (v. 8). The word for “tablets” used by Habakkuk is also the word used for the Law written on tablets in such places as Deuteronomy 4:13.

So, Habakkuk used the same medium to write his vision as Moses used to write the Law. We might think  this means the Law can produce faith if we follow it. After all, in Habakkuk, what was written plainly on tablets was so the people might live by faith.

However, despite the medium being the same, the difference is seen in how one approaches the written word. We, too, have words written on a medium. Not tablets of stone but paper and ink, but really, it’s no different—they are still words written down. The question is, how do we read the Word of God? As a list of rules to make us righteous, or the words of a caring Heavenly Father that we take on faith and obey because we are developing a loving relationship with Him?

Our acceptance of the Word of God in the right spirit is key. Look at what Paul says about the Law in Romans 7:

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. 5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. (Rom 7:4-5).

The implication of these words is that we cannot “bear fruit for God” if we are living under a law, that is, if we take the Word of God in the wrong way. In fact, despite the commandments of the Law being “holy and righteous and good” (v. 12), if we read the Word of God just as a list of rules to follow to make us righteous, it has a detrimental effect— “our sinful passions, aroused by the law.”

Remember, Habakkuk said, “the law is paralyzed,” and the five woes of chapter 2 illustrate they were doing the opposite of what the law prescribed, despite being under the Law. The people of Habakkuk’s day were a witness to the truth of what Paul says about the law here in Romans.

Paul continues in verse 8, “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness,” and in verse 11, “For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.”

These words echo ones spoken in Eden, where the serpent (sin) seized his opportunity through the commandment—“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1)—to deceive Eve and brought death into the world.

What Paul describes, and what Habakkuk witnessed, is how human nature works in the context of law. In the next chapter, Paul says, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” (Rom 8:3). It is not that the Law was a problem in and of itself.

The Law was right, but what it did was illustrate what sin looks like. In Romans 7, Paul effectively explains that when the Law says, “Don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” that tree suddenly becomes very intriguing to the flesh. And then, because of the weakness of the flesh, instead of obeying the commandment, we disobey.

God’s solution in Habakkuk’s day was not to change the medium by which he transmitted His word but to set up a scenario in which people who had faith in Him would live. When the prophet wrote the vision plainly on tablets, everyone now had a choice. T

hey could either believe what God, through Habakkuk, was saying or not. The righteous would literally, live if they read the vision, had faith in its truthfulness, and ran for their lives from the Chaldeans. The Law could not save the people. As Habakkuk said, it was paralyzed. Its only effect was for the people to do the exact opposite.

In vain, the prophet could have kept telling the people, “Obey these laws!” They would still have been greedy, exploitive, violent, immoral, and idolatrous. The only way to divide the wheat from the chaff was to bring a test of faith into their lives through the Chaldean invasion. The question now was not how good the people were at keeping laws but whether they had faith in the living God. 

Richard Morgan,
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA

1 All Scriptural citations are taken from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.

Suggested Readings
What separates Pharisee and the tax collector is the doctrine of justification and the outworking of that religion in how we treat others.
For our consideration in this article, we’re going to have a look at the context of the words, “The righteous shall live by faith” found in Romans.
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.
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