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The Righteous Shall Live By Faith – Part 3

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.
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Last month we had a look at the origin of the phrase “the righteous shall live by faith”1  found in Habakkuk 2:4. These words are quoted three times in the New Testament, in Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. Each time there is an emphasis on a different word. In Romans, the book about the righteousness of God, we learn that the “righteous” shall live by faith. In Galatians, Paul is concerned with contrasting faith with law, so in quoting Habakkuk he tells us the righteous shall live by “faith.” Finally, in Hebrews, the quotation occurs just before the honor roll of the faithful in chapter 11, who all lived by faith—so Hebrews emphasizes the point that the righteous shall “live” by faith.

For our consideration in this article, we’re going to have a look at the context of the words found in Romans. They appear in Paul’s thesis statement: 

For I am 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 the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom 1:16-17). 

Paul tells us that Habakkuk’s words reveal the righteousness of God; but what is God’s righteousness? A useful exercise is to peruse the many passages in the Old Testament that explain God’s righteousness, and typically we find passages like this one from Psalm 143:1-2: 

Hear my prayer, O Lord; give ear to my pleas for mercy! In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness! Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you. 

Notice the words in verse 1 where righteousness is paired with faithfulness. David’s prayer is that God’s righteousness will be revealed by Him being faithful to his servant, and we find that to be a constant theme throughout the Bible. God exhibits his righteousness in the way he treats others, centering on his faithfulness, a characteristic at the very center of God’s description of his glory found in Exodus 34 which I have set out in its chiastic form below from Exodus

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God

A merciful and gracious, slow to  anger,

       B and abounding in steadfast love

             C and faithfulness, 

       B keeping steadfast love for thousands, 

A forgiving iniquity and  transgression and sin, but who will  by no means clear the guilty.”

Faithfulness is God’s rock-like attribute of reliability and trustworthiness. And it’s because we can rely on God  we can have faith in Him. Or to put it another way, we can have faith in God’s faithfulness.

This helps explain what Paul means in the passage from Romans cited above—“the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.” What does “from faith for faith” mean?

Faithfulness is God’s rock-like attribute of reliability and trustworthiness

First, notice the exact wording of our key phrase from Habakkuk 2:4—“The righteous shall live by his faith.” When quoted in the New Testament, the pronoun “his” is missing each time, including here in Romans. However, there’s some ambiguity in the fact the Septuagint, which would have been the common version read in the first century, reads “The just shall live by my faith,” meaning God’s faith. Paul’s version with no pronoun leaves the question open whether he is quoting the Hebrew or Greek text.

However, perhaps what we have here is a designed ambiguity. What if Paul wants us to understand that our faith and God’s faith (or faithfulness) work together? It’s about our faith manifested in us trusting in God’s faithfulness, hence Paul’s “from faith for faith”—or to put it another way, “from God’s faithfulness for our faith.”

Considering this, it’s interesting to note that in Romans 3, Paul says God is also justified by faith! In verse 3, he writes, “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?” God’s faithfulness cannot be upset by the fact that the Jewish people were unfaithful; God remains trustworthy.

Then he says, “By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, ‘That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.’” (v. 4). So, God is justified in his actions by virtue of his continuing faithfulness. This principle is a theme that runs through Romans, which, like Habakkuk, considers the problem of theodicy—the righteousness of God in the midst of an evil world.

Later in Romans 3:21-22, Paul writes, “the righteousness of God has been manifested… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.” That righteousness is seen in God forgiving people for their sins, or in the words of verses 24-25

“justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness.”

What these words tell us is that God’s righteousness is revealed by him being faithful to those in covenant relationship with him. He will forgive them for their sins.

What we also see in these words is the faithfulness of God manifest in his son. The phrase in verse 22—“through faith in Jesus Christ,” is rendered in the NET Bible as “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” Whether it’s God’s faithfulness, or it being manifest in His son, our faith depends on God being true to His servants and forgiving us for our sins.

Sometimes the concepts Paul outlines in Romans are a little hard to understand, so let’s look at an example that Paul uses hidden beneath the surface of the text.

Back in chapter 1, in his introductory words, Paul says his treatise is “concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh.” (v. 3). Why David? Because he is the prime example Paul uses to demonstrate God’s righteousness, faithfulness, and the forgiveness of sins.

Look again at chapter 3 and notice how many times Paul quotes David. Verse 4, for instance, is a direct quotation from Psalm 51:

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.  Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. (Psa 51:1-4).

Here is David trusting—or having faith—in God’s character of mercy and steadfast love. Then, another of David’s psalms is quoted at the end of this section in Romans in chapter 4:6-8:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. (Psa. 32:1-2).

David wrote both psalms at the time of his sin with Bathsheba, and so we have here a powerful example of God’s faithfulness to his servant despite his sin and the forgiveness he was willing to offer.

There’s another quotation from a psalm of David in between these two, which forms a pivot in the text. Verse 20 says, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight,” words which come from Psalm 143:2. Remember, this is the psalm we opened with where David cries to God in the first verse “In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness!” 

With these words of David, and example of his forgiveness, in mind, notice the structure of the text is that of a courtroom scene: 

  • Rom 3:9—accusation: all have sinned.
  • Rom 3:10-18—evidence: Scriptural testimony.
  • Rom 3:19—verdict: guilty.
  • Rom 3:24—sentence: forgiveness.

David understood this. He was accused by Nathan and the evidence was overwhelming–he had sinned by committing adultery and murder. But whereas the Law would have sentenced him to death, God forgave him for his sin.

Back in chapter 1, Paul gives us a list of sins, ending the list with the words “Those who practice such things deserve to die” (v. 32), something which was true for David concerning his sin with Bathsheba.

However, in using these words, it is possible Paul is quoting David after the prophet Nathan confronted him regarding his sin. After hearing the parable, Nathan told him about the rich man who stole the poor man’s lamb, David said, “The man who has done this deserves to die” (2 Sam. 12:5) and in saying those words, David indicted himself. 

The next thing Paul writes in Romans, at the beginning of chapter 2, also alludes to this event in David’s life. Paul says, “You have no excuse, O man, everyone one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (v1), echoing Nathan’s “You are the man!” (2 Sam 12:7). 

We’re talking here about the man after God’s heart—the otherwise immensely faithful David. And if we are honest with ourselves, when we read that list of sins in Romans 1, we realize we are guilty too, something Paul concludes in chapter 3 saying, “All, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (v. 9). 

He then follows, Romans 3:10-18 with a list of evidence from the Old Testament, the story of human beings replete with sin throughout history. If you look carefully at the list of quotations in this passage, you’ll notice that most of them are from the psalms, and they’re all psalms of David. So, once again, Paul is quoting the man after God’s heart. But he does so in a most intriguing way.

For instance, the words “The venom of asps is under their lips” (v. 13) is a quotation from Psalm 140:3—“under their lips is the venom of asps.” David wrote this psalm against sinners he encountered in his life. But if we carry on reading the very next verse of the psalm, we encounter the words, “Guard me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked; preserve me from violent men, who have planned to trip up my feet.”

Who was it who planned to trip up Uriah’s feet to hide his sin? David! Here is an example of a man who judged sinners in his words but in practicing the same things, condemned himself. 

We find the same phenomenon in the other quotations. Romans 3:14 says, “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness,” a quotation from Psalm 10:7—“His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit.” Again, read the next verse and see that David indicted himself–“He sits in ambush in the villages; in hiding places he murders the innocent,” something David did to Uriah. 

One more example will suffice to illustrate what Paul is doing with these quotations. Romans 3:18 says, “There is no fear of God before their eyes” which comes from Psalm 36:1—“there is no fear of God before his eyes,” which follow with the words in verse 2, “For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated,” something, again, David thought in trying to cover up his sin. 

David, despite his mistakes, was a man of high godly character.

The fundamental principle Paul hammers home by using the example of David is “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23). 

However, God forgave David. Why? 

Perhaps there’s an answer in some more words of David that he spoke to Saul when he spared his life: 

The LORD rewards every man for his righteousness and his faithfulness, for the Lord gave you into my hand today, and I would not put out my hand against the Lord’s anointed. 24 Behold, as your life was precious this day in my sight, so may my life be precious in the sight of the Lord, and may he deliver me out of all tribulation. (1 Sam 26:23-24). 

Here David invokes words memorialized in another of his psalms—“With the merciful you show yourself merciful.” (Psa 18:25). David, despite his mistakes, was a man of high godly character. As a man after God’s heart, he was merciful just as God is merciful. As David spared Saul’s life, so God spared his. And in this passage from 1Samuel, we find the central theme of the righteous living by faith in David’s words “The LORD rewards every man for his righteousness and his faithfulness.” 

Richard Morgan,
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA

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