Home > Articles > First Principles

The Righteous Shall Live By Faith – Part 4

Righteousness does not come from law.
Read Time: 7 minutes

In Galatians 3:11, Paul quotes our key phrase from Habakkuk when he writes, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”

It seems Paul had Habakkuk in mind throughout his epistle. For instance, in chapter 6, he curiously remarks, “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” (v. 11). Why should the Galatians be impressed that Paul is writing in large letters unless he is alluding to what Habakkuk said in the context of the righteous living by faith when God told him “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it.” (Hab 2:2).

Just as the prophet wrote the vision with large letters, Paul does the same for the Galatians—he wants them to run in faith.

Back in Galatians 3, Paul leads into his quotation of Habakkuk by using another quotation: “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’” (v. 10).

These words are from Deuteronomy 27:26, a chapter in which the Israelites are instructed to “set up large stones and plaster them with plaster. And you shall write on them all the words of this law” and “write on the stones all the words of this law very plainly.” (v. 2-3, 8). That word “plainly” is the same one used in Habakkuk when he was told to make the vision “plain on tablets.” 

What should be plain—or “evident,” as Paul writes in Galatians 3:11—is that righteousness does not come from law, which is one of Paul’s main points in the epistle. As Deuteronomy outlines, the people were under a curse if they did not abide by the law, and as Paul says in verse 13, even Christ was cursed by that law—“Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”

Even though Jesus never sinned, he was not justified by keeping the Law of Moses. He might have kept its spirit perfectly, but it still cursed him, and God, by allowing his Son to be hung on a tree, thus breaking the law, wanted to make this plain for us to see. Even a sinless man was cursed by the Law.

Paul mentions Christ’s death earlier in chapter 3, where he writes, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” (v. 1). His use of the phrase “publicly portrayed” is intriguing in this context.

While it is true that Jesus’ death was a public portrayal of the principles outlined above, there’s more to the phrase than meets the eye. It is translated from one Greek word, prographo, which means “written” (e.g., see Rom 15:4; Eph 3:3). Surely, here we have another allusion to Habakkuk writing the vision plainly. When we see Christ crucified, we see the plain and evident statement of where a law-based religion leads, the cursing of a sinless man. In other words, the law does not work: “the righteous shall live by faith.”

As can be seen from passages like Galatians 6:11-15, the controversy centered on the question of circumcision. Paul talks of those who “desire to have you circumcised” (v. 13), but Paul reminds his readers that it makes no difference if you’re circumcised or not (v. 15) because that has nothing to do with faith.

“the righteous shall live by faith.”

In fact, in chapter 5, Paul writes, “If you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you” (v. 2) and “you are severed from Christ” (v. 4), having “fallen away from grace.” Establishing one’s righteousness before God cannot happen by the rite of circumcision or any ritualism; only “faith working through love.” (v. 6).

Throughout Galatians, Paul’s language is strong and adamant. Ritualism totally obscures Christ, and we do well to heed the lesson even though we Christadelphians aren’t bothered by the circumcision controversy. But returning to a law-based religion can be just as appealing as we naturally try to go about establishing our own righteousness by how often we attend meeting, do the daily readings, or how much Bible study we do. None of those things is a substitute for faith, and if they become our religion, we, too, will fall from grace.

For us to appreciate how easy it is to forget that the righteous shall live by faith, not law, consider the example Paul uses in Chapter 2. There he talks about Peter (who he refers to as Cephas):

If Peter could slip into this mode of thinking, so can we.

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.
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.
And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.
But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews? (Gal 2:11-15).

He’s talking here about Peter, the beloved disciple of Christ, the same man who boldly stood up and preached the gospel on the Day of Pentecost. If Peter could slip into this mode of thinking, so can we.

Later in the chapter, Paul addresses an objection to the doctrine that the righteous shall live by faith, not law—“But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin?” (v. 17) or in the NET version, “Is Christ then one who encourages sin?” Paul answers his question with an emphatic “Certainly not!”

Justification by faith accomplishes the will of God—it produces the kind of character God is looking for. But it can seem counterintuitive to those who might say we need a law to tell us right from wrong. We need to get the balance right, however.

The idea of antinomianism (against the law) has arisen in Christianity throughout history: the belief that there are no moral laws God expects Christians to obey. However, God does want us to obey. The question is, how do we obey? Through being given a set of rules and rituals to follow, or by developing faith and trust in God? The gospel tells us the latter is the case.

In Romans, Paul wrote that the “very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me” (Rom 7:10), telling us that far from encouraging righteousness, trying to live by law is counterproductive. To illustrate the principle, consider one of the places in the Old Testament where we’re told about the law promising life. Here is the passage from Deuteronomy 30:16. I’ve left part of the words out:

If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today […] by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.

It appears you can keep God’s commandments and live so that we might say “the righteous shall live by law.” But here is the passage again, with the part in square brackets filled in:

If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.

The difference is how we obey God. This passage says we obey God by loving him, not by rote-following rules. 

The above passage from Deuteronomy 30 is helpful for how Paul uses it in Romans. In the verse just before the one cited, we read, 

For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (v. 11-14).

In Romans 10:5, Paul writes, “For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them,” probably referencing passages like Leviticus 18:4. But, as we have seen, ultimately trying to live by law is counterproductive when it comes to righteousness. So, Paul continues in Romans 10 by citing Deuteronomy 30:

But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down)“ or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim). (v. 6-8).

In other words, the passage from Deuteronomy is all about living by faith, or as Paul writes in Galatians, “faith working through love.” (Gal 5:6). 

Faith deals with sin in ways law never could. In Galatians 6, Paul writes, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (v. 1-2). The law of Christ is distinct from the Law of Moses in that it’s all about character and how we treat one another. Under law if someone is “caught in any transgression” there is only punishment, not a restoration.

Faith deals with sin in ways law never could.

Finally, consider Paul’s four-fold summary of the power of living by faith at the end of Galatians 2. Notice his repeated use of the word live—“For through the law I died to the law so that I may live to God.” (v. 19), “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” (v. 20) and “the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

This is what living by faith looks like, and it’s all about motivation. The reason that Paul can live is not by law—he tried that, and it only brought about the horrible maltreatment of others while he was the Pharisaical Saul of Tarsus. But now he lives because of the motivation that comes from the Son of God loving him and giving himself for him. 

Richard Morgan,
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA


  1. All Scriptural citations are from the English Standard Version.
Suggested Readings
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.
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.
What separates Pharisee and the tax collector is the doctrine of justification and the outworking of that religion in how we treat others.
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.
View all events
Upcoming Events