The Just Shall Live By Faith
"I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what he will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved. And the LORD answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry. Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith." — Habbakuk 2:1-4
“The Just shall live by faith.” That’s one of the best known Bible verses in the Protestant world. After all, discovering that verse in Romans 1 led Luther to begin the Protestant Reformation, didn’t it?
As is often the case with widely accepted opinions, we find looking closer that we don’t understand this verse at all. In fact, we began to wonder just how well Luther understood what Paul meant when he quoted “The just shall live by faith.”
We think of this verse as referring to “justification (or salvation) by faith” but that’s not how Habbakuk uses the phrase. Rather, Habbakuk says, “The just shall live by faith.” That means day by day live by faith. Faith (see Hebrews 11:1, 1-6, 10, 14-16) is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Those fathers who kept looking for another and better country saw with the eyes of their faith what they could not see with their physical eyes. They acted daily upon what their faith saw. So here Habbakuk means that we live by faith when faith activates and informs all our understanding and believing and thinking.
WHEN GOD SEEMS UNJUST
Nowhere is that harder than where God appears to be unjust. The believer, just like Habbakuk, faces a terrible doubt: Is God unjust, or does his providence not rule at all? Does random chance rule the world, rather than providence?
Habbakuk faces a terrible quandary. He has taught the Israelites God’s commandments. They knew them already. But the more he has taught, the more he has prophesied, the more licentiously they have sinned. So he cries out to God. Just as an aside, what comfort there is in his prayer! God does not forbid but welcomes the plea of the believer struggling with doubts. He welcomes whatever Habbakuk has to say, even “God, how long will you let these people get away scot-free?”
But Habbakuk isn’t ready for God’s answer. Imagine if you could, Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Osama Bin Laden all rolled up into one person. To Habbakuk, that was the Chaldeans. “God, what! To punish your own people you’re going to use the wicked Chaldeans? Why, they’re the wickedest people on earth!”
It would be easy to think that about the World Trade Center attacks. After all, these terrorists are horrible people. Why would God allow that? Aren’t we the good guys and they the bad guys?
PERSONAL OR NATIONAL? THE ANSWER IS THE SAME
We can understand that on the lofty national level or on the lowly personal level. In our case we can look at this country where since 1973 the blood of millions—40 million—infants has been poured out in abortion. Many of those who have fought it the hardest have been jailed or lost their property, while the abortionists and their allies ride high. We look at heaven and say, How long, O Lord? This is a real problem. On the one hand Zephaniah claims that the Lord is a just judge who will do justice every morning, but on the other hand God appears to be in no hurry to do justice. Which is it?
Or we can look at it on the personal level, in our own daily fighting against the wicked. That’s what Psalm 37 and Psalm 73 are all about—why do the wicked prosper, while the righteous eat sand? God, how can you do this to us? Reason and our sense of justice protest earnestly.
REASON, JUSTICE, OR FAITH?
But not faith, because faith sees through the seen to the unseen. Faith throws away reason and our puny sense of justice because faith knows and believes that God is just, because he is God. Therefore we, who cannot see all his secret purposes or comprehend all events, continue to trust him in spite of all outward appearances. We continue to believe that he is just, and know that he is. There is something else going on we cannot yet see, so we must rise above, up to heaven, to get a right and proper view of events. We must climb that tower of patience built on hope, and look on events in the world from a heavenly viewpoint.
And Romans 1 does not contradict that. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ … For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith.” Wait, wait! Whose righteousness is revealed in the gospel? Not ours, but God’s.
NOT A ONE TIME ACT
So this faith that the just live by is not a one-time act (that’s “justification by faith”) but a way of thinking and living and understanding, communicated by the word of God. Because faith is not found in us, God gives it to us by his Holy Spirit. Look at 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” That “sound mind” is the mind of faith, and it is not afraid to trample so-called reason underfoot when “reason” contradicts the Word and promise of God.
The message that comes to Habbakuk and to Timothy, and to us, is the same. When I 2 Timothy 1, there was only one verse I could see, the eighth. “Be thou therefore notashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but be thou (1) partaker of the afflictions of the Gospel (2) according to the power of God.” In other words, “The just shall live by faith.”
DO NOT RESIST THE CROSS
We have to voluntarily take part in the afflictions of the Gospel, and we have to do it according to the power of God, understand and expecting it as the gift of the Holy Spirit.
We have to be careful not to resist the cross. Whatever the cross may be in your life—poverty, riches, the trail of some former sin you have to keep on dealing with, your own failures, your besetting sin—you must accept it, both in its pain and shame. Look how Paul accepts it in 2 Timothy 1:12, “For the which cause—i.e., to preach the gospel to the Gentiles—I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.”
As long as “reason” protests against our cross—Why me, Lord? This isn’t fair! It isn’t reasonable that you make me suffer so! Why do you let my enemies prevail? If you really could do something, then you would!—we are resisting the cross. No, we must embrace it all with all our heart and will and mind.
Only in that way are we conformed to the image of Christ. Only in that way does our cross achieve its purpose—the purpose of God—in our lives.
How did Christ accept the cross? Hebrews 12:2 tells us. With joy. Despising the shame.
Philippians 2:8 tells us that Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father, enjoying from all eternity full equality with God in being, power, substance, and glory, laid aside that glory of his own free well, and humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Obedient to death. How? Voluntarily. With his whole will. With joy. With his whole heart and mind, seconding perfectly and approving with all his being the will of God.
And how are we conformed to Christ? By conforming ourselves to his cross and ours.
By not resisting our cross, whether it is sickness or ridicule or failure or defeat or all the spite the world can pour on us. By embracing our cross, with all our heart and will and mind, that is, by improving it. By receiving it for the purpose God sent it. By refusing to be ashamed of it. By glorying in it.
Is Paul ashamed of his cross? No. Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” 2 Corinthians 4:14-18, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory: while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
2 Corinthians 12:7-10, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Philippians 3:8-10, “Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him … That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.”
The Cross—our cross—conforms us to the image of Christ, and we must embrace it with open arms.
Finally, we ought to ask, Did Luther get it all wrong? Or does Habbakuk’s phrase, “The just shall live by faith,” have yet another meaning? Luther was not all wrong. It does have to do with our eternal salvation, because whatever mercies and grace God reveals to us and pours on us day by day are only tokens—foretastes—of the mercies that God shows us, and will show us, throughout all eternity.
The just shall live by faith.