Breakthrough! “The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17 KJV). Famously, Martin Luther awoke spiritually and theologically when he realized that justification came by faith, not works. He grasped Paul’s words: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17 KJV).
Where is this “written”? In Habakkuk 2: “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith” (Hab. 2:4 NRSV).
Let’s look at this verse in context. God used it to bring Luther to full trust in God’s provision through Jesus Christ, rather than in his own efforts—to rest in God’s grace. This is key; the heart of the matter.
In context however, “the just shall live by faith” has also a larger meaning.
Write the Vision!
In chapter one, Habakkuk asks God some tough questions. Then he says, “I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.” And God does answer: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie” (Hab. 2:2-3).
A “vision” for an “appointed time” when God will fulfill his redemptive purposes. How is this accessed now? By faith! (Hab. 2:4).
Next question: What is this vision? God answers explicitly: “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14 — one of Wesley’s favorite verses).
God’s Plan for History (Hab. 2)
In the midst of the plagues, troubles, and violence that Habakkuk decries in chapter one, God says: I give you a larger, longer-term vision for “the appointed time” (vs. 3). It is sure and certain. The “proud” will not see it, by the righteous will claim it by faith.
God will first bring judgment upon oppressors “because of human bloodshed, and violence to the earth, to cities and all without live in them” (vs. 8, repeated in vs. 17). But the time is coming when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea”—a promise found also in that great messianic, kingdom-of-God passage, Isaiah 11 (Isa. 11:9); suggested also in Zech. 14:8-9.
Three key points here:
1. God has a plan for all of history in which he will judge evil and bring his peaceable kingdom in fullness.
2. We may not see evidence of this now, but we are to trust fully in God’s promise.
3. Habakkuk is to live now in this hope and promise—to live by faith in the sure promises of God, and act accordingly.
How does Habakkuk respond? In worship: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (vs. 20). He then prays a remarkable prayer (chapter three). He is now living by faith!
Habakkuk does not know the full promise of the Messiah, of course. He cannot foresee how God will work out his salvation plan through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ongoing reign of Jesus Christ.
He doesn’t know the means, but he knows the end. And that is certain, for God says so. It is based on God’s covenant promise.
Martin Luther was right of course to say that justification is by faith in Jesus Christ. But the full meaning of Habakkuk 2 is that God’s people are to live and act now by faith in the entirety of God’s kingdom promises. More than personal justification is at stake.
Live Now by Faith
The just shall live by faith. Faith in what? In the sure promises of God, made real to us now through Jesus Christ by the Spirit and the Word.
Living by faith means living in and living out the assurance that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea,” rather than expecting a final escape to heaven. It means acting by faith and in faithfulness to make this happen. It means trusting fully in Jesus Christ for our salvation and doing those kingdom-of-God works “which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:10).
The Bible promises the full reconciliation of heaven and earth; the healing of all creation. The New Testament calls this “the renewal of all things” or “universal restoration” (Acts 3:21, depending on the version); or the reconciliation of all things on earth and in heaven through Jesus Christ (Col. 1:20). This is the kingdom of God in fullness; the earth being “full of the knowledge of the Lord” (Isa. 11:9).
“Those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land” (Ps. 37:9; cf. 37:11, 22, 34). “The righteous shall inherit the land, and live in it forever” (Ps. 37:29). No surprise then that Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Mt. 5:5).
Faith Brings Hope and Action
The just live by faith. Not faith in faith. Not faith in ourselves or our works or devotion. Not faith in the Bible itself, as holy book. Not faith in right doctrine. Not faith in the cross or any other object. The just live by faith in the sure promises of God, made real in us through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is what it means to trust Jesus Christ for our and the world’s salvation.
If we have faith in Jesus Christ, we also have the faith of Jesus that God will fulfill all his kingdom promises. So we are called to be faithful to that calling and act out our hope in ways that make us fruitful precisely in the fulfilling of that hope. We see this in Jesus himself, both our Savior and our example.
In light of God’s promise through faith, and our commitment to live out that faith, we end up where Habakkuk did: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab. 2:20).
The just live by faith in what? In Jesus Christ and in God’s promise that “the earth be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” In context, faith here relates to “the vision,” which explicitly is a vision for the fulfillment of God’s purposes (2:14)—the kingdom of God in fullness.
A gentle reminder, then. I do not live by faith in Jesus Christ solely for me-focused personal salvation. I live also by faith in God’s promise for the healing of all creation.
So Jesus-followers become not only believers for our own salvation, but workers for and “trusters” in the full coming of the kingdom of God on earth.