The Just Shall Live by Faith

Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 1:17

August 23, 2014 | Ray Pritchard

Listen to this Sermon

In this message we need to hold two texts together because one is the key to the other. Let’s start with the words of Paul in Romans 1:17:

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Note the last part of that verse where Paul says, “Just as it is written.” That means he is quoting the Old Testament. Where did he find the phrase, “The righteous will live by faith”? It comes from Habakkuk 2:4.

“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.

Everyone agrees that this is the central verse of Habakkuk. It is certainly one of the most crucial verses in the Bible. Here is a verse so important that it takes three New Testament books to explain it. The phrase “the just shall live by faith” is quoted in Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, and Hebrews 10:38.

This is the text that changed the world

This is the text that changed the world. It first changed a man, and that man changed the world. Most of us know the story of Martin Luther, at one time an obscure Roman Catholic monk, who entered the monastery seeking to be set free from the heavy burden of guilt he felt because of his sin. Though he was an obedient son of the church, he found no rest for his soul in prayer and fasting and penance. His eyes were opened by God when he studied the epistle to the Romans. As he came to Romans 1:17, he pondered the meaning of the quotation from Habakkuk 2:4. Reflecting back on what this text meant in his life, Luther offered this testimony:

When by the Spirit of God, I understood these words—”The just shall live by faith”—then I felt born again like a new man. I entered through the open doors into the very paradise of God.

When Martin Luther found this text—or more accurately—when this text found him, it turned his life upside down. No longer was he willing to remain a simple monk at the monastery in Erfurt. Once the blazing truth of justification by faith gripped his soul, he ignited a fire that eventually spread throughout Europe and eventually to the ends of the earth.

What Habakkuk Wrote

Yet this little phrase, “the just shall live by faith,” comes almost as an aside. In Habakkuk 2 God pronounces judgment on the wicked Babylonians. Because they are greedy and arrogant and bloodthirsty and ruthless, because they kill without remorse, and because they give themselves over to every sort of evil, God promises to one day destroy them.

But that day is a long way off.
Babylon won’t be destroyed for almost 70 years.
They still have a lot of looting left to do.
They will plunder many nations.

They still have lots of looting left to do

Their end is determined, but it won’t happen for a long time.
What do you do while you watch the bad guys steal and kill and behead their enemies? That’s a question ripped from today’s headlines.

What do you do when evildoers come to power? The just shall live by faith.
What do you do when your prayers go unanswered? The just shall live by faith.
What do you do when your dreams turn to ashes? The just shall live by faith.

When all you see is trouble on every hand, the righteous man remembers that God is still on his throne, and when the dark clouds break overhead, he says to himself, “The just shall live by faith.”

How much did Habakkuk understand about Luther and the Protestant Reformation? Nothing at all. He understood these words entirely in the context of his own times. More than 600 years later the Holy Spirit moved Paul to quote these words to prove that the gospel was no innovation but had been predicted in the Old Testament. And 1500 years after that, Martin Luther found rest for his soul when he understood the true meaning of “the just shall live by faith.”

What Paul Wrote

This is the verse that changed Luther’s life: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, ‘The righteous will live by faith.'” (Romans 1:17). In the previous verse Paul declared that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. Now he explains why the gospel is so powerful.

1. It reveals a righteousness that comes from God.     

The word righteousness comes from the courtrooms of the ancient world. It means to declare “not guilty” and to declare someone innocent of all charges. If you are righteous in God’s eyes, you can stand before him and be declared “not guilty.”

The gospel of Christ provides for us what we could never provide for ourselves. On our own merit we all stand condemned before the Almighty. Who would dare to say, “I am good enough to go to heaven”? As someone has said, “A clear conscience is the result of a poor memory.” The only people who think they are good enough to go to heaven are the people who don’t know how bad they really are!

Righteousness is what we need but do not have

Righteousness is what we need but do not have. Therefore God, knowing that we could never be righteous on our own, provided a righteousness that comes down to us from heaven above. It’s not earned or deserved but is given to us by God as a free gift.

The Reformers had a special term for this. They said we need “alien righteousness.” The term alien means “from another place.” When I visit Uganda or Chili or China, I am an “alien” in those countries because I am from another place. To say that we are saved by alien righteousness means that we are saved by righteousness that comes “from another place.” It comes not from within us as a result of our good deeds but from outside of us entirely. Where can a guilty sinner find righteousness “from another place”? He can find it in Jesus Christ! That’s the “alien righteousness” that saves guilty sinners.

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

That brings us to the second reason why the gospel is so powerful.

2. The righteousness from God is received only by faith.

The key word here is faith. Our text says that righteousness is received “by faith from first to last.” Everyone who is saved is saved the same way. It is faith alone and faith always. How can I be right with God? The answer is simple: By receiving the righteousness of God that comes only by faith.

We need this because we’re all in the same boat and the boat is going down. The Bible says in Romans 3:22b-23, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Note that little phrase—“no difference.” No difference between rich and poor, young and old, black or white, male or female. We all stand condemned by our sin and all of us are under the judgment of God. Our sins may not be exactly the same, but we are all sinners nonetheless. We’re all in the same boat, and the boat has sprung a huge leak. If God doesn’t do something, we will all perish together.

We’re all in the same boat

We have a big problem with this because deep down inside we secretly think that God makes deals. That if we will only try hard enough, do our best, clean up our act, play by the rules, and treat people right, then God will let us into heaven in the end. During a sermon years ago when I pastored in Oak Park, IL, I was trying to explain the meaning of There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). To illustrate my point, I said, “There is no righteous person in Chicago.” Then I added, “And there is no righteous person in Berwyn or Cicero” (nearby suburbs). And then “There is no righteous person in River Forest or Forest Park” (even closer suburbs). Finally I said, “You can go up and down the streets of Oak Park, and you will not find a single righteous person. Not even one.” I said it, made my point, and moved on. The next Sunday, a woman shook my hand and said she wanted to ask me a question. I could tell that she was deeply concerned about something. “Last week you said there was no one righteous in all of Oak Park.” That’s true. I did indeed say that, and I also said there were no righteous people in any of the surrounding cities and towns. Apart from God’s grace, there is no righteousness to be found anywhere. With a face marked with intense concern, she asked, “But Pastor Ray, if you aren’t a righteous man, what will we do?”

Her question was sincere. I told her to listen to my sermon and she would find the answer. After telling this story to the congregation, I said I would show them the only righteous person in Oak Park—or anywhere else for that matter. Pointing to the cross on the wall behind the pulpit, I declared that Jesus is the only righteous man who ever lived.

Jesus Christ was pure, holy, and perfect in every way. He never sinned, not even one time. Though he was severely tempted, he never gave in. All the rest of us fall so far short that we cannot begin to be compared to him. He is the only righteous man ever to walk this earth.

We crucified the only righteous man ever to walk this earth

And we crucified him.

His reward for doing God’s will was death on a bloody Roman cross. Here is the wonder of grace at work. From the murder of a perfect man came God’s plan to rescue the human race.

If you want to go to heaven, learn this lesson: God Doesn’t Make Deals With Sinners. If you come to God on the basis of your good works, you will be turned away because you miss the mark of 100% perfection. But if come to God on the basis of the righteousness provided by the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be accepted.

There is a third reason why the gospel is so powerful.

3. By the righteousness in the gospel men and women are declared just in the eyes of God.   

To prove his point Paul includes a quotation from Habakkuk 2:4, “The just shall live by faith.” It was this text—quoted by Paul in Romans 1:17—that ultimately shook Martin Luther to the core and brought him to saving faith in Jesus Christ. On this point, I quote from a letter by Dr. Paul Luther, the reformer’s youngest son:

In the year 1544, my late dearest father, in the presence of us all, narrated the whole story of his journey to Rome. He acknowledged with great joy that, in that city, through the Spirit of Jesus Christ, he had come into the knowledge of the truth of the everlasting gospel. It happened this way. As he repeated his prayers on the Lateran staircase, the words of the prophet Habakkuk came suddenly to his mind, “The just shall live by faith.” Thereupon he ceased his prayers, returned to Wittenberg, and took this as the chief foundation of all his doctrine. (Quoted in A Bunch of Everlastings, by Frank Boreham, pp. 19-20.)

From that unlikely beginning came the Protestant Reformation. And with it the battle cry Sola Fide, “by faith alone.”

Sola Fide! = Faith Alone!

Faith alone! Not by works of the law.
Faith alone! Not by obedience to the Church.
Faith alone! Not by human righteousness.
Faith alone! Not by baptism.
Faith alone! Not by good intentions.
Faith alone! Not by the sacraments.
Faith alone! Not by acts of charity.
Faith alone! Plus nothing and minus nothing!

What does it mean to have “faith alone” in this sense? If you know what it means to believe a doctor when he says, “You need surgery,” you know what it means to have faith. If you know what it means to step into an airplane entrusting your safety to the captain in the cockpit, you know what it means to have faith. If you know what it means to ask a lawyer to plead your case in court, you know what it means to have faith. Faith is complete reliance upon another person to do that which you could never do for yourself. 

How much faith does it take to go to heaven? It depends. The answer is not much and all you’ve got. If you are willing to trust Jesus Christ with as much faith as you happen to have, you can be saved. But if you’re holding anything back, thinking that maybe you need to do something to help save yourself, forget it! Saving faith is putting your trust in Jesus Christ and him alone. In order to do that you have to stop trying to save yourself.

Lewis Sperry Chafer said that believing in Jesus means trusting him so much that if he can’t take you to heaven, you aren’t going to go there. I like that. If Jesus can’t take me to heaven, then I’ll never make it because I’m going “all in” on him. I don’t have a Plan B. Sometimes people say, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” That may be good advice when it comes to investing your money, but it’s terrible advice for investing your soul. It’s okay to put all your eggs in one basket if the basket is labeled “Jesus.”

I’m “all in” on Jesus!

Some years ago Josh McDowell debated a well-known Muslim. At one point the Muslim tried to ridicule the Christian faith by saying that Christians are riding on the back of a crucified man. Josh replied by saying, “You’re right. We’re riding on the back of a crucified man, and he is going to take us all the way to heaven.”

Let me say it as plainly as I can. There is good news and bad news from our text. The bad news first: You have no other hope of heaven outside of Jesus Christ. Good works cannot save you. Church membership cannot save you.  Baptism cannot save you. Giving money cannot save you. Keeping the Ten Commandments cannot save you. Nothing you can do will make the least bit of difference concerning your eternal salvation. If you are trusting in your good life or in your religion to get you to heaven, someday you will be sadly (and eternally) disappointed.

Now for the good news. Those who put their trust in Jesus Christ are saved forever. That’s the real meaning of “the just will live by faith.”

Only Trust Him

During my final year at Dallas Seminary, I took a course from Dr. Charles Ryrie called Senior Theology. During the course of the semester we covered the whole field of Christian theology. One day when we were discussing saving faith, Dr. Ryrie commented that he liked one particular invitation hymn because it was very biblical. I thought he was going to say “Just As I Am,” but instead he mentioned a less familiar song called Only Trust Him. The title was, he said, exactly right.

Only—the right qualification.
Trust—the right action.
Him—the right object.

Only trust him.
Do that and you will be saved.

Only trust him

Years later I learned that the hymn was written by a Methodist preacher named John Stockton. It became popular when Ira Sankey used it as an invitation hymn during D. L. Moody’s evangelistic campaigns in Great Britain in the 1870s. It turns out that Sankey thought the original words were a little too sentimental so he changed them slightly. Sankey’s version is the one we use today:

Come, every soul by sin oppressed,
There’s mercy with the Lord;
And he will surely give you rest,
By trusting in his Word.


Only trust him, only trust him,
Only trust him now.
He will save you, he will save you,
He will save you now.

For Jesus shed his precious blood
Rich blessings to bestow;
Plunge now into the crimson flood
That washes bright as snow.

Multitudes came to Christ while singing those words. I happened to find one verse of the original version written by John Stockton. This is the verse that would draw the sinner down the aisle as he came to Christ:

Anyone anywhere can be saved

O Jesus, blessed Jesus, dear,
I’m coming now to Thee;
Since Thou hast made the way so clear
And full salvation free.

Those words, though rarely sung today, perfectly express what I’ve been trying to say in this sermon.

Any time,
Can be saved by
Trusting in Christ.

That’s the Good News of the Gospel.

I said earlier that we are all in the same boat. We are all sinners desperately in need of God’s grace. The death of Christ provides the full payment for our sins. What we could not do for ourselves, God has done for us through the death of his Son. The only thing left is to believe in him. Let all who read these words take them to heart. Run to the cross. Turn from your sin, lay down your self-will, and lay hold of the Son of God who loves you and died for you. Cast yourself completely on Jesus for your salvation. If you trust in him with all your heart, he will not turn you away.

It all comes down to six simple words:
The just shall live by faith.
That’s the message we preach.
This the text that changed the world.

And it all started with Habakkuk 2600 years ago.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?