The Righteous Will Live By His Faith

Habakkuk 2:1-4   “The Righteous Will Live By His Faith”     7-31-11 a.m.

     In the early 1500’s, young Martin Luther had felt the burden and weight of his sin before a God whom he knew was holy; he knew that he was not right with God.  He went to some of his church leaders for counsel, and they prescribed to him the works of the church as a cure, and so he went about doing those works with a fervor few could rival:

— he fasted until he was so weak that he could hardly move

— he spent hours on the cold floor before the altar in prayer

— when he could find no relief through the works of prayer and fasting, his superiors appointed him to teach theology, thinking that through the good works of studying and teaching, Luther would be relieved – but although he attained a doctorate in theology, and taught theology to others, his own sense of sin was not relieved.  

— Finally, Luther rejoiced to be able to take a trip to Rome; for he was told that visiting there and seeing the holy sites, and performing the rituals available there would ease his soul.  He visited the catacombs, and climbed the marble stairs that reputedly were Pilate’s, which he was told would grant him a year’s indulgence from purgatory for every step he climbed on his knees.  But even as he climbed those steps, he knew that his guilt was not eased, and that these dead rituals were not making him right with God.  As he was climbing those “holy stairs” in Rome, a voice, as it were from heaven, spoke to him the words of Romans 1:17, which he had learned in his studies: “The righteous shall live by his faith”.  Luther later told his sn that he got up from those stairs and walked back down, for the first time realizing from that scripture that it is FAITH that would make him right with God not any accumulation of good works.  Now Luther finally had that peace with God that he was looking for!  And as he taught the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone, the phrase “Sola Fide” – “Faith Alone” — become the hallmark cry of the Reformation. 

     Thus this verse, “The righteous shall live by his faith” takes its place as one of the single most important verses in all history.  The whole Protestant Reformation sprung from Luther’s conversion out of this verse; all of the churches today that adhere to the Biblical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith are in the lineage of Luther and owe a debt to this verse.  This verse is found in Romans 1:17 in the New Testament, but what many do not realize is that Romans 1 quotes it from the book of Habakkuk 2:4!  One could argue that this verse is the single most important verse in all of history – as it has led to the salvation of multiplied millions over the last several centuries, and all of the missions efforts that have sprung from Protestant churches all over the world have come from it!

     This is a vital verse, not only in history, but for each of us personally as well.  How are we to be saved?  How are we to persevere through the most difficult times in life?  Habakkuk 2:4 tells us, it is by faith: “The righteous shall live by his faith.” 

     Let’s look briefly at the meaning of the words of this verse, and then at two primary applications: one regarding salvation by faith, and second, the importance of living by faith in times of difficulty. 


“But the righteous will live by his faith.”  

As I said, this verse is one of the most important verses in all of the word of God.  It is quoted three different times in the New Testament, in some of the most important writings on salvation.  The Apostle Paul, clarifying to the Romans and Galatians how we are saved by faith alone, quoted this verse twice, in Romans 1:17 and in Galatians 3:11.  And the writer of Hebrews, writing to those who were enduring difficult times, quoted it in Hebrews 10:38 to remind them of how they were to live by that faith that had saved them.  Thus an understanding of this verse is crucial both for anyone seeking to be saved, and to live a Christian life.  Let’s look first at the meaning of the key words of this verse, It says: “The righteous will live by his faith.” 

— the “righteous” – this is an important word.  Etymologically speaking, to be “righteous” means to meet the demands of a relationship; to be doing everything that you should in a relationship.  To be “righteous” before God means to be right with Him; to stand in a good relationship with Him.  But HOW can you be made right with God?  The rest of this verse tells us:

— “will live”.  But “live” here it is not only speaking of “living”, but of having eternal life.  It is like when Romans 6:23 says: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal LIFE through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  That verse is not speaking of mere death and life, but of  eternal death, and eternal life.  But again, HOW do you get this eternal life?  How are you made right with God?  The next words tell us that:

— “by faith”.  Some versions translate it “faithfulness” but this word is NOT talking about your faithfulness to God in the sense of good works and deeds.  Rather it is the word “faith” – a confidence in God’s promises.  It is significant that the Greek (LXX) translation of this verse translates this word with the word “pistis”, which means “faith”.  This is the same Hebrew word used in Genesis 15:6 of Abram, where it says that he “believed God.”  The word means to “believe, to put your trust in.”  Now when you do put your trust in someone, there is a certain “faithfulness” that follows as a fruit of your trust.  But the word means to “believe”.  So we are made right with God, and we are to live as His followers, by FAITH.  “The righteous will live by his faith.”

— But there is one more very important word here.  Wednesday night in our prayer meeting we talked about “little words that make a big difference.”  There is one of those here; it is the word “HIS.”  The righteous will live by HIS faith.  This word emphasizes the personal nature of faith.  In other words, it is not just that you are part of a “group” that believes these things; it is not that you are part of a “Christian nation” or a “Christian Church” or a “Christian Family” – YOU must have faith yourself.  If you are going to be right with God, it will be because of YOUR faith.  If you are going to live for God in difficult days, you must have a personal faith.  The faith that saves you and the faith that  sustains you must be a personal faith:  “The righteous will live by HIS faith.” 

     Now, let’s look at two very specific applications of this verse: one for salvation, and one for living the Christian life in times of trial:

II.  Faith & Salvation: Justification by Faith

“The righteous will live by his faith”

     As we saw, the same Bible word for “faith” that is used in Habakkuk 2:4 is also used in Genesis 15:6.  In the opening verses of that chapter, God told Abraham (whose name was Abram at the time) that although he was childless, he was going to have a son who would be his heir.  And God told Abram to go outside, and count the stars, if he could – and he said “so shall your descendants be.”  And in the very next verse, it says, “Then he believed in the Lord, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”   This is a great picture of salvation by faith.  The Bible says that God “reckoned” or “counted” Abram as righteous – in other words, he was right with God – what we would call “saved.”  But what did Abraham “do”?  NOTHING!  HE didn’t “do” a thing; all he did was believe in his heart, and the moment he did, it was “reckoned” – counted – to him as righteousness.    

     THIS is exactly what happens with us in salvation too.  You don’t “do” anything to get it; you don’t get baptized; you don’t walk down an aisle; you don’t join a church.  It happens instantaneously in your heart, the moment you believe in Jesus as your Lord & Savior. 

     I think one of the greatest illustrations of how we will be saved by faith alone is found in the Old Testament, in Numbers 21, when the people of Israel were in the wilderness, and they were grumbling against God, and against Moses, because they were impatient.  And :6 says that the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, so that many of them were bit and died.  In the next verse, the people came to Moses and apologized, saying, we have sinned against God and against you, please intercede for us; so Moses prayed to God for the people.  And God told Moses to take a bronze serpent, and put it up on a pole, and He said, “everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live.”  And Moses did put a bronze serpent on a pole, and everyone who believed the message that was shared with them, and looked at that serpent, lived.  They didn’t “do” anything: they didn’t take any medicine; they didn’t go wash anywhere; they didn’t perform any religious rituals.  All they did was believe enough to look at that serpent – and they would live!

     But that is not the end of the story.  In John 3, Jesus is talking with Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel who had come to him by night, about salvation.  And in :14 Jesus made reference to the story we just shared from Numbers 21.  He said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.”  In other words, Jesus said, in the Old Testament, they put that image of the serpent up on a pole, that whoever just believed enough to look at it would be saved.  And He said, in the same way, HE would be lifted up – on a cross, dying for our sins – that whoever believed in HIM would be saved.  Just as it was in the days of Moses, it would be with Jesus.  It was not “doing” anything that would save; it was just “look and live”!  “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life.”  And the very next words Jesus spoke are found in :16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”  HOW are you saved?  Just like it was in the days of Moses: BELIEVE!  By faith look at what Jesus did on the cross and trust Him to save you.  That is all there is to it!

     This can happen in your heart right now – it may very well be happening in some of your hearts at this moment!  You may be thinking: “You mean I don’t have to walk down the aisle?  You mean I don’t have to be baptized? I don’t have to do all kinds of religious works and deeds; don’t have to take Communion; don’t have to give any money?”  NO!  You don’t even have to pray the specific words of a certain prayer!  It is “look and live”!  By faith, look to Jesus, who died on the cross for your sins.  Put your trust in what He did for you.  The MOMENT you do that, without “doing” anything else, you are saved!  Some of you may be being saved this very moment, as you believe in your heart.  Salvation is entirely by faith.  “The righteous shall live by his FAITH”! 

     The moment you believe in your heart, you are saved.  This is why the thief on the cross could be saved.  He had NO opportunity to “do” anything to be saved: he couldn’t get baptized; he couldn’t go to church – nothing!  He was breathing his last breaths and was about to die!  But he believed in his heart, and Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, this day you shall be with Me in Paradise.”  That thief “lived” by his faith; the moment he believed in his heart, he was saved. 

     This can happen for you, too.  The moment you believe in your heart, you are saved.  This is why salvation is so absolutely personal.  You are saved the moment you believe in your heart – but no one else can do that for you.  You have to believe for yourself.  That is why the verse says, “The righteous shall live by HIS faith.”  No one else’s faith or works can save you. 

     In Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, the central character, Pip, says of his sister, who was married to the kind blacksmith Joe Gargery: “My sister having so much to do, was going to church vicariously; that is to say, Joe and I were going.”  Dickens was, of course, speaking sarcastically, but what he describes there is pretty much what some people try to do.  Some men say, “My wife takes care of the faith for both of us.”  No sir, she can’t.  You must take care of your own faith.  “The righteous will live by HIS faith.” Your wife’s faith can’t save you. Your parents’ faith can’t save you.  YOU YOURSELF must believe in your own heart.  It is the only way you will be saved.  “The righteous will live by HIS faith.” 

     The only way to be saved is to believe in your heart; and you must do that for yourself.  This is why the Mormon practice of being baptized for the dead is errant.  Being baptized for someone else doesn’t save them.  “The righteous shall live by HIS faith.”  A person must believe for himself to be saved.  This is where the doctrine of some churches which baptize babies, because of the faith of their parents, misses the mark.  That child is NOT saved by his parent’s faith.  The Bible teaches us that no one else’s faith can save another.  It is clear: “The righteous will live by HIS faith.” 

     This is one of THE single most important verses in all of the word of God, for it shows us how to be saved: not by anything you “do”; but by putting your own personal trust in Jesus.  “The righteous will live by his faith.” 

III.  A Second Application:  Faith and Perseverance: Enduring Trials

“The righteous will live by his faith”. 

     We need to come back again to the historical context in which God gave these words to Habakkuk.  The fierce Babylonian army was coming as the arm of God to judge Judah, and every person in the land, including those like Habakkuk, who was still faithful to the Lord, was about to endure that tribulation.  How were they going to survive those incredibly difficult days?  This verse was given first and foremost as a word for that remnant: “The righteous will live by his faith.” 

— even as they saw violence swallow up their country, they were to live by faith.

— even if they personally suffered, they were to live by faith.

— even when they couldn’t understand what God was doing they were to live by faith.

This verse was given not only to teach us how to live forever, but also to teach us how to live NOW – in times of difficulty and pain and trouble.  “The righteous will live by his faith.” 

     This should be the attitude of all believers in troubled times: despite the hurt they feel, despite the pain they endure, despite the opposition they face, despite the pressure to compromise, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the person of faith cries: YET I WILL BELIEVE!  “The righteous will live by faith.”

     We see this in oppressed saints of God all through His word:

— In Psalm 22, when David cried out: “my God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”, he was crying from the depths of his suffering soul, such a suffering that Jesus Himself would quote those same words from the cross.  But in the midst of that unparalleled suffering, He goes on in verse 3 to say: “YET You are holy …” and then in :9 “YET You are He who brought me forth from the womb …”.  In the midst of his anguish, he says, “YET – I still look to You!”  In his darkest hour David clung to his faith. 

— Job had the same experience; in the depth of his famed trials, when he had not yet heard from God, he cried out: “Though He slay me, yet I will trust in Him” (Job 13:15)  In the darkest hour of his despair, Job still “lived by his faith.” 

— I mentioned earlier that the Apostle Paul quoted Habakkuk 2:4 twice regarding salvation by faith alone.  The third quotation of this verse in the New Testament is in Hebrews 10:38, but there it is in a different context.  There it speaks of how faith must persevere in difficult times.  Verse 36 says, “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.  ‘For yet in a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay.’  But My righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”  These verses speak of the importance of persevering in faith through trying times – and then it goes on in Hebrews 11 to say that some of the people of faith “experienced mockings and scourgings, yes also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.”  These people of faith endured the most difficult persecutions.  How could they persevere?  How can we?  Chapter 12 gives us the answer: “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith”!

     Hebrews 10-12 says, that when times get hard for the people of God, we must “fix our eyes on Jesus.”   It is the same answer as it was for salvation, isn’t it?  To be saved: look by faith to Jesus.  It is exactly the same in your most difficult hour: Look to Jesus.  Keep your eyes fixed on Him.  “The righteous will live (in his most trying hour) by his faith.”   

     And again, it has to be personal faith.  “The righteous will live by HIS faith.”  Faith gets very personal in your most trying times.  No one else can believe for you.  When you are walking alone, through the valley of the shadow of death, through the battles with your own personal giants in life – no one else can believe for you.  Some of you know by experience: the matter of faith gets real and personal in your most difficult hour; you are melted down to the very core of your soul: do you really personally believe these things or not?  You will find out in the “dark night of your soul.” 

     I often share at funeral gravesites the story of Martha and Jesus in John 11.  Martha’s brother Lazarus, whom she and Jesus both loved greatly, had died.  Despite her request to Jesus to come and heal him before he died, Jesus did NOT come, and Lazarus died.  When Jesus arrived several days later, Martha went out to meet Him.  She was hurt.  She didn’t understand why He had not heard her request; she didn’t know why, when He had healed so many other people, even from long distances, that He had not chosen to heal her brother.  She didn’t know why she had to experience this pain.  It was in this context that Jesus spoke those famous words to her: “I am the resurrection and the life … he who lives and believes in Me shall never die.”  They are some of the most famous words in Christendom.  But many people do not realize that that is NOT the end of the verse.  It actually goes on to say something that is usually forgotten.  After Jesus said that He was the resurrection and the life, the Bible says He turned to Martha and said: “Do YOU believe this?”  This was a crucial question.  In the midst of her hurt and pain and confusion, she was faced with the word of promise that Jesus gave her, of who He was, and what He would do.  The question of her lifetime was in front of her: “Do you believe this?”  And from her inmost being came her reply, “Yes, Lord, I have believed.”  The Greek verb here means more than just “I believe”, but could be translated more like: “I have believed in the past, with the present, abiding, settled conviction that I still believe.”  Faith was a settled matter for her.  She was going to believe no matter what: though her brother died, though Jesus did not come, though her prayers are not answered, though she does not understand — she is going to believe!  And that is just what Habakkuk 2:4 says; “The righteous will live by his faith”! 

     This is the way that genuine people of God respond in difficult days.  When they are hurt, when they are sick, when their prayers are unanswered, when they don’t understand, when they are in “the dark night of the soul” – the answer of the righteous is “Yes, Lord, I have believed!”  I have looked to You; You are my Savior, my Lord; I have looked to You for salvation, and now, in my most difficult hour, I fix my eyes on You again, for although I don’t understand everything, the one thing I DO understand is that You are God, and you are in charge, and You have a plan, and You are my only hope!  The banner that the righteous wave high in times of trial is: “Yes, Lord, I believe!” 

     Undoubtedly this is where some of you find yourselves right now: you hurt, you fear, you don’t understand … and there are doubts, sure.  Maybe you are saying with the boy’s father in Mark 9, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”  You may be wrestling with everything.  That’s ok; that is what you do in your most difficult hours.  Habakkuk did that same thing.  We all do.  As I have been saying for the past weeks, I believe that we as a nation may be coming into a time of God’s judgment.  And just like in the days of Habakkuk, the people of God in our country are not necessarily going to be spared from all of the suffering.  Some of us may lose jobs, or homes, or face persecution or suffer physically.  Your prayers for deliverance and help may not be answered, because God has other purposes He is working out in this world.  But in your darkest hour, if you truly belong to God, there will be that inner conviction that says: though I don’t “like” this, though I don’t understand it, though I hurt so much, though my prayers are not answered; at the very core of your being:

— Like Job, your heart will whisper: “though He slay me – yet I will trust Him.”

— Like David, in agony you will cry: “YET You are my God …”

— Like Mary, you will stand determinedly and say: “Yes, Lord, I have  believed.” 

     In the darkest, most difficult of hours, “the righteous will live by his faith.”

About Shawn Thomas

My blog,, provides brief devotions from own personal daily Bible reading, as well as some of my sermons, book reviews, and family life experiences.
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