Last One Standing
Last One Standing
I'll tell you the best news you will ever hear: "The righteous shall live by faith!" So why doesn't hearing that evoke the response of other good news we hear: "We won!" "The tests were clear!" "I got the job!" "He's home!" "The righteous shall live by faith!" It just doesn't work the same way. In fact, you might hear that and think it is more of an observation, like: good people go through their lives believing in God, the way sensible people go through life taking care of their money. But it isn't like that at all.
Sometimes a statement carries a mystery and you don't realize all that you're hearing. Like, "The Eagle has landed." That's what the commander said when Apollo 11 touched down on the moon. That was pretty amazing news. The righteous will live by faith is like that, only better!
That statement appears almost as a surprise in the little Old Testament book of Habakkuk. Habakkuk the prophet who lived about 600 years before Christ is pounding on God's door, complaining that God needs to stop the violence and injustice of his own people in Jerusalem and Judah. To Habakkuk's shock, God says, "I'll stop it alright! I'll bring down the Babylonians to stop it!" Habakkuk replies, "You can't do that! They're far worse than the Jews." God tells Habakkuk, "I know what I'm doing. Babylon is wicked to the core but I'm going to use them nonetheless."
In Habakkuk two God describes just how bad Babylon is, and in the middle of that he slips in this one line, almost like a parenthesis. Look at chapter two verses four and five. There were faithful Jews in Jerusalem, surrounded by a nation that had gone renegade against God, but faithful or not, the Babylonians were coming. Yet God held out this promise—not only to them, but to us as well. The best news you'll ever hear shines all the brighter because of the hopelessness that surrounds it.
The righteous will live by faith
There are some surprises here if you think about it. The first puzzle is how God can say that "the righteous will live" when no one would escape the Babylonians. God was not promising that the really good people in Jerusalem would get some kind of pass, some invisibility cloak, so that the bad guys wouldn't harm them. Good and bad alike were killed. Good and bad alike were carried far off into captivity—like Jeremiah and Daniel. So what does God mean when he says some people will live?
There's another surprise: If you'd never heard this before and I said, finish the sentence: the righteous person lives by ____ … I think you'd most likely say, "By being good, by doing the right thing." I don't think anyone would ever say, "By faith." It's almost a non sequitur, a statement where the second part of a sentence doesn't seem to have anything to do with the first part.
If you know your Bible there's even a bigger surprise in that statement because the Bible says, "No one is righteous, not even one." Romans 3:23 reminds us, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." So where's the good news in saying, "the righteous will live by faith" if no one is ever righteous? There's a corollary to that. If no one is righteous enough for God, then no one is good enough to go to heaven, where God waits. How many funerals have you attended where people are assured that so-and-so is in heaven because "he was a good man," or because "she would do anything for people"? If that worked, this verse would say, "the righteous will live by being righteous." But it doesn't say that! And that is good news!
The third surprise is that "the righteous shall live by their faith." That doesn't mean that faith equals righteousness, that the most righteous thing you can do is believe. Believing doesn't really do any good. It doesn't feed someone hungry, or obey a law. Righteousness is about doing loving things, about helping your neighbor, or telling the truth. Having faith isn't really like any of those things. It's a way of thinking. So how does it connect with righteousness?
This verse, "the righteous shall live by faith," is connected to another verse in Genesis 15:6 in the story about Abraham. God told Abraham to leave his home and head out across the desert to a land God would give him, so with no more GPS than that, Abraham and Sarah went. Then God told him that he would make of Abraham a great nation and that all the people of the earth would be blessed through him. The problem, of course, was that Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and they didn't have a child, so the great nation part was a stretch.
In Genesis 15:5-6 God takes Abraham out and shows him the stars, "Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them." Then he said to Abraham, "So shall your offspring be." Abraham believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. There it is.
Righteousness was credited to Abram
Abram (later renamed Abraham) believed the LORD enough to say, "I am going to walk on the path of the promises of God for the rest of my life, even though I don't know where God will take me and I don't know how God will do what he's promised. I believe God enough to obey him." When God sees people who will walk by his promises he says, "I will give you credit for righteousness, not because you are righteous, but because you believe me, and that will put you on the path of righteousness." Once the mystery is revealed we will see how believing God actually begins to produce righteousness in us.
Let's be clear. The only way any of us know for a person to be righteous—to be good—is to do good things. We hear a criminal claim to be a good person and we shake our heads. What's more, God himself has given us the commands that define what a good person is—like the Ten Commandments. But here, God himself says the incredible: "Actually, there is another way to be good, apart from keeping the rules." It requires God to give us credit for being good even though we're not. Nice idea, but how can a just God get away with a deal like that? That's just not right!
Imagine a judge with a guilty defendant standing before him. The defendant, from the bottom of his heart, says to the judge, "Judge, I believe you will do what is right … and let me go." To do what is right is not to let the guilty go! How can this work?
The New Testament quotes this one line from Habakkuk 2:4 in three different places. All three explain this wonderful news. The first is in Romans 1:16-17 where Paul has been talking about how eager he is to preach the Good News—the gospel—of Jesus Christ.
Paul teaches on righteousness
Our word, "righteous" is given a surprise meaning here: "a righteousness from God." He is speaking of Jesus Christ, who was as righteous as God because he is God in the flesh. He has been "revealed" here on earth. The gospel is that "the righteousness from God" that is "revealed" in Christ Jesus can be credited to us because Jesus died for us, to pay for our sin, and in turn gives us his perfect righteousness. His righteousness is credited to us. God doesn't pretend we're righteous. He doesn't let us skate. Jesus, the perfect man, dies for us, so that his perfection can be given to us as a free gift of grace.
Well, how do I get that? By faith. Look at all the faith talk in these two verses: the gospel "is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes … a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, 'The righteous will live by faith.'" A man facing death cried out to Paul, "What must I do to be saved?!" Paul replied, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved."
Centuries ago the church forgot about grace. People were taught that the righteous will live by being righteous, and then they were deceived about how to measure up. God used Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation to make some changes. It was this verse that did it, Romans 1:17 quoting Habakkuk 2:4. Here is where Luther realized that God credits sinners with Christ's righteousness when we put our faith in Christ. Luther said, "This text was to me the true gate of Paradise." That's what it can be for you right now, today. The true gate of Paradise. This is the way you walk into salvation, into the arms of the heavenly Father, and into heaven. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. His righteousness will give you life.
But even people who have believed this can lose their grip on the wonderful news. When they do, one of two things happen. Some think, Now we have to perform! Good Christians keep the rules. In fact, if someone isn't keeping all God's rules, then they're out. God may save us by grace through faith, but we have to take it from there. Others think, Now it is up to me. God gave me my chance to change my life, but now I have to perform or else I'm out.
If we want to ever measure our salvation by the rules we keep, we're cursed, because we cannot keep all God's rules, even though they are right and good. The penalty for breaking even one of God's rules—let alone the amount we routinely break—is to be cursed with death and hell. So which way do you want to go?
We have this great promise, "the righteous will live by faith," so we don't ever have to go back to thinking, "the righteous will now live by being righteous." It'll kill you with either pride or guilt. Let God produce righteousness in you through the Holy Spirit and through your love for Jesus and his Word, but do not try to do what only Jesus can do for you.
There is one more verse in the New Testament that quotes Habakkuk 2:4. It is in Hebrews 10:32-39. The writer is reaching out to Christians under terrible pressure. He reminds them, and us today, when the world is crushing you, when you suffer for being a Christian, remember this very great promise: "the righteous will live by faith."
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.