In the third century, Rabbi Simla noted that Moses gave 365 prohibitions and 248 positive commands. David reduced them to eleven commands in Psalm 15; Isaiah made them six (33:14-15); Micah bound them into three (6:8); and Habakkuk condensed them all to one, namely—“The righteous shall live by faith” (2:4). (See Talmud, Makkoth 24a) What does this mean?
What Yahweh meant when He spoke through Habakkuk, “the righteous shall live by faith” and what the expression has come to mean in our day are quite different. The common interpretation of the verse nowadays is as follows: we will go to Heaven when we die if we will acknowledge and accept for ourselves the Lordship of Christ and the facts of His virgin birth, His atoning death, and His bodily resurrection from the dead. In other words, if we maintain certain theologically correct statements we will go to Heaven when we die. This is very different from what Habakkuk meant, which is the individual whose personality and behaviour are acceptable to God (i.e. the righteous) thinks, speaks, and acts (i.e. live) as one who loves, seeks, relies on, hopes in, obeys, and trusts God (i.e. faith or faithfulness).
It is obvious that one or the other of these concepts is incorrect. Either living by faith is a way of behaving or else it is just the maintaining of a doctrinal position. Does the expression “the righteous shall live by faith” mean that if we will adhere firmly to belief in the Creed that we will go to Heaven when we die to be with God forever?
Interestingly, Scriptures say that demons believe that there is one God, and they tremble in terror (James 2:19). They also believe that Jesus is the Son of God (Matt 8:29). In Matthew 4, you can read about the devil quoting scriptures. Does that mean that the demons will go to Heaven one day because of their knowledge of Scriptures and the Creed?
Why not, when they are so knowledgeable of theological facts? It is because redemption does not come through a correct orientation to theological facts but through thinking, speaking, and acting as one who is loving, seeking, relying on, hoping in, obeying, and trusting God. This the demons will not and cannot do. They understand and believe the true facts of redemption, but salvation is not solely based on such understanding and belief.
The reasoning of today’s Christian scholars is that if we go to Heaven by election, by the mercy and kindness of God, on the basis of our acknowledgment of theological truth, then how we behave is not essential. If we are saved by Divine grace alone then godly character is desirable but not essential for our salvation. If God loves us so much He will overlook our worldliness, lusts, and self-indulgence and consider us to be righteous, then He will most certainly be willing to remove us from the Antichrist and the great tribulation.
Deductive reasoning has been applied to favourite “key verses” until we have made most of the teachings of Christ and His apostles superfluous and meaningless. We need not heed what Christ said about keeping the commandments (Matt 19:17), laying down our life for the Gospel’s sake (John 15:13), or about the necessity for enduring to the end (Matt 10:22), because it is “not by works of righteousness which we have done.” (Titus 3:5) For the same reason, we also need not be concerned with what the Apostle Paul said about the covetous not entering the Kingdom of God (1 Cori 6:9-10).
It is not a scriptural, strong, or effective argument to reason that while we cannot lose our salvation whether we choose to serve Christ or the World, yet we ought to try to please Christ because we “love” Him. This is a weak attitude. It accounts for the lukewarm moral condition of God’s flock just like the church of Laodicea (see Rev 3:14-17). The Apostle Paul did not teach that it would be nice if we showed our appreciation for God’s love by trying to behave ourselves, Paul taught that if we live in the appetites of the flesh we will die spiritually (see Romans 8:13).
Some Christians have applied human logic to a scriptural concept and have reached a wrong conclusion. They have not noted the scriptural requirements and conclusions, choosing instead to make “logical” deductions. They have twisted the Scriptures because they cannot understand how the grace of God and righteous behaviour can both be necessary for our salvation. Likewise, they will not accept both predestination and free will as equally valid and necessary because they cannot, with their human mind, resolve the seeming inconsistency. That is a poor excuse for not accepting the whole counsel of the Scriptures which clearly states that we must obey God if we are to receive His blessings (see John 15:10; Act 10:34-35; Rom 6:17-18; Heb 5:8-9).
The Apostle Paul quoted Habakkuk 2:4 three times in his epistles (see Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11; Heb 10:38). What was Habakkuk talking about? He was not contrasting belief with unbelief in theological facts. Habakkuk was contrasting humility and faithfulness to God with self-centred pride—a pride often found in those whose theological beliefs are largely correct. He was saying that the human being who chooses to live according to his pride and abilities is not accepted by God; but the person who chooses to live in humble, meek, faithful dependence on God is approved by God. This, in fact, is the message of the entire Scriptures.
Faith has little to do with what we understand or accept of theology. Faith has to do with our relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. The faith by which the righteous live is a living faith. It always is revealed in our behaviour. It is impossible to possess a true faith and not be moved continually to works of righteousness. Faith apart from works is dead (James 2:26). Dead faith will not bring God’s approval; it will not result in eternal life.
What does Paul mean in Romans 1:17, “For in the gospel God’s righteousness is being revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous will live by faith’.”? Paul means, as the following chapters of Romans will reveal, that God’s righteousness comes to us, not on the basis of the works of the Law of Moses or any other set of religious works but on the basis of our faith in Christ’s atonement. The faith in Christ’s atonement is always in motion (“from faith to faith”). It is a living faith and it continually brings us to holy behaviour. The end result of holy, righteous behaviour is eternal life (see Rom 6:22).
The victorious saint makes many mistakes as he pursues the will of God. But as long as he is following after Jesus (the light) with all his strength, the blood of Jesus keeps on cleansing his sins (1 John 1:7). The blood keeps him in fellowship with God while he grows in righteousness. The blood of Jesus is not to be used as a covering for careless, sinful, self-willed behaviour (i.e. living in darkness).
True faith is living, always laying hold upon God and His Word so that our daily decisions are leading us into the Kingdom. It is not a theological position one is to adopt. For example: there is no virtue in believing that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary if we do nothing about it. There is merit in believing that Jesus was born of a virgin only if such belief leads to our realization that Jesus is the Son of God, and as a result of our belief we do what He says, taking up our cross and following Him every day of our lives (Matt 16:24).
Again Paul told the Galatians: “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’.” (Gal 3:11) What is Paul talking about? Is he contrasting godly behaviour with faith in God? No, he is not. He is arguing against the Judaizers regarding the necessity for circumcising Gentile Christians according to the Law of Moses.
Is Paul claiming that our behaviour has little effect on the way God regards us? Hardly! A few sentences later he states that if Christians walk in sin they will not inherit the Kingdom of God, and then Paul reminds us that we will reap what we sow: “Envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. “ (Gal 5:21); “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” (Gal 6:8)
Finally, in the Book of Hebrews Paul quoted: “But my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” (Heb 10:38) Is this a reminder that we are saved by the Lord’s favour and that our consecration, or lack of it, will not significantly affect our destiny?
The Book of Hebrews is the sternest of warnings to experienced, backsliding Christians that if they continue to rest on their attainments in the Gospel, and do not press forward to full union with the Father through Christ, they will not escape the displeasure of God. If ever there was a book that reveals the fact that faith and works are inseparable, Hebrews is that book. The “faith” chapter of the Scriptures is the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews. It is an account of works, the right kind of works—the works that result in justification (James 2:21).
The righteous shall live by the kind of faith described in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews: “Who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” (Hebrews 11:33-34). From the offering of Abel to the saints wandering in the caves of the earth, nothing is said in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews concerning belief in a statement of faith.
True faith is an attitude toward God that governs at all times what we are and what we do. Belief, on the other hand, is assent to a creed. It is a mental understanding, a philosophy. The result of true faith is life in God’s presence. Belief in a creed may accompany true faith or may be found in a personality void of Christ’s life. The traditional belief is looking for a sudden effortless change of our moral nature when the Lord comes. The Lord indeed can deliver us from sin in a moment. But the militantly righteous character of the victorious saint is formed as we obey God by faith during periods of suffering and trial (see Heb 12).
True faith makes us one with all the saints of history from the time of the righteous Abel, who by faith offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain. Abel’s sacrifice was more excellent because Abel loved God and was seeking Him. The Scriptures state that the difference between the sacrifice of Abel and the sacrifice of Cain was that Abel’s offering to God was performed in faith. The attitude of the heart is of great importance when we are serving the Lord.
To live by faith means, as we have stated, to live each moment of each day in the attitude of loving Christ, seeking Christ, rejoicing in Christ, praising Christ, trusting Christ, hoping in Christ, obeying Christ, coming to know Christ. It is a love relationship not a theological position. Any set of religious duties, whether they be Judaic, Christian, or of some other religion, or our own personal standard of uprightness that we practice apart from living each day in the pursuit of Christ, are dead works. Jesus said: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
By His sinless life, atoning death, and triumphant resurrection, Christ has set us free from all religious law. However, He has not set us free so that we can go our own way; He has set us free so that we can wait on Him without distraction (1 Cori 7:35). He died for us, not so that we should live for ourselves but for Him who died for us and rose again (2 Cori 5:15). This is the true faith by which the righteous have lived from the beginning of creation (see Heb 11).
Let the words of the hymn “We have been told” by David Haas remind us of what it means to live by faith: