By Dr. Robert R Seyda



Apparently, Augustine was dealing with some issues related to other Church teachers that questioned the validity of saying that those in union with the Anointed One were no longer obligated to the Law’s demands. The main source for this was the Pelagians who taught that Adam’s sin did not become inherent in all human nature. That leaves a person to choose good or evil on their own without any help from God. The subject involved in this point of disagreement was the Apostle Paul and his testimony of being transformed from a radical persecutor of Christians into a fervent preacher of Christianity. How could the Pelagians say that Paul, who struggled under the Law was not freed by Grace? Could they not at least agree that being obedient to the Law justifies no one. This is necessary if we are going to understand what Paul says elsewhere about the role of the Law. The Law makes known what sin really is. Then, if we do what the Law says we should not do it is a sin against the Law. So, the more we know of sin through the Law, the greater the chances are that we will transgress the Law even further. But instead of this being a helpless situation, it shows the need for mercy and grace through faith to be freed for the Law and sin.[1] [2]

Puritan preacher and writer John Bunyan quotes what Paul says here in verse eleven. At first, Paul echoes what is said in the Psalms that in God’s sight no one alive would be considered righteous, even if they try keeping the Law.[3] And then Paul uses the words of Habakkuk by making it clear to everyone that “the just will live by faith.”[4] This means that no person who is just and fair, no person no matter how strict and ethical their standards, will qualify to stand before God as righteous based on their works alone. So, Bunyan asks why not? why? He answers, because the just who are right with God live by faith. Therefore, like it or not, neither the person who is just and fair or the person with the highest ethical standards stands any chance of surviving God’s judgment for eternity as long as they depend upon their good works alone. Paul came to this same conclusion after he met the Anointed One on the road to Damascus.[5] So if and when we can stand as being right before God, our self-righteousness plays no role in God’s decision to either save us or send us away into everlasting punishment. The only ones who will survive are those who stand there in the righteousness of the Anointed One.[6]

When Martin Luther first read Habakkuk 2:4, he was a monk living in a monastery, but he didn’t understand its full meaning at the time. Sometime later, Luther went through a period of illness and depression as he imagined himself under the wrath of God. Lying on his sickbed, he found himself repeating over and over again, “The righteous will live by faith.” After he recovered, he decided to go to Rome on a pilgrimage. While there, he visited one of the famous churches in the city. The pope at that time promised an indulgence forgiving the sins of any pilgrim who mounted the Scala Sancta (tall staircase) in front of the church. “Pay your money, climb the staircase, and your sins or someone else’s sins will be forgiven,” said Pope Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici.[7]

People flocked by the thousands to pay their money, then climb the staircase to receive their indulgence. Some went up the staircase on their knees, pausing to say the Pater Nostra (Our Father) prayer and kiss the stairs along the way as a way of showing true penance. One of Luther’s sons later wrote the following of that experience for his father. “As he (Luther) repeated the ‘Our Father’ on the staircase near St. John’s Lateran Church,[8] the words of the Prophet Habakkuk came suddenly to his mind: ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ After finishing the twenty-eight steps he wondered whether all he just did so obediently would produce the effect that the church said it would? He returned to Wittenberg, Germany and took this as the chief foundation of all his doctrine.” Luther later would say, “Before those words broke upon my mind, I hated God and was angry with Him . . . But when, by the Spirit of God, I understood those words – “The righteous 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’s Grace.[9]

Lutheran theologian Paul E. Kretzmann (1883-1965) puts this argument as clearly as it can be expressed. The Law and all attempts at fulfilling the Law cannot be considered in the formula of justification for anyone to stand right before God. Furthermore, this is established by the fact that the Word of God itself eliminates any secondary agency from securing salvation: But that in the Law nobody is justified before God is evident by the Scripture, “The just shall live by faith.”[10] Even though a person should strain every nerve to keep the Law of God perfectly and that way is acceptable in the sight of God, it would avail them nothing, not only because the goal is unattainable from the very outset, but because God, Himself makes the statement through Habakkuk that faith is the justifying factor. Obtaining eternal life does not depend on works, but upon faith alone; salvation comes to them who place their trust in the work of Jesus the Anointed One on the cross as their Savior.

This is not a matter of argument or dispute, says Kretzmann, it is a fact of the Gospel to which we must testify and bear witness unceasingly. To clinch his argument, Paul says here: But the Law is not of faith; it has nothing in common with faith; the two ideas, faith and works, mutually exclude each other. Those who are justified by faith are not justified by the Law; they who hope to get to heaven by their good works, by keeping of the Law, shut themselves out from faith, and that closes the one way of salvation which is open to all mankind. For only they that can point to an actual and entire performance of all requirements of the Law can justly demand eternal life in payment, a condition which is obviously unthinkable. So, the Apostle’s argument stands that the Law is excluded as an agent of salvation by its very nature, since it demands a level of fulfillment which no person can produce and, on the other hand, since it cannot turn works into faith, which alone brings justification before God, it applies to all mankind.[11]

Kenneth Wuest also has things to say about justification. He explains that the words “by the law” are in the Greek ennomoi (literally “in law,”) corresponding to “in the book of the Law.” We have here the locator of a sphere. The Torah says that the person who does not continue living in the sphere of the Law is under the curse, but the Gospel says a person who attempts to remain in the sphere of the Law by obeying it is not justified in the sight of God because justification is by faith. So, they are caught in between with no way out except to be freed by Grace. The reason why obedience to the Law cannot justify a sinner is that their obedience cannot pay for their sin. The price is too high, only blood can pay for sin, for blood means outpoured death, and death is the wages of sin. God declares a believing sinner righteous on the basis of the fact that the Anointed One met the requirements of the Law which they broke and Himself becomes their righteousness.

This word “just” as it is used to describe a highly moral person becomes a legal rather than an ethical term, says Wuest. It refers to the person approved by God and accepted on the basis of faith, not to the person’s character as exhibited by what they do. The words “shall live” refer as the context indicates, not to the impartation of a new and divine life which produces a new experience, but to the act of God in justifying them. They now live in a new relationship to God, that of being accepted into a personal union with the Beloved.[12]

Ronald Fung has a long discussion on the phrase “the just shall live by faith.” After offering a good number of options provided by Bible commentators and various translations, he concludes that to put “live” and “faith” in their correct perspective from the original Greek and the context of Paul’s writings here and elsewhere, will lead to a better understanding of the principle of Law, its contrast with the principle of faith when one says, “he who is righteous by faith shall live,” the other, “he who practices them shall live by them.” So, it’s a choice of how one wants to guarantee eternal life. If your right standing before God was obtained by faith in the Anointed One, the promise is clear. However, if your right standing before God was obtained by obedience to the Law, the promise only applies if you were in perfect obedience to the Law for the rest of your life.[13]

But let’s put all this into context for a clearer picture of what Habakkuk meant by “the just shall live by faith.” The situation Habakkuk faced was the pending invasion of Judea by the Babylonians. This took place at the end of the sixth century BC, and Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. This was the Lord’s way of punishing Judah for her sin of idolatry. But unlike the prophets Joel and Zephaniah and Amos, Habakkuk does not mention the possibility that such destruction could be prevented. He does not call for national repentance. It is too late. Instead, he predicts the destruction of Judah, and beyond that the doom of the Babylonians themselves. And he promises that the only way the Judeans can preserve their lives through such judgment is by faith. So even though destruction is decreed for the nation, there is hope for individuals who hold fast to their confidence in God. The complete doctrine of justification by faith, as Paul taught it in Romans and Galatians, was not yet fully available through Grace. But the seed for grace is here in what Habakkuk said and will be fully revealed when the promised Seed of Abraham comes to the rescue of those whose lives have been invaded and ravaged by sin.

We must remember that God did not design the Law to be the resource for justification; He designed Faith for that purpose. Righteousness and Faith are inseparable, Law and Righteousness are total strangers. Faith is not intended to be a substitute for righteousness; it is the heart that trusts in God’s Grace that brings someone into a new relationship with God through the Anointed One and which results in faithfulness, integrity, and steadfastness.[14] Those who found their righteous in the Anointed One live by faith, not by works.

[1] Romans 5:20

[2] Augustine: Contents of the Treatise “Against Two Letters of the Pelagians” Bk. 1, Ch. 14, p. 935

[3] Psalm 143:2

[4] Habakkuk 2:4

[5] Romans 3:19-20

[6] John Bunyan: A Discourse Upon the Pharisee and the Publican, Ch. 7, p. 230

[7] David Platt and Tony Merida: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 56

[8] The properties were once owned by the Lateranus family of the Roman Empire.

[9] Eric Metaxas: Martin Luther, The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, Viking Press, 2012, p. 61

[10] Habakkuk 2:4

[11] Paul E. Kretzmann: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 240

[12] Kenneth Wuest: Word Studies on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[13] Ronald Y. K Fung: On Galatians, op. cit., pp. 141-145

[14] Ephesians 1:6

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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