It’s a bold statement, the sort of thing the apostles of old might have emblazoned on a T-shirt had that been an option 2,000 years ago: the just shall live by faith.
The phrase cropped up in a number of teachings in the New Testament, clearly meaningful to the first Christian teachers and leaders.
But what does it mean for us today, and what did it mean back then? What does it mean that the just shall live by faith?
Where Does ‘The Just Shall Live by Faith’ Appear?
The original verse comes from Habakkuk 2:4, which is an Old Testament prophetic book written by the prophet Habakkuk to the people of Judah around 600 BC.
The full verse is, “Behold the proud, His soul is not upright in him; But the just shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4, NKJV).
Another translation, the NIV, phrases it this way: “See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright — but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.”
I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint. Then the Lord replied: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. “See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright — but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness — indeed, wine betrays him; he is arrogant and never at rest. Because he is as greedy as the grave and like death is never satisfied,
he gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples. “Woe to him who builds his house by unjust gain, setting his nest on high to escape the clutches of ruin! (Habakkuk 2:2-5,9).
What Is the Context Around ‘The Just Shall Live by Faith’?
Habakkuk was a prophet in the time before the Israelites’ exile to Babylon, and he was deeply upset about the wicked behavior he was seeing in his fellow Jews.
The book is essentially a dialogue between Habakkuk and the Lord where he poses questions or statements to God and then God responds, and they go back and forth.
Within this dialogue, we understand that God plans to punish the Jews for this very sinfulness by sending the ruthless and barbaric Babylonians to destroy their city and take the people captive.
But Habakkuk is dismayed at this — how can God, who is only good and perfect, punish His wicked people by putting them under the control of a people even more wicked? It makes no sense to the prophet, and he feels God’s plans are baffling at best and an injustice at worst.
Throughout the book, though, God shows Habakkuk that Babylon, too, will be destroyed, and He has a master plan that will make it all right. By the end, Habakkuk trusts God and understands God knows what He is doing here, accepting what will be.
In the verse “the just shall live by faith,” God is explaining to the prophet that the evil Babylonians are “the proud” or “the enemy” who are arrogant and deceptive, but in contrast, “the just” are the good people who trust God as they experience suffering, and in doing so, they will live and be saved.
But also counted among “the proud” and “the enemy” are the wicked Israelites who have turned from God and are behaving sinfully.
What Does it Mean to Be ‘Just’?
In addition to “just,” other Bible translations use phrases like “the righteous,” “those who are good,” “those who are right with God,” “the person of integrity,” or “the person who is godly.”
These are people who walk with the Lord, who are not perfect, but who strive to follow His ways and don’t stray from His teachings or commands.
Even when things are dark and gloomy and all hope seems lost, these just and righteous ones put their trust in God and hold fast to their faith.
They know that God’s glory will prevail no matter what. They know God is the almighty, the one and only true and perfect God, and they don’t bow to idols or false gods.
What Does it Mean to ‘Live by Faith’?
The phrase "live by faith" means the manner in which one lives — a conscious choice to follow God and not the ways of the surrounding culture, whether that’s worshipping false gods or other evil actions.
But it also means that the just and righteous will live because of this. That is, because they choose to trust God and live in alignment with Him, they will be saved.
Where Else Is ‘The Just Shall Live by Faith’ Referenced?
Paul quoted Habakkuk 2:4 a few times in his epistles to the early church.
In Romans, Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 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’” (Romans 1:16-17).
In Galatians 3:11 he does the same, noting, “Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because ‘the righteous will live by faith.’”
Basically, Paul is saying Christians are saved in the same manner — by their faith.
Hebrews 10:36-38 also uses the verse in making its wider point, that we must remain strong in our faith even in our suffering, for our reward is coming.
As the author notes, “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.”
The early church comprised both Gentiles, who knew little about God’s laws but received the message and accepted His son Jesus as their savior, and Jews, who followed Christ and understood He was the Messiah prophesied in Scripture.
When speaking to their Jewish audience, these apostles knew they would have been aware of prophetic books like Habakkuk and appreciated the way they tied in the Old Testament prophecies with the gospel message.
The point the Lord made back in days of old was the same point made in Jesus: the righteous and just are to walk by faith and trust that all will be well in the Lord.
When life is hard and suffering is heavy, it can be extremely difficult to live by faith. But trusting in our sovereign God is exactly what we must do.
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Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.