The Righteous Shall Live by Faith

As it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”

- Romans 1:17b

Continuing our look at Romans 1:17, the thesis statement of Paul’s epistle to the church at Rome, we come to one of the key Old Testament texts that reveal the doctrine of justification by faith. The Apostle is clear throughout his writings that the gospel he preaches was not wholly unknown to those who lived before Christ. Jesus is the center of the gospel and the fullest revelation of God’s saving purposes, but even those who lived under the old covenant were saved only through the work of the Lord in gifting His people with righteousness.

Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 to support his contention that the gospel reveals the righteousness of God. If you are reading the English Standard Version, the main text renders this quote as “the righteous shall live by faith,” but a footnote on Romans 1:17 indicates that it can also be translated as “the one who by faith is righteous shall live.” This reflects a certain ambiguity in the original Greek that allows Paul’s words to be understood either way. Commentators are divided as to the best way to render the verse in English, but given Paul’s gifts as a writer and the message of Romans, we are not actually forced to choose between these options, which are not contradictory. The Apostle is slightly ambiguous in quoting Habakkuk because he wants us to understand the verse in both of these ways.

Reading the Habakkuk quote as “the righteous shall live by faith” places the emphasis on the type of life that the one whom the Lord regards as righteous will demonstrate. Dr. R.C. Sproul unfolds this a bit for us in his commentary on Romans: “One who lives by faith is a righteous person in the sight of God. The righteous live by trust.” In other words, the thing that characterizes the righteous person above all else is an abiding trust in God and His promises. Because righteous people trust the Lord, they continue to believe Him even when He seems slow to act. They do not just believe in God—they believe God. Because they believe the Lord, they are faithful to Him and they obey Him—truly though imperfectly— out of their deep loyalty to Him. This, in summary form, is what Paul tells us in Romans 6–8.

We must be clear, however, that this obedience is never the ground of our acceptance before God. That is what Paul’s use of Habakkuk also tells us, as we will see Monday. Those whom the Lord regards as righteous are righteous in His sight before they live a life of faithfulness to Him. Christ and His work are the ground of their righteous status, received by faith alone, and their trust and obedience are the fruit of justification, not its cause.

Coram Deo

In other lectures, Dr. R.C. Sproul has paraphrased today’s passage as “the just shall live by trust.” The mark of righteous people is that they believe the Lord, that they trust His promises and seek to grow in their understanding of these promises that they might trust Him more. This necessitates a deep and deliberate study of God’s Word. Are you studying Scripture rightly so that you might live by the promises of God more confidently?

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 119:105
Romans 4:13–25

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