How can a man be justified before God? There could never be a more important question to fallen and sinful man than this. What do the Scriptures teach about this most urgent of all topics? Generally speaking, two answers to this question have been asserted in the history of Christian theology. Some claim that we can make ourselves righteous by our works. Others assert that we are declared righteous by our faith. Justification is thus understood actively or passively. How are we to decide this question upon which so much depends?
Moses offers a full answer to this vital question in his account of the life of Abraham, who is justly called the father of our faith. In Genesis 15:6 we are told that Abraham “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” The apostle James cites this verse and claims that because of his faith Abraham became the “friend of God” (James 2:23). The apostle Paul likewise appeals to this verse to establish the fact that Abraham’s pattern of justifying faith is normative for all that are righteous before God (Rom. 4:22–25), that it is not by works of the Law, rather by “hearing with faith” that we are justified (Gal. 3:5–6).
Paul perceptively observes that Moses pronounces Abraham righteous in Genesis 15:6, prior to Abraham’s circumcision, which is recounted in Genesis 17:24. By the same logic it may be helpful to notice how many good works Abraham had already accomplished prior to the same pronouncement. For Moses had many good works upon which to establish Abraham’s justification, yet he understood God’s decision to pronounce Abraham righteous based on faith alone. What were these good works that Moses passed over with respect to Abraham’s justification?
Abraham had obeyed God’s call and left his country and his father’s house by faith to seek the heavenly city of God (Heb. 11:8). He had deferred his own prior claim to the land of promise to give preference to his nephew Lot in the inheritance (Gen. 13:8–9). He had summoned the courage to wage war against four mighty kings of the east (Gen. 14:1–16), he had renounced the booty offered him by the king of Sodom (Gen. 14:21–24), and he had paid tithes to Melchizedek, receiving from him the bread and the wine and the blessing (Gen. 14:18–20). But Moses tells us that Abraham believed God respecting the promise He had made regarding the seed (Gen. 15:2–5) and that this faith was reckoned righteousness by God (Gen. 15:6). Lest there be any confusion, Moses strategically places the pronouncement of Abraham’s righteousness prior to his circumcision and subsequent to many of his good works. Moses thus bases Abraham’s justification on his faith in the seed, and in that faith alone.
Many years later God Himself would announce the same doctrine to His prophet Habakkuk. This late seventh-century prophet could not understand how God would use the wicked Chaldeans to punish His own errant people, for God had announced a great judgment on Judah. In the prophet’s perplexity, God summoned Habakkuk to a higher realm of belief, saying, “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4). The language of this affirmation uses the same words as the original declaration by Moses about Abraham. Righteousness comes by a faith in God that defies outer circumstances, whether they be Sarah’s barrenness, as in Abraham’s case, or the judgments of God against His own errant people, as was the case with Habakkuk.
Habakkuk’s doctrine that the just shall live by faith became the centerpiece of Pauline teaching on justification. Paul’s understanding of saving faith is thus based on the Law (Gen. 15:6) and the prophets (Hab. 2:4). It is deeply grounded in the Old Testament and central to the New Testament as well. Paul cites Habakkuk’s doctrine of justification by faith in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11, and the author of Hebrews likewise appeals to the same passage (Heb. 10:38) to introduce his great teaching on the heroes of the faith that “pleases God” (Heb. 11:6).
Justification is by faith, and that by faith alone. Righteousness is thus reckoned by God to the one who believes. The Reformation of Luther may have blossomed in ad 1517, but its seed was found already in Genesis 15:6, Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, James 2:23, and Hebrews 10:38. What then is the faith that justifies? What is the faith that pleases God?
Habakkuk the prophet reveals through his prayer what justifying faith, faith like Abraham’s, looks like. It is a faith that defies all contradictions in outward circumstances, but looks entirely to God alone and to His promises alone. Listen to the word of the prophet in Habakkuk 3:17–19. The prophet’s tribute to justifying faith is unsurpassed in biblical poetry, for he assures us that through his faith alone he found an end to all his perplexity: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.”
Semper sola fide! Soli Deo gloria!