Copyright © 1996 Trumpet Ministries, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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The meaning of “the just shall live by faith” has been misunderstood since the time of the Protestant Reformers. As a result, the testimony of the Church has been weakened. Agreement with doctrinal statements has been emphasized at the expense of righteous behavior. True faith is an active relationship with God that governs at all times what we are and what we do. Faith is not merely a belief in theological facts. The grace of God that brings salvation always produces righteous behavior.

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“Behold the proud, His soul is not upright in him; but the just [righteous] shall live by his faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)
But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” (Galatians 3:11)
Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him.” (Hebrews 10:38)

What is the meaning of “the just shall live by faith”?

The term just means “righteous”—an individual whose personality and behavior are acceptable to God.

The word live means “to be, think, speak, and act.”

The term faith means “love for, always seeking, reliance on, hope in, obedience to, and trust in God.”

“The just shall live by faith” is defined as follows: the individual whose personality and behavior are acceptable to God thinks, speaks, and acts as one who loves, seeks, relies on, hopes in, obeys, and trusts God.

The opposite of the just person is the unrighteous person—the individual whose personality and behavior are not acceptable to God.

The opposite of to live by faith is to think, speak, and act as one who does not love, seek, rely on, hope in, obey, or trust God.

In Habakkuk 2:4 (above) the contrast is not between faith and unbelief but between faith and pride. Faith is more related to faithfulness than it is to belief or acknowledgment. Living has to do with what we are and how we behave ourselves in the Presence of God.

The expression from the Book of Habakkuk, “the just shall live by his faith,” was quoted by the Apostle Paul and made famous by the Protestant Reformers.

In order to find favor with God, Martin Luther disciplined himself with prayer, fasting, and whipping. Martin Luther finally was given the understanding that God’s favor comes as a gift to men, that righteousness in God’s sight cannot be achieved by our own efforts, abilities, or achievements. God counts men as acceptable to Himself (justified, righteous), not on the basis of their goodness or religious works but on the basis of God’s mercy and kindness through Christ.

This is the truth, being supported by Paul’s explanation of forgiveness and justification under the new covenant.

However, something has gone terribly wrong. What the Spirit of Christ meant when He spoke through Habakkuk, “the just shall live by his faith,” and what the expression has come to mean in our day, are hardly related.

The common interpretation of the passage (and it has hindered the testimony of the Church of Christ) 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.

“The just shall live by his faith” has come to mean that if we maintain certain theologically correct statements we will go to Heaven when we die.

This is very different from “the individual whose personality and behavior are acceptable to God thinks, speaks, and acts as one who loves, seeks, relies on, hopes in, obeys, and trusts God.”

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 the maintaining of a doctrinal position.

“The just shall live by his faith” means, it is claimed today, that we must take a position concerning the truth of the Gospel. If we do not change our mind, when we die we will go to Heaven to live in a mansion forever.

Some of the statements from the Christian creed are as follows: “We believe in the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures. We believe in the Trinity, the eternal Godhead. We believe in the virgin birth and Deity of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We believe that Christ died for our sins and that He rose again from the dead to be Lord of all.”

Are the above three statements true? Absolutely.

Does the expression “the just shall live by his faith” mean that if we will adhere firmly to belief in the above statements and to the remainder of the confession of faith that we will go to Heaven when we die to live in a mansion forever? Absolutely not!

Do the demons understand that these statements are true? Absolutely.

You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! (James 2:19)

Will the demons go to Heaven one day to live in mansions because of their knowledge of theology? Absolutely not.

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, cannot do. They understand and believe the true facts of redemption, but salvation is not in such understanding and belief.

Is the unredeemed person the individual who will not acknowledge or accept the statements of our confession of faith? Yes, according to the leaders of several denominations. No, according to God. According to the Lord, the unredeemed person, the one whose personality and behavior are not acceptable to God, is he who thinks, speaks, and acts outside the Presence of God because he does not love, seek, rely on, hope in, obey, or trust God.

Part of our confusion arises from our interpretation of the verb from Habakkuk, “shall live.”

We are interpreting “shall live” as equivalent to “shall be saved,” which in turn means (according to our tradition) that when we die we will go to our mansion in Heaven. Such is our tradition and it is unscriptural.

“Shall live” has to do with our personality and behavior now as well as throughout eternity; not with our residence in Heaven but with our personality and behavior.

The concept of eternal residence in a mansion in Heaven is not scriptural. It is based on a faulty translation of John 14:2 and on an incorrect view of the goal of redemption. The goal of redemption is not to bring mankind to Heaven but to establish the Kingdom of God on the earth.

“Shall live” is not referring to going to Heaven when we die. It is speaking of learning to live in the Presence of the Father now.

Part of our confusion arises from what we understand Paul meant when he taught we are saved by grace through faith, not by any works of righteousness of which we may boast.

Let us examine what Paul meant by works, what the Protestant Reformers meant by works, and what we mean today when we contrast works and faith.

By works the Apostle Paul was referring mainly to the works of the Judaic Law, such as observing the Ten Commandments, circumcision, feast days, dietary regulations, and so forth.

The concept of works, to which Paul was referring, has to do with the religious individual who strives conscientiously to perform rituals that will please God, thereby earning righteousness and salvation.

It must be kept in mind that Paul was reacting to the teachings of the Judaizers, and all that Paul has to say about works is colored heavily by the Law and statutes given at the hand of Moses. We are saved by faith in God’s grace through Christ, not by the works of the Law, statutes, and traditions of Judaism.

Paul was maintaining steadfastly that no person can please God by keeping the Ten Commandments through his own strength of character, thus evading the cross of Christ. First of all, flesh and blood cannot keep the Law because of the presence of sin in the human personality. Second, Christ is God’s righteousness and God does not desire that we attempt to avoid His plan of redemption, the plan in which the cross of Christ is central.

One point of confusion here concerns the eternal moral law that is embodied in the Ten Commandments. The eternal moral law governing idolatry, adultery, bearing false witness, cannot be broken without incurring the wrath of God. This eternally is true for both the believer and the unbeliever. The Lord Jesus did not come to do away with the eternal moral law of God but to fulfill the law of God.

As the Life of Christ is formed in us we keep the eternal law of God, not according to the letter of the old covenant but according to the transcendent, comprehensive revelation of the full nature and purpose of the Law that Christ Himself Is. The new covenant is the placing of the law of God in our mind and the writing of it in our heart (Hebrews 8:10).

It remains true, however, that we are saved (transformed and brought into God’s Presence), not by our diligent observance of religious rules or by our worthy conduct. Now that God has given us His only begotten Son He will not accept any religious efforts of a human being in place of receiving His Son as Lord and Savior.

What did the Reformers mean by works?

Martin Luther was reacting against various forms of penance, including the buying of indulgences (paying money to assist souls in Purgatory). Luther came to understand that the bodily afflictions the monks imposed on themselves could not earn the favor of God. Instead, the righteous are to live by a constant attitude of hope and trust in the living Christ.

The righteous are not to turn their attention away from the Lord Jesus and whip themselves. Christ fulfilled all the Law for us, all religious observances, all that God requires. We now are free, not to pursue our lives as we will but to live for Him and in Him who died in our place.

The Apostle Paul was referring principally to the works of the conscientious, zealous Jew. Luther was referring mainly to the works of the conscientious, zealous Catholic monk—to fasting and other bodily deprivations.

What do we Gentile Protestants think of when we contrast works and faith? What do we mean when we state that the just shall live by faith instead of by works?

We mean (and this is the concept that has destroyed the moral and spiritual strength of the Christian churches) that it is not essentially important how the Christian behaves morally as long as he makes a theologically correct statement of faith in Christ.

When the Apostle Paul contrasted faith and works he was contrasting trust in the atonement made by Jesus and the careful observance of the statutes of Judaism, the advancing of one’s self in the favor of God by diligent adherence to the Law. When the Protestant Reformers contrasted faith and works they were contrasting trust in the atonement made by Jesus and a religious discipline, just as Paul did, except in a Catholic rather than a Hebrew setting.

We Protestant Gentiles of today, who may not be affected significantly by either of these backgrounds of experience and understanding, think of “works” as godly behavior, as righteousness, holiness, and obedience to God. We are contrasting faith and godliness of behavior. There hardly could be a more destructive point of view, given the fact that godliness of behavior is God’s goal in establishing the plan of salvation.

The one trustworthy sign of sincere faith in Christ is godliness of behavior. Apart from godly behavior there is no salvation because godly behavior is salvation—salvation from sin.

Making eternal residence in Heaven the goal of the Divine redemption instead of the transformation of the believer into God’s image, setting forth acknowledgment of theological truth as the ticket to eternal residence in Heaven, and contrasting faith and godliness such that salvation has to do with the profession of facts of theology rather than with the bringing forth of a new creation in the human personality, are serious errors.

These three errors, combined with the related doctrine of the pre-tribulation rescue of the saints so that—unlike all other Christians of history—they will not suffer, have destroyed the testimony of the Christian churches.

The reasoning of today’s Christian scholars is that if we go to Heaven by election, by the mercy of God, by the kindness of God, on the basis of our acknowledgment of theological truth, then how we behave ourselves is not essential. If we are saved by Divine grace, godly character is desirable but not essential to our eternal residence in Heaven. If God loves us so much He will accept our worldliness, lusts, and self-seeking and consider us to be righteous, then He certainly is willing to remove us from Antichrist and the great tribulation.

Deductive reasoning has been applied to favorite “key verses” until we have made most of the teachings of Christ and His apostles superfluous and meaningless.

We need not heed (it is taught) what Christ said about our laying down our life for the Gospel’s sake, or about the necessity for enduring to the end, because it is “not by works of righteousness which we have done.”

We need not be concerned (it is taught) with what the Apostle Paul said about the covetous not entering the Kingdom of God because it is “not by works of righteousness which we have done.”

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 choose to live our own lives, 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.

The Apostle Paul did not teach it would be nice if we showed our appreciation for God’s love by trying to behave ourselves. Paul taught that if we Christians live in the appetites of the flesh, we will die spiritually. (Romans 8:13).

The Christian would be morally stronger if he returned to the standard of the devout Hebrew or the disciplined monk rather than to continue to use the name of Christ as an excuse for his filthy, self-centered behavior.

We Christians are teaching error. We have applied human logic to a scriptural concept and have reached a wrong conclusion. We have not noted the scriptural requirements and conclusions, choosing instead to make “logical” deductions. We have twisted the Scriptures to our destruction because we cannot understand how the grace of God and righteous behavior can both be necessary for our salvation.

Like our attitude toward the paradox of Divine election and human choice, we will not accept both truths as equally valid and necessary because we cannot, with our human mind, resolve the seeming inconsistency. That is a poor excuse for not accepting the whole counsel of the Scriptures.

We have had the teaching of the Apostle James all this time so we are without excuse. “You see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:24).

Why have we selected Paul over James? First, because we do not understand Paul. Second, because we have permitted humanistic values and sentiments to affect our judgment. We are putting man’s comfort and convenience ahead of the rigorous, painful demands of the Gospel of Jesus.

Are we justified by works as well as by faith? Yes, according to the Scriptures; no, according to today’s Christian theologians.

Does James contradict Paul? No. It is just that we have misunderstood Paul, fastening on his argument in the early chapters of Romans, his reaction to the Judaizers, and ignoring the bulk of what he wrote in the Epistles.

Part of our confusion arises from the contemporary interpretation of the expression from Habakkuk, “by his faith.”

Acceptance of a religious creed is not the kind of faith that brings eternal life.

The verse in Habakkuk is the source of the three New Testament statements, “the just shall live by faith.” What was Habakkuk talking about? He was not contrasting belief in theological facts with unbelief in theological facts. Habakkuk was contrasting humility and faithfulness to God with self-centered pride—a pride often found in those whose theological beliefs largely are correct.

Habakkuk was saying that the human being who chooses to live according to his pride and abilities is not accepted of God; but the person who chooses to live in humble, meek, faithful dependence on God is approved of 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 to God, to Christ. The faith by which the righteous live is a living faith. It always is revealed in our behavior.

It is impossible to possess a true faith and not be moved continually to works of righteousness. Faith apart from works is dead. 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 it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” Romans 1:17

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 always is in motion (“from faith to faith”). It is a living faith and it continually brings us to holy behavior. The end result of holy, righteous behavior is eternal life (Romans 6:22).

One can acknowledge the fact that God accepts the blood of Jesus as the propitiation (appeasement) for our sins. The believer can go even further by stating he desires that God apply the remission of sins to himself.

But there is much more to faith in the blood than this. We are to embrace the virtue of the blood of Jesus daily in such a manner that we wash our robes and make them white. It is the authority of the blood that makes it possible for us to overcome sin day after day until we stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.

The victorious saint makes many mistakes as he pursues the will of God. But as long as he is following after Jesus with all his strength, the blood of Jesus keeps on forgiving him. The blood keeps him in fellowship with God while he is growing in righteousness. The blood of Jesus is not to be used as a covering for careless, sinful, self-willed behavior.

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 a virgin 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 Divine Son of God, and as a result of our belief we do what He says, taking up our cross and following Him each day.

Paul is supportive of Habakkuk but not supportive of our tradition that belief in theology will bring us to eternal life in Heaven (itself an unscriptural concept in that Heaven and eternal life are not the same thing). True faith unites us with Christ such that godliness of behavior is forthcoming. Christ-filled, Christ-sponsored holiness is eternal life—life in the Presence of God.


But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” (Galatians 3:11)

What is Paul talking about? Is he contrasting godly behavior with faith in God? No, he is not. He is arguing against the Judaizers, against the necessity for circumcising Gentile Christians according to the Law of Moses.

Is Paul claiming that our behavior has little effect on the way God regards us? Hardly! A few sentences later he states that if we Christians walk in sin we will not inherit the Kingdom of God, and then Paul reminds us that we will reap what we sow.

envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:21)
For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. (Galatians 6:8)

Finally, in the Book of Hebrews:

Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him.” (Hebrews 10:38)

Is this a reminder that we are saved by the Lord’s favor 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 (attainments that had cost them the confiscation of their properties), and do not press forward to the “rest” of God, to full union with the Father through Christ, they will not escape the displeasure of God.

Sometimes Hebrews 2:3 is preached to the unsaved. This is a misapplication. Hebrews 2:3 is an admonition to the saints concerning their leaving the basics of salvation and pressing on to perfection, reminding them that neglecting the progressive plan of redemption can lead to severe treatment at the hand of the Lord. We are not directing God’s words to their proper audience when we preach Hebrews 2:3 and Romans 6:23 to the unsaved.

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. What is the nature of the eleventh chapter 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 subdued kingdoms, performed righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens” (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.

What a weak, silly, ineffective “faith” is presented in our current “I’m saved by faith”! It is not a scriptural faith we are clinging to. It is not of the faith, fear of God, and obedience of Noah, Abraham, David, Elijah, Peter, Paul. Rather, it represents the ability of men by their traditions to turn the Word of God into an excuse for immorality. It is an error of the heart.

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.

True faith has to do with now—how we are thinking and acting now—as well as with our reward in the future. Traditional belief is directed toward going to Heaven when we die; although lately there is an increased emphasis on persuading God to make us prosperous and successful in the present world.

True faith transforms what we are. Traditional belief hopes for peaceful, happy surroundings we can enjoy after we die but makes few serious demands on us concerning change in our character.

True faith has to do with our relationship to God through Christ—now and forever.

Traditional belief addresses itself to a change in location from this sin-cursed earth to a place of happiness where the destructive presence and consequences of sin are not present. We are hoping to place our untransformed personality in a mansion where all is joy and peace and no demands are made on us.

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.

True faith makes heavy demands on our energy, time, thought—on all we are and do. Traditional belief requires primarily the maintaining of a correct understanding and profession of facts and events past, present, and future. Belief in special creation rather than belief in evolution is considered to be the mark of a Christian, although the individual may gossip, be proud, haughty, covetous, lustful, drunken, violent, and dishonest.

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.

As we have stated, true faith makes us one with all the saints of history. Traditional Christian belief maintains that a special set of people known as the “Gentile Church” (an unscriptural term) has been exempted, on the basis of a belief in theological facts, from actually walking by faith according to the scriptural sense of the expression, after the manner of the saints of the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews.

It is maintained that the Gentile Church is to be carried to Heaven to live forever in mansions because of its profession of faith in Jesus apart from any actual living by faith in God.

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. All we are able to achieve apart from Christ is loss for Him and therefore loss for us.

By His sinless life, atoning death, and triumphant resurrection, Christ has set us free from all religious law (not that we are exempt from the eternal moral law of God, as we pointed out previously). Christ has not set us free so we can go our own way, He has set us free so we can wait on Him without distraction. He died for us, not so we should live to ourselves but to Him who died for us and rose again.

This is the true faith by which the righteous have lived from the beginning of the creation.

(“The Just Shall Live By Faith”, 3747-1)

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