Monday, March 1, 2010

Paul's Use of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17: The Righteous Will Live by Faith

Habakkuk 2:4 is a key Old Testament text for understanding Paul’s theology. Paul says in Rom 1:16–17 that the saving righteousness of God is revealed through the gospel “as it is written” in Hab 2:4: “the righteous will live by faith.”

Habakkuk 2:4 has often been taken as espousing a pan-historical principle of salvation by faith, but this overlooks the fact that Hab 2:4 is a prophecy of the end times. In order to understand this better, we need to pay attention to the flow of the book of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk can be divided into six sections. After the introduction in 1:1, in we have in 1:2–4 Habakkuk’s complaint about wickedness in Israel. Yahweh’s answer is given in 1:5–11. The Lord says that he will punish wickedness in Israel by sending the Babylonians to punish them. In response to this, in 1:12–2:1 Habakkuk complains a second time. How can God solve the problem of evil in Israel by using a nation of idol worshipers who is more wicked than Israel? How can God solve wickedness by wickedness? In 2:2–20 we are given Yahweh’s answer to Habakkuk’s second complaint, and this is followed by a prayer of Habakkuk in 3:1–19 in which he remembers and rejoices in the saving power of God despite the prospect of calamity.

Habakkuk 2:4 occurs in Yahweh’s answer to Habakkuk as to how he could use wicked Babylon to judge Israel. This answer is actually a vision that is to be written down (2:2). According to 2:3, it is a vision that concerns the time of the end. In other words, Hab 2:2–20 is an eschatological prophecy. The core of the vision is Hab 2:4. At the time of the end, there would be someone whose soul was puffed up and not upright. In the context, this seems to refer to Babylon in its eschatological manifestation. It is interesting in this regard that Babylon becomes a symbol in the New Testament for the enemies of God’s people (Rev 16:19; 17:5; 18:2–24). What is implied in Hab 2:4a, therefore, is that God would deal with the problem of using instruments of wickedness to solve the wickedness of Israel by bringing judgment upon those instruments.

In contrast to the arrogant enemy, at the time of the end there would also be another class of person, namely, the righteous: “the righteous will live by his faith” (2:4b). It is important to understand that the Hebrew word translated as faith in Hab 2:4 ordinarily means faithfulness, as the translators of the TNIV acknowledge. Emunah includes within its semantic domain the idea of constancy and persevering loyalty. Emunah is the idea of faith that exists within a perfect marriage (Hos 2:20). The idea that the righteous would live by his faithfulness is a truth that an orthodox old covenant Israelite would have viewed as applying under the Mosaic covenant. The author of Ps 119, for example, can describe the law of Moses as being the way of emunah (Ps 119:30). But the emunah that is spoken of in Hab 2:4, while retaining its standard meaning of faithfulness, is transformed into an eschatological concept by virtue of the context in which it is found.

Apart from the mention of the end in 2:3, Hab 2:6–19 is a series of five woe oracles that prophesy judgment against the eschatological enemy of God’s people. Associated with this judgment is the idea of the earth being “filled with the knowledge of the glory of Yahweh as the waters cover the sea” (2:14). The connection of the language of Hab 2:14 with Isa 11:9 confirms the eschatological nature of this vision. Habakkuk 2:2–20 is clearly an eschatological prophecy, and this is exactly how Paul understood it.

Paul understood Hab 2:4 as being a prophecy of the new covenant, a prophecy of the time of the end when righteousness would be defined in terms of eschatological faithfulness instead of faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant (as per Deut 6:25), which was impotent to bring about righteousness for the nation of Israel, because of the hardness of the hearts of the spiritually uncircumcised majority in Israel. In Paul’s thinking, the emunah in Hab 2:4 matches with the aman root of the verb translated as believed in Gen 15:6, the implication being that the righteousness of eschatological covenant faithfulness would be something that faithful Gentiles would graciously be able to participate in (hence the idea of both Jew and Greek in Rom 1:16, and the law-keeping of the Gentiles in Rom 2:14–15, 26–27).

In conclusion, the truth of Hab 2:4 is not a general principle in its original context, but an eschatological truth that replicates the pre-Mosaic justification of (Gentile) Abraham by faith. In its original context it speaks of eschatological faithfulness rather than a kind of faith that excludes faithfulness as part of its meaning. It is this which led Paul to understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the eschatological torah or word of God that, written in human hearts, brings the fullness of justification, salvation, and life to Jew as well as Gentile, who, through the presence and power of the Spirit of God, are led in the paths of righteousness and faithfulness. Paul was not ashamed of the gospel that brings the righteousness of faith to the nations, because the gospel functions in this way in complete fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.


Joseph said...

Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.


Joseph said...

Titus 3:4-7: But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

double :)

Joseph said...


I want to be gracious to you, but I am also mindful of how serious these matters are. I AM NOT saying you are committing the error of the Galatian Judaizers. I just have not read enough of your arguments yet.

But for those who do distort the Gospel of Christ, Paul is not very gracious in his words with them. Wishing they would emasculate themselves is not very gracious to the Judaizers. And I think Paul used that kind of language because the Gospel is just that great, God's little blood bought lambs are just that precious, and hell is just that bad.

As I said, I DO NOT put you in that category. I just don't know enough about your beliefs, and I'm not an Apostle either! :)

But if the Gospel you teach does not lead to this possible misunderstanding, then you have not got the Pauline Gospel:

Romans 6:1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?

I love Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' words on this text:

"The true preaching of the gospel of salvation by grace alone always leads to the possibility of this charge being brought against it. There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace. If my preaching and presentation of the gospel of salvation does not expose it to that misunderstanding, then it is not the gospel."

Steven, as you go into print on these matters, will the Gospel you preach and teach God's people expose itself to this misunderstanding? Will your Gospel be so radically amazing like Paul's - where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more! Will you need to write Romans 6 to ensure you are not misunderstood.

I hope so. For the sake of Christ, His Gospel, and His Church.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello Joseph,

Thanks for those passages from Ephesians and Titus. Given the strong theme of the inclusion of the Gentiles in Ephesians, I wonder if by works Paul has in mind the works of the (Mosaic) law in that particular context. But Tit 3:4-7 is very reminiscent of Deut 8:17-18 and Deut 9:4-6. We do not save ourselves through our own works; but, as Calvin said, God ordinarily saves his people through working obedience in them (as per Phil 2:12-13), so we shouldn't leave that out of our discussions.

You do hold to the traditional Reformed view that good works (as the fruit of faith) are necessary for salvation, don't you?

Joseph said...

Hey Steven!

Yes, I do beleive good works are necessary for final salvation. But if good works are mingled in any way with justification, that's bad.

In the Ephesians passage, Paul rules out anything that is "of our own doing." Whether it's Moses or helping a little old lady over the road, all good deeds are excluded from justification.

I think Paul makes this kind of thing clear in terms of election too:

Romans 9:11: "Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad — in order that God's purpose in election might stand: 12not by works but by him who calls . . . "

I'm solidly with Westerholm on this one . . . Paul excludes all works - good and bad - from having anything to do with both election and justification. If we don't lay our deadly doing down, down at Jesus' feet, there will be no hope for us to be justified. Only Christ's works are good enough to secure our justificaiton. Only He is worthy: Rev. 5

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello Joseph,

In the Ephesians passage Paul is actually talking about salvation rather than justification, but it is clear that he has the state of salvation that they have already entered through conversion in mind rather than final salvation. I guess I’d prefer to understand those words in the context of the Jew-Gentile issue (which dominates the rest of ch. 2 and all of ch. 3), but that obviously rules out the unbiblical idea that good deeds in general have value for salvation apart from Christ. Not sure though that there would have been many people around in ancient Ephesus who thought that they could build up merit points with the God of the Christians without conversion to Christianity. The unbiblical idea of salvation by good deeds in general in the eyes of the true God seems more of an issue in nominal Christian societies.

Regarding works and justification, it depends on what kind of justification you are talking about. That’s also relevant to what James has to say. Do you know much about the Reformed doctrine of double justification? In my experience not many Reformed people do. But I thoroughly agree with you that we have to be clothed in the righteousness of Christ in order to enter into the presence of God and live. And yes, election is unconditional.

John Thomson said...


How did I know your next blog would be on this topic. Nevertheless an appropriate one to address.

Naturally, I am with Joseph in his comments and am pleased to see that you seem to be too.

If I understand you rightly your primary difficulty lies not so much in accepting that we are now justified by faith (though you do seem to wish to insist on faithfulness being to the fore where I do not believe it is) but in accepting that OT believers were not justified by the 'works' of the Law (but by faith).

Now if all you are saying is that OT believers expressed their faith in terms of the life the law demanded much as James says we show our faith by our works, then I have no quibble (though I think Paul defines works differently).

If too you are saying that relatively speaking 'faith and faithfulness' are not so sharply distinguished in the OT as they are in the NT then again I have little quibble.

If you are saying that faith as faith comes to the fore in the NT then again I can see such a case. Paul speaks of a time 'before faith came' Gals 2:13

Gal 3:23 (ESV)
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.

He is contrasting the formal nature of the OC of Law with the NC. The OC as you point out in Deuteronomy did not stress faith; its principle was 'this do and live'. It is salutory that in the NT the people of God are 'believers'.

I doubt if either Joseph or I would argue either that the issue of Jew/gentile inclusion is closely connected to Paul's discussion of faith, not works. Though we would argue that Paul's concerns are not merely ecclesial but also and importantly soteriological. I say this because by introducing the ecclesial you appear to be trying to sideline or fudge the soterial.

If however, you go beyond this then I differ and your ongoing concerns seem to go beyond this.

Your recent blog is an example. I can agree that Haba kkuk has an eschatological dimension, of course I can, it is obvious. But you seem to wish to limit its concerns to the eschatological. Are you really saying that God was not calling the Prophet and the remnant during the period of the Babylonian invasion (still formally the period of OC) to live by faith? Are you so intent on removing 'faith' from the OT experience that you will deny its urgency during the impending exile? Surely not.

Further, you build a great deal on the belief that emunah means faithfulness in Habakkuk. I accept that it often, even normally is used as 'faithfulness'. However, that it must mean faithfulness I do not accept. For a few reasons.

To be cont.

John Thomson said...


Firstly, scholars are not as unanimous as you suggest on its necessary meaning. Secondly, and more important for me Paul is specifically citing this text in the NT as proof not of salvation by faithfulness but as salvation by faith. In Roms 1:16,17 he has just stated that the gospel is the power of God to save those who 'believe'. And that God's righteousness comes by faith. He employs Hab 2:4 as a proof of this claim. It is not hard to establish that pistis regularly means faith in the NT and in Paul. Thus if Paul can use Hab 2:4 to mean faith, so too can I.

However,thirdly, it seems to me self evident that Paul has chosen this text from Habakkuk precisely because it does contextually mean faith and not predominantlyfaithfulness.
Firstly in 2:4 the hubris and self-trust of the Babylonian (his soul is puffed up) revealing his unrighteousness (it is not upright within him) contrasts with the faith of the remnant (a humble taking God at has word and awaiting his promised salvation)marks the righteous remnant. That believing God's word is the focus (rather than faithfulness or obedient living also part of faith but not to fore here) is evidenced in the response of the Prophet. He exemplifies the 'the righteous who shall live by faith'. His prayer in Ch 3 is an expression of this faith. It is a classic example of OT faith. He focuses not on the covenant but on the God of the covenant and his great revealing and redemptive acts of the past on behalf of his people. On the basis of these he rests in trust (despite his fears) on God's future promised deliverance; he trusts in a word of promise.

Hab 3:16-19 (ESV)
​​​​​​​​I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. ​​​​​​​​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.

This OT faith of the remnant, expressed by Habakkuk, is precisely the gospel faith Paul extols. It is the saving faith of all those who in need call upon the name of the Lord believing his promise of salvation and rejoicing in him (Roms 10).

Joseph said...

Hello Steven,

Yes, I've read your article on that in Calvin - about how Calvin believed our works are actually justified as well. Very interesting.

I think the Bible speaks of salvation in 3 ways:

We have been saved (justification)

We are being saved (sanctification)

We will be saved (glorification)

I think Paul is talking about the first category in Eph. 2:8-9. It seems clear Paul is concerned about people boasting in their works in Eph. 2:8-9.

We humans (Jew and Gentile alike) love to boast and trust in anything but God alone.

Some would tell us justification by faith alone apart from works is not fundamentally about how sinners who are trusting in themselves are made righteous before a Holy God by trusting in God alone. I wonder if those who argue this really understand the depths of the wickedness of the human heart?

I'm struck by Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9:

“For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead . . . .”

This is truly amazing! Think about it. The great Apostle Paul who had such a powerful encounter with the Living Christ; who was powerfully converted to Christ; who lived such an exemplary life that he told the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitated Christ; who wrote a large portion of the New Testament; who was persecuted and suffered so much for the sake of the Gospel – - this highest caliber of godly Christian man still desperately needed God to so work in his life circumstances so that he would despair of life and not trust in himself, but in God! Oh how even the best of men are prone to trust in themselves instead of in God alone!

This temptation to trust in ourselves or in our own righteousness is not new to the human heart.
It was true in Israel’s infancy:

Deuteronomy 9:4: Do not think in your heart, after the LORD your God has cast them out before you, saying, “Because of my righteousness the LORD has brought me in to possess this land . . . .”

Joseph said...


It was true in Daniel’s day:

Daniel 9:18: O my God, incline Your ear and hear; open Your eyes and see our desolations, and the city which is called by Your name; for we do not present our supplications before You because of our righteous deeds, but because of Your great mercies.

It was true in Jeremiah's day:

Jeremiah 9:23-24: Thus says the LORD: "Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD."

It was true in Jesus’ day:

Luke 18:9: Also He [Jesus] spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others . . .

And it was true in Paul’s day:

Philippians 3:8-9: Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith . . . .

It's true in our own day too - in our own hearts.

If the great Apostle Paul needed to be placed in situations by God’s sovereign hand to cause him to despair even of life itself so that he would not trust in himself, but in God alone, how much more vigilant ought we be to make sure we too are turning from all that is in ourselves, and resting in God alone through our Lord Jesus Christ?

May our only boast be in Him and in His glorious cross! And may this free us to live radical lives for the glory of God alone, just like our brother Paul!

Galatians 6:14: But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello John,

Excellent comments.

My view is not that faithfulness is to the fore but more the idea that faithfulness is not excluded from the meaning of emunah. I’ll have to do a post on this to explain it further, but yes, I am suggesting that faith and faithfulness are not sharply distinguished in the Old Testament. I am also saying that because the Israelites thought of faith holistically, they used the language of obedience to talk about faith. I believe that we are misunderstanding their idiom when we don’t see Deut 6:25 (for example) as being the way they talked about faith. In other words, justification by faith under the Mosaic covenant involved a holistic concept of faith, which also means that justification by faith under the Mosaic covenant was talked about using the language of justification by obedience. To put it another way, the doctrine of justification by the works of the law that I (and orthodox Jews throughout the centuries) see as operative under the Mosaic covenant was the old covenant version of justification by faith conceived in holistic terms.

About Hab 2:4, I’m saying that it is definitely part of an eschatological vision. The faith in view there is eschatological. This is how Paul has (rightly) taken it. Obviously, however, this would also have functioned as an encouragement to the faithful remnant to live by faith in their situation, although they would have understood this in terms of a holistic commitment to torah. That being said, the issue during the exile focused on God’s promise to bless the righteous despite external circumstances. So, faith in God’s promise would have been the focal point of their faith/faithfulness response to torah (i.e., God’s word) at that time.

Regarding emunah in Hab 2:4, I think it is fair to say that the scholarship is fairly unanimous about the standard meaning of emunah as faithfulness. There are, however, differences of opinion over how it is being used in this verse, mainly because of how Paul uses the clause in question.

I am not suggesting that faithfulness is a perfect translation for emunah, but I think it’s the best word we have to convey the idea of faith as an ongoing commitment to whatever it is that God has revealed.

There is one key reason that argues against your suggestion that emunah should be translated as faith in Hab 2:4. That is the textual variant in the LXX translation the righteous will live by my faith, which contrasts with the phrase by his faith in the Masoretic Text. It makes sense to understand that the translators of the LXX took my faith to mean God’s faithfulness. To speak of God as having faith is a bit weird. Would you say that God has faith? But he definitely is faithful. That textual variant is evidence that early translators of this text understood that it was talking about faithfulness. If they did not understand it that way, then chances are that the textual variant in question would not have occurred.

I’m happy to say that trust in God’s faithfulness is at the fore of such emunah, but I think it is trying to be too neat and precise (for ulterior theological reasons) to say that such emunah excludes the holistic effects of an ongoing commitment to divine revelation (at least in Hab 2:4 as in the rest of the Old Testament).

I’m pretty keen to do a post on faith touching on Lutheran, Reformed, and Old Testament conceptions of that concept. Hopefully that will clarify things a bit more.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks for those comments, Joseph.

I think that Calvin is also suggesting that justification/righteousness language is also used of the second and third stages of salvation in the Bible. I think it is something like the statement “Well done, good and faithful servant.” None of us strictly deserve to hear that said of us, but God in his grace is looking forward on the day of judgment to acknowledging the righteousness that he has worked in his servants. That acknowledgment is a kind of justification, i.e., a declaration that one has done what is right (as opposed to condemnation for doing wrong). I think that Calvin’s idea of subordinate justification is simply trying to capture that aspect of Scripture.

But yes, how amazing it will be to travel into the presence of God, to tread upon holy ground where none of us deserve to be.

And yes, to be able to boast in the “shame” of the cross. That has profound implications.

John Thomson said...


Rather than 'faithfulness' in Hab 2:4 I prefer a translation such as 'steadfast faith'. It keeps faith in God's promise to the fore yet also stresses continuance in faith.

Steven Coxhead said...

Steadfast faith. I like it!

Rob_T said...

I think Joseph is taking statements from Paul and making a new law - drawing up hard lines about 'justification,' 'salvation' and what does or doesn't save. When you say works in no way save you're as hard line legalistic as the 1st century who says one needs to be circumcised to be righteous before God. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. The response he expects is that people turn to him in faith and obey God. Where there is no obedience, there is no salvation. It is pointless to get all worked up and say "No, no, no! Salvation must come first and then obedience, righteousness, justification. Obedience and salvation are both a part of coming to God in faith and to try to impose rules that say one must come before the other is to require a structure on faith that just is not true to the New Testament. You guys get caught up quoting a verse from Paul here or there and you quote it in order to make it a rule or a law. And you miss the point that Paul was rejecting law as a means for being right before God. You interpretation of Calvinism dictates your reading of the Bible and you miss the spirit first of Jesus, second of James, and third of Paul. The cross comes first - after that it is pointless to argue that faith must precede obedience or vice versa. God expects both.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Rob, for contributing.

Paul's language of the obedience of faith in Rom 1:5 and 16:26 is interesting in this regard.