Question: "What does it mean that the righteous will live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4)?"
Answer: Habakkuk 2:4 includes the well-known statement “the righteous will live by faith.” What does this mean?
The context helps us to understand God’s intent in this passage. The whole verse reads, “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” “His soul” is a symbolic reference to Babylonia. This nation had become proud or “puffed up.” As a result, they were unrighteous and facing God’s judgment. In contrast, the righteous (or the “just”) would live by faith in God. By contrast, the righteous are humble in God’s eyes and will never face God’s judgment.
Habakkuk 2:4 is quoted three times in the New Testament. Paul quotes it in Romans 1:17, emphasizing the idea that righteousness by faith is for both Jews and Gentiles: “For in the gospel a righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”
Then, in Galatians 3:11, we read, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Here, Paul stresses that we are justified or made right before God by faith. The Law has no ability to justify anyone. As Habakkuk had recorded, people have always been saved by faith, not by works. Habakkuk 2:4 is also quoted in Hebrews 10:38.
In the third century, Rabbi Simla noted that Moses gave 365 prohibitions and 248 positive commands. David reduced them to eleven commands in Psalm 15; Isaiah made them six (33:14-15); Micah bound them into three (6:8); and Habakkuk condensed them all to one, namely—“The righteous shall live by faith” (from P. L. Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 illustrations. Garland, TX: Bible Communications, #1495).
Christians are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), and we walk in faith (2 Corinthians 5:7). Only by faith in Christ are we made righteous (Romans 5:19). Paul further expounds on this truth in Galatians 2:16, saying, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” It is Christ’s righteousness that saves us, and the only way to receive that gift is to trust in Him. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (John 3:36).
When Habakkuk wrote, “The righteous shall live by his faith,” he was echoing a timeless truth first modeled in Abraham’s life (Genesis 15:6). The righteous man will “live” in that he will not face God’s judgment; rather, in return for his faith in God, he has been given eternal life.