What Scripture Means by "the Just Shall Live by Faith"
It was also God’s plan from the beginning that His people would be made just, or right with God, not through striving, church attendance, or legalism, but rather through faith in Jesus Christ and His payment for our sins.
“For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” – Romans 1:17, KJV
This is the crux of the Gospel: “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17, KJV). This verse, when understood, can give us such peace and assurance in knowing our salvation doesn’t depend on us. This was Paul’s, the author of Romans, driving message. It was also God’s plan from the beginning that His people would be made just, or right with God, not through striving, church attendance, or legalism, but rather through faith in Jesus Christ and His payment for our sins.
We see this phrase, “the just” or as some translations state, “the righteous live by faith” in the Old Testament and the New Testament. The ancient Hebrew prophet, Habakkuk first spoke this phrase during a dark time of Israel’s history. Centuries later the apostle Paul quoted him in Galatians and Romans while explaining God’s gift of salvation, as did the author of Hebrews, in much the same manner.
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What Did Paul Mean When He Said “the Just Shall Live by Faith”?
When Paul, the author of Romans, spoke of the just, or righteous, he wasn’t referencing someone’s behavior or personal integrity. Rather, he was referring to our being made right with God. This is known as the doctrine of justification, and it has a legal connotation. It refers to God declaring Christ-followers not guilty because of the price Jesus paid on our behalf. This was Paul’s driving message. He wanted to make sure his readers, and all of Christendom, understood the gospel of grace. The just, then, are those who have been justified, or declared not guilty, because of their faith in Christ’s sacrifice.
The gospel reveals God’s righteousness: His faithfulness to His covenant, victory over sin and darkness, and His power to save. Biblical scholar N. T. Wright says God’s righteousness is “essentially the covenant faithfulness, the covenant justice of the God who made promises to Abraham, promises of a worldwide family characterized by faith, in and through whom the evil of the world would be undone.”
Those who believe in God’s Son, though unrighteous themselves, become righteous through Him. They receive Christ and remain in Him through faith, so “from faith to faith.” This refers to a conviction of and trust in Jesus Christ and salvation in Him. As nineteenth century theologian Charles Ellicott stated, “It is by faith that man first lays hold on the gospel, and its latest product is a heightened and intensified faith. When [the gospel] has been once realized and taken home to man’s self, its tendency is to confirm and strengthen that very faculty by which it was apprehended.”
To put it simply, we come to Christ through faith, and once received, Christ strengthens our faith.
What Did Habakkuk Mean When He Spoke about the "Just"?
In quoting Habakkuk 2:4, Paul let his readers know the doctrine of salvation through grace by faith wasn’t new. In fact, this has been God’s plan all along.
Shortly before the Chaldeans invaded and overtook Judah, the ancient prophet wrote: “Behold, his soul is puffed up,” speaking of the prideful and self-reliant enemy, “it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4, NIV). In other words, though destruction was coming, God wouldn’t forsake those who trusted in Him. As John Piper states, “There is hope for those who will hold firm their trust in God when the calamity comes.”
Notice, Habakkuk 2:4 compares those who are proud and unrighteous to those who are righteous and humbly trust in God.
How Paul Defended the Gospel of Grace
In Galatians 3:11, Paul wrote to believers struggling to grasp the purity of the gospel. Some Jewish Christians claimed Gentile believers needed to follow the Jewish religious rituals, known as “the law,” in order to receive salvation. In other words, they were adding works to what God had given freely in the death and resurrection of His Son.
Paul would not allow God’s precious truth to become perverted by enslaving falsehoods, and so he wrote a letter to the churches throughout the region. He began by clearly stating his authority as an apostle, or sent representative of Christ. Then he explained the origin of his message. He had received the gospel from Jesus Christ Himself. Then, after discussing his interaction with other apostles in relation to the gospel, Paul explained the historicity of God’s saving truth. He demonstrated that it was a fulfillment of the law, which the Jewish believers insisted everyone followed.
Then, after thoroughly developing his argument, he wrote, “Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified” or made right “before God, because ‘the righteous’” or just “will live by faith” (Galatians 3:11, NIV).
Why the Just Must Live by Faith
In Hebrews 10, the author’s discussion of grace looks similar to what he wrote to the Galatians. He began by saying, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship” (Hebrews 10:1, NIV).
Though insufficient for salvation, the Old Testament law, with all of its sacrifices, had a purpose. It reminded mankind of their sin and pointed to Jesus’s all-sufficient sacrificial death. In other words, Paul wanted his readers to understand the law was no longer necessary after Christ’s death and resurrection. Then, in verse 38, Paul repeated God’s message to the prophet Habbakkuk: “But My righteous one will live by faith …”
The Justified Are United by Faith
In writing to the Romans, Paul wanted to unite two diverse people groups under one unifying message: the gospel of Christ. The church, comprised of Jews and Gentiles, were experiencing significant theological conflict. God was expanding what had primarily began as a movement within the Jewish community to all the nations, as had always been His plan. This left the Jewish Christians confused as they tried to understand how to reconcile their history with the gospel and how to handle the influx of Gentile believers into their churches.
Around this time, Acts 15:1 tells us, “Certain people came down from Judah to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved’” (NIV). In response, Paul and a group of other apostles and leaders met in Jerusalem to discuss this crucial question facing the church. After much debate, which I’m certain included a thorough examination of Scripture, they determined not to “make it difficult for the Gentiles who [were] turning to God” and to maintain the purity of the gospel.
Paul wrote his letter to the believers in Rome about eight years later, in response to their internal conflict. The “Judaizing Christians” demanded the Gentile believers follow the law whereas the Gentiles, who occupied the majority, proclaimed a “law-free gospel.” As John R. W. Stott states in The Message of Romans, “Jewish Christians were proud of their favored status, and the Gentile Christians their freedom, so Paul saw the need to humble them both.”
He did this by reminding them of God’s holiness and all mankind’s need for grace. “No one is righteous,” he wrote, “not even one,” (Romans 3:10, NLT). “No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God” (Romans 3:11). “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (v. 23). We all receive salvation, justification, by grace through faith. God’s righteousness is both revealed and credited to us in this: “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17, KJV).
This indeed is good news! All of Scripture and human history proves this: Mankind cannot live as God desires. We know this in the depths of our spirit. Despite our best efforts, we cannot love our family and friends as we want. We say and do things we wish we hadn’t, and we don’t do what we wish we had. As Dave Montoya, Pastor of Northstate Community Church in Chico, California often says, “We fail to live up to our own ideals.” If our salvation, our righteousness, depended on us, we’d be hopeless. But Jesus bridged the gap between us and God and did what we could never do. He offered His life in place of ours so that we could receive His life in place of death. So that we could become the just through faith.
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Jennifer Slattery is an author, speaker, and ministry leader passionate about helping God's children reach their full potential and live fully surrendered to Christ. Find her online at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com.
In her new podcast Faith Over Fear, Jennifer helps us see different areas of life where fear has a foothold, and how our identity as children of God can help us move from fear to faithful, bold living. You can listen by clicking on the link below or by visiting LifeAudio.com.
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin and history of specific verses within Scripture context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.