open book on a table

“Living by Faith(fulness)”

A sermon drawn from Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 & Romans 1:16-17

Sometimes Romans 1:17 will be translated “For in [THE GOSPEL] the justice of God is revealed through faith for faith, as it is written, “The one who is just will live by faith.” – if we’re familiar with the KJV, for instance, that’s how we might have memorized it. And this seems to be how Martin Luther understood it. That’s the language that has given us our theological term “justification,” which we often say means, in more ordinary language, “being made right with God.” So, almost another word for “salvation.”

Martin Luther made that phrase “the just shall live by faith” the bumper sticker of the Reformation, which was a big part of the sweeping changes that laid the foundation of our modern world.

As the story goes, Martin Luther had been tortured by his inability to live up to the demands of a just and righteous God. Until he came to understand that what Paul meant in Romans 1:17 was that the “just” or the “righteous” – were the people of faith, who are justified by God, or counted righteous by God, even in the face of their obvious, persistent, sinfully imperfect objective human unrighteousness – because of God’s goodness, not theirs. And because of that, they would live – that is, they wouldn’t die, as they deserved, but they’d be saved and have eternal life.

That was the good news.

Here’s what Luther said about his own theological awakening on this point – as quoted in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A life of Martin Luther [as quoted in Leo de Vos, “The Just Shall Live by Faith: The Conversion of Martin Luther,” at Christian Library]

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. [we can see why that might have bothered him, too …] My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant. [and part of the reason Martin Luther clung to “the dear Paul” was that he could tell that Paul was insisting that God did NOT demand meticulous observance of a long list of rules and regulations from people, which was a big relief to Martin Luther – probably also to us.]

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.

So – since “justification by faith” is such good news – we might ask ourselves – what exactly do we mean by “faith”?

Because people have meant different things over time.

For Christians, at least, it has probably always meant what we’d call trust, which the early Christians had in Jesus and in Jesus’ teaching and in Jesus as their Lord … and also what we’d call loyalty or faithfulness, that is, allegiance to Jesus and to Jesus’ teaching and to Jesus as their Lord … all of which is very much a matter of the heart and of what we could call personal knowledge.

And then alongside that, Christians early on got the idea that believing the right ideas about Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit and their relationships to one another and to the church was an important part of what we meant by “faith.” So that “faith” came to mean things like being able to recite the Nicene Creed and mean it. “Faith” came to be a matter of the mind; some Christians would even translate “justification by faith” as “salvation depends on what we believe, not on what we do.”

And partly because of that emphasis on belief, among other things, these days, another thing WE – 21st century Americans – often mean by “faith” is something like “believing something without proof” or “believing something without evidence,” so that we think of “faith” as something like the opposite of knowing, which is supposed to be backed up by facts. (I’m almost embarrassed to stand in church and say that about faith. And I definitely do not want to put anyone on the spot by asking for a show of hands, of who thinks of “faith” this way.)

Instead, I’ll just read this beautiful description of Christian faith from the Second Helvetic Confession, authored by Heinrich Bullinger, another one of those Reformers:

“Christian faith is not an opinion or human conviction, but a most firm trust [a matter of the heart] and a clear and steadfast assent of the mind, and then a most certain apprehension of the truth of God presented in the Scriptures and in the Apostles’ Creed, and thus also of God himself, the greatest good, and especially of God’s promise and of Christ who is the fulfilment of all promises. [So – once again – more like what we’d call “personal knowledge,” like meeting and coming to know and appreciate a friend, or a relative. And then he goes on and adds] But this faith is a pure gift of God … [this article continues: which God alone of his grace gives to his elect according to his measure when, to whom and to the degree he wills. And he does this by the Holy Spirit by means of the preaching of the Gospel and steadfast prayer.]

Book of Confessions, 5.112 & 5.113

The point being that, for us Reformed, yes, faith does include the state of our minds, but even before that, and indispensably along with that, it always involves the state of our hearts – our trust, in God and in God’s promises. And even more importantly, it’s always a gift, it’s something we receive, from a gracious God; it’s something God does for us, not something we do for ourselves.

But if we go all the way back to the prophet Habakkuk, which is where all this talk of “the just living by faith” began … we’ll notice that he wasn’t really talking about what people had on their minds much at all.

When the prophet Habakkuk said “the righteous one by his faith will live,” he was using a Hebrew word that we would be just as likely to translate into English as “faithfulness” or “firmness” or “truth.”

Which may make sense to us if we can get the image of “firmness” as something steady rather than shaky, and the image of “truth” as a good or “faithful” copy of an original, rather than one that distorts it.

When Habakkuk says “the righteous one by his faithfulness will live,” he seems to be talking mainly about the righteous person’s behavior, behavior that comes from the righteous person’s heart, which is set on God, and is loyal to God, and that loyalty is going to show as behavior that is constant rather than inconstant, that follows God’s instructions rather than cuts corners, that sticks with the mission rather than abandons it … we could think of lots of ways to say what Habakkuk seems to have meant here. We think of “faithfulness” in all those ways ourselves, still today.

As best we can tell, that was what Habakkuk was saying: that the righteous person, the upstanding person, even during times of terrible affliction – which was exactly what he was foreseeing – would go on living faithfully, and that faithful living is real living, is true life – not the sorry sham of life lived by the arrogant, the ones who “build a city by bloodshed,” who worship worthless idols and in general act like the Babylonians. [even today]

Don’t imagine the Babylonians are really living. They seem to be winning, they seem to be prospering, but … They’re death-eaters. They’re dying. They just don’t know it yet.

For Habakkuk, the righteous live by their faith, their trust, in God and in God’s goodness, and in God’s vision of true life … and so, they live in a way that’s faithful to that vision … even when the world they see around them belies that vision, and even when there’s no obvious payout, no obvious reward for living that way, and maybe even an obvious penalty …

Habakkuk is talking about faith as the kind of faithfulness people promised in our traditional wedding vows, “to have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health …” – a covenant of steadfast love and loyalty, no matter what.

We might be able to see how that kind of commitment could give people the idea that faithfulness – faith – has a degree of … disregard for “empirical reality.”

We might also see how “faith” – as trust, loyalty, confidence, belief in someone, all that – and “faithfulness” would be related. Not identical, maybe, if we think of “faith” as a quality of heart and mind, and we think of “faithfulness” as a quality of action. But connected to one another; mainly, through what we care about, are committed to – sometimes we say, what we “believe in.”

But that might worry us a little, too … because if “faith” really means “faithfulness” … is Martin Luther’s “gate to heaven” still as wide open for us as the Reformers thought? Does “justification by faith” still mean that salvation, in the end, doesn’t depend on what WE do for ourselves, but depends on what GOD does for us? Or do we need to get out of the habit of translating “justification by faith” as “what matters is what people believe, not what people do”?

[Well, I think we should get out of that habit, but that’s a different story … ]

We might worry, because if we’re honest, most of us, when we look at our own lives, know – as much as Martin Luther knew back in 1517 – that our own faithfulness to God, to our neighbors, is less than perfect.

Most of us are deeply influenced by the modern “rational choice” “business school” view of the world. We’d agree it’s a good idea to do the cost-benefit calculations whenever we’re deciding what to do. And to make decisions that, according to our best evidence, will have positive consequences for us.

We may disapprove, but we understand why all the disciples run away when Jesus is arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, when it looks like they’ve gotten involved in a fatally lost cause.

We understand why Peter denies Christ in the courtyard of the high priest.

When it comes to the righteous faithfulness Habakkuk was talking about, and especially when it comes to Jesus, who actively chose a life of faithfulness that led to the cross, most of us would admit, not only are we not that faithful, sometimes we’re not completely convinced that faithfulness like that, faithfulness that puts God and others ahead of self that way, is entirely rational, or wise, in real life.

There’s a story … [an ancient one, actually, which people may have heard in one version or other]

About a man and his dog, walking along a road in the heat of the day. After a while, the man realizes … I must be dead, because Old Blue here died years ago. And just as he’s realizing this, and as he’s thinking how nice it is to be reunited with his faithful friend, he sees a beautiful gate up ahead, and an angelic figure standing by it, and when he says hello, where are we, the angel says “Why, this is heaven, go right in – but you’ll need to leave that dog outside.”

There’s a dilemma. Would he really give up life in heaven for his friend here?

But as this story goes, when he thinks about how faithful Old Blue has always been, and how much he loves him, he just can’t do it, so he says, I think I’ll just keep walking … hoping for the best, obviously …

And sure enough, down the road, there’s another gate, and another figure, and he asks the same question, where are we – a little worried, of course – and this figure says, “well, this is heaven – for real, those folks in hell down the road are always trying to trick people – go right in” and he says “what about my dog” and the figure says “by all means, he’s why you’re here, right?”

Of course, in real life, the person we know who is most willing and able to give up heavenly bliss and to lay down his life for his friends – not even for his faithful friends, but his unfaithful ones, too – is Jesus. Jesus is the one whose gracious gift of faithfulness to the ultimate goodness of God is the very good news of the gospel, that our faith trusts, and that whatever faithfulness we show in our lives, depends on.

Ultimately, Christian faith is trust in the faithfulness of a faithful God, as revealed to us most dramatically in the steadfast love and faithfulness of Jesus Christ. That’s what we trust, and who we trust. Christ’s faithfulness is also what we long to and hope to and, as best we can with God’s help try to, make real in our own lives. And what we celebrate on Reformation Sunday, when we can say, along with the Reformers, and along with Paul and the early Christians, and with the whole Church of every time and place, “Thanks be to God, for God’s indescribable gift.” (2 Corinthians 9:15)

A scene from the Mahabharata – Yudisthira with his dog

Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; Yudisthira with the dog in a scene from the Mahabharata, Ramanarayanadatta astri, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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