The Promise of Justification 

adapted from PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation on 4 March 2010.

“Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4)

The book of Habakkuk begins with the prophet Habakkuk complaining to the LORD that Judah, the people of God of old was apostatising. They were lawless and had little regard for the glory of God and the plight of the righteous. Habakkuk was perplexed at why the Lord was delaying to chastise His people: “O LORD, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save!” (Hab 1:2)

The Lord’s reply was not only unexpected but utterly shocking to Habakkuk: He was going to raise the Chaldeans or the Babylonians, that cruel and hasty people to punish Judah. Habakkuk was astounded: how could it be?

“Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?” (Hab 1:13).

How could God, who is infinitely holy and hates sin with a perfect hatred, make use of a nation that is more sinful than Judah to punish Judah? Habakkuk seems convinced that there can be no satisfactory answer to his perplexity. He says in chapter 2, v. 1—

“I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what he will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved” (Hab 2:1).

Well, whatever that actually meant, the Lord’s answer came sooner than Habakkuk had expected. It was an answer that not only convinced Habakkuk. It became also the foundation of the Christian church in the New Testament, and the theological torch that set aflame the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century.

What did the Lord say?

Well, the gist of His answer is found in Habakkuk 2:4—

Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith.

The rest of the chapter contains the prophecy that elaborates and applies this thesis statement in the historical setting of the day.

This evening, the Lord helping us, we must consider this thesis statement as part of our study of the great and precious promises of God found in the Bible. And this statement, you must realise is at once a declaration and a promise.

We can infer 3 thoughts from it. First, all men fall short of God’s righteousness. Secondly, the wages of unrighteousness is death. Thirdly, the just shall live by faith.

1. All Men Fall Short of God’s Righteousness

4 Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him…

a.It is clear from the context, that the LORD has the Babylonian invaders as an example of this general statement.

The Babylonians were proud and puffed up. Their desires were not upright. This is not merely a statement of fact. It is, we must realise, a statement of condemnation. The Babylonians would be judged because they were proud and self-reliant, and failed to acknowledge God.

They thought themselves to be a law unto themselves and right in what they did.

But all men fall short of God’s glory and righteousness (Rom 3:23). Therefore the Babylonians fall greatly short of God’s righteousness. In fact, in that they thought themselves to be great and glorious without regard to God, they added pride and arrogance to their sin of presumption.

But now, what is true of the Babylonians is actually true for all men. Satan had tempted Adam and Eve to take of the forbidden fruit by promising them god-like autonomy. “You shall be like God,” he claimed. It was a lie. Nevertheless, every natural descendant of Adam has since swallowed the lie, hook line and sinker. He resents God’s authority. He hates to think that there is anyone with authority over his will. He believes that he is a law unto himself. He does what he wants to do according to his free will, or so he thinks.

Therefore the fallen man is by nature arrogant, proud and self-righteous. His desires are only for his own glory and pleasure. He has no regard for God his Creator who is all-seeing and all-knowing. His soul is lifted up. He is not upright at all in the sight of God.

As the Babylonians stood condemned, so the natural man stands condemned.

This leads us to our second point, which is that…

2. The Wages of Unrighteousness is Death

This is implied in our text, because when the LORD says, “but the just shall live,” he is implying at the same time that the unjust shall not live. The unjust or unrighteous shall die. This agrees with the doctrine revealed to us in the New Testament.

Paul say: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23a); and John says: “All unrighteousness is sin” (1Jn 5:17). Therefore the wages of unrighteousness is death.

What death are we talking about? Not just physical death, but spiritual and eternal death. We are familiar with physical death and the sickness and bodily suffering associated with it. What is spiritual death? Spiritual death is essentially being dead in sin and trespasses. Because of spiritual death, the natural man cannot do any good. All his righteousness are filthy rags in God’s sight. What about eternal death? Eternal death involves separation from God today and for all eternity. The natural man therefore cannot enjoy God’s love and fellowship. Instead, he deserves God’ wrath and curse for all eternity.

When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, they brought death to all mankind descending from them by natural generation. Man’s desire for freedom from God together with his faith in the devil has brought untold miseries to himself down the ages. All the bad things of this life—deaths, illnesses, sorrows, tears, disappointment, pain, evil, injustice, separation, quarrels, wars all arose from sin, especially the sin of pride and arrogance. And man cannot extricate himself from the sad situation that he is in for there is none good, no, not one. And there is none that seeks after God, no, not one. Left to themselves, mankind is doomed and headed for eternal destruction.

But thanks be to God, there is hope, for life is promised for all who walk by faith. This is the third and most important proposition from our text, namely, that…

3. The Just Shall Live By Faith

But the just shall live by his faith.” There is a sharp contrast between the proud Babylonians and the righteous or just amongst God’s people. These shall live by their faith.

The word ‘faith’ in our text translates is a Hebrew word (אֶמוּנָת) which means faithfulness and fidelity. But of course faith and faithfulness are related. One who is faithful is excercising faith or trust to the object of faithfulness.

But the crucial question is: What does Habakuk mean by the statement: “the just shall live by faith”?

Well, there are some commentators who would say that Habakkuk means nothing more than that those who believe in God will enjoy a life of security, protection, and fullness.

But this cannot be the meaning of the statement, as the Holy Spirit does not leave us to guess what the verse means, for it is quoted three times in the New Testament! It is quoted in Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11 and Hebrews 10:38.

Without going into a lot of detail, we can see by studying the quotation in the context that the Holy Spirit intends for us to understand Habakkuk to be saying: “The person who would live eternally must be justified by faith.” Or more accurately, “the elect of Christ will,—by faith in Christ,— receive and enjoy the benefits of justification, including eternal life.”

We are all familiar with the doctrine of justification. “Justification,” according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism,…

“…is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (WSC  33).

What this statement essentially teaches us is that God alone can pardon our sins, undo the curse of unrighteousness and receive us into fellowship with Him. How does He do so? He does so, by sending the Lord Jesus Christ to take the punishment due to his people upon himself. Thus, Christ came to live, suffer and die for His people. Christ came, in other words, to purchase righteousness for his people.

Why do we need righteousness? We need righteousness because the wages of unrighteousness or sin is death—physical, spiritual and eternal death. Unless we have righteousness, we can have no fellowship with God and will instead suffer His wrath and curse.

So we need righteousness, and Christ came to purchase it for us by His own suffering and death on our behalf. But how do we receive this benefit that Christ purchased for us? We receive it according to Habakkuk, or more accurately, according to the Holy Spirit, by faith—even faith in Christ and all that He did.

Saving faith is a gift of God which He gives to His elect for whom Christ laid his life down for. By this faith, we receive a righteousness status before God, and therefore at the same time, eternal life. Thus the apostle Paul says, 

“For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17).

But now, how does this thought fit into what Habakkuk was saying?

Well, remember that Habakkuk had asked God how it could be that He could use a wicked nation to punish a people more righteous than them?

The Lord’s answer is: “Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith.” By this statement, the Lord is essentially saying to Habakkuk:

Yes, the Babylonians are puffed up. They will be judged. You can expect that. But what about the Jews? The unbelieving Jews are in the same boat. None may live and escape judgement but those who trust in Him.

Indeed, you are wrong to compare the Jews with the Babylonians! Who is more wicked or righteous cannot be measured by man’s standard, for by God’s standard both are guilty. In fact, in a certain sense, the Jews were more guilty—because to them were entrusted the oracles of God.

This is the doctrine of justification. It answers much of life’s perplexing question. It gives hope even to the chief of sinners. And it glorifies God, for none can boast that they are better than another. God has made it clear. All have sinned and come short of his glory. Yet, He will save whom He will save, and it is entirely by His grace. 


The just shall live by faith.” This is perhaps the most important promise and declaration of God that fallen man needs to hear. Man is by nature proud and self-righteous.

Because we are created in the image of God, we have a sense of morality. Every man knows to some extent what is right and what is wrong. This sense of morality distinguishes man from animals. This sense of morality is what causes revulsion and anger when we see or hear of gross wickedness in men—be it of the Babylonians, or the Assyrians, or the Nazis, or the Islamists. But due to the corruption of our nature, we are not repulsed and angered by our own sin. We fail to realise that in the sight of God, we are not at all righteous. We fail to see that we deserve the same condemnation as the Babylonians or the Assyrians or the Nazis. Need we any proof that this is the case when we know from the Scriptures that Christ suffered and died for his Church? If the Church were righteous enough, why need Christ to die?

The just shall live by faith!” O may the Lord grant us that that we may realise that this is not merely a speculative theological proposition. Rather, let us appreciate how this is the one of the greatest promises of God. And let your hearts be filled with gratitude especially to Christ Jesus our Lord who purchased life for you by His suffering and death for you. Amen. Ω