30 June 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
The righteousness of God, which is revealed in the gospel and offered to us, is (literally) ‘out of faith into faith’ or ‘from faith to faith’ (AV). Many explanations of this phrase have been proposed, some more ingenious than others. I mention what seems to me to be the four most plausible. The first relates to faith’s *origin*, as Bengel puts it: ‘from the faith of God, who makes the offer, to the faith of men who receive it’. More simply, it is ‘from God’s faith (better, faithfulness) to our faith’. God’s faithfulness always comes first, and ours is never other than a response. This was Karl Barth’s understanding. Secondly, the *spread* of faith by evangelism may be in Paul’s mind: ‘ from one believer to another’. Thirdly, he may be alluding to faith’s *growth*, ‘from one degree of faith to another’ (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18, RSV). Fourthly, it may be faith’s *primacy* which is being stressed. In this case the expression is purely rhetorical, and has been rendered, for example, *by faith from first to last* (NIV) or ‘by faith through and through’.
c). The Habakkuk quotation.
The apostle now confirms his emphasis on faith from Scripture and quotes Habakkuk 2:4: *the righteous will live by faith*. The prophet had complained that God intended to raise up the ruthless Babylonians to punish Israel. How could he use the wicked to judge the wicked? Habakkuk was told that whereas the proud Babylonians would fall, the righteous Israelite would live by his faith, that is, in the context, by his humble, steadfast trust in God.
Many scholars, however, like RSV, translate Paul’s quotation of Habakkuk differently: ‘he who through faith is righteous shall live’. There are strong arguments in favour of this epigram. First, Paul has already used this text, in Galatians (Gal. 3:11) written some years earlier, as biblical support for justification by faith, not law. So it seems to be how he understands it. Secondly, the context almost demands this rendering, being an endorsement from Scripture of ‘from faith to faith’. Paul’s concern here is not how righteous people live, but how sinful people become righteous. Thirdly, this translation fits the construction of the letter. Thus Anders Nygren points out that in Romans 1-4 ‘faith’ occurs at least twenty-five times and ‘life’ only twice, whereas in Romans 5-8 ‘life’ occurs twenty-five times and ‘faith’ only twice. These statistics establish, he concludes, ‘that the theme for chapters 1-4 is “he who through faith is righteous” and for chapters 5-8 “he shall live”’
But is it legitimate to translate the Habakkuk text in this way, and so to make faith the way to righteousness instead of the way to life? I think so. We note that it characterizes God’s people in terms of righteousness, faith and life. Whichever way the sentence is understood, both renderings affirm that ‘the righteous shall live’ and that faith is essential. The only question is whether the righteous by faith will live, or the righteous will live by faith. Are not both true? Righteousness and life are both by faith. Those who are righteous by faith also live by faith. Having begun in faith, they continue in the same path. This also fits in with the expression ‘from faith to faith’, which stresses that the Christian life is by faith from beginning to end. So I think F.F.Bruce was correct to write: ‘The terms of Habakkuk’s oracle are sufficiently general to make room for Paul’s application of them – an application which, far from doing violence to the prophet’s intention, expresses the abiding validity of his message’.