The apostle Paul’s rallying verse for God’s New Testament economy is drawn from Habakkuk 2:4 and quoted in three places in the New Testament. The Recovery Version translates the same Greek quotation in two different ways: “shall have life and live by faith” (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11) and “shall live by faith” (Heb. 10:38). But why?
What may seem to be an obscure verse in the Old Testament, Habakkuk 2:4, turned out to be a prophecy concerning the sphere and element of God’s New Testament economy (footnote 4 on 1 Tim. 1:4, Recovery Version), and the apostle Paul, by divine revelation, seized upon it and applied it in his ministry to the churches. “But the righteous one will live by his faith,” says the prophet (Hab. 2:4), and the Greek translation of this sentence is quoted almost verbatim three times in the New Testament. But when you read the contexts where this sentence is quoted, you find that the sentence is applied with more than one nuance, and in the Recovery Version we tried to capture these nuances.
On the surface what does shall live by faith mean? We believe that most English readers will understand the verb live to mean “to conduct one’s life,” and this appears to be the general sense of the Hebrew and Greek words for live. That being the case, shall live by faith should be understood to mean ‘shall conduct his or her life by faith’. This rendering obviously refers to a lifelong endeavor and not simply to a one-time event. But Paul seems to have something else in mind sometimes, and he alludes to this elsewhere when he speaks about the law in this way: “For if a law had been given which was able to give life, righteousness would have indeed been of law” (Gal. 3:21). Dean Henry Alford, in his commentary on Galatians 3:21, implies that behind this statement there is the echo of Habakkuk 2:4. If this is so—and we believe that it is—then in Paul’s mind the Greek word ζήσεται (zēsetai, ‘shall live’) in the translation of Habakkuk 2:4 can also refer not just to a lifelong endeavor but also to the event that initiates such a living. Thus, there are contexts in Paul’s writings where the initiation of life in regeneration is in focus, and in these contexts a translation of his quotation of Habakkuk 2:4 as simply “shall live by faith” falls short of his use of the Old Testament prophecy.
In Romans 1 Paul refers to the gospel as “the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes” (v. 16) and says that God’s righteousness is revealed in it (v. 17). To prove his point, he quotes Habakkuk 2:4. In this context his focus is clearly on the gospel as God’s powerful way, based on His own righteousness (that is, Christ as righteousness—1 Cor. 1:30), to bring unbelievers initially into eternal life through faith. The focus here is not just on the life that the believers will live after believing but more significantly on the initiation of the life that they receive when they believe. Through the gospel unbelievers become those who believe and, consequently, those who receive eternal life (John 5:24; 1:12; 3:15). Therefore, to translate Paul’s use of Habakkuk 2:4 here as simply ‘shall live by faith’ misses the full significance of the quotation. The context demands attention to this focus on the initiation of life, and therefore, in the Recovery Version we render Paul’s quotation of Habakkuk 2:4 this way: “The righteous shall have life and live by faith,” indicating the initiation by the words have life and the living by the word live. Brother Witness Lee’s note on this compound translation opens up even more clearly the significance of this double meaning:
The righteousness of God justifies us that we may have God’s life ([Rom.] 5:18) and live by it. In this way this life will sanctify and transform us thoroughly. This book covers mainly our being justified (1:1—5:11; 9:1—11:36), our having life (5:12—8:39), and our living properly by this life (12:1—16:27). Since this verse also stresses these three points, it may be considered an abstract of the entire book. (Footnote 3 on Rom. 1:17, Recovery Version; emphasis ours)
In Galatians 3 Paul focuses on faith as the only means to justification before God, and this justification leads to the believers receiving the eternal life (cf. Rom. 5:18). Again, Paul’s focus is on what faith brings to the believers initially, not just on what it does afterwards. He says that even beginning with Abraham, God announced the gospel that all the nations would be justified by faith (Gal. 3:8). To make his point that God justifies only by faith and not by the law (which came after the promise was given as the gospel), Paul says: “And that by law no one is justified before God is evident because, ‘The righteous one shall have life and live by faith’” (Gal. 3:11, quoting Habakkuk 2:4). This justification by faith through the gospel is the believers’ initiation into the experience of the divine life, and thus, the context here again demands attention to that initiation. A believer initially receives life by believing the gospel, as Paul says at the beginning of this chapter: “This only I wish to learn from you, Did you receive the Spirit [who is life (Rom. 8:2) and who gives life (John 6:63; 1 Cor. 15:45)] out of the works of law or out of the hearing of faith?” (Gal. 3:2). And as we have pointed out above, Paul clearly has in mind the initiation of life later in this chapter when he says, “For if a law had been given which was able to give life, righteousness would have indeed been of law” (Gal. 3:21). Therefore, the Recovery Version captures this initiation in Galatians 3:11 with the words have life and the living that follows with the word live: “The righteous one shall have life and live by faith.”
The third New Testament quotation of Habakkuk 2:4 is in Hebrews 10:38. The context here clearly relates not to the believers’ initiation in the eternal life but to endurance in their Christian living. Because their living is in clear focus, the traditional translation of the quotation makes perfect sense: “My righteous one shall live by faith” (Heb. 10:38). It would be a mistake to add to the translation the words have life. The writer is not contemplating faith as the means to receive the divine life but faith as the means for endurance in the believers’ living and for the obtaining of the promise (vv. 36-37). But it would also be a mistake to gloss over the very important point being made here and to fall back to the simple Protestant notion that by faith we are saved once and for all. The exhortation here in Hebrews 10, indeed the strong warning (cf. vv. 29-31), is that the believers must conduct their entire Christian life by faith, even up to the moment of the Lord’s return: “The Coming One will come and will not delay. But My righteous one shall live by faith” (vv. 37-38). All of God’s economy, not just the initiation in life but the conduct of life thereafter, is and must be in faith (1 Tim. 1:4).
It may seem that Paul picked up an obscure Old Testament prophecy and made more out of it than it deserves. But when we read the fuller context of Habakkuk 2:4, it is easy to see how it caught his full attention and opened up God’s complete New Testament economy to him:
Then Jehovah answered me and said, Write the vision, and render it plainly upon tablets, / That even he who runs by may read it. / For the vision is yet for the appointed time, / And it hastens toward the end and will not lie. / Though it tarries, wait for it; / For it will surely come; it will not delay. / See, he who is puffed up, his soul is not upright within him, / But the righteous one will live by his faith. (Hab. 2:2-4)
Though the prophecy points to the immediate destruction of Israel’s enemies, it intrinsically speaks of God’s eternal salvation to all who believe, both Jews and Gentiles. Paul was, as it were, the one who ran by and read this vision written in Habakkuk, a vision that was rendered plainly for a later time. Without doubt, he knew that the fulfillment had surely come in the age of Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension, and he understood by revelation that the essence of the vision was that “the righteous one will live by his faith” in God’s new economy. This is the gospel itself, not just for receiving the eternal life by faith but for living that life out by faith. As Brother Lee points out in commenting on this prophecy,
The way for us to receive such a salvation is to believe in Christ so that we may be justified by God and thus be qualified to have life, the eternal life, the divine life, and live by that life (Rom. 3:24; 5:1-2; Eph. 2:8). This is the New Testament gospel in an Old Testament prophetic book. (Life-study of Habakkuk, p. 6)