mark this: Habakkuk 2:4 --
"The righteous shall live by his faith."
Yesterday we dealt with tough questions asked by the prophet:
Why suffering? Why injustice? Why inequity? Why violence? Why silence?
God's first response (1:5-11) was not the solution that Habakkuk expected; and likewise, His second response (2:2-20) was nothing that could have been anticipated. Yet in verse 4, we find not only God's answer, but the central concept in Scripture of how sinful people relate to a holy God. Habakkuk 2:4 is easily in the top 5 of the most revolutionary passages in the entire Bible. This is a verse that has directly affected so much of human history. In fact its safe to say that without Habakkuk 2:5 there might not be any Reformation, at least not in the way we know it. (Who knows, without this passage there would be no Stand In the Rain!)
In 1517, Martin Luther was the monk of all monks. He was downright compulsive in his rigid efforts to be a better servant of God- so much so he stated: "If anyone could have gained Heaven as a monk, then I would have indeed been among them." He was meticulous to follow every letter of the rules given to him, and yet he lived in despair, always fearing and focusing on how he fell short. He tormented himself with doubt and despair and found himself hating the very God he was supposed to love, saying "I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of Him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul."
Luther lived in a time when the dominant belief was that a person had to earn their way to Heaven, through good deeds, special prayers, keeping special rules and getting on the good side of the church's hierarchy. The church at the time acted like a business that had a monopoly on salvation- they determined who got in, who didn't and how long you and everyone you loved spent in Purgatory. It got so convoluted that the church began to assign specific years off in purgatory for specific actions or prayers. (For example, the Sancta Scala or Lateran staircase, pictured below, once got you seven years off of Purgatory for every step you ascended) Even worse, they began to rip off the common people by selling official "tickets to Heaven" called indulgences.
Luther knew that this was not right- even as he himself ascended the same staircase, while a monk visiting Rome. His son writes:
"As he repeated his prayers on the Lateran staircase, the words of the prophet Habakkuk came suddenly to his mind: 'The just shall live by faith.' Thereupon he ceased his prayers, returned to Wittenberg, and took this as the chief foundation of all his doctrine… . Luther himself said of this text, "Before those words broke upon my mind I hated God and was angry with him because not content with frightening us sinners by the law and by the miseries of life, he still further increased our torture by the gospel. But when, by the Spirit of God, I understood those words – 'The just shall live by faith!' – then I felt born again like a new man; I entered through the open doors into the very Paradise of God.”
Luther had not invented this idea. In fact, the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation teaches us that salvation is a gift from God, received by faith, not anything that we could possibly merit or earn. And from this little verse, a revolution has begun. After all, it was the Apostle Paul who later quoted it in his letters to the Romans (1:17) and Galatians (3:11), explaining the same truth: salvation is from God, by God, through God, and not of ourselves.
What a huge relief! To know that no man or institution can save me or damn me. To know that I don’t have to scrutinize and agonize every offense, wondering if I’ve done enough for God. To know that my salvation has to do with the merit of Jesus Christ and NOT my pitiful merits.
So today, make sure you thank Martin Luther, who conveyed the Apostle Paul, who conveyed the prophet Habakkuk, who simply conveyed the central message for all mankind:
The just shall live by faith!