17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

The NIV and KJV read similarly. I have always understood the prepositional phrase "by faith" to describe a manner or means of living (I think the English allows both). However, reading the SBLGNT:

17 δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται· Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται'.

my intuition would be to interpret it closer to the RSV rendering:

...“He who through faith is righteous shall live.”

where I understand "through faith" to describe a means or a cause of righteousness. Dan Wallace (1) lists the basic uses of εκ + genitive: source, separation, temporal, cause, partitive, means. Therefore, if the former reading is correct, I think "through faith" must describe a means of living. However, I'm curious as to others' thoughts about whether "through faith" is equally plausibly a means of righteousness.

Regarding the referent verse Habakkuk 2:4:

1) The LXX confuses me even further:

ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεώς μου ζήσεται.

The addition of μου, whether subjective or objective (Brenton and NETS both make it subjective), would seem to point more towards ἐκ πίστεώς modifying ζήσεται.

2) Every English translation of the Hebrew I can find also seems to indicate that faith/faithfulness modifies "live." I don't speak Hebrew so please help here. I'm also curious about how helpful this is to interpret Paul, and accordingly am posting another question here.

My questions:

1) Is the Greek of Paul in fact ambiguous?

2) Is the Hebrew of Habakkuk more clear?

3) Any comments on how this has been interpreted historically? (I'm thinking particularly of Luther as an important thinker on this verse, but interested in others as well.)

  1. Wallace, Daniel B. 1996. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Zondervan.
  • The Hebrew itself has nothing to do with justification. Read the context. Its contrasting the wicked who don't live right versus the righteous who will live out his faith, i.e. by doing what's right. Its the opposite of what faith alonism makes it mean. But this will not help at all in interpreting Paul, since he is clearly ignoring context. – david brainerd Apr 24 '14 at 3:18
  • Also according to Dan Wallace: "The nature of the 'righteousness' described here and the force of the genitive θεοῦ ('of God') which follows have been much debated" (NET Bible @ Rom. 1:17, notes 35-38). Understanding it seems to depend on which understanding of 1) the genitive θεοῦ, and 2) the phrase ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν one prefers. In that sense, then, Rom. 1:17 is (as you asked in the title of this thread) ambiguous. – Pat Ferguson Apr 24 '14 at 19:31
  • Thanks,Pat. I agree that the first part of the verse is subject to various possible interpretations. My question was more about the interpretation of the second portion of the verse, the Habakkuk reference. I have added some bolding to clarify. – Susan Apr 24 '14 at 19:39
  • OK, then I'm inclined toward the variously interpreted Habb. 2:4 that I interpret to read: "but the just [righteous Jew] by his faith shall live". That reading to which Paul alluded is, IMO, more in keeping with his Pharisaical training, leanings, and spin. – Pat Ferguson Apr 24 '14 at 20:52

Not ambiguous, but inclusive in meaning

Ambiguity implies two or more possible meanings that are unclear as to which it is, or more broadly simply being unclear. I do not believe that is the situation here at all.

Examining the statements

Let's start with the basically undisputed OT reference Paul is using in Romans.

Habakkuk 2:4

The (very literal) Hebrew of Habakkuk 2:4 is (read the English "groupings" backwards for each < since Hebrew is reversed from English):1

    הִנֵּ֣ה          עֻפְּלָ֔ה              לֹא־יָשְׁרָ֥ה           נַפְשׁ֖וֹ        בּ֑וֹ 
  in him <  his soul  <  she be not right  <  she has swollen  < behold
                        [soul]               [soul]

      וְצַדִּ֖יק               בֶּאֱמוּנָת֥וֹ            יִחְיֶֽה
  he be living < by his faithfulness < but the righteous

MINE: Behold, his soul in him has swollen, [his soul in him] be not right, but the righteous by his faithfulness he be living.

ESV: Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.

NKJV: Behold the proud, His soul is not upright in him; But the just shall live by his faith.

"she has swollen, she be not right, his soul in him"

Hebrew uses the feminine gender for many things besides simply a reference to an actual female person. One of those things commonly associated to the feminine is abstract concepts,2 and so the idea of the "soul" or "life" of a person is such. So the subject of the two verbs is the "she," the "soul" in the verse. This soul is of the generic "man," it is "his soul in him."

The first verb is a rare verb, having reference to swollen or enlarged things (tumors, or a derivative word for mound/hill, etc.). It is in the pual perfect, the perfect in context referring to a state or condition,3 while the pual is a passive form of the piel, that here is probably resultative.4 This swelling of the soul has resulted in a state of "being not right."

"but the righteous by his faithfulness he be living"

The וְ (waw) here prefixed is often translated "and," but the context here of the contrast is why it is translated "but." So the phrase in question for you is in contrast with the preceding. This one who is not right because of a swelled up soul is contrasted to one who is simply stated as already being "righteous," and of this one, "by/in/with/through his faithfulness," there is a relationship to the fact that "he shall be living" (a qal imperfect, giving the idea of an incomplete event at present and/or future).5

The preposition בֶּ (b) can have the same flexibility as English or Greek.

So what is Habakkuk saying? (And thus Paul later.)

Habakkuk is lamenting the success of the wicked in Israel, who even "surround the righteous" (NKJV, v.4; all quotes from NKJV), and he is questioning God's actions of not judging them (1:1-4). God replies for Habakkuk to wait, the Chaldeans (Babylonians) are being prepared to come and bring swift judgment (1:5-11; referring to the coming destruction of Jerusalem and Babylonian captivity).

In reply, Habakkuk knows and trusts his Holy God, and affirms "we shall not die" (1:12), but questions (1:12-17) why God would suffer the wicked Chaldeans to "continue to slay nations without pity" (v.17). But Habakkuk knows to question his God so, he will be corrected in his misunderstandings (2:1).

God replies to "write the vision ... for an appointed time," because it is not yet, but "will surely come" (2:2-3).

Enter v.4, the verse in question. It is a summary answer of God to Habakkuk. It is stating a general truth that basically is this:

(1) The proud are not righteous in their soul

(2) Those righteous in their soul (not proud, and thus humble, and thus faithful)

(3) by means of having faith (i.e. faithfulness) shall live

In the context of the judgement passage, it is a reference to the righteous one avoiding judgment that is bringing an impending death by being faithful. Thus the imperfect here is a future idea of preservation of life.

God continues in describing the proud and all the ways they lift themselves by their sin (2:5-19). In this passage specifically, however, it states "the glory of the LORD" is coming (v.14), and the "cup of the LORD's right hand will be turned against you" (v.16), which without going into detail means his judgment. This will defeat the glory of the proud (v.16). Indeed, there is none in "all the earth" that can speak against His ways (v.20).

Romans 1:17

Notice how the context is the same as Habakkuk. Paul is speaking of the faithful (1:7-16), in contrast to the wicked who are impending judgment (1:18-32; and even following that).

The verse is often considered the key verse to the book of Romans, because the book organizes around expanding upon that statement. This is not the place to expand the discussion fully to that level, but some expansion needs to be done.

So the translation of the Greek is best as you give above by the ESV, NIV, KJV, "the just/righteous shall live by faith" or more literally, "the just by faith shall live." It is stating that one will "live" (future, as ζήσεται is explicitly future tense in the Greek, unlike the Hebrew imperfect which has a broader range of meaning) if one is faithful (has faith), which only the righteous evidences.

The Meaning

This idea that to live one must have faith and be righteous is what Paul is expanding upon from the OT. One is only considered righteous by having faith, (Gen 15:6; Rom ch. 4) and faith is only in the humble (for the proud trust in themselves, not God). There is none righteous of themselves (Job 9:2-3; Ps 14:1-3, 53:1-3, 143:2; Eccl 7:20; Rom 3:10-18), so all under wrath and are deserving of death (Hab 2:16; Rom 1:18, 32).

But God does in fact "in wrath remember mercy" as Habakkuk prayed (3:2), for those of the wicked who humble themselves before God (i.e. have faith), righteousness itself is accounted, and thus the righteousness that comes by faith (which is what qualifies one to be called "righteous" in God's sight), by that same faith is what brings life to that righteous one, of which Paul is speaking of eternal life (Rom ch. 5).

This faith that brings life will also be lived out in one's life--thus my title to this answer, "by means of faith he shall be living" is inclusive in meaning that (1) the righteous person will continue in the future to evidence faith, as that is a quality only the righteous have, and (2) the righteous person will find eternal life, free from future judgment, by means of that faith that accounted them righteous to begin with.


So Rom 1:17 is not itself ascribing righteousness by faith, that is found in the other OT and NT passages that do explicitly teach how one is accounted righteous.

Rather, Rom 1:17 is assuming that one is already righteous by that means, and by that same faith, that one will live through God's wrath, the second death that is coming, because they are not trusting in their own prideful, unrighteous works which do lead to death (Isa 64:6; Rom 4:3-5; Gal 2:16; Rev 20:12-15).

Historical Interpretation

If I get time (I've spent a number of hours on this already), I'll dig up some historical info.


1 Word definitions for translation come from the appropriate words referenced in either/both of (1) Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2000), hereafter BDB; (2) Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, M. E. J. Richardson, and Johann Jakob Stamm The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1999), hereafter HALOT.

2 Christo Van der Merwe, Jackie Naudé, and Jan Kroeze A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), §; hereafter BHRG.

3 BHRG, §19.2.2.

4 BHRG, § and §; it probably has repetitive or intensifying idea as well. See Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, edited by E. Kautzsch and Sir Arthur Ernest Cowley, 2d English ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910).

5 BHRG, §15.2.


The explanation is not contradictory. First we see how Paul expands the meaning of Habakkuk 2:4 in the relevant verse here in Romans -

Romans 1:17 (GNT)
δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται, Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται.

The key in this verse is that we live "from faith to faith" (ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν). That is, we live "from faith" (believing the promises of the Word of God) "to faith" (living based on those same promises). So salvific faith is not only believing, but actual living (the same faith upon which one believed).

We see this tension when we compare Rom 4:3-5 to James 2:21-23 -

Romans 4:3-5 (NASB)
3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness,

Paul thus captures the "from faith" (ἐκ πίστεως) aspect of his own expanded view of Habakkuk 2:4.

James 2:21-23 (NASB)
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God.

James thus captures the "to faith" (εἰς πίστιν) aspect of what was Paul's expanded view of Habakkuk 2:4.

What is interesting is that Paul does not refer in Romans to the sacrifice of Isaac as the "perfecting" of Abraham's faith, but instead he refers to Abraham receiving the sign of circumcision (Rom 4:10-12). So while James refers to the sacrifice of Isaac as "closing the loop," Paul instead focuses on Abraham's receiving circumcision from the Lord. Thus circumcision, while in no way provides self-righteousness to Abraham, is the specific "sign" of faith for Abraham (in the same way that the offering of Isaac was the specific "sign" of faith for Abraham according to James). The same dichotomy ("from faith to faith") is the motif of the great chapter of faith, which is found in Hebrews 11:1-40. In that chapter is found a litany of behaviors ("to faith") by Old Testament believers whose faith was predicated on explicit promises ("from faith").

Now we can understand the nuance of what Paul was trying to convey when he interpreted Habakkuk 2:4. In the Masoretic Hebrew we read the verse in Habakkuk as follows:

Habakkuk 2:4 (MT)
הִנֵּה עֻפְּלָה, לֹא-יָשְׁרָה נַפְשׁוֹ בּוֹ; וְצַדִּיק, בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ יִחְיֶה.

The NIV provides an accurate translation:

  "See, the enemy is puffed up;
   his desires are not upright—
   but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness."

The Hebrew word for faithfulness is אֱמוּנָה, which emphasizes the εἰς πίστιν aspect of faith. Waltke and O'Connor (1990) indicate that this use of beth (as in the phrase בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ) is the instrument by which an action is completed: thus the righteous person will live by means of the instrument of his faithfulness to the Lord. (Please click here with the Google Chrome browser.) The following verse that now occurs in Habakkuk (Hab 2:5) then goes on to mention the unrighteous, whose wine disinhibits his moral values so that he commit sins, which result in death. In other words, when the unrighteous get drunk, their lives evidence the dissipation of what is within them, which is proud vanity. The righteous person on the other hand will live by means of the instrument of his faithfulness to the Lord (or the εἰς πίστιν aspect of faith, which is בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ in Hebrew).

Now to close the loop.

In the LXX we read the same passage as follows:

Habakkuk 2:4 (LXX)
4 ἐὰν ὑποστείληται, οὐκ εὐδοκεῖ ἡ ψυχή μου ἐν αὐτῷ· ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεώς μου ζήσεται.

Whamo! The LXX closes the loop. The translators of the LXX were very gracious to expand from Hebrew what Paul later captured in his epistle to the Romans -- that is, the Hebrew version of this verse emphasizes the εἰς πίστιν, but the LXX version complements and emphasizes the ἐκ πίστεώς. (Did the LXX translators infer that particular nuance from the allusions and comparisons in Habakkuk 2:4-5 of the unrighteous, whose wine "flowed out" of him to demonstrate his unrighteousness???) Under this line of reasoning, what was the possessive personal masculine pronoun (third person singular) suffix in Hebrew (בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ), which in the Masoretic text reads "his faithfulness," now becomes the possessive personal pronoun (first person singular) suffix in Greek (ἐκ πίστεώς μου), which in the LXX reads "from my faith(fullness)," which is God's word, which is the object of our faith. Thus the flagship Book of Romans is the capturing of this nuance between the Hebrew Bible and the LXX, and of course the New Testament epistles carry the same thought further as noted by the earlier reference to the Epistle of James.

In conclusion, we see one sad note in the Book of Revelation in the context of this discussion.

Revelation 3:2-3 (NASB)
2 Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. 3 So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.

The believers in Sardis, while familiar with the ἐκ πίστεως of their faith, were "sleeping", because they were not living the εἰς πίστιν of their faith. This is only passage in the entire Christian New Testament that makes the strongest allusion to the blotting of some believer's name from the Lamb's Book of Life (Rev 3:5). In other words, even Paul admonishes believers who have embraced the ἐκ πίστεως aspect of their faith to consider and ensure that the εἰς πίστιν of their faith is real (cf. Gal 5:20-21; 1 Cor 6:8-10). Jesus was saying to the believers in Sardis what James was saying, and that was that the ἐκ πίστεως will be complemented (or "perfected") by the εἰς πίστιν when it is salvific. Of course, as noted, Paul would agree, because he had already interpreted Habakkuk 2:4 to mean that the righteous will live "from faith to faith."

O'Connor, M. and Bruce K. Waltke. Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 196-197.

  • @Susan - I have not mentioned this, but Paul also derives more truth in Romans from the nuanced differences between the LXX and the MT - for example, Rom 3:4 which says one thing in the MT, but another in the LXX. It is almost as if the LXX is given the authority of divine inspiration in its "contradictions" with the MT in order to derive more truth from God's word. If divinely inspired (and the assumption is that they are inspired), then the apparent contradictions between the LXX translation and the MT are actual nuances of further truth. – Joseph Apr 26 '14 at 0:05

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