Then the Lord replied: “Write down the revelation
and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.
For the revelation awaits an appointed time;
It speaks of the end and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay…
See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright
but the righteous person will live by faith.
Quick, finish this sentence: The Church will fail or succeed based on its commitment to___________________.
With which word would you complete that line? Prayer? Love? Mission?
Martin Luther, the German monk whose 95 Theses sparked the Protestant Reformation, answered differently. Luther said that the (and here’s your Latin lesson for the day) articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae – the conviction upon which the church stands or falls – is the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
If the church understands and shapes its practice around justification by faith, Luther said, it will succeed and thrive. If it doesn’t, it will collapse.
Agree or disagree with him, Luther stands on solid scriptural ground. The Bible repeatedly teaches that we are made right with God through our faith in the work of Christ. Romans 1:17 says as much. So do Romans 4:5, Romans 5:1, Philippians 3:9, Ephesians 2:8-9, Galatians 2:16, Galatians 3:8, Galatians 5:5, and Hebrews 10-11.
Now, what’s interesting to me is that many of these passages are greenshoots out from, and arrows back to, one single text in the Old Testament. They all allude to Habakkuk 2:4 which says that the righteous shall live by faith.
Habakkuk was a prophet of God who lived in a pretty messed-up time. Injustice reigned. People lived in idolatry and immorality. The king, Jehoiakim, was a terrible leader: a heartless man and a general doofus sandwich rolled up into one. People were suffering.
Habakkuk shared in these griefs. And his book amounts to an multi-chapter lament to God about them.
Okay, we should be more blunt than that. Habakkuk’s book is an extended (if warranted) gripe session. Habakkuk straight-up castigates God for the dire straits that his people are in.
How does God respond? He says over and over again to Habakkuk: Don’t be discouraged, don’t be deceived, there is more going on than you realize. I’m making something, redeeming something, preparing something. It’s already begun.
Habakkuk, God says, have faith in me. Live with that faith in me. That’s where righteousness begins.
So what exactly does it mean to “live by faith?”
This is going to take a minute. This is a central, Church-indeed-rises-or-falls kind of question.
More than that: the answers I’ve started to discern have utterly transformed my understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
Have you ever heard the notion of “blind faith”? Folks outside the church sometimes assert that people of convictions and belief walk by blind faith. Christians, they say, are dismissive of reality, having opted to bumble along in dark and willful ignorance.
Now I’ll admit, I know a couple of believers who live that way. But on the whole, the caricature that Christian living amounts to a blind leap off reality’s pinnacle is exactly backwards.
Being a person of faith does not mean blindness. It does not mean that we see less than what’s in front of us. It means that we see more.
Peter Weir’s 1998 movie The Truman Show is one of my favorites. It’s a film about a man whose life is lived on the soundstage of a television show. Taken in as an unwanted pregnancy, the baby boy who becomes the show’s central character spends every moment in the walled-in world of Seahaven.
Everybody in Truman’s life is an actor. The weather is fake, the news is contrived; everything is scripted and fenced-in and artificial.
Through propaganda and emotion-driven messaging, Truman is made to believe that hometown Seahaven comprises all that he will ever need. And more than that: that Truman should never, ever venture away from his hometown, especially across the water.
But in the course of the story, Truman begins to sense that the world in which he resides is not all the world that there is: Small details about Seahaven don’t add up. A spotlight falls from the sky. He doesn’t fall in love with the woman he’s supposed to. Rain falls only on him.
Truman intuits that he has somehow been restrained and yearns to discover what else there might be.
The last scene in Seahaven is awesome. Here’s the moment when – as the director of the television show looks on – Truman finally realizes what he has been sensing all along:
What does it mean to live by faith? It means to live with a certainty that the things that we can see and hear and quantify are aren’t the whole story. That there is life beyond this Seahaven.
Something more is out there. Something more is in here. It’s among us. It lies before us.
Listen: Why is it that some people are shattered over losing their jobs while others can stay steady in the very same circumstance? Why is it that some folks can lose a long-term love and keep smiling while others become emotionally incapacitated? How is it that one person can calmly accept a cancer diagnosis and hang in there while the patient in the next room is completely devastated?
The answer is faith. Faith perceives that there is another Script working out. Faith senses another Reality, a Deeper Truth, a Wider World. It’s a Reality that is already here, but not yet. It is a World that is both imminent and transcendent. It’s above us and beyond us, but it’s also right here with us.
We hear whispers about this other World in scripture. The parables describe a Kingdom that people would trade anything to acquire. Paul talks about a man caught up to the third heaven. Jesus, in resurrected form, shows a glimpse of what Full Life will be like.
These are holes in the curtain. The light of an Ultimate Place shines through them, promising something more. CS Lewis says that when you come to discover this World and Way, everything else feels like the Shadowlands.
You can’t go on like this sound stage is all there is.
You might not see it, Habakkuk, but it’s coming.
Hebrews 11 spotlights a catalogue of ancient men and women who lived by faith. Rahab, it says, welcomed the spies because she sensed there was something more going on. Moses, living a gilded life in Pharoah’s palace, left his comfort and privilege because he sensed there was something more going on. Sarah, though she was old and weary, carried a child because she sensed there was something more going on. People faced floggings and stonings and jeerings and even went to their deaths because they sensed there was something more going on.
Hebrews says that they had another World in mind, another Country, and that once they saw that Place they couldn’t stay where they were any longer. It was time for something beyond the soundstage.
A few years ago the movie Avatar was produced. An epic CGI film, Avatar is set in the beautiful, fanciful world of Pandora. A lavish jungle, Pandora is filled with magic and hope.
A strange thing happened after that movie was produced: Viewers went home depressed that they couldn’t actually live in Pandora. After watching the film, one Avatar viewer lamented:
“When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed … gray. It was like my whole life, everything I’ve done and worked for, lost its meaning. It just seems so … meaningless.”
What happens when people get a sense of God’s Way, of his Better Kingdom? They realize that this is their true Fatherland. That this Place is the Actual World. And that changes everything in their lives.
Starting with their actions.
One of the oldest points of contention among Christians revolves around the interplay between faith and works. For years, people have set belief and good works at odds: Conservatives believe you just have to have trust in the right doctrine; liberals are convinced that real Christianity is about social action.
We have made this so much harder than it needs to be. Jesus’ brother James says it plainly: faith without works is dead.
What does that mean? It means that once you start to sense that there is another Way, another World, and that it is the True and Lasting World, you can’t act anymore like it isn’t.
This is what happens when you begin to appreciate that your citizenship is in Another Place. Different people are given authority in your heart. The economy in which you find your joy changes. Things that are discarded in this cost-benefit system take on ultimate value while the power and prestige that this world craves become of little worth. Your time is better spent in service; your money must go to people with greater needs.
Other things change, too: You find that prayer is a kind of portal into this Beautiful World, so you find yourself constantly talking to God. You discover that worship helps you feel more connected to this Better Place and so you sing and study sacrificially. You see other people having a stake in this New Country, so you can’t stop telling them about it and inviting them into it.
Luther said it – we are justified by faith alone, but not a faith that is alone. Faith is always accompanied by these works of love and joy and charity and celebration. Faith has showed you something new and it has therefore made you something new. Nearer to God’s intent. And through Christ, righteous forever.
Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.