One of the reasons the apostle Paul claimed an unashamed regard for the gospel (see Rom. 1:16a) was that he understood it to be the revelation of the impartiality (justness) of God (see Rom. 1:17a; 2:11). He could see that from one person’s faith to the next, the critical issue for God was always the living by faith: “…as it is written, ‘BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH’” (Rom. 1:17b). By a revelation of Christ (see Gal. 1:12b), Paul was able to understand that since the beginning of time, righteous recognition from God had been granted to those, and only to those, who had endeavored to live in the light of what they could have and, therefore, should have known to be true as revelations of God.
This is a foundational truth that is just as applicable to those who have embraced Christ as their Lord and Savior as it was to those whose faith in the justness of God was limited to the Old Testament witness of the Law and the Prophets (see Rom. 3:21–22) or limited only to the evidence of His eternal power and divine nature visible from the beginning through the wonders of His creation. Understanding what it means then to live by faith is paramount to a proper understanding of the gospel message.
The word “faith” in the phrase “live by faith” is the word pistis in Greek, which is from the root peitho, which means to “convince, persuade, [or] appeal to.” In its simplest form—particularly as it relates to God—pistis means believing that God is, that He does in fact, exist. For example, Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith [pistis] it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”
From God’s perspective, beneficial human conduct—conduct that is pleasing to God—must begin with and be grounded in a belief that God exists. According to the apostle Paul, God’s existence is the one thing that all human beings, from the beginning of time, will have known, “…because that which is known about God [at a minimum that He exists] is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:19–20).
More than Just Believing
However, the gospel is clear that the standard of God’s justness requires far more than just believing that He exists. Within the phrase “live by faith,” though still pistis in the Greek, that word “faith” takes on a meaning beyond just believing. In this instance, per Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon, it is used to represent “that which is believed, the body of faith or belief, doctrine; that which according to God’s will is to be believed.” There is a basic Webster’s Dictionary definition of faith that reads: “…the assent of the mind to the truth of what is declared by another.” With slight modification and for purposes of better understanding the meaning of faith in this usage, the definition becomes: “…the assent of the mind to the truth of what is declared by God.”
Now, in the light of that definition, consider again, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH” (Rom. 1:17b). This verse does not say that the righteous man is the man who has faith, the man who simply believes that God exists. The Bible declares that even demons believe that there is one God, “and shudder” (James 2:19). Rather, what the verse is saying is that from God’s perspective, the righteous person has been, is, and always will be the person who lives by faith, that is, the person who endeavors to live in accordance with what he could have and, therefore, should have known to be true as a revelation of God.