Breastplate of Righteousness | Ephesians 6:14

and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,

Ephesians 6:14

With the overall nature of spiritual warfare established (the nature and methods of our enemy and our position, disposition, and call to be armed), we have proceeded into our piece by piece description of the armor of God, which began with calling us to gird our loins with truth like a belt. The piece of armor before us now is the breastplate of righteousness, and we will structure our study around two questions: What is righteousness? and How is righteousness to protect us like a breastplate?

WHAT IS RIGHTEOUSNESS?

Given that we likely have a greater familiarity with what a breastplate is than we do with righteousness, let us focus upon defining and understanding righteousness before we move on to Paul’s metaphor of righteousness as a breastplate.

The definition of righteousness is simply “the quality, state, or characteristic of being in the right.”[1] Yet I would argue that righteousness holds a negative connotation for many today. It brings to mind the holier-than-thou attitude that is so despised. Being right, after all, implies that someone else is wrong. Thus, the world tends to treat righteousness with scorn because the presence of what is right is always a threat to what is wrong. Righteousness brings inherent confrontation with it against those who choose sin. It can do nothing less.

Yet we should take care to note that righteousness is not identical to goodness. John Frame calls good, “a general term of commendation. We describe as good any kind of excellence, including beauty, economic value, practical usefulness, skillfulness—indeed, anything that evokes from us a favorable response.”[2] And, of course, all good things flow from God who is the source of all goodness. However, we can conceive of something that is good but for at least a moment may not be right. Take, for example, reading the Bible, which is a very good thing to do. Nevertheless, if a lifeguard continued to read his Bible while someone was drowning, that would be an unrighteous act. The good action of reading the Bible is eclipsed by his duty to save the swimmer’s life.

For this reason, I would argue that righteousness is the intersection of goodness and wisdom, for living righteously requires having the wisdom to do the best good at the best time. Indeed, while goodness can be relegated to purely theoretical notions (though that would be a failed conception of goodness), righteousness is innately bound to conduct and deeds. Indeed, we also see this displayed in their opposites. The antithesis of good is evil, while the converse of righteousness is iniquity, transgression, and sin. Just as all righteous deeds are also good, so too is all sin evil. Yet my point is that good and evil are broader realities than righteousness and sin, since the latter are specifically tied to our behavior. We are judged to be either righteous or sinful by our actions.

Indeed, judged is the right word to use because, in Hebrew particularly, righteousness is intimately connected with justice so that Sproul noted that “though they can be distinguished, they may not be separated.”[3] Throughout the Scriptures, God reveals Himself as the righteous Judge who enacts justice in complete righteousness. When we consider the heavy reality of just how much unspeakable evil is within the world, God’s righteous judgment is gloriously good news. Child abduction and trafficking is such a horrendous sin that we should easily be able to see the goodness of God’s burning wrath against those who perform such acts. Nahum is a powerful example a prophet soberly rejoiced that God “will by no means clear the guilty” (1:3), specifically against the Assyrians and the atrocities that they committed. To celebrate God’s righteousness means that we must also celebrate His justice and, by consequence, His wrath. Being righteous, God must ultimately see that justice is served, and we should cry, “Amen!”

HOW IS RIGHTEOUSNESS LIKE A BREASTPLATE?

Now that we have a better idea of righteousness and, more importantly, the righteousness of God, we are more equipped to ask how righteousness might function as a breastplate.

The point of a breastplate is to protect one’s vital organs within the abdomen. One puncture by sword or arrow to the heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas, and kidneys is almost always a death sentence, and although swords and arrows are no longer a regular part of combat, bulletproof vests continue to function as the modern update of the breastplate.

For the ancients, there was even deeper significance to protecting the abdominal organs. For example, while we associate the heart with being the center of our emotions, they considered it to be the bowels. Honestly, this seems to make more sense given that highly emotional moments can produce “butterflies” in the stomach, or we make a spontaneous decision by going with our gut. Science is increasingly supporting this link with some referring to the stomach as our second brain. Thus, to go back to our modern conceptions, if the belt of truth is meant to prepare our minds for action, the breastplate of righteousness is meant to guard our hearts against attacks by the enemy.

But again we ask, how to does righteousness act like a breastplate? Proverbs 28:1 gives us an idea: “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.” Under God’s providence, sin always yields consequences, so when we sin, we do so to our own detriment. Even sin that appears to have no negative results for the moment is nothing more than a cracked dam ready to burst apart. We see this principle clearly in wicked dictators who seize and maintain power through sinful means. Rulers like Nero, Hitler, Kim Jong Un, or Maduro may have possessed or do presently possess authority, yet they almost certainly do not possess peace. For all their affluence, the tyrants live walking upon the edge of the cliff, since history is littered with successful assassinations or overthrows of even the mightiest of men. Likewise, even the smallest of sins, if held onto, are constantly betraying us. The instability of our present society is, I believe, a testament that while sin is embraced and treated like a virtue, they cannot help but run even when no one is pursuing. Language and terminology constantly shift because if the sinful stay in one spot for too long their soft and steady plea of their conscience finds them once more. The impending wrath of God haunts their steps, and their only defense is to flee.

But the righteous are not so. Their boldness rivals the lion because they are anchored and secured. They have no fear of the consequences of their sins catching up to them. They have no fear of the wrath of God, for they are righteous before Him, and because of their right standing with God, they have no fear of anything that man might do. As Paul wrote, “if God is for us, who can be against us” (Romans 8:31)? The righteous have the security of walking down the path of eternal life, and with their conscience clear, they are ready to face any temporal challenge that lies before them.

Righteousness can be likened to a breastplate because it especially guards the heart from the contaminating effects of sin. Indeed, righteousness renders the two schemes of the devil useless. The security and joy of righteousness stands steadfast against the vaporous lies of temptation, and what accusation can Satan bring against those who are without sin? In other words, righteousness keeps us from the devil’s one and only tool for securing our damnation: sin. While not explicitly using the word righteousness, 1 John 5:18 speaks of the protection that comes from not sinning: “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.”

Therefore, to stand firm against the evil one with the breastplate of righteousness, we must simply go and sin no more. Be righteous, and you will be prepared to stand against every scheme of the devil!

BUT WHO IS RIGHTEOUS?

We cannot, however, simply end there. The Scriptures poke a rather large hole in the whole strategy of just not sinning anymore. In another letter, Paul cites the Psalms, declaring,

None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.
Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.
The venom of asps is under their lips.
Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.
Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.
There is no fear of God before their eyes.

Romans 3:10-18

“None is righteous, no, not one.” That is a rather sweeping claim. We have all veered off of God’s path and onto the road of sin and destruction.

Of course, we may be tempted to argue that we have only committed small sins against God, but that we have not been truly rebellious. Or perhaps that our future good works will make up for the unrighteousness of our past. Yet both attempted answers fail to understand the significance of sin. Before the presence of the Holy One, all sin is openly exposed in all of its putrid hideousness. The most harmless of lies are no less damning than the most insidious murder. They certainly bear much different consequences in this life,[4] yet being against the eternal God who is goodness and righteousness, they both warrant an eternity under His justified wrath.

Furthermore, the extent of sin’s pollution is such that Isaiah wrote the following:

You meet him who joyfully works righteousness,
those who remember you in your ways.
Behold, you were angry, and we sinned;
in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

Isaiah 64:5-6

Notice that Isaiah begins by reminding us again that God is joyful to meet the one who works righteousness, yet the problem is our sin. He writes that our sins have a corrosive effect so that now “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” What hope do we have of standing before the judgement of God if sin corrupts even our righteousness acts?

As we have been noting (and will continue to do so), Jesus is the armor of God, and to put on the armor of God means putting on Christ Himself. Thus, when Paul urges us to put on the breastplate of righteousness, we should joyously remind ourselves that it is not our righteousness! Putting on our own polluted righteousness would be somewhat like taping a piece of paper to the chest and calling it a breastplate. It can only offer an imaginary protection.

Christ’s righteousness, on the other hand, is what we might call “the real deal.” As Hebrews 4:15 tells us, Jesus is “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” In the language of our present passage, this means that Jesus fought the fight without stumbling. All of His earthly life He wrestled against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, and He won each encounter. Even upon the cross, He was tempted to divert from the Father’s will by the jeering crowd, who called out, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40)! Yet even in those excruciating final moments, our Lord remained obedient to the Father; He maintained His spotless righteousness.

And it is from the crucifixion that we are now able to put on Christ’s righteousness as a breastplate. For upon the cross, the greatest of all battles was waged, as the Serpent-Crusher’s heel was bruised but the Serpent’s head was crushed. Christ’s death was the perfect once-for-all sacrifice for our sins. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). We might also call this the greatest of all transactions. Our sin was placed upon Christ, and Christ’s righteousness has been placed upon us. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). We have been ransomed and redeemed, rescued from the very fires of hell, and we are now justified before God through the imputed righteousness of Christ.

This is the righteousness that we cling to as a breastplate in the war around us, not “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9). Notice that connection. This righteousness comes through faith in Christ. Faith is not the object but the vehicle. We must simply believe in Christ’s saving work and trust in His goodness rather than our own. This is both the gloriously good news of Christianity and its primary stumbling block. In many ways, it is easily to trust in our own good works because then at least our salvation is still within our own hands. Yet as a newborn is entirely dependent upon the care of its mother, we are utterly dependent upon the grace of Christ’s righteousness.

Yet when, by faith, we embrace the righteousness of Christ, it does guard us in this evil day. When temptation threatens to lead our hearts astray, we are now able to remind ourselves of the blood spilled by our Savior to redeem us. We see Jesus as our Captain who fought with perfect and true righteous and is now fighting through us by His Spirit. And when the Accuser attempts to condemn us of sin, we are able to stand firm, knowing that our salvation is not dependent upon our own righteousness but upon the righteousness of Christ. Indeed, what lie of the enemy can stand against us whenever we have the crucifixion of our Lord and God as a cosmic display vast love for us. As the hymn reads, “No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand. Till He returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ, I stand.”

It is Christ’s righteousness, not our own, given freely to us that guards our hearts against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places and against the passions of our own flesh. Stand, therefore, being strong in the Lord and putting on the breastplate of the righteousness of Christ as a breastplate.


[1] Lexham Bible Dictionary

[2] John Frame, Systematic Theology, 233.

[3] R. C. Sproul, Enjoying God, 136.

[4] And perhaps within the fires of hell as well.

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