43: The Breastplate of Righteousness

Ephesians 6:14b

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

There are a number of metaphors that are used in Scripture to describe the Christian life: the farmer, the athlete, the servant, etc. But the one that is used more than any other is the Christian’s life as a soldier. And the most detailed and basic passage of scripture dealing with that picture of the Christian life is here in Ephesians 6:10-18. In Hebrews 2:10 the Lord Jesus Christ is referred to as “the Captain of our salvation, which strengthens the metaphor.”

Here we have in very clear terms the various pieces of armor which a Roman soldier would have worn. No doubt Paul’s original readers would have been at least generally familiar with this picture, because soldiers would have passed through the streets of Ephesus fairly regularly in the course of their duties. And in these verses the apostle does a masterful job, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, of using these various pieces of the armor to describe the spiritual abilities that God gives to His children as they face the difficulties of the struggles described in verses 10 through 18. And that is thrilling, because the battle we fight is not a human battle, so the weapons we need are not human weapons. As we have seen previously in this study, our battle is against Satan and his highly organized forces. And as we look at the various pieces of armor which our captain provides for us we see not only the armor itself, but the various kinds of attacks it is designed to protect us from.

In our last study we looked at “the girdle of truth “in verse 14a, (called “the belt” of truth in newer translations.) So in this study we want to look at the second piece of armor, “the breastplate (or belt) of righteousness.” But in order to really see Paul’s point here we need to understand the nature of the breastplate in the arsenal of equipment. There is a sense in which the breastplate was the most important piece of armor, because it covered the most vital parts of the body. Usually it was made of heavy linen, to which was overlapping pieces of horn or metal. Or sometimes it was made of woven chain, interlocked rings of metal or metal plates joined by leather straps so that they could cover the soldier front and back. So Paul takes that familiar piece of armor to illustrate an area of importance to the Christian.

But to fully appreciate the breastplate we need to understand what the Bible says about the doctrine of righteousness. So let’s think about, first the shortage of righteousness that every human has; the source of righteousness, available to each of us and the safeguard of righteousness.

So let’s think first about the shortage of righteousness which we as Christians face. Actually, the word “shortage” is a misnomer. What we really have is an absolute lack of righteousness as far as God is concerned. But we need to realize that there are people who reject this doctrine on the basis of the good works that they and other people do. So the first thing we need to look at is what the Scripture has to say about the inadequacy of human righteousness. Probably the clearest passage in this regard is Isaiah 64:6:

But we are all as an unclean thing and all our righteous nesses are like filthy rags. We all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”

This passage recognizes that there is a kind of human righteousness, but that righteousness is not acceptable to God. The key word in understanding this verse is the word “filthy.” This is a translation of the Hebrew word “ayd”, which refers to a fully saturated rag. This would have been the kind of rag that would have been used to dry off sweaty camels as they came in off of the dusty trails of the caravans. They would have been fully saturated with dust and sweat, they couldn’t have been used for anything else.

So the thrust of the passage is that, yes, there are some “good works” that people can do; many philanthropists have done wonderful and helpful good works, but those works cannot be used to obtain righteousness, because they are used up in whatever human good they accomplished. Paul said the same thing in Romans 3:10-12:

There is none righteous, no not one. There is none who understands, There is none who seeks after God. They have all gone out of the way; they have together become unprofitable.

Clearly, no natural human being seeks God’s righteousness. In verses 13 through 20 of this passage Paul goes on to tell how that unrighteousness is carried out in every aspect of life. And verse 23 contains his famous summary of the human condition: “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” These are just a few of the many verses that tell us that the unsaved have no righteousness to make them acceptable to God. Furthermore, he has no armor to protect him against the attacks of Satan – apart from God’s grace we have no ability to stand against our adversary.

Now this “inadequacy of human righteousness” is compounded by the internal nature of God’s righteousness. Again, there is one passage that speaks more clearly than others about this: In Psalm 51, verses 5 &6 David points out a dilemma (“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me. (6) Behold, you desire truth in the inward parts” . . .” And the same point is made in verses 16&17 – God is not interested in our outward sacrifices (church attendance, making offerings, etc) what matters to him is our heart attitude. (But of course a right heart attitude produces legitimate outward sacrifices.)

What is the solution to this dilemma? Fortunately we have a source of righteousness provided by God Himself. First there is what theologians call “positional righteousness” – the fact that God puts us in “a position of righteousness” when we accept Christ as Savior. One statement of this is in II Corinthians 5:21:

God made Him who had no sin to be made sin for us , that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.

And that is borne out in Romans 3:23: For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

What these passages are telling us is that when we accept Christ as our Savior we are clothed in His righteousness, and therefore we are as acceptable to Him as Christ is. (Ephesians 1:6 says that “we are accepted in the beloved.”) But that righteousness is a gift from God – and therefore it is not something that can be put on and taken off like a piece of clothing. So what is Ephesians 6 talking about when it says “put on the breastplate of righteousness?” What we have been talking about is “positional righteousness,” our position in God’s sight. But the scripture also speaks of righteousness from the standpoint of our “practice” as well; and that is what we call personal righteousness.” And this, too is supplied by God! In Philippians 1:11, this is referred to as “the fruits of righteousness.” And he is referring to the character of Jesus Christ being reproduced in us by the Holy Spirit. Paul also wrote about this in Romans. Note, for example, Romans 6:13 and also verse 19 – it is a matter of consciously deciding to use our bodies in a righteous way.

Now we have thought about “the shortage of righteousness,” and “the source of righteousness.” But to come down to the subject of the armor of the Christian, let’s think now about now about the safeguard by righteousness – how it actually works.

The breastplate was a defensive weapon – it protected from incoming blows and weapons. But its most important use was in hand to hand combat. Just so, the righteousness which we have been talking about is a great defensive weapon. But for most committed Christians, the problem is not in those major areas which we might think of right off hand; rather, it is those small, “backrooms” of our life that Satan attacks – the “hand to hand combat” that he puts us through. And the scripture speaks of that very kind of thing in several places:

In Second Corinthians 2: 9-11 for example, Paul speaks of “Satan getting the advantage” of us – by means of a lack of forgiveness. And in I Timothy 3:7 he speaks of the danger of a new Christian being lifted up with pride and falling into “the snare of the devil.” And in II Timothy 2:26 he warns how Satan takes people “captive at his will” in his snare when they refuse to obey the truth.

Thus the breastplate protects us against those small things” in our lives through which Satan can get his dagger in in our hand to hand combat. And that breastplate is formed and attached to us by means of walking at the direction of the Holy Spirit.


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