“To teach them war” (18) God’s armor for us: The breastplate

Previous article in this series: November 15, 2017, p. 91.

“…and having on the breastplate of righteousness.” Ephesians 6:14b

Having girded our loins (tightened our belt) with the truth of God’s Word so that we know the truth, believe the truth, confess the truth, defend the truth, love the truth, and live the truth, we have begun the exercising of our God-given faith whereby we arm ourselves for our life and death struggle against the Devil. Included next in the whole armor of God that we take unto ourselves for battle is the breastplate of righteousness. First comes truth, then righteousness.

The breastplate of righteousness

When Ephesians 6:14 speaks of, “the breastplate of righteousness,” it means, “the breastplate which is righteousness.” Righteousness is the spiritual breastplate of the Christian soldier.

The breastplate of the Roman soldier was a covering of metal shaped to fit and protect the front of his upper body. This breastplate guarded the vital organs like the heart and the lungs so that, if a sharp sword or spear were thrust at the soldier’s chest, the armor would guard the vital organs and keep him from serious injury or death.

We need a spiritual breastplate for the protection of our spiritual vitals in our spiritual warfare. We have been given a new heart with which we love God, and we need protection for that heart so that all of our affections remain pure. We have a new will with which we desire and resolve, and we need protection so that all of our willing is in conformity with God’s. We have sanctified bowels or feelings, and we need protection so that even our feelings remain pleasing to God. We have a conscience, and we need protection so that it does not become defiled or ruin our confidence with its accusations. A breastplate of righteousness is the armor we need.

Obviously, the righteousness that keeps our vitals in battle is not our own or that of any mere man. Romans 3:10 declares, “There is none righteous, no, not one.” There is no sinner who has righteousness in himself. If any man takes his stand in the field of battle with a breastplate of his own righteousness, he will have nothing to stop the penetration of Satan’s fiery darts and whetted swords. Even ungodly psychologists are presently saying that youth today are developing a toxic, narcissistic entitlement complex, believing they are inherently superior to others and more deserving of certain things. A Christian soldier may not live with a sense of entitlement. Let any young person who trusts in himself and his accomplishments and who thinks he stands, vainly imagining his devotional life, family life, recreational life, work life, and church life are more impressive to God than that of his peers and thus is more deserving of temporal rewards, take heed lest he fall. Ephesians 6:13 opens by stating, “Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God,” which means the breastplate is not of man, but of God. The only righteousness that will secure us in battle is God’s righteousness.

There is what Scripture calls the righteousness of God, and we sing of it often in the Psalms. God’s righteousness is the attribute of His infinite Being according to which all that He does is in perfect harmony with the highest standard for what is right, and that standard is God Himself. When He eternally loves and elects Jacob unto salvation by grace; when He eternally hates and reprobates Esau to destruction in the way of his rebellion; when He outwardly prospers your ungodly and arrogant coworker who attains the favor of the employer and benefits manifold; when He brings tribulation to you so that you incur unjust treatment from your boss and even lose your job, God is righteous. As Romans 9:14 declares, “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid!” No one can find fault with God in His sovereign dealings with man. God is the Righteous One. Yet, there is no benefit to the sinner in the pure, strict, personal righteousness of God, for according to that righteousness we sinners must be driven from God’s face and die.

There is another sense in which we can understand the righteousness of God, and that is the gracious gift of righteousness God prepares in Jesus Christ for His people. It is this righteousness that Martin Luther began to understand 500 years ago as the great Reformation of the church commenced in his own soul. Romans 1:16 begins, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ…,” and verse 17 continues, “for therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith.” In addition, we find these statements in Scripture that speak of righteousness as a gospel benefit appropriated by faith: “Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference” (Rom. 3:22); and, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth” (Rom. 10:4); and, “But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (I Cor. 1:30). This righteousness that God prepares for us in Christ is our breastplate.

In Jesus Christ we have imputed righteousness, positively changing our status before God. Jesus Christ came as “THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS” (Jer. 23:6), rendering perfect obedience to the law of God in our stead. Upon Him God laid the iniquity of us all by imputing our sins to Him. In perfect love for God and us, Christ endured all God’s wrath for our sins and fulfilled all righteousness, God testifying so in raising Christ from the dead. Therefore, for Jesus’ sake, God says to us, “I will not hold your sins against you, because I held them against Christ and He atoned for them. Moreover, I view you as righteous, as if you had in your own person fulfilled all the demands of the law.” Our confidence is expressed in Philippians 3:9, “And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.”

So rich is the righteousness that God provides for us in Jesus Christ that it also includes another aspect—imparted or infused righteousness, actually changing our moral condition. In addition to the change of our legal status, there is a change in the spiritual orientation and activities of our heart. As the obedience of Christ is worked in us by the Holy Spirit and through the unbreakable tie of faith, we become righteous in walk so that like Zacharias and Elisabeth we can be “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments of God and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Luke 1:6). Of Job we read, “that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God and eschewed evil” (Job 1:1). God not only reckoned Job righteous before His law, but also wrought obedience in Job so that he was actually righteous in his walk, adoring his God, loving his wife, instructing his children in the fear of the Lord, and keeping himself unspotted from the unrighteous works surrounding him in the land of Uz.

Expressing these two aspects of the gospel righteousness of God that is ours by faith in Christ, we are now drawing out the classic Reformed distinction between justification and sanctification. We not only have justification in the blood of Christ, but also sanctification by the Spirit of Christ. That is, we not only have the imputation of Christ’s righteousness into our account (justification), but we also have the imparting or infusing of Christ’s righteousness into our hearts by His Spirit so that we think and will and speak and do righteously (sanctification).

There is no reason to separate these two aspects of righteousness and eliminate either of them in our understanding of our “breastplate of righteousness.” God justifies and God sanctifies His soldiers in the battle. The soldier who lives by faith clinging to the merits of Christ, and who lives out of his faith striving by the Spirit to cleave to the Lord God while detesting every appearance of evil has a chest protected in battle.

Giving power to stand

When the self-righteous fool marches onto the field of battle spurning the righteousness of Christ in favor of his own law-righteousness, and, therefore, not walking gratefully in obedience but wickedly in defiance, he exposes his entire chest. Armed with the breastplate of righteousness, the soldier stands. Ephesians 6:14, “Stand therefore…, having on the breastplate of righteousness.”

Consider the effectiveness of our breastplate from the point of view of its character as imputed righteousness. Think of Paul who writes to the Ephesians while in bonds (Eph. 6:20). He passes his time as a prisoner, often alone without the regular preaching of the gospel and communion of the saints. To jail comes Satan, hurling at Paul the spear of doubting questions: “Paul, you have plenty of time to do some reflecting these days. Remember how you used to blaspheme God—the God who says in the third commandment that He will not hold you guiltless. And, Paul, remember how you persecuted Christians—the ones Christ loves so much He died for them. Does the name Stephen sound familiar? Remember the look on his dying face? You consented to that poor man’s death. And you think God loves you? What makes you think God has not raised you up as a vessel of wrath fitted to everlasting destruction? There is a reason you are here in bonds, Paul; God is angry with you! From here you go to hell. You know that.”

What great battles Satan wages with all of us and especially with the vulnerable, lonely saints. He dredges up some of our most shameful sins of the past and brings those sins before our consciousness as certain proofs of our damnation. How will we stand? How will Paul avoid doubt and despair as Satan thrusts spears of doubt right at his heart? There is safety for Paul only in the armor of God. He must have his loins girt about with the truth of the gospel he once preached, and he must have on the breastplate of righteousness so that he does not look to himself and his works for God’s approval, but the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ that is his by faith. Then he has power to stand.

Young people, there is power in the breastplate! Should you ever sink so low, as some soldiers do, that you have wicked feelings of unhealthy self-loathing and isolate yourself or even seek cuttings, starvation, and other forms of self-inflicted pain as atoning punishment for your past, you are only joining the Devil in destroying your vitals. When the adversary takes aim at your vitals by showing you your sins and failures as proof for his contention that God hates you, is angry with you, and is ready to lower you into the lake of fire, confess, “Christ took my sin! Christ is my righteousness! For His sake God favors me as my God and my Friend!”

Consider also the necessity and power of our breastplate from the point of view of its character as infused or imparted righteousness. Think of Job who lived in Uz wearing his breastplate by walking uprightly in the Spirit. Though we have only a small beginning, how important obedience is in war! When walking obediently, we are less susceptible to the power of temptation!

Under the sovereign direction of God, the Devil hurled every conceivable spear at Job. Prior to Job’s great tribulation, the Devil threw the spear of temptation to crave and idolize material goods at wealthy Job. Had Job not been wearing the breastplate of a heart set upon spiritual riches, he would have fallen in love with his possessions and become infatuated with the god of mammon.

Through the plundering of the Sabeans and Chaldeans and the destruction of the great wind, the Devil came at Job with the spear of the temptation to be angry with God. Job suffered great loss, especially in losing ten children. And Job knew God’s hand brought the tribulation. Had Job not been wearing the breastplate, daily confessing, “Bless the Lord, O my soul! His hand is a hand of righteousness! All that I am and have is His, His to give, or His to take,” Job’s heart would have swollen with resentment of God and his bowels would have expanded with bitterness.

In the time of unimaginable calamity after Job had lost all his possessions, all ten of his children, and his own health, the Devil came at him with the spear of a difficult wife who tempted him to curse God and die. Satan must have thought it would be so easy to get Job to curse God, or to lose his temper and start clamoring and arguing with his wife, or to go around Uz grumbling about what a thorn in his flesh his wife was. Job did not do that. He wore a breastplate according to which he kept the door of his lips in love for God and his wife.

In Job 31:1, Job says he made a covenant with his eyes so that he would not think upon a maid (lust). Job’s resolve unto chastity was part of his breastplate. Without that breastplate Job may have walked outdoors one night and seen a maid bathing. Satan would see defenseless Job’s exposed chest and hurl a spear of the temptation to lust after the maid, and it would hit Job in the heart so that he lusted; and perhaps the lust would conceive and bring forth the sin of adultery as Job arranged for the maid to enter his bed chamber. Without that Spirit-worked actual righteousness of a resolve to be chaste before a holy God, Job would have had no power to stand and would have gone the way of David.

There is power in the breastplate. We wear the breastplate every day, saying “I know I am by faith righteous before God in Jesus Christ and in gratitude I will live uprightly by His Spirit, hating what is base and loving what is pure.” Wear that breastplate to school, to work, at home, at church, on vacation, when you hold your phone, and when you go on a date, and you will stand against the Devil’s temptations. We all know that when we fall into sin it is our fault, for we belittled the breastplate.

Having it on

Having on this breastplate of righteousness, we shall stand. “Stand therefore…having on the breastplate of righteousness.”

The breastplate is to be found in Jesus Christ. Christ Himself is the perfect illustration of one who has power to stand with the breastplate of righteousness. Isaiah 59:17 says of the promised Messiah, “For he put on righteousness as a breastplate, and an helmet of salvation upon his head; and he put on the garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as a cloke.” The Devil relentlessly pursued Christ with temptations. Jesus stood, having on His perfect breastplate of righteousness.

Christ is our breastplate. He is our righteousness as it is legally imputed and as it is actually infused through the bond of faith. He is, “THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.” And through the preaching of Christ in the gospel, Christ Himself sees to it that we have on the breastplate of righteousness we need for battle.