The Breastplate of Righteousness
As we continue our 7-week series on the "whole armor of God," we will look at the "breastplate of righteousness" today. This comes from Ephesians 6:14b, which states, "...and having put on the breastplate of righteousness."
As a way of reminder, Paul is admonishing his readers to trust in the Lord for strength amidst spiritual warfare. He reminds the Ephesian believers that their ultimate battle is not "against flesh and blood," but "against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."
Because everything else in this list is focused on the work of Christ, I am compelled to believe this is talking primarily of Christ’s righteousness in our place, what is known as “imputed righteousness.” Imputed means that He has given it to us through His life, death, and resurrection. This is different than “practical righteousness,” which is the holiness or sanctification that we walk in as we grow in spiritual maturity, as important as that is.
This is made most explicitly clear in Romans 3:21-26:
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (ESV, italics added).
This is about the righteousness that we are accredited with through the gospel. God’s righteousness is like a breastplate, covering our vital organs. You and I sin constantly, and cannot begin to trust ourselves to be able to guard against the attacks of Satan based on our own righteousness. We must look to the righteousness of Jesus in our place.
Old Testament Connection
Paul is connecting this with the Old Testament Messianic warrior-king. In Isaiah 59, when God’s people couldn’t fight against their own sin, God says of Himself in Isaiah 59:17, “He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.”
Christ perfectly put on the breastplate of righteousness to defeat Satan, sin, and death. And we get to share in His victory!
Now, this does not mean our own practical righteousness is not in view at all here. This simply means that the focus is on Christ’s righteousness. But this is how the gospel works: as we continue to gaze at the perfection of Jesus, our hearts begin to change and we begin to desire to walk in that same righteousness (see Ephesians 5:8-11, for example). The more we are rooted in Jesus, the more we will desire to be like Jesus. This is a work of faith, as we trust that what Christ calls us to is actually best for us. And, it will help guard us against the attacks of the devil.
Breastplate of Righteousness in Practice
What does this mean for your life, then? It means when the flaming arrows of guilt and shame are thrown at you, you look to the way Jesus overcame that guilt and shame for you. If you feel lust rise up in your heart, for example, remind yourself that Jesus never lusted. He perfectly overcame any and all lust and nailed your own lust to the cross as if it was His. And you get treated as if Jesus’ overcoming of lust is yours! It’s as if you never lusted in the first place. Then, as you continue to look at the “root” of Jesus’ righteousness, you will begin to lose your taste for lust and begin to bear the “fruit” of true love and respect for the person you used to lust after.
I'll end with a wonderful quote from Iain Duguid regarding the "breastplate of righteousness":
We are right with God, through perfect obedience. But it is not our own weak and failing righteousness that guards us, not even our ability to strap on God's breastplate well; rather, it is a perfect righteousness that comes from God, a righteousness given to us in Christ as part of the cosmic transfer deal by which our own guilt was laid on Jesus. It is this imputed righteousness that is worked out in us as the Holy Spirit renews our thinking and renews our living. In that way, we begin to live the lives we were created to live, made like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Sermon Series: Ephesians: Church Alive In Christ