The Breastplate of Righteousness

…with the breastplate of righteousness in place… (Ephesians 6:14)

If you were fighting a battle, what would you want to wear? With artillery firing and shrapnel flying, would you rather be wearing a baseball cap or a heavy-duty helmet? If an enemy was using poison gas against you, would you rather be wearing designer sunglasses or a gas mask? If a sniper was aiming bullets at your heart, would you rather be wearing a light T-shirt or body armor? If you were advancing against an enemy position, would you rather be riding in a golf cart or an armor-plated tank? If you were in a war, you would want the best protection you could get.

Protective equipment isn’t always colorful or comfortable. A combat helmet is not nearly as soft and pleasant as a baseball cap. A gas mask is more awkward and ugly than designer sunglasses. Body armor is heavier and hotter than a T-shirt. A tank is noisier than a golf cart, and a tank doesn’t catch cool breezes or give a nice view like a golf cart does. But in battle, none of that matters. You care more about solid protection than about style or short-term comfort. You care more about staying alive for the long term than about how you feel or look for the moment.

That’s common sense for any soldier in a battle, and it also makes sense for the ultimate conflict against Satan. You need strong protection, whether it seems pleasant to you or not. It’s more important to live forever and to avoid the horror of hell than to do whatever seems easiest at the moment. To survive the attacks of Satan and have eternal life, you need the armor of God, even if you think other clothing would be more comfortable.

Among the various pieces in the armor of God is “the breastplate of righteousness.” At the time the Bible was written, soldiers used different gear than modern troops, but the basic principle of protection was the same. Every piece of armor was important, and the breastplate was second to none. The breastplate extended from the base of the neck down to the abdomen. It covered the torso, the trunk of the body. The breastplate protected the heart, lungs, liver, and other vital organs. The breastplate was less comfortable than an ordinary shirt or tunic, but it provided far better protection against swords, spears, and arrows. In the armor God provides for spiritual warfare, righteousness is the breastplate that protects the heart, the very core of our being, the wellspring of life.

Righteousness may not sound very appealing. The very word can almost cause an allergic reaction. For some of us, “righteousness” sounds like an impossible standard, something to make us feel like rotten failures. For others, the word “righteousness” is associated with being a stiff, pompous, holier-than-thou perfectionist. Just the mention of righteousness makes us feel awkward and uncomfortable. But don’t let that discomfort turn you off to righteousness before you find out what it really is and how much you need it. Righteousness may sound unpleasant, but so does the roar of a heavily armored tank. Righteousness may seem hard and unstylish, but so is a combat helmet. Righteousness may appear ugly to you, but a gas mask isn’t exactly pretty. Righteousness may feel too heavy, but a breastplate or a bulletproof vest is heavier than a flimsy T-shirt. So if talk of righteousness makes you feel awkward or uncomfortable, hang in there. The goal is to be alive for the long term—for eternity—not just to go with whatever you happen to like at the moment. You should want righteousness no matter how little it appeals to you, simply because you can’t survive without it.

Let me add, however, that if you really examine this breastplate and put it on, you’ll discover that it’s not so unpleasant after all. Righteousness is not so hard, heavy, and clunky as you’d think a piece of armor would be. The breastplate of righteousness is very strong and resistant to evil attacks—stronger than the equipment of any army—but it also turns out to be beautiful, comfortable, enjoyable, and precious beyond price.

Alien Righteousness

What is righteousness? It is meeting God’s standard and being right with him. Righteousness is measuring up to God’s perfect character and being able to relate to him and have access to him. Without righteousness, you have no relationship with God, and you perish in hell without him.

Where can you get this righteousness? Many religions of the world see the importance of having some sort of righteousness. They see that morality matters. To that degree these religions are correct. Where they go wrong is that they offer do-it-yourself righteousness. They tell you how to earn your own righteousness and how to make yourself measure up to the level God requires. This is a fatal error. You can try your hardest to do good things, but you can’t measure up to God’s righteousness. You can put yourself through painful sacrifices to make up for sins, but such penance can’t atone for the wrongs you’ve done. You can try every pilgrimage, every ritual, every relic, every method of meditation, but such things can never give you access to God’s throne room.

If you follow a religion that tells you how to earn your own righteousness, you get tangled in at least two lies. First, you lie to yourself about God’s standard and imagine God’s righteousness to be lower than it really is. Second, you lie to yourself about your character and conduct, and you imagine yourself to be higher than you really are. Every religion that teaches righteousness by your own effort drives you to think of God at too low a level and yourself at too high a level. How else could you bring yourself to God’s level of righteousness? You can’t afford to see how high God truly is or how low sin really is. Otherwise, you would have to admit that God’s righteousness is impossible for you.

Righteousness is absolutely necessary, yet utterly impossible for any of us to achieve. Man-made religion can teach man-made righteousness, but this can’t save anybody. Righteousness means measuring up to God’s standard, and that is something you and I cannot do. We cannot build our own breastplate of righteousness, so where can we get it? The answer is that we must have alien righteousness.

The word alien may bring to mind odd critters from other galaxies flying around in spaceships. But alien righteousness has nothing to do with UFOs or science fiction. Alien means “other, someone else, someone very different.” To have alien righteousness means that I somehow get the righteousness of someone else, someone very different from myself. It means that someone alien to me, someone who is not sinful like me, someone who measures up to God’s standard and is at God’s level, somehow transfers his righteousness to me. Such righteousness is alien to my fallen, sinful character, but this alien righteousness must somehow count as mine, even though it comes from someone else and not from me. The only righteousness that can make an effective breastplate is God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ transferred to me.

Alien righteousness is the complete opposite of self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is not part of the armor of God; it is one of Satan’s favorite weapons to destroy us. Trusting your own righteousness is like putting on a breastplate with long, sharp spikes on the side that goes next to your body. The more tightly the breastplate is strapped on, the deeper the spikes press into you. Satan is happy to help you put it on. He needs no other weapon against you if he can strap you so tightly in self-righteousness that it pierces your heart and destroys you.

Satan loves to use religion to destroy people, to make them enemies of God and sometimes even killers of other people. This has happened to far too many religious people. Trusting their own righteousness, they think they measure up to God’s standard. If they fall a bit short, they think they can make up for it and rise to God’s level by killing God’s enemies in holy wars or by giving their lives in battle against the infidels. This has happened at various times in history, and it still haunts our world today. But inflicting pain on others or absorbing pain ourselves cannot atone for sin and make us righteous. Homicidal murderers and suicidal martyrs cannot use blood to escape guilt and raise themselves to God’s level. Only the blood of Christ can pay the price, remove the guilt, and open the way to heaven.

The apostle Paul knew from personal experience how deadly self-righteousness could be. Paul had grown up in a religious home, and as a young man he tried his hardest to measure up to God’s standard. He was proud of his righteousness and opposed those he thought were out of tune with God. What was the result? Paul hunted Christians, imprisoned them, and killed them, all in the name of doing God’s will.

But then this self-righteous, Christian-hating murderer had a direct encounter with the risen Lord Jesus. No longer was Paul proud of his own righteousness—he wanted to take it off and throw it away like garbage. No longer did Paul think he had earned God’s approval—he knew he deserved nothing but God’s wrath. Paul saw that his old self-made righteousness had made him “a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man,” and he called himself the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:13,15). Speaking of his religious background, his zeal, and his efforts at righteousness, Paul said, “I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Jesus Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3:8-9).

It was this very same Paul who wrote about the armor of God and told us to have “the breastplate of righteousness in place.” Clearly this breastplate must not be our own righteousness but alien righteousness, righteousness from beyond us, the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ.

Imputed Righteousness

What does it mean to have the breastplate of righteousness in place? We need the complete righteousness of Jesus imputed to us, credited to us, counted as ours apart from anything we do, as the basis for our relationship to God. And once we receive imputed righteousness by faith in God’s free gift, we also need imparted righteousness, Jesus’ character shaping our character.

Maybe you’re tempted to say, “Stop throwing strange words at me. Imputed! Imparted! Righteousness isn’t a favorite topic to begin with, and these words make it even more complicated and unpleasant.” But remember what I said earlier. It’s easier to slip into a T-shirt than to strap on body armor, but it’s not safer if you’re heading into battle. So why be careless and unsafe about your soul? Why be willing to study years and years to prepare for a job in some profession, but unwilling to spend a few minutes preparing our minds for matters of eternal importance? Why think military forces need topnotch training in military technology and strategy, but think that in spiritual warfare it’s okay to be lazy and mush-minded? In your walk with God and your battle against Satan, you need to grasp the distinction between imputed and imparted righteousness. This isn’t just theory for theologians. It’s protection for ordinary people from Satan’s attacks.

Imputed righteousness is an accounting method God uses, in which Jesus’ perfection gets credited to your account. The Son of God always had a perfect relationship and union with his Father, even before he came to earth and took a human nature. When he became human, Jesus did what no human before or since has ever done: he kept God’s law perfectly. Everything Jesus did, everything he said, everything he thought, was perfectly in line with God’s law. Jesus honored his heavenly Father with his whole being. He did his Father’s will without sinning even once. He obeyed his Father all the way to laying down his life on the cross. Jesus was and is totally righteous.

If this active obedience, this righteousness of Jesus, is imputed to you, it counts as yours. God transfers Jesus’ record to you. You might have a shameful record of sin, but if you put your faith in Jesus, God sees you as he sees Jesus: not guilty, fully accepted in love. But what about your own record of sin and disobedience? That gets put on Jesus’ account and is paid fully by the blood he poured out when he died on the cross. Your sin is counted as his, and his righteousness is counted as yours. When you put your faith in Christ, God not only takes away your sins but he also credits to you the perfect obedience of Christ. You don’t just get rid of guilt; you get the same right standing as Jesus.

How does imputed righteousness serve as a breastplate against Satan’s attacks? It protects from two of Satan’s chief weapons: pride and despair. Sometimes Satan tempts you to be proud, to think you’ve worked your way to God’s level of righteousness and to despise others. But if you trust entirely in Jesus’ righteousness and regard your own righteousness as rags and rubbish, you are protected from pride. How can you be proud of yourself when your entire standing depends on someone else, on Jesus? The breastplate of imputed righteousness protects from pride.

If Satan can’t pierce your heart with pride, he may switch weapons and attack you with doubt and despair. When you do something wrong or when you remember a sin from the past, Satan says, “Do you really think God would accept someone who did something like that? God is holy, and you are bad. God is pure, and you are rotten. Look at the sort of person you are! Look at the things you’ve done! You might as well forget about eternal life.” But with the breastplate of righteousness in place, you tell Satan, “I know everything you’re saying. I am sinful, and God is holy. But I look to Jesus, not myself. I don’t count on my own ability to measure up. I count on Christ, and God imputes to me Jesus’ perfect righteousness. Satan, before you can pierce me with despair, you will have to find something unrighteous in Jesus, for his righteousness is my breastplate.” Satan can’t handle that. Satan can shoot all sorts of holes in your righteousness, but he can’t find even one tiny weakness in Jesus’ righteousness.

If you try to resist despair by working up certain feelings or depending on special experiences, your heart will not survive. But your heart is safe if it is protected by the imputed righteousness of Jesus. This is what the Bible calls “being justified by faith.” The word justified simply means “counted righteous by God,” and when you are counted righteous through faith in Jesus—justified by faith—your heart is protected from Satan’s attacks.

Imparted Righteousness

Imputed righteousness is the basis for your entire standing with God, apart from anything you do. Once you have a new standing with God, you need to be made into a new person. Once Jesus’ righteous standing before God has fully been imputed to you—that is, credited to your account—his righteous character is then gradually imparted to you, that is poured into you, made a part of your being, so that you start thinking, talking, and acting more like Jesus would.

This doesn’t happen all at once. Imparted righteousness doesn’t come in a moment; it comes in ever-growing measure over the course of a lifetime. Unlike imputed righteousness, which is complete the moment God credits Jesus’ finished work to you, imparted righteousness is not complete until God has made your actual character and conduct exactly like Jesus. Imputed righteousness is the complete work of Christ credited to you once for all when you put your faith in Jesus. Imparted righteousness is your developing, partial resemblance to Jesus, which is never complete in this life. Only when you go to heaven will you be sinless and perfect like Jesus.

Imparted righteousness is never the basis for your acceptance by God. Rather, the reverse is true: your acceptance by God is the basis for imparted righteousness. The complete righteousness of Jesus must be credited to you before you can be accepted by God and start to develop into a person like Jesus. God accepts you only on the basis of complete, perfect, imputed righteousness that is not your own, and once he accepts you, his Holy Spirit begins the process of making you more and more like Jesus. This ongoing process of imparting more and more righteousness to your actual character and conduct is what the Bible calls “being sanctified” or “made holy.”

To ward off Satan’s attacks on your heart, you must know the difference between imputed righteousness and imparted righteousness, between justification and sanctification. The moment you start thinking that your acceptance with God depends on your progress in becoming like Christ, you will either be puffed up with pride by overestimating your progress, or you will be cast down in despair at how little progress you’ve made. To be secure, you absolutely must depend on justification by faith in the finished work of Christ imputed to you. Once you realize that Satan can’t destroy your standing with God, you are set free to live in the same kind of joyful, loving obedience that Jesus gave to his heavenly Father.

Imputed righteousness is your chief protection against self-righteousness, pride, and despair, but that doesn’t mean imparted righteousness has no place at all in the breastplate of righteousness. Satan can’t fatally wound and bring to hell anyone to whom God has credited Jesus’ perfection, but Satan can still inflict a lot of wounds that are not fatal to the soul but are still very painful and damaging. The more righteous we become in character, the harder it becomes for Satan to tempt us successfully and wound our spirits. We need more and more of the Holy Spirit’s life and power, more and more of Jesus, more and more healthy patterns and less enslavement to old habits, in order to be vigorous, effective warriors for Christ. Also, imparted righteousness can strengthen our assurance of salvation. If there’s not even a hint of imparted righteousness growing in us, we might be mistaken in thinking that the full righteousness of Christ has already been imputed to us. Those God accepts fully and freely in Christ, he also begins to transform.

Imparted righteousness can serve as a fruit of spiritual life which encourages confidence that God has accepted us for Jesus’ sake, and the more righteousness becomes part of our being, the harder it is for Satan to tempt us successfully and the easier it becomes for us to advance against Satan and attract others to the beauty of the Savior.

Mithril from Christ

Earlier we saw that in a military conflict, we’re more concerned about solid protection than about style or short-term comfort, and that we should seek the breastplate of righteousness, even if it might seem uncomfortable and ugly, simply because our survival depends on it. But once you understand righteousness and put it on as a breastplate, once you know the wonder of God justifying you for Jesus’ sake and sanctifying you to become more like him, you find that righteousness isn’t unpleasant and ugly after all. It’s more like the mithril coat of mail worn by the hobbit Frodo in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

In Tolkien’s tales, Frodo’s mithril coat provides powerful protection. More than once, it saves Frodo from being stabbed to death. Still, even though it provides life-saving protection, mithril is light and lovely. Frodo’s mithril coat is so precious that it is worth more than the wealth of the entire Shire, the neighborhood where Frodo grew up. Frodo could never have made this mithril coat himself, and he could never have come up with enough wealth to purchase something so precious. Someone else made it. How did Frodo get it? He received it as a gift from someone else.

Mithril isn’t just Tolkien’s legend; the breastplate of righteousness is mithril. The breastplate of righteousness is not heavy, ugly self-righteousness but the light, lovely righteousness of Jesus Christ. This breastplate is made of the loving obedience of Jesus to his heavenly Father, who prizes his eternal Son more than all the treasure in the universe. This breastplate, given freely to us as a gift, is paid for by the blood of Jesus, of which one drop is more precious than all the splendor of men and angels. We could never make such a mighty protection for ourselves. We could never earn such a precious adornment. But it can be ours simply by accepting God’s gift and putting it on. This mithril breastplate of Christ’s righteousness is strong enough to turn aside Satan’s every attack on our heart, and it is beautiful enough to make angels marvel at our splendor in Christ. Accept God’s gift. Stand against Satan with the mithril breastplate of righteousness in place to defend you, and you can also stand before God with that same breastplate to adorn you and make you beautiful enough to belong in heaven.