The Breastplate of Righteousness (Ephesians 6:14)
Big Idea: Protect your heart with the righteousness that God provides, and the righteousness the Spirit produces.
“If you are a true believer, Satan hates you.” That’s the way the book Fighting Satan by Joel Beeke begins. He hates you. He wants you back. You have an enemy, and that enemy is “a living, intelligent, resourceful and cunning enemy who can outlive the oldest Christian, outwork the busiest, outfight the strongest and outwit the wisest” (John Blanchard).
This is why we’re studying Ephesians 6 right now. It’s for two reasons. First: Satan hates you. He wants to bring you down, and he will use every trick in the book in order to defeat you. Second: Satan hates Liberty Grace Church. He hates that we exist. He hates churches, and he hates church plants. He would like nothing better than to shut this church down.
That’s the bad news, but here’s the good news: we have a defense. Although Satan hates us, and although he’s powerful, God has provided a way for us to take our stand against him. The passage we just read says, over and over again, that we can stand against our enemy:
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil…Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore… (Ephesians 6:11-14)
That’s the bad and good news: we’re under attack, because Satan hates us, but we can stand and prevail.
Tonight we’re going to look at a critical part of our defense.
So let’s review a little bit.
A couple of weeks ago, we talked about this reality, found in Ephesians 6:12:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)
We talked about the fact that we’re engaged in deadly spiritual warfare. You live in a war zone. It’s a very serious war. It involves God, humans, angels, demons, principalities, powers, nations, and antichrists. We have enemies, and the enemies have tactics, and the fight is up close and personal. The warfare is going on right now, and you’re part of it whether you know it or not, and we’re all involved. But here’s the good news, and it’s very good news: we can stand. Over and over again in this passage, Paul tells us to take our stand. We need to pay attention to what he says in this passage so that we know how to stand.
Last week Nathan helped us look at the first piece of armor: the belt of truth. Here’s the essence of what the belt of truth means: knowing and living the truth is where our defense begins. One of Satan’s main tactics is deceit, and Paul says that we must begin by knowing the truth, and by bringing our lives in line with that truth. Truth is the first line of defense against the attacks of Satan.
But we don’t need just one thing. Paul tells us to take up the whole armor of God. The truth alone, important as it is, isn’t the complete picture. So tonight we’re coming to a second piece of armor: the breastplate of righteousness. It’s actually linked pretty closely to the belt of truth. Paul writes, “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness…” (Ephesians 6:14).
As we look at the breastplate of righteousness, we can learn three things:
- Where we can expect attack
- How we can defend ourselves
- How to put on the breastplate of righteousness
First: Where we can expect attack
The image that Paul gives us isn’t hard to understand. Soldiers would wear breastplates — a layer of metal or very tough leather that covered the soldier from the neck to the thigh. It would usually come in two pieces: one to cover the front, and the other to cover the back. It was really like the ancient version of a bulletproof vest. If you wore the breastplate, then your vital organs like the heart would be protected, especially from thrusts from the short sword. You wouldn’t think about going into battle without wearing a breastplate.
It’s interesting that Paul talks about the breastplate so early on, because it shows us where Satan is prone to attack us. He’s going to come after our hearts. When you think about spiritual attack, many of us think about all kinds of weird things like you see in horror movies: lights flickering, doors slamming, rooms becoming cold, and cupboard doors opening and closing by themselves. That’s the horror movie version of spiritual attack, but it’s not how spiritual attack usually happens. One of the most common ways that Satan attacks us is by going after our hearts. He knows that if he get to our hearts, he can inflict a mortal wound.
What is the heart? The heart in Scripture represents our inmost being, the essence of who we are. One scholar says this:
The Bible uses the heart and reins to refer to the seat of the thoughts and the deep motives and emotions of men. People in Paul’s day believed that organs such as the heart and the liver were the center of affections. Emotions such as joy or anger originated in these organs. The apostle Paul used this understanding, unscientific though it was, to teach important spiritual lessons. He said believers must put on the breastplate of righteousness to protect the vital parts of the inner man and its faculties against the attacks of Satan. In their conflict with the invisible powers, believers are most vulnerable in their thoughts, motives, and emotions. They need strong protection—a breastplate of righteousness—to keep from being wounded in their inmost being. (Joel Beeke)
This is where we can expect attack:
- Satan will attack our thoughts. He will try to entice us to think wrong thoughts about him and about us. If he can twist our thinking, then he can poison our relationship with God and lead us into error.
- Satan will attack our motives. He will try to entice us to do the right thing for the wrong reason. He will try to capture us at the level of desires so that we want the things that God doesn’t want. If he can get us to desire anything more than God, then he’s got our hearts. He will have made us idolaters.
- Satan will attack our emotions. Our emotions are a great gift from God, but they are also an area that Satan can attack. He can use our emotions to carry us away from God. Your moods don’t come from nowhere. They come from something that you believe. “When we are angry, discouraged, depressed, anxious, self-pitying, fearful, or irritable, it is likely because we are believing something very specific” (Jon Bloom). He can use our emotions as a means of doubting God’s love. When emotions and truth are in sync, it can be a powerful thing; when our emotions are out of sync with reality, then we’re in great danger.
This is so important, because we’re not usually aware that this is how Satan attacks. This gives Satan a huge advantage, because we’re not on guard.
The heart is the essence of who you are. In the Bible it represents all that you are, the entirety of your inner person. Paul says that Satan is going to come after it. We mentioned that we’re in a war zone. Do you know where the front of the battle is? It’s in your heart. It’s in your thoughts, motives, and emotions. Satan’s out to get you. Satan is going to come after your heart. It’s going to be the first place that he attacks. He’s going to attack the core of your being, because he knows that if he gets your heart, then he can fatally wound us. Satan knows where we’re most vulnerable, and if he can get us here, then we’ll live with guilt, fear, depression, and discouragement.
This is why we need the breastplate of righteousness. There’s no better place to attack, and so the breastplate is absolutely needed if we’re to survive.
So that’s where Satan is going to attack. Let’s look next at how we can defend ourselves.
Second: How we can defend ourselves
So how can we protect our most vulnerable area, the heart? We need the breastplate of righteousness. The breastplate is like an ancient version of a bulletproof vest. You wouldn’t think of going into battle as a soldier without a breastplate, and Paul says that we shouldn’t think about going into life without the breastplate of righteousness as well.
So whatever this breastplate of righteousness is, we need it. So what is it?
There are really three main theories of what the breastplate of righteousness are:
- One theory is that it’s the righteousness that we get from God through faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, it’s Jesus’ righteousness that becomes ours when God saves us. In other words, the best defense against Satan is to remember that when you become a follower of Jesus Christ, you are pardoned, forgiven, and justified because of what Jesus has done for you at the cross.
- Another theory is that it’s the righteousness that characterizes our lives as we follow Jesus. When God saves us, he sends the Holy Spirit to live within us and to change us from the inside out. So when Satan attacks us, we can increase our defenses against him through the transformation that the Spirit is working out in our lives.
- A third theory is that Paul is talking about both. Paul wants us to defend ourselves with the righteousness that’s ours in Christ, and the righteousness that the Spirit is producing within our lives.
Which one is right? I think the third view is. I like how one person (G. G. Findlay) put it: “The completeness of pardon for past offense and the integrity of character that belong to the justified life, are woven together into an impenetrable mail.” Paul is telling us to take up the gospel (what God has done for us through Christ) and the effects of the gospel (the change that the Spirit is producing in us) together as a defense when Satan comes against our hearts.
Let’s talk about how this works.
Jesus’ Righteousness as a Defense (Imputed Righteousness)
We need the breastplate of righteousness to protect our hearts. One of the aspects of this breastplate is the righteousness of Jesus that’s given to us the minute that he saves us.
One of the ways that Satan attacks us is to accuse us. He says, “What? You sinned again? You’re no good. God could never love someone like you.” That’s one of the key ways that Satan attacks our hearts. He’s our accuser. Revelation 12:10 calls him “the accuser of our brothers…who accuses them day and night before our God.” He loves to point out our flaws. And here’s the thing: he’s kind of right. We are sinners. We do have lots of flaws that he can point out.
When Satan attacks us this way, we need a righteousness that doesn’t come from us as our primary defense. If we try to argue with our own righteousness, we’re doomed. As one preacher said, our “integrity at its best is but as wax before the devil” (Martyn Lloyd-Jones). A wax shield just isn’t going to do it. In fact, the more you grow as a Christian, the more aware you are that you have no righteousness of your own. The more you grow in your faith, the more you know that your own righteousness is no defense before Satan.
So what do you do? You put on the breastplate of Jesus’ righteousness. I want to illustrate with one of my favorite stories from the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s an unusual passage, but it’s so profound. It’s found In Zechariah 3 in the form of a vision.
Joshua, the high priest of Israel, is in heaven standing before God. What you need to understand is that the high priest only came before God once a year on the day of atonement. Weeks of work would take place to prepare for this day, and to ensure that the priest was cleansed and ready to stand before God to represent the people of Israel.
But look what happened when Joshua the high priest came before God:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him…Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. (Zechariah 3:1,3)
Zechariah sees Joshua appear before God after weeks of preparation. Satan is there too to accuse him. And we read, “Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel” (Zechariah 3:3). In the original it says he’s in clothes that are covered with excrement. It’s a picture of how we must look to God as we come before him in all our righteousness. He’s there on the Day of Atonement, but there’s big trouble because he’s unclean. There’s no way he can stand before God, and Satan is there to accuse him. It’s a disaster. It’s a good picture of our condition before God apart from Jesus. Even after all the preparation we can do, no matter how much we try to make ourselves clean, we show up covered in excrement, and Satan loves to point it out.
But look what happens when Satan accuses Joshua:
And the LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD was standing by. (Zechariah 3:2-5)
I absolutely love this picture. It’s a picture of what happens to us when God saves us through Jesus Christ. Before Satan can even speak, the angel says, “Take off his filthy clothes.” And then the angel says to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you” (Zechariah 3:4). God strips away his uncleanness and provides clothes that he couldn’t provide for himself. He’s reclothed in God’s presence and even given a turban, which at that time would have signified royalty. He comes before God covered with excrement, and in God’s presence he’s given ceremonially pure garments as a sign that God accepts him and the people that he represents.
This is a great picture of what God does for us. It’s a great picture of the righteousness that can be our defense when Satan comes after our hearts. God has taken away our filthy clothes, and has clothed us with a righteousness that’s not our own.
2 Corinthians 5:21 puts it this way: “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). When Satan accuses us, and we have no righteousness of our own to defend us, we can remind Satan that we’re clothed in the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Put on the breastplate of righteousness. Remind yourself, and Satan, that Jesus has died for your sins. Realize that the only way you can stand before God is based on the righteousness of Jesus Christ — and you have that. It’s enough. In Christ, you have been pardoned, cleansed, and perfected. It’s what theologians call imputed righteousness — that God has credited to us all the righteousness of Jesus Christ through faith. It’s not about our righteousness; it’s about Jesus’ righteousness. And Satan can’t attack Jesus’ righteousness. When we put on that breastplate, he can’t pierce it to get through to our hearts.
As one old hymn says:
Arise, my soul, arise; shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding sacrifice in my behalf appears:
Before the throne my surety stands,
Before the throne my surety stands,
My name is written on his hands.
Well may the accuser roar
Of sins that I have done
I know them all and thousands more
Jehovah knoweth none
So let me ask you: have you done this? You won’t stand against the attacks of Satan if you’re trusting in your own righteousness. Have you looked to Jesus for the righteousness that he provides? Is it your defense against the attacks of the evil one?
Let me push a little bit more. Even if you’ve trusted in Jesus’ righteousness, is this the breastplate that you wear when Satan comes after your heart? It’s possible to have trusted in Christ, and to functionally live as if it all depends on you now. That’s a recipe for failure in the Christian life. We need to preach this gospel to ourselves everyday. That’s what Paul means when he says that we put on the breastplate of righteousness. Everyday we need to remind ourselves that we don’t stand based on our own record; we stand because we are in union with Jesus Christ. We stand because of the work of Jesus Christ that cannot be undone. And when Satan comes after our hearts, we can stand with courage knowing that the breastplate of Jesus’ righteousness can handle any attack that Satan brings against it.
But there’s another element of the breastplate of righteousness that we need to consider.
The Spirit’s Work in Us As a Defense (Imparted Righteousness)
One of the ways that Satan attacks us is through accusation. And the way that we can deflect that attack is through the finished work of Jesus Christ. In him, we are completely righteous. This is what the theologians call imputed righteousness.
But there’s another type of righteousness that’s important, and theologians call it imparted righteousness. When God saves us, he doesn’t just pardon us. He also goes to work in our hearts and begins to change us from the inside out. He begins a renovation project so that we’re not just forgiven, but we are gradually changed to become like Jesus. This is slow and gradual work, and it’s not done yet. But God never separates the two. If he forgives you, he also begins to change you. He frees us from the penalty of sin, and he’s also freeing us from the power of sin.
This type of righteousness is also something that we can put on. As we are changed by God, and as we begin to think his thoughts, and desire the things that he desires, we will be strengthened to resist the attacks by the evil one against our hearts.
Now I want you to hear me. Never base your standing before God based on your own righteousness. That will fail, because all of us still struggle with sin. Our own righteousness will never be enough to serve as a defense when Satan accuses us. At the same time, our growth in holiness will help us take our stand when Satan attacks. The Spirit’s work in our hearts, growing us in our holiness, is also part of our defense against the evil one.
That’s why Paul writes things like this in Ephesians:
…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. (Ephesians 1:4)
…to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:20-24)
Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:8-10)
It’s not hard to see how this works. If Satan attacks us in our thoughts, motives, and emotions, then a growth in holiness will help us to have holier thoughts, motives, and emotions. When we’re not living holy lives, we make ourselves easier targets for Satan’s attacks. So pursue holiness. Remember who you are in Jesus Christ. Live out that identity. Cast yourself on him every day and ask for his help. Worship together; confess your sins; fellowship with each other; get into the Word. As you grow in your holiness, you will grow in your ability to stand when Satan attacks your heart.
Just one word of caution before we go on. Never separate your imputed righteousness from your imparted righteousness. God never separates the two. We need both faith in Jesus Christ and good works, but as someone has put it, one is the root and the other is the fruit. Our good works grow out of our faith in Jesus. Don’t ever think you can grow in your holiness without centering on what God has done through Jesus Christ to save you. If you aren’t trusting the gospel, you will never grow in your holiness. Never stand based on your own righteousness, but seek to grow in your holiness and righteousness as you trust in the righteousness of Jesus.
This is what it means to put on the breastplate of righteousness. Put on Jesus’ righteousness, and based on that, strive to grow in your own holiness before him.
Finally: how to put on the breastplate of righteousness
How do we put on the breastplate of righteousness? You do it by preaching the truth to yourself. If Satan is coming after your thoughts, motives, and emotions, then the way we counter his attack is to bring our thoughts, motives, and emotions in line with the truth. It’s crucial if we are going to stand when Satan attacks. “To preach to yourself is to challenge yourself, push yourself, and point yourself to the truth. It is not so much uncovering new truth as much as it is reminding yourself of the truth you tend to forget” (Joe Thorn).
Last week Nathan talked about the belt of truth. It’s like a belt or leather apron that hung underneath the armor and protected the thighs. A belt holds everything in place; without it other weapons will fall apart in disarray. So what Paul is saying is that the truth, in a way, is crucial as we put on the rest of the armor.
The truth about who Jesus is and what he’s done for you are going to help when Satan comes after your heart. One preacher (Tim Keller) illustrates how this plays out in our lives.
- When you’re disappointed or bitter — When we’re bitter, it’s usually because we are trusting in something that hasn’t worked for us. We are looking to something other than Jesus to cover us, to show that we’re okay. We’re looking to our career, or our accomplishments, or a relationship to give us what only Jesus can give us. When we’re bitter, we need to repent of making something else our way of salvation other than Jesus. We need to put on the breastplate of his righteousness as our defense.
- When you’re guilty — We know what it is to feel guilty. There’s a good type of guilt, a godly type of guilt, that drives us to Jesus. But then there’s the wrong type of guilt that accuses you and causes you to doubt God’s love for you. It says that because you’ve sinned, you’re unworthy. It accuses you and puts you down. Look to Jesus. Say, “What you’re really doing is insulting the magnitude of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. You’re insulting the completeness of his righteousness, and I won’t have it. Go ahead and insult me. Tell me I deserve to be rejected. I already know that. But don’t you dare tell me I’m not worthy of going before the Father, because what that is doing is saying that Jesus’ righteousness is really insufficient.”
- When you’re working too hard — Don’t base your righteousness on your own efforts. A lot of people who work too hard are trying to build their own righteousness. They are building a righteousness out of their careers and achievements. Remind yourself that’s not where your righteousness comes from. No matter how well you do in your life, it will never be enough to serve as your breastplate. Put on Jesus’ righteousness instead.
- When you’re self-conscious — When you feel inadequate, when you feel like you don’t measure up, then it’s a good sign that you aren’t putting on the breastplate of righteousness. If God says you’re okay in Christ, who cares what anyone else thinks? Who needs the approval of the servant when you have the approval of the King? Sometimes even your own conscience can condemn you when it shouldn’t. 1 John 3:20 says, “Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” When you feel inadequate, remind yourself that you are a son or daughter of the King, and that you have the righteousness of Jesus Christ, and you can stand.
In short, we need to preach the gospel to ourselves and to each other. As we do so, we’ll be putting on the breastplate of righteousness that we need.
Satan hates you. He wants to attack you, and he wants to attack this church. He’s going to go after your heart: your thoughts, your emotions, and your motives. If he can get you there, he knows he can inflict a fatal wound.
So what should we do? Put on the breastplate of righteousness. Protect your heart with the righteousness that God provides, and the righteousness the Spirit produces. When he attacks your heart, and you stand in the truth of what Jesus has done, and what he’s doing in you, then you can stand. “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13).