The Roman breastplate, usually made of brass or iron, was highly effective against projectiles and sword thrusts. It covered from the neck to slightly below the waist, thus protecting the vital organs. It made the Roman soldier vastly better equipped for pitched battle than his typical opponent. That we are told to be clothed with the breastplate of righteousness reminds us that our warfare against sin and Satan, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in high places, is real and dangerous. While he cannot destroy those who belong to Christ, his attacks against ill-prepared believers grievously wound, fill them with despair, and temporarily sideline them so that they lack the joy and confidence to serve God with cheerful hearts. He has deceived whole branches of the church that have foolishly cast aside this breastplate. For hundreds of years, his throne was in Rome and only a recovery of this breastplate defeated him. Fear, paralyzing regret, compromise, sexual lusts, anger, bitterness, lies, gnawing frustration, pride – his blows come from all directions. We are wrestling against a deadly foe, and he seems to wield so many swords at once that we must have an impenetrable breastplate to ward off his blows and stand in the evil day. Without adequate protection against his fiery missiles and the host of temptations that besiege us, we are as good as dead on the battlefield of faith.
Our Righteousness Filth
Where is such protection to be found? As is said of the “strange woman” in Proverbs, so can it be said of Satan: “For she hath cast down many wounded: yea, many strong men have been slain by her” (7:26). The traditional but not the universal view is that the breastplate refers to the believer’s godly life. Behind this interpretation lies the idea that each piece of the armor reflects some aspect of the believer’s Christian character. The more I think about this, however, the more convinced I am that as vital as personal godliness and experiential piety are, they cannot be what are primarily intended here. The fixedness of the first three pieces of armor indicates a more objective reference. If our righteousness is intended, then our breastplate is filled with many holes. Isaiah wrote that our “righteousness is as filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). Were not many of the men who resisted liberalism in the last century personally godly? And yet, loosening the belt of God’s truth as fully authoritative and sufficient against all the attacks of European philosophy, science, and higher criticism, they were mercilessly attacked; their children capitulated. This eventually led them to espouse very deficient views of the atonement. Within a very brief period, the gospel of substitutionary atonement and imputed righteousness were transformed into a gospel of social progress and moral goodness. The cross became a sentimental symbol of love and sacrifice. Their defeat indicates that the breastplate must be more than our obedience to God. The best of us must confess with Job, David, and Daniel that we are corrupt and dominated by many sins and weakness. In fact, the godlier a man is, the more he loathes himself for his deceitful and desperately wicked heart. In times of temptation and sin, he does not turn to his personal obedience or upright life for confidence but to Jesus Christ and his perfect righteousness.
If in fighting such a fell foe, God is saying to us, “You will defeat him if you are godly,” then we are doomed at the outset. This is by no means to downplay the power of an obedient life, which has a secondary application in this context. It must not be, however, the primary sense. On our best day, we are altogether vanity. We are blessed with the “fruits of righteousness that are by Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:11), and it is certain that a godly life is a vindication of a man’s profession of faith (John 14:21; 1 John 2:3-4; 3:24; 5:3; Rev. 14:12). It is equally certain that this fruit of the gospel must be recovered by the church, else we shall never rid ourselves of these false teachers of cheap and easy grace and casual discipleship. But there is a prior truth that must be recovered before obedience will flower. If we accept God’s testimony about our sinful condition, the corruption that deeply indwells us, so that “in our flesh no good thing dwells,” then we are necessarily led to this righteousness. It is the obedience of Christ, received by faith, imputed to us so that we are counted righteous and accepted with God, and then imparted to us by the Holy Spirit so that we are empowered to love God and keep his commandments. What must not be forgotten, however, is that only a breastplate of impenetrable righteousness will do us any good against Satan’s insinuating attacks and our troubled consciences when we sin. This leads us to Jesus Christ, our righteous Savior, whose name is “THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS” (Jer. 23:6; 33:16). He is not only the Word of God but the Righteousness of God. When we are clothed with him, we have an invincible righteousness that deflects all of Satan’s insinuating blows.
Christ our Righteousness
Before we can fight him, we must be assured of our Father’s favor. We must be armed with a righteousness that he will accept. Sin has alienated us from him, and the accusing conscience is the warning bell of God’s displeasure (1 John 3:20). Because of our filth, there is no possibility that we can still a troubled conscience or be accepted by a holy God. The key that turns the lock of conscience is found only in the perfect satisfaction our Savior made for us on the cross and the imputation of his righteousness. Clothed in our flesh, he obeyed God’s law perfectly. It was his delight, and he always did those things that pleased his Father (Ps. 40:8; John 8:29). He did not do this for himself, for he was already the Father’s delight (Prov. 8:30; Matt. 3:17). He obeyed for us, in our place, as our surety. He was obedient unto death. The sacrifice he offered on the cross was that of a sinless substitute. His sacrifice was worthy and efficacious to redeem us not only because of his worthy person, being God’s own Son, but also because he offered it upon the altar of his perfect conformity to God’s will as our appointed Mediator. He became sin for us. He took all our guilt, filth, and curse upon himself, suffering the full measure of God’s justice for his elect. By his obedience and blood, he purchased redemption and righteousness for us. As the apostle states it in 2 Cor. 5:21: “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Having satisfied God’s justice, he obtained our eternal redemption and was raised for our justification (Heb. 9:12; Rom. 4:25).
We receive this gift of righteousness through faith. When we believe upon the name of Jesus Christ, receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, God declares that we are righteous before him through the obedience of his Son. Jesus’ perfect obedience is imputed to us, credited to us. It becomes our legal and personal possession. No longer are we under condemnation but under God’s benediction of peace and adopted into his family as his beloved children. Subsequent sinning does not change our status. We are forgiven because we have an advocate before the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous (1 John 2:1-2). Our many spots and failings will be chastened, but our Savior’s blood and righteousness remain invincible against all the weakness of our flesh and the accusations of the devil. It is not our goodness that enables us overcome the world, flesh, and the devil, but our Savior’s obedience. When we put on this breastplate, we may be assured that it is tried and true. It has already overcome, satisfied divine justice, silenced and cast Satan out of heaven, and obtained our redemption. When the church puts it on in her preaching and faith, the various anti-Christs of pseudo-grace are driven away. Courage is rekindled to live and die for God’s truth. Love, humility, reverence, and obedience are reborn. Communion with God is restored so that we are able to stand in the evil day with boldness.
In him, clothed with his righteousness by faith, we are no longer under condemnation (Rom. 8:1). This is the impregnable position from which the Christian soldier fights. Let Satan hurl accusations. Let the sinner be besieged by numerous temptations and fall into sin. Still, the Father of mercies rejoices over us with singing (Zeph. 3:17). If we are in Christ, we shall be chastened for our sins, but we shall never be condemned for them, for Jesus Christ has born our condemnation. “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5). By one offering, he has perfected forever them that are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). It is vital to understand that we fight from a position of righteousness, of acceptance with the Father. Satan has no greater trick than to burden us with feelings of guilt and alienation from God. Many feel that they never measure up to God’s standards, which is true, but then not also trusting Christ’s perfect obedience as their protection and salvation, they never move forward from a depressed and guilty state into one of joy and peace. If all the winds of assurance go out of our sails, then we fall into despair and are little motivated to fight against sin. But if we remember what God in Christ has done for us, the righteousness we possess in Christ, when Satan assaults, we can resist his blows not with how good or faithful we have been, but with our Savior’s faithfulness and righteousness. Flash the breastplate of his righteousness, and Satan can be effectively opposed, as can be temptation and doubt and guilt. But this blessedness is ours only when we look to Jesus Christ the righteous and call upon him in faith as our victorious advocate at the right hand of the Father.
With a Legal and Personal Peace
There can be no doubt that sin depresses our spirits. Guilt takes away our resolution to fight against sin and Satan. It clouds our hearts so that we have little assurance of our Father’s love or help. Let us always remember that the righteousness that Jesus Christ obtained for us by his obedience does not alter with our altering feelings. It knows no alteration, no diminishment of efficacy, no loss of cleansing, healing, reconciling power. God’s love is set, immovable, for it is based not upon our emotional responses to him but upon his eternal decree to love and receive and help all who come to him in the name of his Son. “He is able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him” (Heb. 7:25). Though some continue to scoff at the notion of legal justification, without it, there can be no personal peace. If righteousness before God and acceptance with God, the chief hinge upon which true religion turns, as Calvin wrote, depends in the least upon any work of ours, then kiss peace with God good-bye. Yet, since Scripture constantly speaks of righteousness as being “without works” as its basis but solely through the obedience of Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:12,19), then we can face the devil and every temptation with the assurance that God accepts us, loves us, and pledges to come to our defense. Nothing can separate us from his love, for his love is not based upon our goodness or feelings but upon his eternal decree and love, which are grounded in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:4). Therefore, we are at peace with God. Sin and Satan can do nothing to alter our standing before God. None of his accusing missiles can penetrate the Christ-clad warrior. Even when we sin grievously against God, we are forgiven and our sins blotted out and forgotten through the perfect righteousness and advocacy of our Savior.
With Confidence, Joy, and Thankfulness
Therefore, whatever happens to us in this world, however long certain sins may besiege us so that we wonder if we shall ever throw them off, we are not sad servants of our Lord, scared, uncertain of his favor. We can fight with confidence because we are the righteousness of God in Christ. Joy, peace, and courage rise in our hearts as we think less of our failings and more of Christ’s perfection. When Paul asked the question, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” he immediately turned to our redemption in Christ (Rom. 8:31-33). The reason nothing can separate us from God’s love is because Christ has died for us and made intercession for us. The reason no one can condemn us is because God has justified us. He has declared us righteous through his Son. All joy and peace in believing comes to us in him, even while we are furiously fighting on the battlefield. What else can explain the joy of our Lord as he suffered so terribly, or the calm spirits of the noble company of martyrs as they faced the most horrible deaths, but the joy that they fought and endured not trying to gain righteousness but because they were righteous? Thankfulness for the gospel flooded their souls, a sense of honor at being considered worthy to suffer shame for his name! Confidence and incredible boldness marked their words and their stands to the death. This was not because they were perfect men but because they were righteous men in Jesus Christ. Since God loves us, has accepted and received us as his righteous children, let the world rage and the devil stalk. They can do nothing against our breastplate.
Without Fear of Man or Satan
When our consciences are at peace with God through his peace with us in Jesus Christ, we are confident that nothing will separate us from his love. Let Satan do his worst, but we are grounded upon the rock that cannot be moved. Men may mock us for believing and obeying it inflexibly. They may accuse us of being hypocrites in certain areas of our lives or guilty of secret sins. This may all be true. Our hearts sometimes condemn us for the secret sins that escape the notice of men. But this does not change the unchangeable breastplate of Christ’s righteousness. Clothed with Jesus, we need fear nothing. Does this not explain the Spirit’s constant injunction, “Do not be afraid?” Or James’ “resist the devil?” What? Does not much sin remain in us? Is there not even now in you, child of God, sins that make you weep before God and wonder if you are really his? How can I fight against sin and Satan when there is still so much sin in me, in my home, and in my church? Such thoughts unchecked seriously undermine our assurance. We must look to Jesus and his righteousness. We must call upon his name in faith, for none who look to him will ever be turned away or put to shame. We go not to battle with the evil one armed with good feelings and a perfect life but with the spotless righteousness of our Lord Jesus. If we are accused of sin or guilty of it, we have an answer. If our feelings are depressed, we have an answer. It is Jesus Christ and his obedience imputed to us.
Putting on Righteousness
The order of the armor to this point is clear. Truth shows us who we are and leads us to Jesus Christ as our only righteousness. Clothed with him, we have assurance of God’s favor and help. You must put on this righteousness if you are to stand against the devil. The middle voice of the verb “having on” stresses the personal responsibility of being clothed with Jesus’ obedience. You must understand and believe in the righteous Savior, substitutionary atonement, and legal imputation. Is it any wonder that Satan does all he can to obscure these? “O, these old terms are not important. Trust your feelings. Yes, Jesus died on the cross, but he was simply a moral example or a loving sacrifice.” He was nothing of the kind. He died to obtain our forgiveness, cleansing, acceptance, and righteousness before God. Satan attacks these ideas tirelessly because they are the only breastplate that can defeat him. They defeated Pelagius and Rome, two of his most useful and deceptive servants. Believe on his name. Abide in him. Never cease coming to him for cleansing and righteousness. Fight trusting in his obedience.
When we go out to meet the devil or fight against temptation, let us remember whom we are wearing, in whose livery we are clothed, whose name we bear. He is not the Savior of compromise or good feelings or “give it your best shot” but the Lord our righteousness. We are righteous because he humbled himself unto death. Because he loved us, he allowed himself to be surrounded with the sorrows of death and hell. Because he would secure us for himself forever, he met and defeated Satan by his obedience – his emaciated, thirsty, self-emptying, bleeding obedience. Our breastplate is precious! It is nothing less than the life of our suffering Savior, his personal and perfect obedience. While it is necessary for us to wear this breastplate for our protection, it is also our greatest honor to wear it. We, vile sinners, are commanded to “put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14)? What wondrous grace this is! Let us never dishonor or stain our breastplate by low and false views of the gospel, derogatory attitudes toward substitutionary atonement, or the many vital terms the Holy Spirit uses to speak of our redemption in Christ. Our only boast should be in the cross of our Savior (Gal. 6:14). The better we understand our breastplate, the more confident we shall be to stand in the evil day.
This is also a breastplate that we must adorn with the insignia, as the Romans used to do, of our Captain. If we lead disobedient lives, how is this showing thankfulness to the one who obeyed unto death for us and obtained righteousness for us by his sufferings? Our godliness does enter in here. We cannot add to Christ’s, but we must live consistently with it. This is the reason that God has shown us grace (Tit. 2:11-12), and all who are in Christ, who are clothed with his righteousness, will bear much fruit (John 15:1-8). This is not the obedience of unwilling servants but of glad, rejoicing, free at heart disciples, friends, and soldiers of the great King. When sin and temptation stalk, meet them ahead on with a sense of thankfulness and honor at being righteous in Christ. Meet them with firm resistance and faith in the promise of God that “nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ.” Meet them with the obedience of Jesus Christ. This is the way Jesus met Satan in the wilderness and the way he triumphed over him at the cross. It is the way we triumph, going from grace to grace and strength to strength – always looking unto Jesus, trusting his obedience, returning to our righteous Advocate, hating all sin, and loving obedience. Resist the devil steadfastly in this faith, and he will flee from you.