“Nothing can damn a man but his own righteousness; nothing can save him but the righteousness of Christ” – Charles Spurgeon
The next item of armour Paul says we are to don is the breastplate of righteousness (Eph 6:14). The breastplate was the piece of armour that covered the neck to the thigh. It consisted of two pieces – one that covered the front and one that covered the back. Typically, it was made of bronze or chainmail, with hoops that attached it to a thick belt (the belt of truth!). If the belt was loose, the breastplate would fall off.
One of the breastplate’s major jobs was to protect the soldier’s vital organs, including the heart. So the same can be said about the breastplate of righteousness. It’s job is to protect our hearts and help us to continue to live a life of righteousness.
But, what is righteousness? Merriam-Webster defines righteousness as: “acting in accord with divine or moral law: free from guilt or sin”. For the world, this is acting in ways that the individual believes is right, to a standard of righteousness where “right” and “wrong” is relative, and behaviour is measured against the rules of the world. For Christians, we are called to be right in the eyes of God. This means our character, our attitude, our conduct and what we say must all be based on God’s standard. Isaiah 33:22 says “The Lord is our Judge, our lawgiver and our King; he will care for us and save us”.
We live in a world that constantly measures our success by how well we perform; whether that be at what age we hit key milestones, how well we do in school exams, how fast we run a race, what position we hold in the company we work for…even what job we have! It is completely focussed on our abilities and accomplishments. The thing is, when it comes to righteousness, the bible tells us (many times!) that this is something that is simply not achievable on our own. John 15:5 tells us “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing”. If we rely on our attempts to impress God and meet his standards, we will fail. By nature, we are fallible creatures. We are unable to always withstand the power of temptation, we let the quiet whispers of deception take root, we hold on to anger and hurt and refuse to forgive, we tolerate sin. In all these moments, we are effectively removing the breastplate of righteousness and laying our chest bare, with a target on our hearts.
But there is good news! There is a way we can gain righteousness, a righteousness that hits God’s standard of living; and that is the righteousness that was given to us through the death and resurrection of Christ on the cross: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ’s death and resurrection paved the way for us to be in a relationship with God. In layman’s term, righteousness, then, is a right standing with God. It is the condition of being in a right relationship with God, and that can only happen through total faith and dependence on Christ. There’s a brilliant quote by Judah Smith that says “Our righteousness doesn’t depend on our present performance, but on Jesus’ finished performance”. Righteousness comes from the selfless act of Christ, not through anything we have done. It is this righteousness that is the standard by which everyone is measured. If we are trusting in our own righteousness, we simply cannot be saved. We need Jesus and his righteousness to save us.
Living in righteousness is not a one-off choice. It is a life long journey that, just like with the belt of truth, requires regular interaction with scripture and with God. It is about continuing to be aware of the decisions we are making, and to determine if they are based on God’s word or not. The more we choose to spend time with God, and thus put on the breastplate of righteousness, the easier those decisions become, and the more in line with Christ our hearts become. Luke 6:45 says “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of”. To wear breastplate of righteousness we must protect our heart by keeping our conscience pure.
I mentioned earlier that the soldier’s breastplate attached to the belt. When it comes to the spiritual armour, the two are as equally important. The belt of truth is the truth that we find in the bible. The breastplate of righteousness is the right way of living that comes from learning and obeying that truth! There is a massive difference between understanding the scripture and living in the truth. For example, the Pharisees were biblical scholars, experts in the law. They had memorised the Torah (which is the first 5 books of the Old Testament…basically their book of law), and knew the history of Israel inside out. But they disagreed with most of what Jesus said and taught. Outwardly, they appeared righteous, but their hearts and actions screamed something different.
We are not made righteous by what we do. It’s not about our achievements in “God’s school of law”, or, as in the case of the Pharisees, how well we know what the bible says. Rather it’s about what condition our hearts are in. Our actions reflect what’s going on in our hearts. It’s about pursuing God and putting Him centre of our lives. Those who depend on their own intellect to figure out the direction of their lives, will always make mistakes. However, as Proverb 3:6 says “in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight”. The righteousness we receive from God by faith guides us into how God wants us to live with the rest of our lives. If you are struggling to make decisions that are honourable to God, then just ask! God will provide you with the wisdom to know which direction to take. If we are “in Christ”, regardless of our failure, His righteousness has been credited to our account.
“Let Christ’s righteousness and grace, not yours, be your refuge.” – Martin Luther