Doug Van Meter - 5 November 2017
The Heart of the Matter (Ephesians 6:14)
On Reformation Sunday 2017 I was in Swakopmund, Namibia, where they have a Martin Luther Museum. Swakopmund is a very German town, but the Luther Museum does not pay homage to Luther as we would like it to.
In 1897, a steam locomotive operated in Swakopmund. When it stopped working, spare parts were unavailable, and it could not be relocated. Instead, it was abandoned where it stood. Someone quipped that, like Luther, the engine could declare, “Here I stand, I can do no other!” A museum was thereafter constructed around the locomotive and named the Martin Luther Museum.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century was, in a very real sense, the occasion of the church putting on the long-neglected breastplate of righteousness. Having been persuaded of “the truth as it is in Jesus” (4:21), she tightened her belt of commitment and once again took up the breastplate of the truth of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. This is what Paul means by “the breastplate of righteousness (literally, “the breastplate which is righteousness”) in 6:14.
As the reforming church discovered, this piece of armour made for profound implications. There was a rediscovery of joy of assurance of salvation, the revival of meaningful and believing prayer, the reassurance of the ability to stand against the wiles of the devil, including one of his strongest stratagems, the monolithic Roman Catholic Church. Further, the rediscovery of this essential piece of armour resulted in congregational reformation as believers discovered that every member of the church was valuable and that each had equal access to God through Christ. Yes, the breastplate of righteousness was responsible for all of this.
The church of our day also needs to rediscover this piece of armour. May our study encourage us to take up what we have been provided with that we might stand victoriously against the wiles of the devil.
The Armour: What It Means
The breastplate of righteousness quite logically follows after tightening the belt of truth. To what does this refer? Let us consider the actual piece of armour.
In ancient times, a breastplate covered from the neck to as low as the thighs, and it wrapped around so that front and back were protected. Of course, it protected the vital organs. It literally protected the heart of the matter. A sword or knife that hit a vital organ would end the soldier. So with the Christian.
Paul clearly was thinking of the Christian protecting what is vital—that is this piece of armour protects the heart of the matter when it comes to Christian faith and living.
To the ancients, the seat of all thinking and feeling was the “heart” and the “bowels.” This was the vital part of the person. Paul was thinking here of the Christian’s thoughts and emotions. These must be guarded. If we go wrong here, then we will often go wrong everywhere. MacArthur helpfully notes, “The mind and the emotions are the two areas where Satan most fiercely attacks believers. He creates a world system, a sinful environment by which he tempts us to think wrong thoughts and to feel wrong emotions.” This piece of armour is designed to protect these.
But the breastplate of which Paul writes about is also the heart of the matter when it comes to the Christian’s faith and living: righteousness. What specifically does Paul mean when he says that God has provided the “breastplate [which is] righteousness” to his people?
Some interpret this subjectively. That is, they say that Paul is exhorting us to live righteously, to live with faithful integrity as we face the wiles of the devil. John Calvin interpreted it this way, as do many others.
I do not doubt that integrity and righteous living are important. In fact, apart from holiness we will not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). And as we just learned, the unrighteous will not enter the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9–10).
But I do not believe that this is Paul’s primary meaning. I do not believe that Paul is saying that the key to living victoriously is to live righteously. In fact, that would be redundant. Paul’s exhortation is precisely that we live righteously. He wants us to subjectively experience the victory. But this can only occur if we embrace some objectively true realities.
Each of these pieces of armour is something that has been provided to us as a given. These pieces of armour are ours by virtue of what was given to us when God enlisted us (2 Timothy 2:4). We have been given righteousness; we have been given a righteous standing before God! As Chapell states it,
We stand firm because God has already supplied our armour, not in order to receive the armour. We stand because we are confident of what God has done, not because of our confidence in our doing what God requires. If my only armor in the battle against Satan is my sufficiency, then I am doomed. I am no match for him, but my God is. Safeguarded by his armor, I can and do stand against the Adversary.
Paul is speaking primarily of the imputed righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. We need to be grounded in the truth of the imputed righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ to the believing sinner. To cite Hodge,
Many say it is our own righteousness, integrity, or rectitude of mind. But this is no protection. It cannot resist the accusations of conscience, the whispers of despondency, the power of temptation, much less the severity of the law of the assaults of Satan. What Paul desired for himself was not to have on his own righteousness, but the righteousness which is of God by faith, Phil. 3:8–9; and this, doubtless, is the righteousness which he here urges believers to put on as breastplate. It is an infinitely perfect righteousness, consisting in the obedience and sufferings of the Son of God, which satisfies all the demands of the divine law and justice, and which is a sure defence against all assaults whether from within or from without.
Where is the Attack?
I want to be careful here, but perhaps since the breastplate protects the most vital organs, we can metaphorically say that assurance of our right standing before God is of vital importance. If we waver here, we will waver everywhere.
We should also acknowledge that this piece of armour is not possible without the former. That is, without a firm conviction of the truth of God—the truth as it is in Jesus (4:21)—the Christian will greatly struggle with this matter of assurance. We can put on the breastplate of righteousness, embracing a right standing before God, only if we take the truth of God seriously.
The Content of the Heart of the Matter
This piece of armour requires that we understand the content of this doctrine. That is, we must understand what it means to be justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Negatively, it means that we lack the righteousness we need. We are deficient in the righteousness that God requires. It means that, on our own, we will never have the righteousness that is required. We have all sinned and continue to fall short of the glory of God. There is none righteous, no not one. All of our righteousnesses are as filthy rags to God. It means that we must look outside of ourselves for a substitute righteousness—one that is acceptable to God. But this means that God must supply this righteousness. Now, enter the good news!
Positively, it means that God has supplied what we lack and what he requires (Romans 1:16–17). It means that God has provided the substitute that we need. It means that God has refused to punish us because he placed upon his Son the penalty for our sins. It means that righteousness credited to us is a credit that will never be cancelled. Therefore, it means that there is nothing that can ever separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus!
The Importance of Practical Righteousness
But isn’t practical righteousness also important? Of course it is. Faith without works is dead, being alone. An entire epistle (James) was written to make this clear. When God imputes righteousness, he also imparts righteousness. The latter is an indication of the former (1 Corinthians 6:11). But it seems to me that Paul is concerned more about this objective matter as it is assaulted by the devil. When we have protected the heart of the matter, the feet of the matter will follow.
The Assault: Why We Need the Armour
We can say that the breastplate which is righteousness is vital for victory. It really does go to the heart of the matter. If we do not wear it well, we will be terribly tossed about by every wile from hell. In other words, the Christian is provided with this vital piece of armour, without which none of the rest is relevant. This is a vital armour for standing against assaults on what is vital.
But why is this? Fundamentally, the assault by the evil one is aimed at the Christian’s assurance, and by implication, at his affections. And this is inseparable from our experience of union with Christ, which is inseparable from resting in our Father’s care. As we have seen in recent weeks, Revelation 12 wonderfully portrays the reality of this spiritual warfare, and our need for the Father to care and fight for us. This vision shows us that the accuser has been defeated, even though he is still active (though much weakened) against God’s people.
It is our lack of righteousness that condemns us, in our sin, before holy God. And the righteousness of Christ is our only hope to escape this condemnation. But herein lies the challenge: When we sin, the accusations and the anxieties creep in and our assurance comes under assault. We realise that our affections have gone cold and we begin to question God’s affection for us. What should we do? We should put on the breastplate of righteousness!
When the assaults come, we must go to the heart of the matter of our salvation: the imputed righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore our acceptance by God in Christ. We take up the breastplate of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.
- 1 Corinthians 1:30–31—But of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption— that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the LORD.”
- 2 Corinthians 5:21—For he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
- Ephesians 1:3–6—Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, by which he made us accepted in the Beloved.
- Romans 1:16–17—For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”
- Romans 3:21–26—But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by his blood, through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time his righteousness, that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
This is the heart of the matter that guards our hearts!
Let’s look at this from an experiential, practical viewpoint.
Confidence in the Face of Assaults of Legalism
When legalism assaults us, we rest confident in the truth contained in the breastplate of righteousness. When we are tempted to think that our sins condemn us before God, we stand encouraged that “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1). We stand confident that those whom God chose he chose to be “holy and without blame before him in love” and “predestined us to the adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to himself” and that we are therefore “accepted in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:3–6). We can stand confident because our life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1–3). We can confidently assert that God has counted our faith as righteousness, and therefore our works play no part in our justification (Romans 4:1–8). We can sing with Augustus Toplady,
A debtor to mercy alone
of covenant mercy I sing;
nor fear with thy righteousness on
my person and offering to bring.
The terrors of law and of God
with me can have nothing to do;
my Saviour’s obedience and blood
hide all my transgressions from view.
Consecration in the Face of Assaults of Antinomianism
As we consider the imputed righteousness of Christ, we will be moved to holiness, not away from it! We will take sin more seriously, not less seriously!
If the first area of assault concerns the realm of legalism, then this second area of assault concerns the realm of licentiousness. That is, in the first case, the believer is assaulted because of an overly sensitive conscience, whereas in the second area the conscience is not sensitive enough. In the first case, the believer is assaulted by a minimising of grace, whereas in the second case, the believer is assaulted by a marring of grace. In the first case, the believer is assaulted by a hyper-introspection, whereas as in the second case, the believer is assaulted by the absence of introspection. In the first case, the believer is assaulted by doubts about the Father’s acceptance, whereas in the second case, the believer is assaulted by presumption about the Father’s acceptance. In the first case, the believer is assaulted by doubts about his worthiness in the light of God’s holiness whereas in the second case, the believer is assaulted by carelessness about God’s holiness. The breastplate of righteousness will motivate us to live righteously.
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? Therefore we were buried with him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of his death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of his resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over him. For the death that he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life that he lives, he lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts.
Communion in the Face of Assaults on our Approach
The evil one desires to keep us from approaching the throne of grace. “Who do you think you are to come to a holy God?” he asks. Take up this breastplate!
Confidently embrace the truth of Romans 5:1–2: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Knowing that our High Priest was tempted just as we are, yet without sin, we can boldly approach the throne of grace to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Lloyd-Jones helpfully asks,
Are we using this breastplate of righteousness … as we ought? There are still too many Christian people who never take part in public prayer because they say that they are unworthy and unfit to do so. That is a very good reason, and a very wrong reason. Are you clear about justification by faith? Why are you talking so much about your own unfitness? It is the breastplate of righteousness you need! We are none of us fit…. We are to put on this blessed breastplate, the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Comfort in the Face of Assaults on Acceptance
There are many experiences in the Christian life that challenge our sense of acceptance to God. We can, for example, fall into the error of thinking that chastening is a sign of God’s disfavour, when it is actually a sign of his love to us. When we sense conviction and contrition over our sin, we can feel that we are not accepted. There are times when we might sense that God is distant. Times of discipline—in the church, the family or at work—can leave us feeling that we are not accepted.
Our circumstances also leave us at times feeling unaccepted. If God accepted us, why would we lose our employment, or experience painful and broken relationships, or face the mundane miseries of life: the daily grind, the monotony of childcare, feelings of despondency, etc.?
Perhaps certain crises challenge our sense of acceptance: disease, disablement, darkness, and ultimately death. At such times, we must remember that none of these things—not even death—have the power to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31–39). The psalmist wondered why God had forsaken him (Psalm 22:1), but he concluded the same psalm on a note of great hope. Jesus asked the same question on the cross (Matthew 27:46), but ended with words of hope: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
When our sense of God’s love and favour are challenged, we must put on the breastplate of righteousness so that we might stand. Then we can sing with Count von Zinzendorf:
Jesus, thy blood and righteousness
my beauty are, my glorious dress;
’midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
with joy shall I lift up my head.
Bold shall I stand in that great day,
for who aught to my charge shall lay?
Fully absolved through these I am,
from sin and fear, from guilt and shame.
Lord, I believe thy precious blood,
which, at the mercy seat of God,
forever doth for sinners plead,
for me, e’en for my soul, was shed.
Jesus, be endless praise to thee,
whose boundless mercy hath for me,
for me a full atonement made,
an everlasting ransom paid.
When from the dust of death I rise
to claim my mansion in the skies,
e’en then this shall be all my plea,
Jesus hath lived, hath died, for me.
Composure in the Face of Assaults on Our Emotions
Just as a military breastplate protected the bowels—the vital organs—so a right understanding of imputed righteousness protects our mind and the seat of our emotions.
Without a proper understanding of our standing before God, our emotions will be all over the show and they will tend to undermine our faith. Without a proper understanding of our standing before God, our mind will be tossed to and fro with uncertainty about our standing before God.
Clarity in the Face of Assaults on Our Mind
It is easy to become confused concerning our standing before God. It is all too easy to confuse our good or bad works with our standing before God. But understanding this doctrine helps us to be clear about God’s righteousness given to us in contrast to our useless, futile self-righteousness.
Congregational Health and Strength in the Face of Assaults on Unity
To the degree that we guard our hearts by guarding the doctrinal heart of the gospel, our church will experience health and strength to continue to stand—together.
One of our missionaries recently completed his MDiv thesis in which he focused on the doctrine of justification by faith alone as it is understood by churches in the Asian cities in which he ministers. He reminds the reader that, according to Martin Luther, this doctrine is that on which the church stands for falls. Sadly, it appears that most churches in these cities have abandoned this doctrine, with the result that most churches there are falling like storm-assaulted houses built on sand.
His thesis is correct: The matter of being declared righteous by God through grace alone by faith alone is vitally important.
What is needed? That is, how do we put on the breastplate of righteousness?
First, in a fundamental sense, we do not put it on. Salvation is of the Lord, and only he can put our unrighteousness on his Son, and only he can put Christ’s righteousness on to us (see Isaiah 59:1–17a). In other words, we must be born from above.
Second, once we have been clothed with Christ’s righteousness, we need to keep him, along with this truth, before us, for it is a truth that we will never outgrow.
“More about Jesus would I know” should be our reoccurring anthem. Read the gospels and be impressed with him afresh. Read the gospels and love him afresh. Read the gospels and be persuaded and confident afresh. We should love Jesus for who he is and for what he has done because of who he is.
Be careful about the source of your assurance. Do you perhaps find assurance in your emotions, experiences or victories? Look instead to Christ alone.
Be careful about neglecting doctrine in pursuit of the practical. We need to know the doctrine of justification by faith alone if we will practically and productively live.
Guard your heart from seeking to find assurance in your own righteousness while at the same time guarding against carelessness concerning how you live.
Don’t ever minimise the importance of daily rehearsing and preaching the gospel to yourself. And don’t ever complain that your church focuses on this as well. We need it!
Learn all that you can about this precious doctrine. Know God’s Word well enough, and be confident in it, that you might be able to stand against the wiles of the evil ones who assault your confidence in Christ. Tighten the belt of truth, making way that you might wear well the breastplate of the imputed righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. For this really is the heart of the matter.