The Breastplate of Righteousness
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The Breastplate of Righteousness

Ephesians 6:14  (ID: 3307)

Before engaging in battle, a wise warrior dons appropriate armor, including the breastplate that shields vital organs. But battle armor is only for those who have enlisted in the cause. Alistair Begg urges us to consider whether we are soldiers of the cross, entrusting ourselves entirely to Christ on the basis of His finished work. The righteousness that guards our hearts is not earned through our performance but imputed to us by grace through faith in Jesus. When buffeted by Satan’s arrows of doubt, fear, and disappointment, we can resist by continuing to trust the Gospel, confident that our standing before God has been secured.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Ephesians, Volume 10

Strength for the Battle Ephesians 6:10–20 Series ID: 14911

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to turn with me to Isaiah and to chapter 59, and I’ll read from the fourteenth verse. Isaiah 59:14:

Justice is turned back,
 and righteousness stands far away;
for truth has stumbled in the public squares,
 and uprightness cannot enter.
Truth is lacking,
 and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.

The Lord saw it, and it displeased him
 that there was no justice.
He saw that there was no man,
 and wondered that there was no one to intercede;
then his own arm brought him salvation,
 and his righteousness upheld him.
He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
 and a helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
 and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.
According to their deeds, so will he repay,
 wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies;
 to the coastlands he will render repayment.
So they shall fear the name of the Lord from the west,
 and his glory from the rising of the sun;
for he will come like a rushing stream,
 which the wind of the Lord drives.

“And a Redeemer will come to Zion,
 to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord.

“‘And as for me, this is my covenant with them,’ says the Lord: ‘My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,’ says the Lord, ‘from this time forth and forevermore.’”


Just a brief prayer:

Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me yourself within your Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.[1]

For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Well, we’ve begun to look at this section here in Ephesians 6, where Paul is encouraging the readers to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might,” to “put on the whole armor of God.”[2] We began to look last time at the belt of truth and now at the breastplate of righteousness.

During the week, as I was studying, as happens to me routinely, one of the songs from my childhood came back to mind. It goes like this:

There’s a fight to be fought,
There’s a race to be run,
 There are dangers to meet on the way;
But the Lord is my life,
And the Lord is my light,
 And the Lord is my strength and stay.

On his Word I depend,
He’s my Savior and Friend,
 And he helps me to trust and obey;
For the Lord is my life,
And my Lord is my light,
 And the Lord is my strength and stay.

As I say so often to you, I’m so grateful for parents who brought me up in a context where these kind of truths would be embedded in my young mind before I realized the significance of them all, so that even to today, they still provide guidance and direction for me as I turn to the Bible.

Now, we’re aware of the fact that the apostle Paul uses pictures, he uses metaphors, in order to teach, and does so with great effectiveness. He uses athletics with frequency, architecture, agriculture, and also, as here, warfare. Warfare. And as we noted last time, the full armor of God has a picture by which the reader may attach identification in the Roman soldier, but in actual fact, the underlying picture is probably that of the valiant warrior that is described for us in the Psalms and in the Prophets. And it’s for that reason that I had read earlier from Isaiah chapter 59, where God himself steps forward, and his arm reaches out in salvation, and he provides the righteousness that we require.

Now, it is important to recognize that Paul, in writing in this way, is writing to those who are “in Christ,”[3] to those who have, as he puts it in 1:13, “heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation,” as he puts it, and they have “believed in” the Lord Jesus Christ. And as a result of that, to stick with the metaphor, they have been enlisted as soldiers in Christ’s army. And having been enlisted, they are then provided with all the resources that are required for spiritual warfare.

As I reached that point in my thinking, I paused, and I paused purposefully. And I want to do so with you also. Let me say this: I want, throughout the course of today, for us to try and answer three questions. Question number one: “Am I a soldier of the cross?” Question number two: “Am I wearing the breastplate of righteousness?” Question number three: “Am I guarding my heart from the schemes of the devil?” And I will spend virtually the greater part of this morning on this first question, “Am I a soldier of the cross?” I take that, actually, from the opening line of a hymn by Isaac Watts: “Am I a soldier of the cross, a follower of the Lamb?”[4]

And the reason I stop here is because some of us, if we are honest, have to acknowledge the fact that for us to consider what it might mean to wear this armor is actually premature, and for this reason: because some of us, by our own testimony, are not actually members of the army. We have not actually come to the place where we have entrusted our lives unreservedly to the Lord Jesus Christ. If we’ve been coming here for any length of time, there’s no doubt that we have heard the Word of Truth, there’s no doubt that we will have been reminded that it is the gospel of salvation, but the real question is, have we believed? Have we believed?

A Soldier of the Cross

You see, when the Bible uses “believe,” it doesn’t use it simply in terms of an intellectual assent to various propositions or ideas or doctrines. To believe or to have faith means to transfer trust from self to Christ. To transfer trust from self to Christ. Every so often, perhaps in the realm of moving from one place to another, you may have had occasion to take what was yours in a bank in one state and make sure that it was placed securely in a bank in another state. It was once there, and now it has been moved to there. And that lies at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian soldier. And I want without embarrassment to ask you to ask yourself this question: “Am I a soldier of the cross?”

Now, a soldier of the cross, someone who’s enlisted in Christ’s army, will not be saying things like this—and this is routinely said by many: “Because I have lived a pretty good life up until now, I’m sure that God will be gracious to me and make up any deficit that there happens to be. And hopefully I’ll be fine.” The kind of approach that says, in relationship to our consideration of religion and of the Bible and of the Christian gospel, “Well, I believe in a God who helps those who help themselves.” Or an approach which comes to the gospel and says, “As best I understand it, if I do these certain things or don’t do these certain things, then God will do his part.” In other words, it is a sense of self-reliance, or even a reliance on religion, or even a reliance on a conviction about certain ideas.

Now, the Bible is full of illustrations of those who were not soldiers of the cross and who never considered themselves to be remotely near to it. And that may be you; you’re saying, “I’ll be the last person ever to become a follower of Jesus.” You mean like Saul of Tarsus, who was very, very convinced of his position as a religious man, as an orthodox man, as a clever man, and in fact, he relied on all of that, and he tells us in his writings that that was his whole perspective on life. What changed? Well, he met Jesus. He actually came face-to-face with Jesus. And then he says, “My entire perspective on the world and on life and on heaven and on hell and on Jesus was radically changed—whereas before, I had a righteousness of my own: my background, my behavior, my approach to things. Not now,” he says. “No—not having a righteousness any longer of my own, one that comes from the law.” In other words, one that comes about as a result of being able to say, “I did this, and I did this, and I did this, but I didn’t do this, and I didn’t do this, and I didn’t do this.” “Not from that,” he says, “but the righteousness that comes from God through faith in Jesus Christ, the righteousness that depends on faith.”[5] “The righteousness that depends on faith.” When he writes to the church in Rome—the passage that we had read for us earlier—he puts it with great clarity. Listen to what he says: “No [one] can justify [themselves] before God by a perfect performance of the Law’s demands—indeed it is the straight-edge of the Law that shows us how crooked we are.”[6]

You see, people come to church, and they come with this notion that says, “I think if I go there, I might feel better about everything.” And then they don’t actually feel better about very much at all. And they’re very opposed to the idea that they would ever feel worse about anything in order that they might feel better about everything—when in actual fact, the story of the gospel makes us feel worse before we feel better, and you will never feel better until first you feel worse. That’s why the law of God, in all of its demands, confronts us with our own crookedness. Because it is so straight. Because it says, “You [will] have no other gods before me”;[7] then we realize, “But I’ve got all kinds of little substitute gods.” That you shouldn’t covet other things.[8] “But I’m often jealous.” That you should be truthful with your neighbor.[9] “Well, sometimes I tell what I call white lies.” Before we know where we are, we realize that we’re so far in the wrong that there is no way that we could ever live long enough or do anything well enough to get our credit balance back to where we thought it ought to be.

And what makes it even worse is that “the wages of sin is death.”[10] “The wages of sin is death.” Sin pays wages. Adam and Eve sin, and death enters into the world: “In the day that you disobey me you will surely die,”[11] and physical death, spiritual death enters into the world. We are by nature spiritually dead. We all will one day die physically. If we die physically while still dead spiritually, we will be lost from God for all of eternity. That is what the Bible says.

But you see, the Bible does not simply say, “The wages of sin is death.” It goes on to say, “The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ, his Son.”[12] And that’s what Paul does in that same passage, as Dan read it for us earlier, in Romans. He says, “Here’s the deal: now a righteousness from God, this righteousness from God, comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe,”[13] to all who transfer trust from self to Christ. You see, faith means believing that certain things are true. But the simple believing of the truthfulness of things is not the same as saving faith. It’s not just believing a sort of abstract idea, or even believing that there was a Jesus or that presumably he did what he said he was doing. There’s no transformation of life in that. It involves believing certain things that are true. It involves trusting in those things. It involves entering into the benefit of these things.

Church history helps us—not only the history of the Bible but the history of the church. Martin Luther, who was a very, very excellent fellow—born in a peasant’s home but very clever, by God’s amazing goodness—qualifies as a lawyer, is involved in religious pursuits, spends time in a convent, goes up to Rome in the hope that somehow or another he’ll be able to settle this righteousness thing, because he desperately wanted to know that he was righteous enough so that God would say, “You’re okay with me.” And in the beginning of the sixteenth century, as he’s there in Rome and going through all these religious exercises, he tries his best, but nothing works. All of his exercises, all the things that he’s told provide forgiveness, provide peace and hope and everything, none of them do, by his own testimony. And then it dawns upon him. He says, “I’ve been thinking about this upside down. I was thinking about righteousness in terms of something that I produced, something that I would do in order to make myself acceptable to God.” And then he suddenly… “It dawned on me,” he said. “I realized that this righteousness is from God. It’s from God.” And then he writes, “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”[14]

To wear the breastplate of righteousness simply means to keep trusting the gospel, to keep trusting that it is Jesus’ righteousness which qualifies me for heaven and which saves me from condemnation.

Can I ask you, are you a soldier of the cross? You see, this is the very beginning of serving in the Christian army, when we recognize that we come with nothing in our hands except the fact that our hands are dirty and needs to be cleansed. This is what it actually means to wear the breastplate of righteousness. Because to wear the breastplate of righteousness simply means to keep trusting the gospel, to keep trusting that it is Jesus’ righteousness which qualifies me for heaven and which saves me from condemnation.

Now, when that actually dawns on a person—when that dawns on a person—you will discover that there is nothing boastful about them. There’s nothing that makes them sound peculiarly self-righteous. No, because they will realize, “I can’t even fathom how it is that my eyes have been opened and my heart has been changed.” They will be prepared to acknowledge what Paul says at the end of 1 Corinthians 1: “Because of him”—that is, God—“you are in Christ Jesus.” “Because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”[15]

What does that mean, “boast in the Lord”? Well, it means to sing what we just sang: “Jesus, your blood and righteousness.”[16] “It’s your blood and righteousness that clothes me and covers me. I didn’t earn it. I couldn’t earn it. My background, my good deeds, my endeavors, my religious pursuits—all of them just left me in the same predicament.” Perhaps you went to a church where the person encouraged you along these lines and says, “Now, you’re a fine soul. Just try and do a little better. Try and get your grade point average up. Try and see if you can’t get a few more frequent attender miles so that eventually you’ll get a better seat on your journey into heaven.” And you listened to that stuff, and you said, “Something is peculiarly wrong here.” Certainly if you have your Bible open, it is!

Perhaps you were the kind of person who was saying, “You know, I’m actually a pretty good person. I’m not sure I need this. It’s good for some other people in my office.” And it was the gospel—the law of God—that pierced your pride, that bubble. Or perhaps you find yourself coming and sitting near the back and saying, “I’m in such a mess that I don’t think there’s any hope for me.” And it’s that same gospel that lifts you up and says, “It’s about the Lord Jesus,” so that one day, as the hymn writer puts it,

When he will come with trumpet sound,
Oh may I then in him be found,
Clothed in his righteousness alone,
And faultless to stand before the throne.[17]

That’s our first question. I’ve spent time on it; I felt that I should: “Am I a soldier?”

I remember my father telling me in the Second World War, when he was just nineteen years old, through the letterbox in their home in Glasgow came the almost inevitable envelope. And that was his “call-up papers,” and he was to report at a certain time and enlisted in the army for the Second World War.

Maybe today’s the day when the call-up papers arrive in your box. You’ve been avoiding the thought for a while, and yet it comes; it has your name on it. Maybe as a result of the fact that you came along to vacation Bible camp, and you went away thinking, “You know, I think my children have this, and I don’t have it.” That may be the case. They may be members of the army, and you’re not. Perhaps you sit next to your spouse, whom you know genuinely has transferred trust from self to Christ, and you haven’t. And may I ask you: Why not today? May I urge you to seek Christ and to cease trusting in anything other than Christ—in short order, to believe?

“Am I a soldier of the cross?”

The Breastplate of Righteousness

Secondly, “Am I wearing the breastplate of righteousness?”

Now, this breastplate was an important, a crucial, piece of the armor. It covered both the front and the back. And sometimes it was made of very hard substances, and other times it was made differently. But essentially, it protected from the neck to the thighs, both front and back.

In Pilgrim’s Progress, in the confrontation with Apollyon, Bunyan makes the point that there was no protection for the back—which, of course, is a wonderful picture, you know: “We’re going on. We’re going straight ahead at the Evil One,” you know. “We don’t ever turn our back on him.” Yes, we do. Yes, we do. Sometimes we’re running for our lives, and it’s good to know the protection goes all the way around. It protects the vital organs of our lives: our hearts, our lungs, the crucial bits and pieces. Again, it is a metaphor. What is it, then, that protects us from the assaults of the Evil One? What is it that protects us from these things? The answer is the breastplate of righteousness.

Now, as last time, we have to consider this: Do we need to determine that this is either an objective righteousness which is ours in Christ or a subjective righteousness which is then ours by way of Christian character and growth in godliness? My answer to this is the same as my answer to the belt of truth—namely, that it needn’t be either-or; probably it is both-and. Because the righteousness that is required of us is not one that we can produce, but when we rest in the righteousness that is ours in Jesus, the work of the Spirit of God then conforms us to the image of Jesus, thereby making us more righteous in and of ourselves. So, for example, that’s why in 4:24 Paul has said, “to put on the new [creature], created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and [in] holiness,” and similarly, in 5:9, “For the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true.”

The point to make and to understand is that one does not exist without the other. One does not exist without the other. In other words, we cannot be the beneficiaries of the objective righteousness of Christ without the evidence is present in our righteous living. Sinclair puts it wonderfully helpfully when he says, “We are now the recipients of an irrevocable … righteousness … in Christ, which in turn leads to a growth in righteousness in ourselves.”[18] But the one precedes the other. Calvin, similarly: “The Son of God though spotlessly pure took upon himself the ignominy and shame of our sin and in return clothed us with his purity.”[19]

You might find it helpful to realize that the Puritans used to speak in terms of a righteousness that was imputed and then a righteousness that was imparted. And what they were seeking to do was make the distinction between the objective and the subjective. In other words, as we have just said, there is nothing that we would be able to bring in and of ourselves to make us acceptable to God. Since God’s standard is absolute perfection, none of us is able to go before God. The only way that we would be able to go before God: if we were then clothed in a righteousness that is not our own; if we were only accepted in Jesus, included in Jesus, enclosed in Jesus, by grace through faith.[20]

You see, it is wrong for people to think that somehow or another the message of the gospel is that because Jesus died on the cross, God is not really bothered about sin anymore. Nothing could be further from the truth. God is intensely concerned about sin, to the extent that the burden of my sin is borne by his own sinless Son on the cross. So that this is the doctrine of imputation: that all of my wretchedness, all of my sinfulness, all of my rebellion, my transgression, my iniquity, which—all of that ugly stuff—has been imputed to Christ. And all of Christ’s righteousness, his standing before the Father, has been imputed to the believing saint—and “saint” in terms of “follower of Jesus.”

One of the great onslaughts of the Evil One is to get us to look at ourselves rather than to look at Christ.

There’s nothing like this, you see, in contemporary religion. Religionists scorn at this. Religious people often make fun of this, suggesting somehow or another that this is far too easy a thing—that somehow or another, by believing, I might be saved. Yeah! Again, Luther. Luther was doing all the stuff you’re supposed to do. He did it to a T. He did it two times over, if necessary—until he realized, “I just need to believe.” “Lord, I believe thy precious blood.”[21] We just sang about it. And what does it mean to believe? It means that I no longer believe in myself. It means that I no longer rest in myself. It means that I no longer have to boast about myself. It means that I no longer have to be dishonest about myself or suggest to people that I’m better than I am, because I’m not. So let him who boasts boast in the Lord.

A wonderful Savior is Jesus my Lord,
A wonderful Savior to me;
He hideth my soul in the cleft of [a] rock,
Where rivers of [mercy] I see.[22]

You see, it’s Jesus—and his righteousness, which is the protection against all of the onslaughts.

One of the great onslaughts of the Evil One is to get us to look at ourselves rather than to look at Christ. William Gouge, who lived in the sixteenth and the seventeenth century—he was a minister in a church in London, in Blackfriars, St Ann’s of Blackfriars, for forty-five years—he wrote a book, amongst a number of books that he wrote, on the armor of God. And he makes this point: “When I look upon myself, I see nothing but emptiness and weakness; but when I look upon Christ, I see nothing but fulness and sufficiency.”[23]

You see, the gospel always turns us back to Jesus. And maybe this quote from another American theologian will help us as I draw this to a close and anticipate the third question. Writes Warfield, “There[’s] nothing in us or done by us, at any stage of our earthly development, because of which we are acceptable to God.” You get that sentence?

There is nothing in us or done by us, at any stage of our earthly development, because of which we are acceptable to God. We must always be accepted for Christ’s sake, or we cannot be accepted at all. This is not true of us only when we believe. It is just as true after we[’ve] believed. It will continue to be true as long as we live. Our need of Christ does not cease with our believing, nor does the nature of our relation to him or to God through him ever alter, no matter what our attainments in Christian graces or our achievements in behavior may be. It is always on His blood and righteousness alone that we can rest.[24]

That declaration is the declaration of a longtime pilgrim, of a soldier, who by God’s amazing grace had ceased to trust in self and had come to trust in Christ. And as he gets towards the end of his Christian pilgrimage, he realizes, “From the very beginning to the very end, all of my standing before God is in a righteousness that is not my own but is imputed to those who, in turning to God in Christ, have said, ‘I am the sinner. You are the Savior.’ I want to close with the benefits of all that becomes mine by trusting Jesus.” Everything else is shaky material upon which to live life, and certainly to face death.

I appeal to you, if you remain standing, as it were, on the esplanade, watching the soldiers go by: step up, take your place, trust Christ.

Father, thank you. Thank you that in the Lord Jesus you have provided for us our wisdom, our justification, our righteousness, our redemption. Lord, help us to absolutely believe with a sitting-down kind of trusting belief, in Christ alone, in whose name we pray. Amen.

[1] R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Language modernized.

[2] Ephesians 6:10–11 (ESV).

[3] Ephesians 1:1 (ESV).

[4] Isaac Watts, “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” (1724).

[5] Philippians 3:9 (paraphrased).

[6] Romans 3:20 (Phillips).

[7] Exodus 20:3 (ESV).

[8] See Exodus 20:17.

[9] See Exodus 20:16.

[10] Romans 6:23 (ESV).

[11] Genesis 2:17 (paraphrased).

[12] Romans 6:23 (paraphrased).

[13] Romans 3:22 (paraphrased).

[14] Martin Luther, “Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings,” in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor, 1962), 11.

[15] 1 Corinthians 1:30–31 (ESV).

[16] Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, trans. John Wesley, “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness” (1739). Language modernized.

[17] Edward Mote, “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less” (1834). Lyrics lightly altered.

[18] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Ephesians (2005; repr., Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 2015), 181.

[19] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.16.6, quoted in Bruce Milne, Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 212.

[20] See Ephesians 2:8.

[21] Zinzendorf, “Jesus, Thy Blood.”

[22] Frances J. Crosby, “He Hideth My Soul” (1890).

[23] William Gouge, quoted in James Reid, Memoirs of the Lives and Writings of those Eminent Divines, Who Convened in the Famous Assembly at Westminster, in the Seventeenth Century (Paisley: Stephen and Andrew Young, 1811), 357.

[24] The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 7:113.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.