Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Heart of the Matter: The Breastplate of Righteousness – Eph. 6:14

The idea of righteousness has fallen on hard times in our culture and even in the church.  These days, for many Christians the goal is not to be righteous but to be nice.  Unless, of course, you are talking about imputed righteousness and justification.  Then it’s okay to insist on righteousness.  But once you hint at the idea that Christians must be righteous in their daily behavior and thoughts and affections, then don’t be surprised when people begin to think of you as a legalist and a moralist.  And in our day and culture those are bad things indeed.

So being nice has become a substitute for being righteous.  But it’s not the only substitute: more and more it seems that people (especially in the evangelical subculture in the West) are confusing righteousness with spirituality.  The problem is that what many people think of as spirituality is only skin-deep.  You can do all sorts of “spiritual” things, like pray and meditate and read your Bible, but if that’s all your spirituality is, then you are really not that spiritual at all.  In other words, even if your goal is doing these things on a regular basis in your life, then you are not really spiritual.  Having as your goal feeling spiritual is even worse.  Unless your acts of devotion and spirituality lead to personal righteousness, then the fact of the matter is that you have sold your Lord for thirty pieces of silver.  In other words, many have mistaken something flashy for devotion to Christ and traded Christ in for the flashy thing (in this case, so-called spirituality).

What then is righteousness?  I think R. C. Sproul was right when he defined it as “doing what is right in the sight of God.”[1]  It is doing what is right.  But that’s not all – it is doing what is right in the sight of God.  That is crucial.  John the Baptist’s parents are a good example of this: “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Lk. 1:6).  Where you get the standard for right and wrong really matters.  The world has its standard for what is right and wrong.  There are a bunch of spiritual and religious organizations and groups that have their standards for what is right and wrong.  But unless it is rooted in God’s word, unless that standard is set by God himself, then it is not really righteousness at all.  That is why when Paul commends the Scriptures to Timothy, he puts it like this: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  Where do get the instructions for righteousness?  In the word of God, the Scriptures.  And it is a complete instructional record; by reading and applying God’s word to our lives we become complete and thoroughly furnished unto all (not just some) good works.

But is this what Paul is referring to by the breastplate of righteousness?  Some think Paul is referring primarily to the righteousness of justification.  For example, Hodge argues that if this refers to our righteousness, this is a problem because “this is no protection.  It cannot resist the accusation of conscience, the whispers of despondency, the power of temptation, much less the severity of the law, or the assaults of Satan.”  Hodge considers the apostle to be referring solely to the righteousness of God which is imputed to us at the moment of faith.  So the question is, is Paul referring to our righteousness which we live out in our daily lives, or is Paul referring to God’s righteousness which he imputes to us through faith?

Personally, I don’t think we have to choose here, for the following reason: the righteousness of justification is the ground for the righteousness of sanctification, and when you have the former it inevitably produces the latter.  In other words, having a righteous standing before God is inseparable from living a righteous life before God.  A righteous status before God produces a righteous life before God.  It is true that we are not justified on account of our works – our personal righteousness is not what justifies us before God.  But it is also true that the justified man or woman will pursue personal holiness and righteousness in their lives.  As the Reformers put it: we are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.  Justifying faith is not a dead faith, but a faith which produces good works.

If you have a hard time believing this, then listen to the logic of the apostle: “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.  For he that is dead is freed [justified] from sin” (Rom. 6:6-7).  The logic is this: it is inevitable (knowing this) that the Christian will not serve sin because (for) the Christian (he that is dead) has been justified from sin.  Justification leads to sanctification.  Thank God it is not the other way round.  But if you are consistently not living a sanctified life, that’s pretty good evidence that you have never truly been saved and justified to begin with.

Now it is true that if our justification – our acceptance before God – depended on our personal righteousness, we would all be doomed.  There would indeed be no place for hope or assurance.  However, if Paul is commending personal righteousness here in our text, this would not mean that he is implying that our righteousness is the basis of our justification.  Moreover, as we’ve been arguing, justification does not make sanctification irrelevant or unnecessary.  It is absolutely true that a Christian who is living an unholy life is exposed to the assaults of Satan in ways that a righteous man is not. 

Now I think the apostle is almost certainly referring to our personal righteousness here.  Yes, it does assume imputed righteousness.  But the exhortation here is to personal holiness and righteousness of life.  The reason I take this point of view is that when the apostle refers to the righteousness of justification, he generally refers to it as the righteousness of God (cf. Rom. 3:21-26; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9), to distinguish it from our own personal righteousness.  However, there is no such distinction here in our text: it is just “the breastplate of righteousness,” not the “breastplate of the righteousness of God.”  Clearly, Paul does not mean justification every time he uses the word righteousness, and so it cannot be assumed unless the context makes that clear.  Earlier in this epistle, “righteousness” does refer to our conduct and manner life; recall that in Eph. 4:24, the apostle wrote that we are to “put on [same word as in Eph. 6:14] the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (then see the following verses which flesh out how this is to look in the daily life!).  Then, in Eph. 5:8-9, we are reminded that we were at one time in darkness but now are to walk as children of the light, “for the fruit of the light is in all goodness and righteousness and truth.”  Again, this refers to righteous behavior not to a righteous status.

So God not only wants you to be justified and forgiven, he wants you to be sanctified and holy in your life.  That is what the apostle is calling us to in this verse, under the imagery of the breastplate.

The breastplate was very important for the soldier.  The breastplate consisted of metal armor that covered everything from the neck to the thighs, both front and back.  If you didn’t wear this into battle, you were severely exposed to the enemy.  It protected some of your most vital organs.  It was absolutely essential; you would not be able “to stand” without it.  For the Christian, righteousness is like that breastplate.  When we live in righteousness, we are ready to withstand in the evil day; without righteousness of heart and life, we are exposed.  Christian, God is calling you to be righteous.  He is not calling you to be nice.  He is not calling you to be “spiritual.”  He is calling you to put on the breastplate of righteousness.  It means living a life that is pleasing to God, whatever the world thinks about it.  It means following his word, even when the world tells you to do the very opposite.  It means selling out completely to the lordship of Jesus Christ over your life.  It means holiness in thought and word and deed.  It means living by the Book.

All this brings us to the following question: why should you be concerned with becoming more and more holy?  Some people have the idea that holiness is only for the super-spiritual, or super-saints.  There is even the idea that you can have too much holiness.  However, such attitudes are incompatible with the life to which we are called in Scripture.  If you want to be counted as a disciple of Jesus Christ; if you want to rightfully consider yourself “an heir of salvation and purchased of God,” then you must be holy.

Justification and the forgiveness of sin, as important as it is, is only a means to an end.  We are justified and forgiven so that we might enjoy fellowship with God and be conformed to the image of his Son.  But what does it mean to be conformed to the image of God’s Son?  Surely it mostly means being righteous as he is righteous: “If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him” (1 Jn. 2:29).  Justification makes sanctification possible, and sanctification is completed in glorification.  So we shouldn’t think that holiness and becoming righteous is only incidentally important for the people of God.  It is part and parcel of our future salvation.

But wanting heaven is not really a good reason to be holy.  All sorts of people drop out of the race for holiness who wanted heaven.  They wanted heaven but not its holiness and so they give into the pressures of this world to conform.  The real reason anyone perseveres in holiness is because they love God and his Son Jesus Christ.  They want heaven because they want God.  But if we want God we will be holy (cf. 1 Pet. 1:13-16).  Dying is gain because to live is Christ (Phil. 1:21).

So this message is for those who love God.  I want to give the one who loves God reasons he or she should pursue holiness and righteousness of life.  If you don’t love God, this message is not for you, because if you don’t love God you will never be holy.  After all, the first commandment is that we love the Lord our God with all our hearts and souls and minds.  If you don’t start there, you can’t even begin to be righteous in the sight of God.  Your heart needs to be changed first, so that you are no longer at enmity with God.  You need to be born again; you need to be regenerated by the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit.  You don’t need to be holy; you need life!

But if you are born again, if you do love God and his Son, then you should want to be holy.  The reason is very simply that God wants you to be holy.  Everything he has done and is doing is to make you holy.  Do you love God?  How could it be that God’s great desire for you could be at odds with your desires?  If we love God, we will love what he loves.  We will want to have communion and fellowship with him.  All this is impossible without holiness and righteousness of heart and life.  So let me show you that God the Trinity wants to make you holy and righteous and that this is his great design for your life.  If you really believe that, and if you love God, then you will want to join God in his radical pursuit for your holiness.

So first of all, know that God the Father’s purpose in election and predestination was to make you holy.  Remember what Paul said in chapter 1?  “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love” (1:4).  Note that holiness and love are not only not incompatible, they are actually inseparable.  If you love God, you will be holy.  “If you love me,” our Lord said, “keep my commandments.”  But here in Eph. 1:4, we have God’s great design and purpose in saving you.  It was to make you holy.  It was not merely to forgive your sins.  It was not merely to save you from hell.  It was not to take your problems in this life and make them go away.  Rather, it was to make you holy before him in love.  From all eternity he was planning this for you.  To not appreciate this, as if we were some kid getting socks for Christmas, is to show that we have no true understanding of what God is all about in the first place.

Second, the reason why Christ came to die and accomplish redemption was also so that you should be holy.  Of course we should expect this, because God the Son came to do God the Father’s will: “I came not to do mine own will, but the will of him who sent me” (Jn. 6:38).  And since God’s will was to make us holy, this must also be the purpose of Christ in dying for us: our Savior Jesus Christ “gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people [a people for his own possession, ESV], zealous of good works” (Tit. 2:14).  Think about it: when Christ was hanging on the cross, bearing your sin and your punishment, he was doing that so that you might be purified, rescued from lawlessness and zealous for good works.  It was of course the most loving thing to do, for sin ruins us – not only in the future in the wrath to come, but also in the present.  So the apostle writes to the Galatians, that our Lord “gave himself for your sins, that he might deliver us from the present evil world” (Gal. 1:4) – not just deliver us from a future evil world (like hell) but from this present evil world.  One of the wonderful effects of the atonement is to rescue us from the clutches of sinful and God-denying choices and desires and to make us godly in this world.

Third, the design of the Holy Spirit in giving us spiritual life in the new birth is to make us righteous men and women.  Today, we think of “being born again” as a simple decision someone makes.  But the Bible makes it very clear that much more than that is going on when a person is born again.  It is not a simple act of the will, but a mighty working of the Holy Spirit in the human heart, giving us spiritual life and turning us from haters of God to lovers of God.  Jesus told Nicodemus, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:7-8).   Earlier, John had written that those who believe on Christ are “born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:13).  It is a work of God in the heart, giving us new life (Eph. 2:1-10).

Those who are born again are “in the Spirit” and not “in the flesh.”  Paul explains the difference between these two states in Romans 8:5-9.  Those who are not born again, who are still in the flesh, mind and desire the things of the flesh (think Gal. 5:19-21), they are carnally minded, they are hostile to God and not subject to his law, and cannot please God.  On the other hand, those who are born again, who are in the Spirit, mind and desire the things of the Spirit (think Gal. 5:22-23), are spiritually minded, are subject to God’s law and want to live lives that are pleasing to him.  This is not just incidental to the working of the Spirit in the heart: it was God’s design all along.  For the prophet Ezekiel writes, “A new heart . . . and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh [not the same meaning as “flesh” in Romans 8, obviously].  And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments and do them” (Ezek. 36:26-27).

Fourth, it is God’s design in his word.  The Bible everywhere calls you to pursue holiness and righteousness of life.  “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).  “But thou, O man of God, flee these things, and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.  Fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:11-12).  In his next epistle to Timothy, Paul writes, “Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22).

This is true of every part of God’s word.  The history of Scripture gives us examples of what happens when we are not righteous (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11), and how God blesses the godly man and woman (think of Noah, Abraham, David, Daniel, etc., and Heb. 12:1).  The doctrine gives us the foundation and motivation for living godly lives.  The doctrine of Ephesians 1-3 makes the application in Ephesians 4-6 plausible.   Romans 1-11 precedes Roman 12-16.  And on and on.  The promises of God’s word are there to motivate us to holiness and righteousness.  “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).  It is no wonder then that the psalmist reasons, “How can a young man keep his way pure?  By guarding it according to your word” (Ps. 119:9).  It is simply impossible to truly value God’s word and then live by the devil’s advice.

Finally, it is God’s purpose in his providential leading in our lives.  God is not in heaven merely watching your life unfold.  No, he is working in you, with you, and all around you, so that “all things work together” for your good (Rom. 8:28).  The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, and he is no stranger to it.  He shepherds his sheep even now.  Christ is the good shepherd.  And so, when we stray, God is able to bring us back.  Often, he does this by disciplining us – and although such discipline can take a multitude of forms, its goal is always the same: to make us more holy.  This, for example, is the point of Heb. 12:5-11. 

So all that God is doing, from eternity past to eternity future, is to secure your holiness and righteousness.  If God is that intent upon it, surely you should be intent upon it as well.  If you love God you will love holiness and hate evil (cf. Ps. 97:10).  It is what he is: God is light and in him there is no darkness whatever (1 Jn. 1:5).  We kid ourselves if we walk in darkness and yet claim to have fellowship with him.  As the Puritan Gurnall put it, not everyone who hangs around the court speaks to the prince.  Not everyone who claims to be a Christian has real fellowship with God.  If you are for real though, if you are wearing the belt of truth, then you will know something about walking in the light.  You will not make it something you tack onto your main purpose in life; you will make it your main purpose in life.  Pursue righteousness – be holy as God is holy!


Monday, November 5, 2018

Ephesians 6:14 – The Primacy of Integrity

The Christian is in a battle.  The believer is engaged in spiritual hand-to-hand combat (Eph. 6:12), and our souls are at stake.  The devil wants to destroy your faith – and though it is not possible for the faith of the elect to be finally destroyed (1 Pet. 1:5), yet he can do great harm to the saints if they are not careful.  Peter denied Christ.  Let the one who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:12).  We need to “take heed.”  Beware of presumption.  Beware of the attitude that you can get through life unscathed without any preparation for the battle that is waging all around you.

You might say that in verses 10-13, the apostle is reminding us of the battle, making us aware of the war we are waging, its intensity and its difficulty.  He is calling us to stand, to defend our ground, and to repel the attacks of the wicked one.  But you are not going to stand if you aren’t even aware of the battle, and so he calls this to our attention. 

But then you need to be prepared for the battle.  You need to go through basic training, so to speak.  You need to become familiar with the weapons with which you will fight the enemy, what they are and how to use them well.  That is what the apostle is doing in the verses before us; he is preparing us for the battle.  He is laying out in front of us the armor that we are called to put on, describing it for us and showing us in some sense how to use it in the battle.  In verses 14-17 we have Christian basic training.

As we begin to look at each piece of armor, we first of all need to remember that God is the one who has provided each piece of armor for us.  We may infer a couple of very important truths from this fact.  The first truth is that every piece of armor is important for that battle.  God is not going to send you into battle with a weapon or piece of armor unless you are absolutely going to need it.  Now I am told that some of our soldiers overseas are angry because it has been decreed that they wear certain pieces of body armor that they feel are not necessary; it only slows them down and in that sense makes them more vulnerable to the enemy.  But we should not ascribe such folly to God; he will not demand any piece of armor that is not absolutely necessary.  And therefore it is stupid for us to pick and choose what we want to go into battle with; if we want to be successful, we have to have on the “whole armor of God” (ver. 13), not just part of it.  Every verse here is important, every weapon and piece of armor is necessary.  We can’t just pick up the sword of the Spirit, we must also have the shield of faith.  We must have everything if we are going to withstand in the evil day.

And so to that end, I want to consider each weapon and piece of armor separately; to give each its own consideration.  I think that is important in order that we truly understand how all this works together to enable us to stand against the wiles of the devil.

There is another inference from the fact that God is the one who supplies the Christian’s arsenal.  It is the fact that we can be sure that what God supplies us, if used properly, will inevitably lead us to victory over the evil one.  It may be true that the devil is powerful and smart and cruel; but it is also true that God is sovereign even over the devil, and that he knows the devil better than he knows himself.  God knows your enemy, and therefore he knows exactly what you need to stand and overcome.  We would therefore be foolish not to take what our Lord gives us to defend ourselves and fight for him.

So this morning let us consider the first part of verse 14: “Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth,” or, as the ESV puts it, “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth.”  This is one of the first things a Roman soldier would have done; it was done before any other piece of armor went on.  He needed the belt to gather together his tunic beneath the armor.  The breastplate fastened to the belt, and it was also the place from which the soldier would hang his sword.  So the belt was not just something you put on for looks, it was foundational and essential for the entire panoply of armor the soldier wore into battle.

Paul uses the imagery of the belt for truth.  We are to put on truth like the soldier put on his belt.  But what does the apostle mean by this? 

Some say that the apostle is referring to the truth of the gospel.  Charles Hodge says that it means “truth subjectively considered; that is, the knowledge and belief of the truth.”  Now though I agree with Hodge that the belief of the truth is absolutely essential to our warfare, yet I don’t think that is what the apostle is referring to here.  I believe that Paul is referring to integrity, or truthfulness in the inward person.

There are a couple of reasons why I think this.  First, because Paul does refer explicitly to God’s word in verse 17, as the sword of the Spirit.  Certainly, this would involve the knowledge and belief of the truth as well as applying it to our lives in concrete and specific ways.  So it would seem strange that the apostle would repeat himself and refer to the same thing more or less under the imagery of different parts of the soldier’s panoply. 

The second reason why I don’t think he is referring to the truth of God’s word is also the reason why I think he is referring to integrity and sincerity.  The apostle, who was steeped in the OT, surely got many of his ideas straight from the prophets.  So, for example, the prophet Isaiah used the same type of imagery for God as a warrior for his people: “And he saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor: therefore his arm brought salvation unto him; and his righteousness, it sustained him.  For he put on righteousness as a breastplate, and an helmet of salvation upon his head; and he put on the garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as a cloke” (Isa. 59:16-17).  This is so close the apostle’s words in Eph. 6 that it is impossible to imagine that he was not thinking of Isaiah when he wrote them. 

Now it is true that Isaiah 59 does not refer to a belt of truth, but listen to what Isaiah said much earlier in his book (speaking of the Christ, 11:2): “Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins” (11:5).  Now it’s interesting that the Septuagint translates the word “faithfulness” with the same Greek word behind the word “truth” in Ephesians 6:14.  Since it’s widely agreed among scholars that the apostles were familiar with the LXX, it’s not hard to believe that Paul was probably thinking of Isa. 11:5 when he wrote Eph. 6:14.  In that case, he is not thinking of truth as something you believe but truth as something you are.  God is true in Isa. 11:5 in the sense of faithfulness; that is, he is true to his word.  He does not say one thing and then do another.  It describes who he is.  So in this verse in Ephesians 6, Paul is calling us to be men and women of integrity, who are what they say they are. 

Of course, the basic definition of truth is that which corresponds to reality.  In Phil. 1:18, Paul contrasts “truth” with “pretense.”  To put on the belt of truth then means that you are for real, that you are not pretending, that your profession matches your intention, that you are not something other than what you profess to be.  It means you are sincere.  And in this context, it means being true to Christ as our Captain and Lord.  One of the complaints Hodge made against seeing this in terms of integrity is that this would make it “a natural virtue, and does not belong to the armour of God.”  But this argument loses its force when we recognize that it is not just integrity in general that is called for, but integrity in the sense of our commitment to Jesus Christ. 

In other words, as we put on this armor and gird ourselves for war, we are claiming to belong to Jesus Christ.  To put on the belt of truth means that we are in truth what we say we are.  We do not put on the armor of God and then fight for the devil. 

One of the things I enjoy about our university commencements is being able to observe the commissioning of men and women into the army as newly minted second lieutenants.  As part of the commissioning ceremony, they raise their right hands and repeat an oath.  In that oath, they promise to support and defend the Constitution and that they “will bear true faith and allegiance to the same;” furthermore, that they “take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.”  In some sense, that is what the apostle is calling us to do here.  By putting on the belt of truth, we are promising to wear the uniform of Christ “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion” and that we “will bear true faith and allegiance” to Christ.  Do you?

In order to answer the previous question, we need to ask and answer another question: how do we live out a life of integrity in the service of Christ?  What is involved?  Well, I think at least three things are involved.

First, it’s a matter of counting the cost.  If we are going to wear truth like a belt, if we are going to be men and women of integrity, we are going to have to count the cost of following Christ.  We are going to have to consider what’s involved in serving him in this world. 

It’s the easiest thing in the world (at least, in the West) to call yourself a Christian.  Anyone can do that.  But that does not mean you are a Christian.  Just putting on the uniform doesn’t make you a soldier, you have to be willing to follow your Lord into battle.  Even so, there are lots of people who call themselves Christian but they don’t really understand what it means to be a Christian; they haven’t counted the cost. As a result, they are not what they claim to be; they are not true to Christ. 

To put on the belt of truth, you need to understand everything that’s involved in following Christ.  It’s not just a matter of saying a prayer and getting baptized and then everything’s fine.  We need to understand that there is a cost to following Christ, and unless you are willing to endure the cost, you cannot be a Christian.  Isn’t this what our Lord himself said?  “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.  And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:26-27).  In that same text, our Lord goes on to illustrate his meaning with two stories, one about a man who wants to build a tower, and another about a king who wants to make war with another king.  The point of both stories is that you have to sit down and figure out whether or not you have the will and resources to complete the task.  The reason why so many people who start out as Christians, but who end up jettisoning their faith, is because they never really understood all that would be involved.  They liked the heaven part and the forgiveness part, but they don’t like the self-denial part, and the humility part, and the repentance part, and the persecution part.

From time to time we are reminded how painful the cost can be.  This weekend, seven Coptic Christians were killed when their buses were fired upon by Islamic militants.  And this is just one story out of many these Christians could tell.  They live in a country where they are routinely discriminated against, where their children and wives are kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam, and this has been their reality for over a thousand years.  Or I think of the husband and father who was serving Christ as a missionary in Cameroon who was shot in the head this week and killed.  I think of his family, and am reminded that we live in a world where it is often not only not easy to be a Christian but very painful to be a Christian.  Are you willing to pay the price and bear the cross?

In the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses is giving instructions to the Israelites on how they are to go into battle, he gives the following interesting directive: “And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say, What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted?  Let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren’s heart faint as well as his heart” (Deut. 20:8).  In other words, the Lord didn’t want men on the battle line who were afraid because fear and panic spread like a disease and can instantly cripple an army.  Instead, he wanted men who were fully aware of the danger they faced and were willing to face it.  He wanted men who were true.  It wasn’t enough to be on the battle line.  You had to be willing to embrace the battle and all the hardship that went along with it.  That’s putting on the belt of truth.  You’ve counted the cost; you know what it means to follow Christ, and you willingly embrace it with all your heart.  Do you?

Second, it’s a matter of guarding the heart.  To be true to Christ, we have to be the same inside as well as outside.  It was the damning sin of the Pharisees that they were “like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”  Our Lord went on to say, “Even so, ye also outwardly appear righteous unto me, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Mt. 23:28-28).  King David contrasts with the Pharisees because, even though he sinned greatly, when he repented, he repented thoroughly.  You can see it in his prayer of repentance to God in Psalm 51, when he prays, “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom” (Ps. 51:6).  Therefore, he goes on to pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (ver. 10).  Truth in the inward parts –that is what God desires. 

If we fall and fail to stand, almost certainly the reason behind the fall is to be looked for in the heart.  Someone who falls into open sin probably began to nourish that sin secretly in the heart a long time beforehand.  That’s why the Scripture tells us to “keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues [springs, ESV] of life” (Prov. 4:23).  Your heart is the battleground and the battle will be won or lost there.

Therefore, to be a soldier of the Lord is more a matter of being than of doing.  God commended the church of Ephesus for doing a lot of things, but then went on to rebuke them because they had lost their first love (Rev. 2:1-7).  They evidently had forgotten to be Christian because they were so busy doing Christian things.  People can do all sort of things for God when their hearts are far from him.  But such service is worse than useless.  The warfare that we are waging, remember, is mainly spiritual and therefore must be fought on a spiritual basis.  As Paul puts it to the Corinthians, “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5).  It’s a matter primarily of taking our thoughts captive for Christ.

Another way to put this is to ask the question: where is our ultimate loyalty?  When it comes down to it, who will you follow?  If you desire something very strongly but know it is not God’s will, are you going to do it anyway?  Or are you willing to crucify your sinful affections for the sake of Christ?  Our whole culture teaches that you should be true to yourself, and that means you should follow your every desire and whim.  Christ teaches us to be true to him.  Who will win?  Are you willing to order your affections so that Christ and his will and word are preeminent?  That is what it means to put on the belt of truth.

Third, it’s a matter of keeping our word.  What I mean by this is that we follow through with our commitments to Christ.  King David put it this way in his fifteen Psalm: he describes those who will abide in God’s tabernacle and dwell in his holy hill; in other words, he describes those who have fellowship with God.  He designates the godly man as “he who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart . . . who swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Ps. 15:2, 4).  Here is a man who has made a commitment to the Lord; it will cost him something, but he follows through.  That man is true.

It’s not enough to make great professions of faith and commitment to Christ.  The godly man or woman, the man or woman who is true, will do what they say they will do for the Lord.  Their life is not one of unfulfilled wishes for the Lord, but one in which they put into practice what they know to be true and profess to be true.  They know prayer is important, so they pray.  They don’t merely say that prayer is important, they don’t just praise prayer, they pray!  The same with the Scriptures.  They don’t just acknowledge that the knowledge of the Bible is important, but they read and memorize and meditate upon the Word of God. 

Do you follow through?  Or is your life one of fits and starts?  Look, God does not want sprinters; he want marathon runners.  He wants men and women who are committed, who take the truth of God’s word and make it a part of their life.  He wants men and women who don’t just say and not do, but who do what they say is true.

Now we must ask the final question: why should we do this?  Why put on the belt of truth?  After all, to some this might seem more trouble than what it’s worth!  So let me end by giving you three reasons why it is worth your while to fight in God’s army and to strap on this belt of truth.

Reason 1: God is God, and you are not.  He ought to be and is worthy to be obeyed and worshipped and served.  He deserves your total commitment. 

Reason 2: God is true.  He is faithful to his word to us.  He can be trusted.  He never lets them down who put their trust in him (Rom. 10:11).  Those who trust in him will never be ashamed.  How can we not be true to him when he is unswervingly faithful and true to us?  In contrast, the devil is a liar and the father of lies.  For us to hold back anything from God is to give it to the devil.  How could that be worth it when the devil only wants to bring your harm?  When Satan comes, then comes the evil day (Eph. 6:13). 

Reason 3: God is good.  He sent his Son to die for the sins of those who put their trust in him, and to give them an entrance into everlasting glory and joy.  Whatever sufferings we are called upon to endure in this world, we can be sure that they are not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us (Rom. 8:18).  When Christ rose from the dead, he broke the power of sin and death for his elect.  When God is so good to us, how could we not give everything to him?  We have every reason to be true, to be men and women of integrity, to be fully committed to him who is fully committed to us in Christ.

So let us strap on the belt of truth.  Let us be faithful to Christ, let us be true to him.  Let us go forth into battle without any reservation of heart and soul; indeed, “let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach.  For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.  By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name” (Heb. 13:13-15).

Monday, October 22, 2018

Be Strong in the Lord – Ephesians 6:10-13

The apostle’s final exhortation is both a stirring appeal and a solemn warning.  Though it is found in verses 10-20 of the sixth chapter, at the very end of this epistle, it is probably the most well-known of all the verses in this short letter.  John Bunyan almost certainly was strongly influenced by the imagery of the apostle here when he wrote his famous book, Pilgrim’s Progress.  William Gurnall, the Puritan, wrote over 1000 pages on these verses alone, in a book with an equally long title: The Christian in Complete Armour; A Treatise of the Saints’ War against the Devil: Wherein a Discovery in made of that grand Enemy of God and his People, in his Policies, Power, Seat of his Empire, Wickedness, and chief design he hath against the Saints.  A Magazine Opened, From whence the Christian is furnished with Spiritual Arms for the Battle, helped on with his Armour, and taught the use of his Weapon: together with the happy issue of the whole War.  When D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached through the book of Ephesians, he preached 26 sermons (of the 232 total!) on these verses.  So history has shown that even the most experienced believers have found the instructions in these verses a rich treasure of spiritual refreshment.  Throughout the ages, Christians have found spiritual encouragement and strength again and again in this inspired call to arms.

But as we approach these verses, we must begin by asking some fundamental questions.  First of all, what is the function of this appeal in the epistle?  Where does it find its place in the overall argument of the epistle?  Secondly, why the military metaphor?  Up to this point, the apostle hasn’t invoked war and combat as a way to illustrate the spiritual struggle.  Why now?  And thirdly, why frame this combat entirely in terms of a struggle with spiritual forces?  We live in a brick and mortar world; why tell believers to fight against beings who inhabit the “heavenly places”?  And then, finally, what does this imply about the Christian life and the struggles that we face and how we face them?  These are the questions that we want to consider this morning.

First question: What is the function of this appeal in this epistle?  It clearly functions as a closing appeal.  We see this in the opening word, “Finally, my brethren . . .” (10).  But why put it here?  There are exhortations all over the epistle; why end on this note? 

I think the clue is in the opening exhortation: “be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might” (10).  From the beginning of this letter, the apostle has several times pointed the believers at Ephesus to the power of God for them.  Not just the power of God, mind you, but the power of God which is appropriated for the day-to-day life of faith.  Think back to chapter 1; there the apostle encourages them to know “what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places” (1:19-20).  In fact, the apostle uses the same words here and in chapter 6 to describe the power of God.  And then you have the mention of heavenly places which also shows up in 6:12.  So you might think of these two passages as sorts of bookends for the epistle. 

And then, right in the middle of the epistle, there it is again: Paul prays that God “would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man” (3:16).  Again, we have this prayer for spiritual strength, and the source of this strength is the power of God. 

Now this is tied to the overall theme of the epistle, because I think if you could sum up the overall theme of this epistle, it would be in the two words, “in Christ.”  The apostle is reminding us of the spiritual blessings that we have in him (cf. 1:3).  Everything we have that will bring us to heaven in the end comes in and through the person and work of the Son of God.  We do not have eternal life because of who we are or what we have done.  We have eternal life because of who Christ is and what he has done.  It is an astonishing reality: we have union with God through Christ.  And this means that the power of God is now available for every believer.  It is not only available, we wouldn’t even be believers apart from the power of God raising us from spiritual death.  But the point is that that same power is available to every believer, no matter where they are on the sanctification ladder.  We may (and rightly so) feel our weakness and inability, but in Christ we are no longer alone.  Yes, without him we can do nothing (Jn. 15:5), but through him we can do all things (Phil. 4:13). 

So when the apostle ends this epistle, it should not surprise us that he comes once again to the issue of union with Christ and the result of this union in being empowered with the power of God for daily victory over sin.  “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.”   Union with Christ is not just an abstract doctrine to be believed and defended and admired.  It is to be appropriated in our daily life through faith in Christ.  What the apostle is essentially saying is this, that if we really believe the truths of this epistle, if we really believe that we have union with Christ, we are not going to sit down in defeat and gloom and despair.  No, rather we are going to stand against all our foes.  This epistle has reminded them of what God is doing for them and in them and through them.  They are not alone.  The grace of God has gone before them in election, was there at the beginning of their spiritual walk in regeneration, and is a constant aid in Christ.  He is still able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we can ask or think.

In summary, the apostle ends with these words because in doing so he is showing them how to take the great theme of this epistle, the wonderful truth of union with Christ, and put shoe leather on it, how to put it into practice.  We live out the reality of being “in Christ” when we are strong in the Lord and in the power of his might, when he face down our spiritual enemies without running or giving up.  Show me a Christian who really believes the truths of Ephesians, and I will show you a courageous man or woman.  Theology matters, because theology, properly appropriated by faith with humility, puts fire in the bones and courage in the step.  So this exhortation is a fitting conclusion to this epistle.

But that brings us to the next question: why the military metaphor? Well, one answer to that question is that this is one of the Prison Epistles, and no doubt as the apostle was under house arrest, he had a lot of opportunity to converse with Roman military personnel.  This probably led to a lot of thought on the apostle’s part about how the military and warfare illustrate key realities in the Christian life.  Certainly, the apostle uses the metaphor of warfare a lot in his epistles.  For example, in writing to Timothy, he says, “Thou therefore endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.  No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier” (2 Tim. 2:3-4).  And then, referring to himself, he writes, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). 

I think next to theology, I enjoy reading military history most.  And I think one of the reasons it is so appealing to me is because of this connection between military life and the life of faith.  There are so many. 

But the question is, exactly how does this military metaphor tie in to the message of this epistle?  I think it does so in the following way.  In this epistle, the apostle Paul is telling us, in not so many words, that God is building an army.  Think back to chapter 2.  How are we described?  We were dead in sin, unable to take one step toward God, prisoners of lust, of the world, and of the devil.  “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved)” (2:4-5).  And then, he not only gives us life, but he begins to equip us for battle.  First of all, he gives us a new nature, makes us new men and women in Christ (4:20-24).  Our allegiance has changed.  Once we were the willing servants of Satan and of sin, but now we willingly follow our new Master, the Lord Jesus Christ.  Then he equips us, gives us spiritual gifts and builds us up as part of the one body of Christ (4:1-16).  Yes, Christ is building a new society, but he is also building an army. 

I don’t know about you, but this reminds me of the vision of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37).   God takes these dry bones which were scattered all over the place, puts them together, brings sinews and skin upon them, and then breathes life into them.  The result?  “So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and the lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army” (37:10).  That is what the apostle says has happened to the Ephesians.  They were once no different, spiritually speaking, from a collection of dry bones.  But God has brought live to them and they are now part of “an exceeding great army.” 

That is one reason.  But there is another reason I think the apostle uses military language in addressing the believer.  When we think about the glorious privileges that are ours as men and women who are united to Christ, it is easy sometimes to forget that we are not in heaven yet.  It is easy to think that once we are believers that our life should no longer be hard anymore.  In particular, it was easy for them to faint at the tribulations the apostle had to experience for the sake of the Ephesians and other believers (cf. Eph. 3:13). 

But the reality is that union with Christ, though it is a reality right now, does not make the road to heaven any less hard or any less narrow.  It is a road beset with enemies who are determined to bring you down.  And that is why the apostle ends on this note.  It is a reminder that our salvation does not take away the fact that “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).  We are opposed by an enemy who will fire upon you, fix your position, and being maneuvering on you.  And if you are not prepared, you are going to be brought down.  You are not going to stand if you are not ready.

And it is hand-to-hand combat that the apostle is preparing them for.  That idea is embedded in the word “wrestle” in verse 12.  Some commentators have wondered why the apostle didn’t use the word “war” or “battle” instead of “wrestle” there.  But the reason is that in the first century, you didn’t defeat your foe unless you engaged them in hand-to-hand combat.  The apostle is talking about soldiers who are fully engaged here; they are not sitting back firing missiles from miles away.  This is up close and personal.  And if you are not prepared, you are not going to come out of that unscathed.  So you need to be ready.

In verse 13, the apostle says that we need to “be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”   That expression, “the evil day,” is an interesting one.  It refers to a specific event in the believer’s life when their faith is under siege and they are on the verge of breaking spiritually.  We don’t experience this every day, but we have all experienced times in our life when it is far more difficult than others to keep following Christ, to say no to sin, to push back against the bitterness and unbelief.  The apostle is saying that you need to be prepared for that.  It will come, if it hasn’t already. 

And evil days come even when we have successfully weathered previous evil days.  Think about how the devil attacked the Lord.  He didn’t come at him at all times.  We are told that after the wilderness temptation, “when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season” (Luke 4:13).  He attacks, and if he is not successful, he will try again.  He may depart, but it will only be for a season.  The evil day will return.  So we shouldn’t become complacent.  You haven’t “done all” (13) just by winning one battle.  The devil isn’t finished with you.  So you need to be constantly on your guard.  You need to be like the builders on the wall of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day, who worked with a tool in one hand and a sword in the other.

So the military metaphor is here to remind us who we are (we are the army of the Lord, and he is our Captain) and what we are doing (we are fighting a war that can be brutal and difficult).  Now the difficulty doesn’t mean we should despair, because our Lord has already defeated the forces of evil on the cross.  The final victory is sure.  And we can stand as long as we are strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.  There is no reason for despair, for defeatism.  But there is still every reason for caution and preparedness. 

But who are we fighting?  That brings us to the third question, which was: why frame this combat in terms of fighting spiritual forces?  For in verse 11, Paul warns us against the “wiles [stratagems] of the devil,” and in verse 12 he goes on to say, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”  These are just different ways of describing wicked spirits, demons, who operate under the command of the devil, Satan.  Paul is saying that this spiritual warfare we are to prepare for is a warfare against this particular foe.

And this is in contrast to “flesh and blood.”  In other words, the enemy of the Christian is not the atheist, not the persecutor, not progressive secularist.  People are not our enemy.  Non-Christians are not our enemy.  People of other faiths, like Islam, are not our enemy.  And we are not to be fighting them, we are to love them, serve them, and preach the gospel to them.  Rather, our enemy, our opponent, our antagonist on the battlefield, are not people but evil spirits.

What does the apostle mean by this?  Well, he of course doesn’t mean that people can’t be the source of great evil.  There are false prophets, for example, who lead people astray.  But what the NT teaches is that people are not the ultimate source of false teaching and false living.  Behind every false prophet is a demon or demons, as in 1 Tim. 4:1 - “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils.”  Or, I think of what Paul says to the Corinthians: “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves in to the apostles of Christ.  And no marvel: for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.  Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works” (2 Cor. 11:13-15).  If people hurt us, it is because they are being used by Satan to do so.  He is the real enemy.  And no wonder, because before our conversion, we ourselves were also servants of the devil (Eph. 2:2).  He works in the children of disobedience.  That doesn’t take about the responsibility of sinners, but it does point us to our ultimate foe.  The reason why the church suffers and is attacked is because there is a devil in this world.  He is the accuser of the brethren.  He is our enemy.

Which ought to tell us that the goal of standing is to stand against the devil.  He wants, above all things, to destroy your faith (cf. Luke 22:31-32).  Yes, he can attack you on a physical level, like Job.  But the only reason he did that was to get at his faith and to cause him to blaspheme God.  So to stand against the wiles of the devil, is to not give in to unbelief, to not give in to the sin that will separate you from God.  Think about what the apostle says in 4:27 – “Neither give place to the devil.”  In other words, don’t let anger dominate you, because then that becomes a means the devil can use to get a place in your heart and to start turning you against God.  He did that with Judas: “the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him” (Jn. 13:2).

In other words, since the warfare is against spiritual beings, the warfare has as its aim spiritual goals.  The goal is to stand against the attacks of the devil so that you faith is intact no matter how often or how hard he levels his assaults against you.  The battle the church fights is not a political battle.  It is not a battle to win elections.  It is a battle to maintain the faith.  It is a battle to maintain allegiance to Jesus Christ.  It is a battle to win souls for Christ.  It is a battle to be holy in an unholy world.

It is why James exhorted his readers this way: “Submit yourselves therefore unto God.  Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (Jm. 4:7).  The one who occupies the battlefield at the end of the day is the one who wins.  The one who resists the devil is the one who will stand and occupy the battlefield.  But it is important to remember that the context of that passage is the battle against worldliness (ver. 1-6).  That is one of the ways the devil tries to get at you; by alluring you to be a friend of the world.  Resist him, says the apostle.

Or think of what Peter said: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world” (1 Pet. 5:8-9).  Here, the idea is that the devil is behind the persecutions God’s people often have to endure.  Again, the purpose of this is to overthrow their faith, which is why the apostle exhorts them to resist the devil “steadfast in the faith,” because it was precisely at that point that the battle was engaged.

So the apostle draws our attention to a spiritual foe, because that is ultimately the source of our greatest danger.  The stakes in this battle are matters of the soul; it is a spiritual battle in which we are engaged and in which we must stand.

Now what does all this imply about how we live out our lives as Christians?  Here I want to come back to the first point we started with; namely, the fact that this appeal is grounded in the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ.  The overall command here is to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might” (10).  But that is not all that he says. We are not only told to be strong in the Lord, we are also told to “put on the whole armor of God” (11), to “take unto the whole armor of God” (12).  It is only as we do this that we will be able to “stand” (11) and “withstand” (13).

Here you have two realities that are simultaneously true.  One reality is that we can do nothing apart from the power of God.  That is the basis of the exhortation to be strong in the Lord.  All our power for defense or offense comes from the Lord.  In ourselves, we have nothing, no power, and no strength.  But on the other hand, we are told to do something.  We have to put on the armor of God.  We are to stand.  These are things that we have to do.

And it is very important to keep these two things together.  For there are some who teach that the essence of the Christian is to “let go and let God.”  Now, I agree that we are desperately in need of God and that without him we can do nothing.  But you have gone beyond Scripture if you take that to mean that spiritual victory is only won when we simply do nothing and commit the whole battle to God.  That is simply not what text teaches!  God is not one fighting here; the believer is.  It is the believer who is to take the armor and put it on.  Why?  Because they are going to have to fight!  Hand-to-hand! There is no passivity here.  If we are going to stand in the evil day, we are going to have to fight, to wrestle with demons!

Now, on the other hand, there are those who give the impression that God is simply waiting for you to do something for him.  In other words, it really is up to you.  But this mindset is also contradicted by the passage.  The overall command here is to be strong in the Lord.  Yes, you are to fight, but not in your own strength, but in the strength that God gives. 

The doctrine of union with Christ, does not mean that daily victory over sin is automatic in virtue of our connection with the Lord.  What it does mean is that we have been given spiritual life and power, and that it is in virtue of our connection to Jesus Christ that we are now able to fight and stand.  So, it is not that God does everything and we do nothing.  Nor is it that we do everything and God does nothing.  Nor is it that we do some things and the Lord does other things.  Rather, the Biblical teaching is that every act of faith is an act in which we act and God acts, simultaneously.  So we can’t take credit at the end of the day for our victory over sin, because the power in which we fight and live out the live of faith is all from God, not from us.  But neither can we sit back and be okay with doing nothing, for the power of God is operative in the acts of the believing Christian.  This is confirmed in many, many texts (cf. Rom. 8:13; 1 Cor. 15:10; Phil. 2:12-13). 

Now it ought to encourage us that this is the case, for it implies that when we step out on faith, in obedience to our Lord, no matter how hard the task may be to which he is calling us, we can yet be sure that God will empower us to obey.  Again, it is not our own strength that will bring us through but the power of God.  If the Lord calls you to step out onto the raging sea, you can do so because you serve the one who walks on the waves.  We so often falter and are ready to fall down in the evil day because we are focused on our own inabilities and inadequacies.  And they are many!  We need to be more like Abraham, who “being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb: he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, that he had promised, he was able to perform” (Rom. 4:19-21).  This is the perfect picture of what the apostle is calling us to do.  You see, Abraham could not do the first thing to bring about God’s promises to him.  Neither can we.  And yet, God was calling him to live a life of faith and it was as he lived out that life of faith that God brought his promises to fruition.

This is all possible ultimately because of what Christ did on the cross.  Are we called to fight principalities and powers?  Very well, we can fight them because Christ has on one level already vanquished them: “blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to the cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:14-15).  On the cross, he destroyed “him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver[ed] them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15).  Christ’s death and resurrection guaranteed the ultimate destruction of Satan.  We are fighting him and his legions in the shadow of his defeat and in light of the final victory that we have in Christ.  We have therefore every reason to be encouraged.  We have every reason to be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.  There is no reason why we should not take up the whole armor of God, for the battle is the Lord’s and he never loses.  Let us therefore fear not and follow Christ, for he has defeated death, hell, and the grave.

The Heart of the Matter: The Breastplate of Righteousness – Eph. 6:14

The idea of righteousness has fallen on hard times in our culture and even in the church.   These days, for many Christians the goal...