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.” 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!