In describing spiritual “armor” which protect followers of Jesus, the apostle Paul includes the “breastplate of righteousness.” But what is it about righteousness that protects us? How does righteousness, as a physical breastplate protects the heart, guard our inner life? Here are three ways.
Former U.S. Senate chaplain Peter Marshall gave the following illustration:
“An elderly, quiet forest dweller once lived high above an Austrian village along the eastern slopes of the Alps. Many years ago, the town council had hired this old gentleman as Keeper of the Spring to maintain the purity of the pools of water in the mountain crevices. The overflow from these pools ran down the mountainside and fed the lovely spring that flowed through the town. With faithful, silent regularity, the Keeper of the Spring patrolled the hills, removed the leaves and branches from the pools, and wiped away the silt that would otherwise choke and contaminate the fresh flow of water. By and by, the village became a popular attraction for vacationers. Graceful swans floated along the crystal-clear spring, the mill wheels of various businesses located near the water turned day and night, farmlands were naturally irrigated, and the view from restaurants sparkled.”
The city thrived because the Keeper of the Spring did what? He guarded the spring.
You and I have a spring inside, and it’s called the “heart.” Proverbs 4:23 gives us the following job:
- Proverbs 4:23 – “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”
The importance of righteousness in guarding the heart
The words you speak, thoughts you consider, desires you have, and decisions you make all ultimately spring from your heart. What you truly value determines everything. Your heart determines everything. Guard it! But how do you guard your heart? You guard it through righteousness.
“Guarding” sounds like war language. And “guarding our hearts” may sound like an inspirational phrase, but it’s war language too. This is why Paul calls righteousness a “breastplate.” A breastplate was a piece of armor covering the front of the torso and guarding the vital organs, especially the heart, from attack.
Why the breastplate of righteousness? “‘Guarding our hearts’ may sound like an inspirational phrase, but it’s war language too.”
Whether we acknowledge it or not, you and I were born into a war, and in the war we are the targets of evil schemes from evil spirits working in evil seasons of our lives. This is a spiritual war against the forces of evil.
So, in a spiritual war, how do we fight back? In Ephesians 6, after describing the spiritual war we find ourselves in (“against the devil’s schemes…against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”), Paul describes righteousness as a breastplate. Why?
Here are 3 reasons we need righteousness to guard our hearts in this spiritual war.
1. If you don’t pursue righteousness, you will enter the battle unprepared.
If you don’t regularly put on the breastplate of righteousness, you will enter the battle unprepared. Now, why would someone enter a battle unprepared? The only reason you would enter a battle unprepared is if you don’t understand the reality of the battle.
It’s as Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft said when he was giving a talk on how to win the spiritual battles our culture faces:
“We cannot win any war, first, if we are blissfully sewing peace banners on the battlefield…If you are surprised to be told that our entire civilization is in crisis, then I welcome you back from your nice vacation on the moon. Many minds do seem moonstruck, puttering happily around the Titanic blandly arranging the deck chairs.”
If you don’t put on the breastplate of righteousness, then you enter the battle unprepared. And if you enter the battle unprepared, then clearly you don’t understand the reality of the battle. And if you don’t understand the reality of the battle, then you are invited to pull your head up and shake off the sand.
- Ephesians 4:27 – “Do not give the devil a foothold.”
- James 4:7b – “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
- 1 John 3:8 – “The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.”
- 1 Peter 5:8 – “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
Why the breastplate of righteousness? “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
Why should we not give the devil an opportunity? Why resist him? Why is Jesus destroying the works of the devil? Why be on the alert? In each case, the answer is the same: it’s because the battle is real. Don’t enter the battle unprepared.
2. If you don’t pursue righteousness, you will enter the battle unprotected.
Greek soldiers wore breastplates made of two curved pieces of bronze, one in front, one in back. The pieces were joined over the shoulder by a wide bronze band. The Romans used the same idea, but instead of two pieces, the armor was formed by iron hoops, wrapped around the body like ribs and fastened over a leather tunic. The hoops were hinged at the back and clasped in front. Today, we’ve adopted the same idea, except we call them bullet-proof vests.
So, what is the purpose of the breastplate? Again, to guard the vital organs, especially the heart. And why would someone enter a battle unprotected? The only reason is if you don’t understand the seriousness of the battle. You don’t enter this serious of a battle without guarding your heart.
During a 2003 appearance on a political talk show, Jed Babbin, a former deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, raised eyebrows when he said the following: “Going to war without France is like going deer hunting without an accordion. You just leave a lot of useless noisy baggage behind.” May we never think so casually about the breastplate of righteousness.
“What is the purpose of the breastplate? Again, to guard the vital organs, especially the heart.”
Going to war with the devil without the breastplate of righteousness would be like standing on the Arrowhead Stadium turf between the teams during the hike without any padding. Going to war with the devil without the breastplate of righteousness is like defying a nuclear blast by climbing under your desk. If you don’t strap on the breastplate of righteousness, you will enter the battle with your heart unprotected. Guard it!
3. If you don’t pursue righteousness, you will enter the battle unfaithful.
Except for the grace of God, your heart and my heart are treacherous.
The famous British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge very transparently told of a trip to India, years before he became a follower of Christ. One evening, as he went for a swim in the river, he noticed what looked like a beautiful young woman in the distance. Intentionally forgetting his wife, he allowed lust to pulsate through his mind, as he began swimming toward her, hoping that she would consent to doing things only a husband and wife should do. When he emerged from the water, however, what he saw literally took his breath away. What he saw was not a beautiful young maiden, but the unmistakable deformities of a leper. He muttered to himself, “What a dirty, lecherous woman!” But as he swam away from her, a sudden shock gripped him: “It wasn’t just the woman who was dirty and lecherous.” He writes, ‘‘It was my own heart.”
And if we’re honest, isn’t that how our hearts naturally lead us? Our hearts naturally lead us to push righteousness out of the way and rush toward unrighteousness. And sadly, sometimes the only thing keeping us making the righteous choice is not the lack of sin within but the lack of opportunity to carry out what our hearts truly desire. As someone once asked, “What’s the difference between lust and adultery?” The answer: opportunity.
Why the breastplate of righteousness? “Our hearts naturally lead us to push righteousness out of the way and rush toward unrighteousness.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, novelist and survivor of the brutal Communist Russian regime, notes that it would be different, if there were “evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Just as righteousness guards your heart, unrighteousness converts your heart. Unrighteousness turns you and me into a turncoat. Without the breastplate of righteousness, we are not simply in danger of provoking the devil; we are in danger of joining him. When you leave the breastplate of righteousness behind, you do not merely please the enemy; you take his side.
You would only enter the battle unfaithful if you don’t understand the nature of the battle. The battle is not over your happiness. The devil’s not out to make you have a bad day. The battle is over your soul. And without the breastplate of righteousness, you have already handed something quite valuable over to the devil: your heart. Guard it!
“Without the breastplate of righteousness, we are not simply in danger of provoking the devil; we are in danger of joining him.”
How do we put on the breastplate of righteousness?
Perhaps the best way to answer is to explain what righteousness is. Righteousness is two things: First, righteousness is a position. By taking the penalty for our sins on the cross, Jesus made us righteous. Righteousness is a position that we are in because of our faith in Jesus.
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
- Philippians 3:8-9 – “…not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”
Second, righteousness is a path. When we believe in Jesus, we’re not just saved from our unrighteousness and made righteous in God’s sight. We’re saved to be able to grow into the righteous life he has called us to live. We’re placed on the path of righteousness.
- Psalm 23:3 – “He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.”
- 1 Timothy 6:11-12 – “But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called…”
The Breastplate of Righteousness: “But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness.”
It’s easy to say to yourself, I know the basics of the faith, and I’m already saved. Is it really that important that I put in more effort when it comes to my faith? It’s easy to wonder, if we’re already clear on essentials like God’s existence and Jesus’ death and resurrection, do we really need to care about living a faithful life? Do we really need to “pursue righteousness”? And the answer is that, if we don’t, we’re in danger of entering a very real battle unprepared, unprotected, and unfaithful.
The old man, the Keeper of the Spring, continued guarding the spring from impurities. Peter Marshall continued,
“Years passed. One evening the town council met for its semiannual meeting. As the council members reviewed the budget, one man’s eye caught the salary paid the obscure Keeper of the Spring. ‘Who is this old man?’ he asked indignantly. ‘Why do we keep paying him year after year? No one ever sees him. For all we know, this man does us no good. He isn’t necessary any longer!’ By a unanimous vote, the council dispensed with the old man’s services. For several weeks nothing changed.
But by early autumn, the trees began to shed their leaves. Small branches snapped off and fell into the pools, hindering the rushing flow of sparkling water. One afternoon, someone noticed a slight yellowish-brown tint to the water in the spring. A few days later, the water had darkened even more. Within a week, a slimy film covered sections of the water along the banks, and a foul odor emanated from the spring.
“Who is this old man?” he asked indignantly. “Why do we keep paying him year after year? No one ever sees him. For all we know, this man does us no good.”
The mill wheels moved slowly; some finally ground to a halt. Businesses that were located near the water closed. The swans migrated to fresher waters far away, and tourists no longer visited the town. Eventually, the clammy fingers of disease and sickness reached deeply into the village.”
And why? Because the town council didn’t think it was important to guard the source of the spring.
Let’s move onto maturity and get serious about pursuing righteousness.