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In Ephesians 6:14, Paul admonishes us to stand “with the breastplate of righteousness in place.” (NIV) We know of course that this whole passage uses the metaphor of the armor of a Roman soldier to describe the things which God has given us as a protection against the attack of the enemy. The breastplate protected one of the most vital areas of the soldier’s body, guarding his heart against oncoming spears.
Likewise, the breastplate of righteousness protects our hearts, but we need to understand just whose righteousness we are talking about. Our own righteousness won’t help at all. The Bible tells us that our own righteousness is like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Could you imagine binding a bundle of dirty rags in front of your chest and hoping that it would protect you from spears and arrows? Neither can our own righteousness protect us from the attacks of the devil. His spears of accusation very quickly and easily penetrate our righteous facade, hitting the mark on all the false motives and motivations that lie beneath.
No, to protect us from such attacks we need something far sturdier than filthy rags. Fortunately, God has provided that protection for us in the righteousness of Christ.
Just so nobody has any doubts or confusion, God has declared that, apart from Christ, there has never been a single person who, in him or herself, was totally righteous. Paul’s declaration that “There is no one righteous, not even one … there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10,12) is an echo of Psalms 14:1-3 and 53:1-3 and Ecclesiastes 7:20. When God repeats something several times, we know that it is important. Very simply, “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
There was, however, One Who was totally righteous, and that was the Lord Jesus Christ – God the Son manifested in the flesh. He not only lived a perfect, sinless life, but He allowed Himself to be put to death on a Cross, bearing all the sin and unrighteousness of mankind. Because He has borne our sin, He is able to credit us with His righteousness when we come to Him and accept His grace.
2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us of this wonderful exchange: “For He has made Him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” Theologians speak of this as Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us – that is, God declares us righteous because we are in Christ and He is righteous.
Now we have something sturdy to defend our hearts. When the devil starts throwing his spears of accusation – “You call yourself a Christian? Remember what you did when …” – we can tell him that we are not standing in our own righteousness, but that of Christ.
It doesn’t stop there, however. (“Wait, there’s more …”) God is not content to simply declare us righteous, but leave us locked in sin. When we come to Him, He places His own Spirit in our hearts. As we allow the Holy Spirit to live His life within us, we find ourselves beginning to be transformed. God has not only imputed Christ’s righteousness to us, He is also imparting it to us. That, of course, requires an active participation on our part, for God will never override our will.
If we are born again, Christ’s imputed righteousness is already ours. The breastplate is already in place. As we walk with Him, becoming more and more transformed into His likeness, it becomes more and more our own.