The breastplate of righteousness is the second element listed in the armor of God. What is this piece of spiritual armor, and how are we to put it on?
What is a breastplate?
The apostle Paul listed several pieces of armor worn by the Roman soldiers of his day and made an analogy about the spiritual armor needed by Christians. The second piece of armor, the breastplate, is likened to righteousness: “Having put on the breastplate of righteousness” (Ephesians 6:14).
Soldiers of that time had another piece of protective armor to ward off enemy blows—the shield. But during the heat of battle, those blows could come from unexpected directions, or there could be too many to ward off with just a shield. The breastplate provided protection against the unexpected and against overwhelming numbers.
The breastplate worn by Roman soldiers was generally made of iron, though some wealthier soldiers may have worn a bronze breastplate.
It consisted of overlapping pieces of metal with connecting front and back sections. There were rounded pieces protecting the shoulders and the breastplate usually rested on the soldier’s hips so the entire weight wasn’t carried on the shoulders.
The overlapping pieces allowed for more flexibility of movement. This piece of armor protected the vital organs of the soldier during battle.
Adam Clarke’s Commentary says the following: “As the breast-plate defends the heart and lungs, and all those vital functionaries that are contained in what is called the region of the thorax; so this righteousness defends everything on which the man’s spiritual existence depends.”
How does the breastplate of righteousness protect us?
The apostle Paul makes another comparison between the Christian life and warfare in one of his letters to the Corinthians: “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
The enemies of the Christian described in these verses are numerous, and could come at us unexpectedly. Paul lists “arguments,” “every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God” and the need for “bringing every thought into captivity.” These are things we can encounter in everyday life. The breastplate of righteousness is one of our primary defenses against these unexpected and dangerous intrusions.
How important is the breastplate of righteousness? God promises great rewards to those who follow the path of righteousness: “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death. The righteousness of the blameless will direct his way aright, but the wicked will fall by his own wickedness. The righteousness of the upright will deliver them, but the unfaithful will be caught by their lust” (Proverbs 11:4-6).
What is the definition of righteousness?
So, if God tells us to put on the breastplate of righteousness as an important part of our armor, how are we supposed to do it? And what does it really mean to be righteous?
One of the ways the Bible defines righteousness is in terms of God’s commandments: “My tongue shall speak of Your word, for all Your commandments are righteousness” (Psalm 119:172).
One of the ways the Bible defines righteousness is in terms of God’s commandments: “My tongue shall speak of Your word, for all Your commandments are righteousness” (Psalm 119:172).Even though we strive to be perfect, you don’t have to be perfect to be righteous. Romans 3:23 tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
That’s important—it tells us that we still need to put on righteousness even though we are not yet perfect. If complete perfection were a requirement, we’d all fall short of the standard.
Notice the account of Abraham as it is recorded in Romans 4: “He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. And therefore ‘it was accounted to him for righteousness’” (Romans 4:20-22).
Abraham began with an unwavering belief (faith) that God would do what He said. But he didn’t stop at a simple belief. Abraham based his actions in life on that faith in God!
Hebrews 11 gives a further account of the relationship between Abraham’s faith and his actions: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would afterward receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise” (Hebrews 11:8-9).
God’s commands are righteousness. Abraham backed up his faith with obedience to the commands he received from God, and if we do the same, it will be accounted for righteousness to us, just as it was to Abraham.
How can imperfect people be righteous?
It isn’t surprising that Abraham was listed in the Bible as an example of righteousness. His faith and willingness to obey God in whatever he was commanded are well documented. Let’s look at another man who was called righteous in the Bible—whose righteousness isn’t obvious at first glance. Let’s consider Abraham’s nephew Lot, who is listed as another righteous man.
Lot’s story is recorded in Genesis 19. He lived with his family in a city named Sodom—one of the cities later destroyed by God for the great wickedness that took place there.
In the first part of the chapter, two angels (appearing in the form of men) came to visit Lot. He fed them and gave them a night’s lodging in his house (Genesis 19:1-3). When men of the city came to the house and demanded that he send his visitors out to them to be sexually abused, Lot actually offered to send his daughters out instead!
The angels struck the men of the city blind to protect Lot and told him he needed to take his family and flee the city immediately. Lot initially lingered, but when the angels took him by the hand and told him to flee without looking back, he did so (Genesis 19:4-16).
How is it that Lot came to be called a righteous man? Notice 2 Peter 2:6-7: “And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly; and delivered righteous Lot, who was oppressed with the filthy conduct of the wicked.”
Though Lot had his shortcomings and human failings (as we all do!), God considered him to be a righteous man. Verse 8 sheds a little more light on why he was righteous: “For that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds.”
Rather than adopting the sinful ways of those around him, Lot continued to obey God and was deeply disturbed by the lawlessness and sin going on around him. And when God commanded him to flee the city, leaving behind his life as he knew it, Lot did so without looking back.
His obedience to God’s commands and his desire to follow God’s way of life made Lot a righteous man. And that “breastplate of righteousness” saved Lot from destruction!
The righteousness of God vs. the righteousness of man
What we as humans might consider to be righteous (and pleasing to God) doesn’t always line up with what God calls righteous.
Before he wrote about the armor of God, before he became a follower of Jesus Christ, Paul was a Pharisee.
The Pharisees were Jews who placed a heavy emphasis on obeying more than just God’s commandments—they obeyed an extra set of man-made commandments on top of God’s commandments. They believed their obedience to these extra commandments would keep them far from sin (and therefore make them righteous).
Years after his conversion, Paul wrote that his goal was to “gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Philippians 3:8-9).
Paul was referring to God’s law, not the man-made pharisaical laws. And though God’s laws define conduct that is righteous, even if we could keep those laws perfectly (and no one can), we still need the cleansing of past sins that only comes through faith in Christ’s redeeming death.
After Paul explained how Abraham’s faith was “accounted to him for righteousness,” he explained, “Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:23-25).
In other words, our goal is to put on God’s righteousness, and that righteousness becomes our own when we commit ourselves to step out in faith and obey God’s commandments.
How do we put on the breastplate of righteousness?
God’s commandments are righteousness (Psalm 119:172), and we can put on this breastplate by obeying God in our lives. How can we begin such a large task?
There is an ancient proverb that says the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In a similar way, the journey to put on the breastplate of righteousness begins with a single choice. Life involves a series of choices; and we can work at this one day at a time, choosing, with God’s help, to make our next choice a righteous one.
Notice again Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 10:5: “Casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.”
Every action begins with a thought, and our thoughts need to be brought in line with God’s words and commands. Correct (righteous) choices in life flow from a mind dwelling on God’s Word. The time to start this process is now!
What will your next choice be?
Learn more about God’s commandments that define righteousness in our free booklet God’s 10 Commandments: Still Relevant Today.