“Having put on the breastplate of righteousness” (Eph. 6:14b)
Jesus told His disciples in Matt. 23:3, “All that they (the scribes and Pharisees) tell you, do and observe, but do not according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.” The Pharisees were self-righteous, that is, they thought they were righteous in themselves and better than others. The Pharisees were also hypocrites. They held people to standards that they never kept. What does this have to do with marriage or the breastplate of righteousness? Everything.
Sometimes in a marriage a spouse can be self-righteous. They see themselves almost in terms of perfection. They think their righteousness, that is, their priorities, their convictions, their standards, are what hold a family together. In fact, it is tearing it apart. The self-righteous spouse holds their spouse to standards that the spouse could never live up to, and there is a constant air of condemnation. This is as common as it is deadly.
The imperfect spouse is dispirited because they can never do anything right. The self-righteous spouse tries harder and harder to exert control in order to get the marriage and family life in line with their impossible standards. The children see it. If the children are older, they too feel the condemnation. They either pretend to conform and become Pharisees themselves or become exasperated and believe a life of rebellion is easier. If they are younger, they are being groomed to be either a prodigal or the older brother.
The breastplate of righteousness in the armor of God is incredibly relevant. First, for the Pharisee, the breastplate of righteousness exposes the fact that their heart and vital organs (metaphorically speaking of course) are only protected by their own flimsy, sham righteousness. As long as that is their only protection, they will eventually collapse under this vulnerability.
The breastplate of righteousness speaks with clarity, telling us we need the righteousness of another, namely, the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Many spouses in Christian marriages may give lip service to this, but the question is a question of the heart, “Where do you find your righteousness? Your acceptance with God?” The breastplate of righteousness is first the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, which demands I give up my own righteousness. So if you are the self-righteous spouse, know this, your righteousness is filthy rags. The unattainable standard you hold your spouse or children to is what will condemn you on the last day. So repent of your self-righteousness, renounce it, seek forgiveness from those whom you condemned, and live free in the blood and righteousness of Jesus.
The breastplate of righteousness gives great comfort, but it is not only the imputed righteousness of Jesus. It is also the ethical righteousness that flows from being justified. Steven Baugh says, “If believers have any righteousness and integrity, it springs up as fruit from the free gift of Christ’s own righteousness send from above.” The spouse who finds himself or herself married to a Pharisee, needs the breastplate of righteousness too. They need to find their security and identity not in meeting the demands of their spouse, but in the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. But additionally, they need to respond in righteous ways to a tough marriage. The integrity and ethical righteousness that flows from the gift of righteousness needs to be kindness, tenderness, patience, love, and truth. The truly righteous spouse needs to act right when the self-righteous spouse is acting wrong.
The breastplate is what protected the vital organs. It was a crucial piece of defensive weaponry. In marriage, sometimes the wounds can be painful. What preserves the inner life is the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The good news is that both spouses, protected and covered by the breastplate of Christ’s righteousness can learn to love each other as justified, forgiven sinners who need the righteousness of Another every day. The realization that I need His righteousness and grace today to cover me, helps me extend grace and mercy to my spouse when they sin or fail. The realization that my spouse needs His righteousness and grace today to cover him/her, helps me to love him/her as Christ does. For a husband and wife to conscientiously find their protection and covering in justification by faith alone frees them from judgmentalism, condemnation, and self-righteousness. It also is a beautiful demonstration of the Gospel to the kids who see in mom and dad two believers who love each other in spite of their faults, who are quick to forgive and show grace.
How do we put on the breastplate of righteousness? We first renounce our own righteousness. Nothing I am and nothing I do makes me righteous in the eyes of God, even good things. Second, I admit my own inability, my own bankruptcy, my own sin. If I have been a Pharisee, I need to admit that too! Spend some time reading Matt. 23 if you need encouragement to repent of Pharisaism. Third, embrace Christ with a heart full of faith. Look to Him to truly be your righteousness. Finally, live in the atmosphere of imputed righteousness. That atmosphere is described for us in Eph. 4:32, “Be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving one another just as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
 S.M. Baugh, Ephesians, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 551.
Brian Borgman (BA, Biola University; MDiv, Western Conservative Baptist Seminary; DMin, Westminster Seminary; ThM, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary) is a pastor at Grace Community Church in Minden, NV. He is husband to Ariel and father of three.
Note: The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other contributors on this site.