Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 2/27/00
If we are going to walk worthily of our calling to be living stones in an eternal Temple to the glory of God's Son, i.e. in a Church that is not about us but about Christ, then we must be ready for a battle, for such a Church and such a salvation strike a death blow at the very root and foundation of Satan's kingdom. Therefore we take up the whole armor of God. Having last week girded our loins with Truth, we must now put on the Breastplate of Righteousness.
Just as the Girdle of Truth referred, first, to the objective Truth of the Gospel, and then also to the subjective reality of Truth living in us, so the Breastplate of Righteousness is first of all the objective righteousness of Justification by Faith and then also the subjective righteousness, based on that, of inward holiness or sanctification.
Our problem is Sin, which could be defined as the lack of righteousness. It separates us from God (Is. 59:2), who is the only possible souce of righteousness; it is universal (Rom. 3:23); it goes so deep that it even precludes our naturally coming to understand the problem or even ask for help (1 Cor. 2:14); and so it leaves us all subject to God's judgment and wrath. Obviously, before we can see God we must be restored to righteousness. There are only really two solutions to the problem that have ever been proposed. The one that naturally occurs to the human mind is that we must just make ourselves righteous, then, by self discipline, trying harder to be good, doing good works. We can call this approach "works righteousness." It is doomed to failure, even if we conceive ourselves as making these efforts with God's help. First, good works, even if we could acheive them, would not erase the guilt of previous sin. And where are they going to come from, since our very natures are corrupt? Then, even if we could acheive them, they would still (if done to merit salvation) be about me, which is contrary to the whole emphasis we have been seeing in Ephesians. Again, how would we ever know that we had done enough? When are we good enough? But it is even more hopeless. Good works done with the idea that by them we would merit salvation would not even be good works in the ultimate sense--since we would receive the glory for them (or even part of it) they would be tainted by idolatry--even the relatively good things we did would therefore always be partially sinful themselves, only compounding our guilt. When you try to dig out of the hole of sin with the shovel of good works, you are only digging yourself in deeper.
Fortunately, there is another option, the biblical one. We are not saved by our own subjective righteousness at all, but by another righteousness that is "out there," objective, belonging to Another. God does not accept us because we have made sufficient progress in the process of becoming righteous, but He declares us to be righteous, counts us as righteous, accepts us as righteous, and therefore treats us as if we were already righteous on the sole basis of Christ's substitutionary sacrifice. Because Christ died as our substitute, our sins are counted as His, His Death counts as our punishment, and His righteousness counts as ours. On this basis God accepts us and restores His relationship to us--which now gives us the only opportunity that there is to become actually righteous. But our acceptance is not based on our performance at all. This sets us forever free from the intolerable bondage of having to be good enough, and hence free to actually become good--not in order to win His favor but because He as already granted it. Nothing less can make sense of the language of Rom. 3, where justification is a gift, not the end of a process.
This is not only a brilliant solution, it is the only possible solution. To the extent that subjective righteousness--the righteousness of attainment, performance, works--sneaks back in to our concept of salvation, we are pushed by that works paradigm inevitably toward one of two ends. Either we think we have attained sufficient subjective righteousness, and hence become self-righteous and legalistic, imposing the same standards we think we have acheived on others (and they must always be shallow and arbitrary standards, or we would never have met them ourselves), or we must more honestly conclude that we have failed and must always fail to become good enough and end up in despair. But when we truly grasp the wonder of justification by faith alone, apart from works--that is by Christ's objective righteousness alone apart from our subjective attainments--then we are swept toward love and gratitude rather than guilt and fear as the motive for actual attainments in righteousness, and Christ is all in all.
But then there is a SUBJECTIVE side to righteousness as well. Those still in bondage to the works paradigm misunderstand justification by faith alone as leading to moral laxness. But their error is partly the failure to see justification as one part of a holistic salvation wrought by God to acheive His holistic purposes in us. It includes Justification, the removal of our guilt once and for all by God's sentence of "innocent before the Law," based ONLY on Christ's righteousness. But it also includes, based on that declaration, Sanctification, the process, inexhorable in true Believers, of becoming in actuality what God has already declared us to be and accepted us as being in Christ. It includes Regeneration, being brought from spiritual death to life, so that Sanctification becomes possible. It includes the indwelling Holy Spirit, who provides the inner spiritual dynamic which sets us on this trajectory of holiness. It includes being incorporated into Christ's body the Church, which provides nurture, training, accountability, and support in righteousness. All this is one package. To break it is to produce a fragmented Christian life. Though this may sadly have become normal in today's church, it is not normative. The point is that, rightly understood, it is precisely by excluding subjective righteousness as in any sense the ground or basis of Justification that Justification becomes the ground and basis that makes real subjective righteousness possible for us. This is the spiritual dynamic of the Gospel. To know it is to know God as Father; to miss it is to sense Him only as Judge.
How then does Righteousness function as spiritual ARMOR? Truth was the Girdle, and Righteousness is the Breastplate, which covers the vital organs, including the heart. In other words, without Truth you have not even begun; without Righteousness you will not survive. And it must begin with objective righteousness, what Luther called "alien righteousness," that which belongs only to Christ. As long as we proceed on the basis of works, we can never know that we are good enough; therefore our own position in Christ can never be a settled issue. How then are we to do battle for Him? As long as we are focussed on subjective attainments, we are fighting the wrong battle, and one that we will always loose. But when we think only of Christ, only of His righteousness, then we indeed can go forth with confidence, giving all the glory to Him. And when this confidence in Him and reliance wholely on Him--this Faith, in other words--produces its inevitable fruit of real subjective attainments in godliness, then our lives will truly be to His glory.
Having therefore been justified by Faith, we have peace with God. There is therefore no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. And let us therefore buckle on the Breastplate of Righteousness, that having done all, we may stand. Amen.
Here endeth the Lesson.