The breastplate of righteousness - between grace and responsibility.
Updated: Aug 8, 2022
"I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be obtained through the law, Christ died in vain!" (Gal 2:20ff NIV)
My dear friends,
May Holy Spirit guide this article.
May he guide me and teach me. How else could I write about the righteousness of God?
If I did, I would have to describe God.
The whole Bible praises his righteousness. Holy is he, and understanding this greatness will fail. If you search the Bible for righteousness, you will find 331 passages. And that's not even counting words like right or justice. So let's first look at what righteousness actually means, what God's righteousness means. If we are going to put on the breastplate of righteousness, then we should at least have some idea of what Paul is talking about here.
The Jewish term for righteousness that we encounter so many times is sädäq. It is an interactive term, a contract. Sädäq describes God's covenant faithfulness and a people who, in return, by their inward attitude and outward actions, represent their obedience, their devotion to God.
Furthermore, the Book of Amos in particular embodies what God sees as injustice and thus contrary to His righteousness:
Oppression, inequality, exploitation, false gods, self-aggrandizement and pride, arrogance. Also in Judges you find exactly this, before the Flood God also points this out and Jesus- he came especially and decisively for those who were in oppression and misery, angry against those who made a commodity and a good deal out of God. He came against all who looked down on others with contempt.
We cannot avoid the righteousness of God - and it, on the other hand, is what we all thirst for most.
And why? Oh, you know - life is not fair, no, not by any means.
It's just not ...righteous!
And the administration of justice is not fair. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that those who thirst for righteousness are blessed, for they will be filled. Does your heart still bleed for those who are oppressed and are little more than labor slaves? Does your heart still ache when you read in the news that children were found in a manufactory somewhere in India, half dead, making your shorts? Mine does, and I hope yours does too.
God himself - He is righteous. He offers all people an equal chance to be reconciled to Him. He makes it rain on everyone. He has given us all the opportunity to live on this earth. He has established principles and laws that will not be shaken in eternity.
But by our own strength we cannot keep the covenant with God.
Injustice took and takes over again and again. And even today, when we look at the world that insists so much on being "right" in everything, we find justice in last place. Yes, it may be right that a nurse earns just enough to survive. Yes, it may be right that a politician, an actor, a manager, on the other hand, earns so much money that he does not know what to do with it. It is so fixed, has to do with the position, with the education, with the rates. But righteous... it is hardly.
Yes, it may be right that a court has ruled that a child not grow up with the parents in the first place because of a history. But if the mother has done all she can and proven that she has learned from the past - is that righteous?
Injustice, oppression, taking advantage of positions of power, prejudice and undue hardship - they create suffering.
More and more, God's justice is being made into something that is unimaginably harsh and unmerciful, but isn't God's righteousness ultimately the fact that He gives equally to all? In our human view, we may not see that as righteous, and we who don't see that equality before God on earth tend to expect, even in the kingdom to come, that those who have done particularly well for Him will receive a higher reward than those who somehow screwed up or were not added to His flock before the end. Well, that's not true.
I thought long and hard about which Bible passage to choose for the breastplate of righteousness, and I settled on the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. It's in Matthew 20:1 ff and with one click you're at the parable:
I wonder: how much bitterness boils up in us when Jesus, at the end of all days, allots the same to everyone, individually because he knows us, but does not favor anyone? The same wedding feast for all?
That's a provocative question, isn't it?
It's about realizing that we are indeed saved by grace - and not by works. That we cannot add anything to our salvation. We are called to be Jesus' workers because we belong to Him - not for our own benefit. It is all about Him, it is all done.
However, it will be abundant what he gives - just as the said day laborer's wage given to the workers in the vineyard (Mt. 20) was a really good one that could keep them afloat for more than a day. It showed the goodness of the vineyard owner that he kept running personally to the marketplace to collect more poor people willing to work and give them a living. Those who were not employed by evening would otherwise not be able to provide for their families. So he called them to work, those who were left.
In poor areas, especially in Eastern Europe, you see these day laborers standing on the side of the road to this day, and those who cannot find work fall through all the nets.
In the parable, however, we see that those who worked from dawn to dusk expected a better wage than those whose situation they had shared just before.
The motive of the vineyard owner was not the reward for the work. It was salvation and generosity, and that is why he rejects them in the end. "I make no distinction, it is my money, my vineyard, my decision".
We cannot create righteousness by our own efforts. We compare, we compete, we are envious. We think we judge a situation correctly and become self-righteous. We cannot right all the wrongs of the world, and more than once we act out of our own self-interest rather than that of the common good or even God's will.
No, by our own efforts we have not earned God's righteousness, His generosity and faithfulness, His mercy and steadfast love.
We are justified. Nevertheless! We are justified through Jesus. "Covered with his blood" is the English expression.
"God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV).
So many put on the breastplate of righteousness, thinking that justification by grace and faith alone absolves them from the obligation to strive for and embody righteousness in their own lives.
"We can't save the world, only Jesus can" is a popular phrase among Christians, the half-truth of which rolls up my toenails at least a little. It is a very, very convenient phrase that, when in doubt, puts all personal responsibility back into the hands of God.
"By this we know who are the children of God and who are the children of the devil: Whoever does not do what is right is not God's child, and whoever does not love his brother and sister is not." ( 1 John 3:10 NIV)
"But you, man of God, flee from all these and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness." ( 1 Tim 6:11)
No, we are not exempt from responsibility. On the contrary, we are employed like laborers in a vineyard to receive a generous wage at the end of the day. Not one of the laborers is said to have lain down lazily in the vineyard, not doing the work his master had assigned him to do, thus insulting his generosity. He will hardly let such disrespect and ingratitude pass either. Beside that: Noone treats a friend, a father he loves that way.
We are not measured by our works. But if we love someone and see what he has done for us, we will begin to live in his spirit. To do his work, to work toward him with joy.
The breastplate of righteousness protects our heart from sharp arrows.
We are saved by grace, and therefore the arrows of unrighteousness can no longer destroy us - neither from within nor from without. And because this is so, we are called to make a difference and, out of the Holy Spirit, to become messengers of justice as a new creation, not profiting from others in our lives, but living with them and becoming ourselves a source of salvation for them.
So: let us be authentic, vulnerable and sincere. Let us be people who are righteous and not concerned with our own gain, grateful for the grace of salvation through Jesus and with hearts full of adoration for the one who awaits us at the end of all days.
In this way we become messengers of the Gospel of peace.
In love, be blessed.
Sibylle/Daughter of Zion.
The Bible. New International Version (NIV)
Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Was Not a European. The Culture of the Middle East and the Life World of the Gospels, SCM Verlag, German edition: 2018. (English: Jesus through middle eastern eyes. )