“He Descended into Hell”

posted by R. Fowler White

It’s an understatement to say that the last phrase of Article 4 of the Apostles’ Creed—He descended into hell—has generated a lot of controversy. Because its appearance in the Creed came later than its other articles and because its meaning is open to question, some advocate for removing it from the Creed’s publication or, at the very least, for excluding it from the Creed’s public recitation. Those opinions deserve our attention, but they are not conclusive. For our purposes here we’ll take our point of departure from J. A. MacCulloch’s work, The Harrowing of Hell (1930). He provides a fair and reasonable basis for the article’s acceptance for the church’s continued consideration and recitation as follows: “Although the confessional use of the Descent doctrine was only sporadic and occasional before the eighth century, on the other hand the doctrine itself was mentioned repeatedly by the Fathers and in the religious literature of the early centuries.” So it remains appropriate for us to look more closely at the interpretation of the Creed’s words He descended into hell.

Even with repeated mention of the Descent, there remains no consensus on its interpretation. Early on, the received text of the Creed’s Descent clause was typically taken as a simple declaration that Christ, having humbled Himself to be crucified, dead, and buried, had also been consigned to the common ignominious place of the dead, namely, the grave (as distinguished from the place of suffering-beyond-the-grave, namely, hell). As time moved on, however, various other views of the Descent arose. Some believed that after His death Christ’s disembodied soul went to hell in order to complete what was lacking in His suffering on the cross. Others affirmed that His soul went to the place of waiting for disembodied souls (aka limbus patrum) in order to facilitate the transport of the souls of pre-Christ saints to heaven. Still others believed that Christ’s soul went to hell in order to achieve and announce His victory over it.

Strikingly, despite their variety, common to these views is the belief that between His death and His resurrection Christ’s disembodied soul relocated to a place other than and in addition to the heavenly paradise of God to which He referred on the cross (Luke 23:43, 46; cf. Matt 27:50). Furthermore, as we look into the attempts to justify this belief, we realize that basically they involve imposing dubious interpretations of Eph 4:8-10 and 1 Pet 3:18-20 onto the supposed chronology and theology of events related to Christ’s soul between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Suffice it to say here that neither Eph 4:8-10 nor 1 Pet 3:18-20 refers to a relocation of Christ’s soul to hell. To the contrary, the Ephesians text affirms His descent from heaven to earth for His incarnation, while the First Peter passage contemplates His ascension (not His descent), in which was proclaimed His victories over sin, death, and all the fallen angelic host. In short, Scripture provides no witness to the relocation of Christ’s soul after His death to any place other than the paradise of God in heaven. In fact, the Creed itself seems to point the way to a better understanding of its Descent clause. That clue appears when we notice the likeness between the second article and the words dealing with Christ’s suffering. Even as the second article presents distinguishable perspectives on Christ’s person in the two phrases His only Son and our Lord, so the words about His suffering present distinguishable perspectives in the two phrases was crucified, dead, and buried and He descended into hell. We can elaborate briefly by looking first to Scripture and then to the Westminster and Heidelberg catechisms.

Turning to the Prophets and Apostles, we find that they vividly narrate the incarnate Son’s suffering in both soul and body from Gethsemane to the grave. For example, Isaiah, cited by Peter (1 Pet 2:22-25), prophesied expressly about the anguish of soul and body that would arise in the Lord’s Servant as He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isa 53:4), was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities (53:5), endured our chastisement (53:5), and bore the iniquities and sin of many (53:11-12). Isaiah saw that, despite His innocence, the Servant would be stricken for the transgression of the Lord’s people, enduring even the degradation of being cut off from the land of the living (53:8) and swallowed up into the belly of the grave (53:9). Indeed, the Prophet discerned that deepest misery would be His because it was the will of the Lord to crush Him and cause Him to suffer, and because the Lord imputed to Him the iniquity of us all (53:6). Isaiah thus envisioned the Lord’s righteous Servant voluntarily subjecting Himself to be for His many seed their guilt offering, their sin-bearing substitute, their surety (53:10-12). Fittingly, we find Matthew reporting Jesus’ words to His disciples in Gethsemane: “My soul is very sorrowful even to death.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Climactically, Matthew records Jesus’ dying words as those from David’s prophetic psalm about God’s royal Son who had put Himself in harm’s way for His people: About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46; Ps 22:1; cf. Heb 5:7).

Reading such words, we have to ask ourselves: what is Jesus’ lament if not the incarnate Son’s disclosure of the otherwise indiscernible truth that, on the tree (Deut 21:23), He had become a curse for us (Gal 3:13), that for our sake God had made Him to be sin who knew no sin (2 Cor 5:21)? Is His lament something other than His testimony to the gravest torment of a soul subjected to divine judgment, a torment compounding the sheer agony in a body brutalized by human hands? Are those words anything but His witness to the hellish suffering that He underwent in accord with divine foreordination and prophecy, while drinking the cup of God’s holy wrath against us sinners (Matt 26:39, 42) and bearing and feeling the crushing weight of God’s just anger against our iniquities imputed to Him? Reading this sampling of what the Prophets and Apostles tell us about Christ’s suffering, we realize that it is not the case that between His death and His resurrection His soul relocated to hell. Rather it is the case that, in God’s reckoning, when He laid our iniquities on His incarnate Son, He effectively relocated hell onto Christ Himself such that from Gethsemane to the grave His humiliation for sinners reached its nadir in both soul and body.

Compelled by Scripture texts like those above, we appreciate the help offered for our understanding of the Descent clause in the Reformed catechisms of Heidelberg and Westminster. Heidelberg instructs us why the Creed adds the clause He descended into hell in these words: “To assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment” (Q & A 44). In a complementary fashion, Westminster takes us back to the earliest interpretation of the Creed’s most contested clause. After expounding Christ’s humiliation in His death in the Larger Catechism Q & A 49, we read in Q & A 50 that His “humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.” Taken together, these catechisms assist us to see in the Descent clause what Ursinus suggested in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (p. 232): “the descent into hell in the Creed follows the burial of Christ, not because it was accomplished after his burial; but because it is an explanation of what precedes concerning his passion, death, and burial, lest something should be detracted from these.” In that light, many will find good reason to include and recite the words of the Descent clause. In them we confess that the benefits of Christ’s suffering for us sinners extend from the visible to the invisible, even from the least extreme to the most extreme torments, pains, anguish, and ignominy of both soul and body. Certainly, we recognize too with Olevianus (see his A Firm Foundation, p. 71) that “the further Christ humbled Himself for us in all His anguish, and the more dearly He paid for our salvation, the more firm our trust in the love of God and in the satisfaction of Jesus Christ becomes.”

We reflect on Article 5 of the Creed here.

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology, Take Three

(Posted by Paige)

Here is a link to a 30-minute talk that I gave at a Bible study conference this October. It’s another introduction to redemptive history, this time tracing the theme of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles through the Old and New Testaments. I also play around with a connection between the Syrophoenician woman and Paul’s words about the “mystery” of Gentile inclusion in Ephesians 3. It’s on YouTube this time NOT because it’s a video of me speaking, but because I made slides to illustrate the audio. Please listen if you like, and pass the link on to others who might benefit, especially those who are just getting to know the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria!

The Bride of Christ

(Posted by Paige)

A friend and I were discussing this biblical metaphor this morning, and I thought to cast this question out to all of you as well: Do you think it is in keeping with biblical intent to speak of the marriage of God or Christ to individual believers as well as to the Church corporate?

In his preaching and writing, my friend will speak in terms of both individual and corporate marriage as rich expressions of God’s/Christ’s relationship of union with believers. I am not sure that he is wrong to do so, but I am personally less comfortable speaking of the individual’s “marriage relationship” with Christ (or calling the individual believer the “Bride” of Christ), simply because in both OT and NT usage God and Christ are never (as far as I can see) said to be “married” to individuals, but only to the corporate bodies of Israel or the Church (cf. Is. 62:3-5; Jer. 2; Eph. 5; Rev. 21). On the other hand, there are plenty of relational metaphors available in the Bible that express the individual’s relationship to God and Christ: child, sibling, friend, sheep, servant (even slave), soldier, citizen, etc.

Is the application to individuals of this “marriage” metaphor a fair implication of the corporate picture of Christ’s Bride, or do you think it is beyond the intent of the scriptural witness? If the latter, do you perceive any harmful or misleading influence in speaking this way?

If, on the other hand, you think it is a fair way to picture Christ’s union with the believer, how can it be framed in teaching and preaching so that the individual does not lose sight of the corporate nature of being the Bride of Christ?

Thanks for your thoughts!

Finished Ephesians!

By God’s grace, I have finished preaching through Ephesians. It has been exhausting, as Paul is always exhausting (since it is always difficult to know what to omit). I have now started on Daniel, and hope to make it a fairly short series (about 16 or 17 messages, far fewer than Ephesians’ 56 sermons). Anyway, here is an index of all the Ephesians sermons.

Introduction to Ephesians

Chapter 1

Dear Ephesians (1:1-2); God’s Plan (1:3-6); Redeemed By the Blood of the Lamb (1:7-8a); The Mystery of Christ (1:8b-10); God’s Powerful Plan (1:11-12); Sealed and Guaranteed (1:13-14); That You May Know God (1:15-19); God’s Power For Us (1:20-23)

Chapter 2

What’s Your Problem? (2:1-3); But God Made Us Alive (2:4-7); The Gift of God’s Grace (2:8-10); Brought Near By the Blood of Christ (2:11-13); Law and Peace (2:14-16); Peace Leading to God (2:17-18 ); You Belong (2:19-22)

Chapter 3

A Mystery Revealed (3:1-6); Grace and Humility (3:7-8a); Our Audience (3:8b-13); God’s Power In You (3:14-16); Filled With the Love of Christ (3:17-19), audio; Soli Deo Gloria (3:20-21), audio;

Chapter 4

Indicative and Imperative (4:1-2), audio; Walk Worthy of the Calling (4:1-3), audio; One God, One Church (4:4-6), audio; Use Your Gifts! (4:7-10); The Purpose of Ministers (4:11-13); Growth in Truth and Love (4:14-16), audio; What We Were (4:17-19), audio; What You Are (4:20-24), audio; Speaking the Truth (4:25), audio; Anger (4:26), audio; Do Not Give the Devil a Foothold (4:27), audio; Don’t Steal, But Work (4:28 ); Every Last Word (4:29), audio; Do Not Grieve the Holy Spirit (4:30), audio; Not Anger, But Forgiveness (4:31-32)

Chapter 5

Like Father, Like Children (5:1-2); No Impurity (5:3-5); Empty Words and Peer Pressure (5:6-7); Awake, O Child of Light! (5:8-14); Filled With What? (5:15-20); Submission? What’s That? (5:21-24); Husbands, Love Your Wives! (5:25-27), audio; Marriage and Church (5:28-33), audio;

Chapter 6

Children, Obey Your Parents (6:1-3), audio; Parenting: Nurture, Not Exasperation (6:4), audio; How Shall We Then Work? (6:5-9), audio; The Full Armor of God (6:10-13)audio; Truth as a Belt (6:14a), audio; Breastplate of Righteousness (6:14b)audio; Readiness of the Gospel (6:15), audio; Shield of Faith (6:16), audio; Helmet of Salvation (6:17), audio; Pray in the Spirit (6:18-20)audio; Final Greetings (6:21-24), audio

Final Greetings

Ephesians 6:21-24


Audio Version

One Peanuts cartoon shows Linus and Charlie Brown talking together, and they are talking about the Bible. Linus is talking about Paul’s letters, and he says that it always feels strange reading Paul’s letters, since it feels like he is reading someone else’s mail. It certainly does feel that way when we hear from Paul’s letters about people we don’t know very well, like this Tychicus. However, there are lessons we can learn from Tychicus, as well as from the final benediction. Final greetings often sum up the message of the whole letter. So we also will reflect on the message of Ephesians as a whole, now that we have gone through the entire letter.

Firstly, what do we learn from Tychicus? From the four other times his name is mentioned in the Bible, we learn these important facts: Tychicus was in Ephesus on one of Paul’s missionary journeys, and was quite possibly one of Paul’s first converts. Tychicus was from Ephesus itself, and was therefore known to the other believers in Ephesus. Secondly, Tychicus was one of two people Paul took with him on his third missionary journey (the other being Trophimus). Therefore, Tychicus was a fellow missionary with Paul. He went through the same trials that Paul went through. He was someone as close as a brother to Paul. He never abandoned Paul like John Mark did. Therefore, he earned Paul’s undying love and trust. Tychicus was almost certainly the one who carried this letter to the Ephesians, and might even have been involved in writing down what Paul wanted to say. Paul also sent Tychicus to relieve Timothy and Titus successively. So, Tychicus was a very versatile worker. Paul could send this jack of all trades anywhere to do anything. He was therefore a right hand man to Paul. No wonder Paul calls him “the dear brother and faithful servant.” I suspect that when Paul told the Ephesians that Tychicus will tell them everything, that that even includes some kind of explanation of what Paul meant in this letter. Certainly, it also included a description of how Paul was doing, and what Paul was doing. At the very least, encouragement was necessary, since the Ephesians had heard that Paul was in prison. They needed to know how Paul was doing in prison.

So, how do we evaluate Tychicus? Certainly, Tychicus was essential to Paul’s ministry. He was kind of quiet. He didn’t write anything that has his name on it, even though he may have been involved in writing Ephesians and Colossians. He was a courier for the Word of God. He carried the Word of God. This shows us that everyone has their part to play. If Tychicus had not done what God had called him to do, then the Ephesians Christians would never have heard from Paul. We would have lost this letter and Colossians, if not for Tychicus. Tychicus might not even have been aware of the fact that this was an inspired writing. And yet, he carried it. He did his small part for the kingdom of God. And we find out that it is not so small after all. In fact, there are no small, insignificant callings in the body of Christ. Take motherhood, for instance, appropriate on Mother’s Day. Many people today think that a career is much more important than being a mother. I would argue that Scripture states that a mother’s most important job is to be a mother. But it is not really a job, after all. It is a calling. If you are a mother, it is because God has called you to be a mother. You have God’s own blessing on your motherhood. You were meant to be a mother. It didn’t somehow happen by accident. You know, one of the Ten Commandments is about honoring parents, and if God wants parents and parenting honored, then so should we honor our parents, and we should also honor parenting itself. Let no one despise motherhood. Let no one value a career over motherhood if they are in fact mothers. But the example of Tychicus applies to all honorable callings. If God has called you to do a task, then it doesn’t matter how small or insignificant you think it is, it is not small or insignificant. If you are taking out the garbage,you should do that to the glory of God. If you go to school, you should do that to the glory of God. If you can find a way to help other Christians exercise their spiritual gifts, then that is certainly to the glory of God. In fact, it is in those small things that the glory of God is most important, because it s the small things that take up the majority of our lives. And God cares about how we do them.

Moving on to the benediction, we can see four words that help us summarize the message of Ephesians. Those four words are peace, love, faith and grace. We’ll start with grace. Paul took great pains in the first chapter and a half to talk about the fact that we are saved by grace. We cannot even take any credit for the faith which God gives us. Salvation is of God, and from God. Of course, we are to respond to this great gift of salvation by doing those good deeds which we were predestined to do. But God gets all the glory for our salvation. Then, in chapter 2, verse 11 through chapter 3, Paul tells us about the peace we have with God that leads to the peace we have with one another. He tells us how those two aspects of peace are related. Peace with God results in peace with fellow believers. Then in chapter 4 through the first part of chapter 6, we see how we are to love one another. We are to imitate God, seeking unity in the body of Christ, submitting as we ought to those in authority over us, and loving those committed to our care as Jesus Christ loves us. Then, in the armor passage, we are called to faith. In faith are we to stand against the devil and against his schemes. So, then we can see that these four words: grace, peace, love, and faith are a summary of what Paul wants to tell us in Ephesians. These words all operate in the context of the church, which is the one great theme of Ephesians. Ephesians is about the body of Christ. In a way, it is also fitting that we remember Pentecost in this final sermon on Ephesians, since it was on Pentecost that God established the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in power with His church.

So, in considering grace, peace, love, and faith in the context of the church, we have to ask these very important questions: how important is the church to you? It was the early church father Cyprian of Carthage who once said that you cannot have God as your Father without having the church as your mother. John Calvin said the same thing. On Mother’s Day, do you remember that the church is your spiritual mother? Do you remember that it is the church that nurses you with spiritual milk? Do you remember that it is the church that eventually gives you spiritual meat from the Word of God? You might remember that the fifth commandment tells us to honor our father and our mother. Included in that commandment is the command to honor our spiritual Father, who is God Almighty, and to honor our spiritual mother, the church. It is not honoring to your spiritual mother to neglect the attendance of weekly worship, or any other opportunity to fellowship with God’s people and to learn from God’s Word. We should desire to come to every service or Bible study that the church offers. How about the evening worship service? That is a time when the church wants to feed you. Where is your hunger? If your children are not hungry, do you not begin to worry about their health? In the same way, if you do not hunger for the Word of God with every fiber of your spiritual being, then the church starts to worry about you. Come to the feast morning and night. There is no real reason why we all cannot come to the evening service, is there? Honor your spiritual mother church by coming whenever she offers food. She wants to bless you, not to burden you. She wants you to feel the blessing of beginning and ending the Lord’s Day in worship of God, and in hearing from Him. She wants you to grow as much as you can by eating all that you can. And by the way, there is no such thing as gluttony of eating the Word of God too much. You can never have too much.

You will hear about grace, peace, love, and faith in the church. You will hear about Jesus Christ as the answer to our spiritual problem of sin and spiritual death. You will hear about everything God has done in the pages of the Bible, the whole counsel of God. We should strive to want to hear the whole counsel of God.

So that is Paul’s message. God has given grace to us in order that we might have peace. As the letter began with grace and peace, so also does it end with grace and peace. This results in our love for God and our love for one another. And in this way, our faith grows and grows, as we hear about all the things that God has done for us. So Paul says farewell to us for a while, until we look at another one of his letters. But it is only the beginning for us to put into practice what Paul has told us, what God has told us through Paul.

Pray in the Spirit

Ephesians 6:18-20


Audio Version

A man took his small son with him to town one day to run some errands. When lunch time arrived, the two of them went to a familiar cafe for a sandwich. The father sat down on one of the stools at the counter and lifted the boy up to the seat beside him. They ordered lunch, and when the waiter brought the food, the father said, “Son, we’ll just have a silent prayer.” Dad got through praying first and waited for the boy to finish his prayer, but his son just sat with his head bowed for an unusually long time. When the son finally looked up, his father asked him, “What in the world were you praying about all that time?” With the innocence and honesty of a child, he replied, “How do I know? It was a silent prayer.” Certainly, this is a good example of how not to pray! Paul is going to tell us about how to pray. Prayer is one of the means of grace. And it is so important to us, that, in effect, Paul tells us that the entire armor of God has to go on with prayer. It is with prayer that we buckle that truth around our waists. It is with prayer that we receive that breastplate or righteousness to put on our chests. It is with prayer that we put on that readiness of the Gospel of peace. It is with prayer that we take up that shield of faith. It is with prayer that we fasten on that helmet of salvation. It is with prayer that we take up the sword of the Spirit. Prayer is not one of the pieces of the armor of God. Rather, it is the way in which we put on all the armor of God. This is really one of the most comprehensive statements about prayer in the entire Bible. It tells us how to pray, when to pray, what to pray, and for whom to pray. Let’s take these one at a time.

Firstly, we are to pray in the Spirit. This is how we are to pray. Just as the Sword is the Sword of the Spirit, so are we to pray in the Spirit. What does this mean? It means that we recognize that the Holy Spirit is the one who prays our prayers to God. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words. When our prayers ascend to God like the incense did in the Old Testament, it is the Holy Spirit who purifies our prayers, takes out that sin from our prayers, and presents the purified result to the Father. So it means recognizing that the Holy Spirit is our Comforter.

It also means that we pray for God’s will to be done, since it is the Holy Spirit who accomplishes the will of God. So often we pray that our will be done, instead of God’s will. We pray to God with a laundry list of things that need to be done, or things that need to be ours. Instead, we should remember the helpful acronym ACTS. A stands for adoration. We adore God in our prayers. We praise Him for who He is, and for what He has done. C stands for confession. We must confess our sins to God if we expect Him to hear us. It is better to pray for the forgiveness of sins right after you praise God for who He is, since praising God for who He is reminds us of how far short we fall. And it is good to confess sins before you ask God to give you anything. I fear that we oftentimes tack on our request for the forgiveness of sins at the very end of our prayer, as if it is an afterthought. There is a reasonable order to these things. That is not to say that you have to pray this way every time. However, we need to think about how we pray, and not rush into things. Well, after we have confessed our sins, then we thank God for His blessings. That is what the T in ACTS means. Thanksgiving is so important. We must be grateful to God for all He has done, and for all He has given us. Again, we usually give a long list of things we want from God without giving God thanks for what He has given us. Our prayers often sound a lot like Anne’s prayer in Anne of Green Gables: “Gracious Heavenly Father, I thank Thee for the White Way of Delight and the Lake of Shining Waters and Bonny and the Snow Queen. I’m really extremely grateful for them. And that’s all the blessings I can think of just now to thank Thee for. As for the things I want, they’re so numerous that it would take a great deal of time to name them all, so I will only mention the two most important. Please let me stay at Green Gables; and please let me be good-looking when I grow up. I remain, Yours respectfully, Anne Shirley.” Another great example of how not to pray! And so, rather than pray selfishly, we should pray as God has taught us to pray. We should pray in the Spirit.

We should also pray with great vigilance. Paul tells us to be alert when we pray. Oftentimes, we think of prayer as a thing to do when we’re tired. And, since we usually close our eyes to pray, that’s the next thing to a nice long nap! We should rather be awake and give all due diligence to our prayers. When Martin Luther’s puppy happened to be at the table, he looked for a morsel from his master, and watched with open mouth and motionless eyes; he (Martin Luther) said, ‘Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, wish or hope.” I have said this before, but it bears repeating. You can pray with your eyes open. This means that you can pray when you are driving your car or tractor. What a great way to use all of that time! Yes, you do need to pay attention to what you are doing. However, most people can have a radio going on while they drive. If you can have a radio going on, then you can also pray. So, the “how” of praying has to do with praying in the Spirit, and praying with great vigilance.

The second thing we need to know is when to pray. Paul says to pray on all occasions. Then a little later he says that we are always to keep on praying. Everyone knows how to pray when they are in danger, or when the stress level is as high as it seems possible to have. Anyone can pray in that kind of situation. However, are we so quick to pray when something good happens? Are we quick to pray when things are peaceful and quiet? Are we quick to pray when small irritations come our way? The fact is that we need to be in a praying frame of mind all the time. One author put it this way: we should lift up our hearts to heaven, and keep them there so that we can always run to our Heavenly Father and pray to Him. Certainly, as John Newton said, “He who runs from God in the morning will scarcely find Him the rest of the day.” Stay close to God all the day. You will find that temptation has much less hold over you. And you will find it easier and more fulfilling to pray to God in this way. So, we are to pray in the Spirit, and we are to pray all the time. Of course, we don’t have to be in actual prayer every minute. However, we are to have that praying frame of mind.

Thirdly, we are to pray all kinds of prayers. As we have seen, we should pray praise to God, confession to God, thanks to God, and supplication to God. It is not wrong to pray for the things you want, though it is far better to pray for the things you really need. Our wants and our needs are not the same things. We want what we need, but we certainly don’t need all the things we want! What do we really need? Physically, we need food, clothing, shelter, and transportation. Spiritually, we need Jesus. Those are our needs. Everything else, and I mean everything else, is something that we want rather than need. We need to be content when God gives us everything we need, even if that doesn’t mean we have everything we want. Still, we are to pray all kinds of prayers. No kind of prayer is to be ignored.

Fourthly, we are to pray for all the saints. This is as broad as the church itself in all parts of the world. Pray for those saints you know by name. (And, by the way, the word “saints” here means Christians, not first-class citizens of the kingdom of God, as opposed to second-class citizens). Anyway, pray for those saints you know by name. Then pray for all those saints you do not know by name. Pray for saints in other countries. Pray for the persecuted church. Pray for new believers. Pray for missionaries and pastors. Notice here that Paul even requests the Ephesians to pray for him! It is most instructive to see what Paul asks the Ephesians to pray for. He doesn’t ask them to pray for an easy life, free of pain. He asks them to pray for boldness so that the Gospel will go forth. He wants the Ephesians to pray that evangelism will happen! Paul wants the Ephesians to pray that he will not fear man, but only God. Notice something very striking here. Paul calls himself an ambassador in chains. That is almost a contradiction in terms. In normal societies, ambassadors have diplomatic immunity. Countries need to be able to talk to each other, so most countries grant diplomatic immunity to ambassadors from other countries. This is very important to the right relationship of countries. However, Paul does not have diplomatic immunity! And he is an ambassador for the greatest kingdom that has ever been or ever will be! He is ambassador for the King of kings and Lord of lords. And yet, he is in chains! So also we cannot expect such diplomatic immunity. There is a price to pay for sharing the Gospel. And we are to be willing to pay that price. So, we are to pray in the Spirit and with great vigilance. We are to pray all the time. We are to pray all kinds of prayers. And we are to pray for all the saints.

I will close with this illustration of the power of prayer. Dr. Helen Roseveare, missionary to Zaire, told the following story. “A mother at our mission station died after giving birth to a premature baby. We tried to improvise an incubator to keep the infant alive, but the only hot water bottle we had was beyond repair. So we asked the children to pray for the baby and for her sister. One of the girls responded. ‘Dear God, please send a hot water bottle today. Tomorrow will be too late because by then the baby will be dead. And dear Lord, send a doll for the sister so she won’t feel so lonely.’ That afternoon a large package arrived from England. The children watched eagerly as we opened it. Much to their surprise, under some clothing was a hot water bottle! Immediately the girl who had prayed so earnestly started to dig deeper, exclaiming, ‘If God sent that, I’m sure He also sent a doll!’ And she was right! The heavenly Father knew in advance of that child’s sincere requests, and 5 months earlier He had led a ladies’ group to include both of those specific articles.” So pray, dear brothers and sisters!

The Helmet of Salvation

Ephesians 6:17


Audio Version

The citizens of Feldkirch, Austria, didn’t know what to do. Napoleon’s massive army was preparing to attack. Soldiers had been spotted on the heights above the little town, which was situated on the Austrian border. A council of citizens was hastily summoned to decide whether they should try to defend themselves or display the white flag of surrender. It happened to be Easter Sunday, and the people had gathered in the local church. The pastor rose and said, “Friends, we have been counting on our own strength, and apparently that has failed. As this is the day of our Lord’s resurrection, let us just ring the bells, have our services as usual, and leave the matter in His hands. We know only our weakness, and not the power of God to defend us.” The council accepted his plan and the church bells rang. The enemy, hearing the sudden peal of bells, concluded that the Austrian army had arrived during the night to defend the town. Before the service ended, the enemy broke camp and left. The hope of salvation is so powerful. It is a helmet for us in the time of trouble. It protected the people of Feldkirch, and it will protect us also.

Paul continues on in his description of the armor of God, coming now to the helmet. We have seen that every piece of armor is vitally important if the believer is to fight Satan properly. The helmet is no exception. After all, a helmet protects the head. Most people generally want to keep their heads. So, if that is so, then we must cling to salvation literally for dear life. Now, a helmet is a very easy piece of armor to understand. There really isn’t anything I need to explain about how a helmet works. It has always worked the same way through the history of mankind. It protects the head. The only thing remaining is to explain the term “salvation,” and then examine how it protects us. It does not somehow protect our logical mind. Ancient people did not think of their mind as being in their head, believe it or not. They believed that their “brain” was part of the chest. So, we should not be looking for some kind of mysterious way in which salvation protects our minds, although it certainly does do that. It is another part of the armor that is essential, because it protects an essential part of us.

Salvation means two things in the Bible. Firstly, salvation refers to that point in time when we come to faith in Jesus Christ. At that point in time, we are justified by God’s grace when He declares us not guilty, and also declares that we are heirs of the kingdom of God. This happens because Christ’s righteousness is reckoned to be ours. Furthermore, God adopts us as His children, and implants the Holy Spirit in us so that we will become more and more holy throughout life. So, our sins are all forgiven when we come to faith. In this sense, we will never be more saved than we are right now.

However, that is not the only way that the Bible uses the term salvation. We only have to go to 1 Thessalonians 5:8 to realize this: “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” The hope of salvation indicates something that we do not fully have yet, since no one hopes for what he already has. In this sense, the Bible means the whole Christian life from conversion all the way through life, through death, and including resurrection from the dead. That is something that we do not have, at least in its fullness. We must keep in mind these two definitions of salvation, because great confusion can happen if do not keep them distinct. For one thing, when we think of salvation as that point of time when we come to faith, we have to exclude all works of any kind from that salvation. In that salvation, works play no part whatsoever. However, in the broader sense, which includes our whole lives, our works do play a role. They are essential, as a matter of fact. So, are works necessary for salvation? No, in the first sense, yes in the second sense. If we include works in the first sense, then we have to do something to obtain favor with God. The Bible everywhere condemns such thinking. However, excluding works from the second sense would mean that it doesn’t matter what we do.

However, we must be even more careful, because we cannot say that our works are done in our own strength, nor can we say in any way that eternal life depends on them. Our good works earn rewards above and beyond salvation, but they only earn those rewards because of God’s grace. As one writer puts it, God crowns His own gifts to us. Ultimately, they are to be for God’s glory, and not our own. However, God has promised that He will reward us for those good works.

So, it is this understanding that helps protect us. How does it protect us? Well, for one thing, Satan is always seeking to attack our salvation. There are a myriad of ways he does this. He will seek to get us to be afraid that we have sinned our way out of salvation, or that because God has hidden Himself, He has abandoned us. Or, that we are just a little bit better than our neighbor. The answer to all these things is still to come back to the Gospel.

So what do you do when you have sinned, and you feel guilty about it, and are afraid that God has given you over to your sin? Maybe it is a sin that you have committed many times, and cannot seem to get over it. What do you do? You remember your helmet. Salvation is not something that you can take on and off. In that respect, actually, it is not like a helmet. However, when we remember that we are always at war, then the parallel becomes exact again, because as long as we are at war, we need to have our helmet on. I remember a scene from a war movie where a surgeon was not wearing his helmet. The commanding officer told him that he had to wear a helmet. The surgeon said that he couldn’t use his stethoscope if he wore his helmet. The general told him to cut two holes in his helmet so that he could. We like to put up excuses for not wearing this helmet in wartime, but the fact is that always having it on is the wisest course of action. So, back to our question, what do you do? Remembering your helmet means that you remember what Christ has done for you. You remember that you are now a temple of the Holy Spirit. You remember that God will always forgive a penitent heart. There are no exceptions to that. A penitent heart God will not despise, says the Psalmist. We need to come back to the Gospel. Our forgiveness once for all is dependent on what Jesus has done for us. When that happens, we are forgiven of all our sins past, present and future. However, that is not the only kind of forgiveness we need. That kind of forgiveness saves us from the wrath of God. However, when we sin as Christians, we incur God’s fatherly displeasure. That means that we need to ask forgiveness every day for our offenses. That is why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “forgive us our debts.” That is, forgive us our sins, forgive us what we owe and cannot repay. After you have asked God for forgiveness, then you need to pray to the Lord for help and strength to resist that temptation better the next time it comes around. This is extremely important to remember, because victory on the battlefield of sin is a cumulative thing. The more battles you win by God’s help, the less that sin will have any hold over you. It is always an uphill battle, but there is increasing victory that you can have.

Now supposing your particular problem is not a particular sin, but rather that you doubt your salvation. This helmet is impervious to Satan’s attack. If you are in fact truly saved, then the helmet will not come off. Comfort for doubters can be found in the promises of God. Remember this, that if you have ever truly experienced the grace of God, you cannot lose it. God may be hidden from you right now, but that is only to make you seek Him more. It is never to make you doubt. Only Satan wants those doubts. God wants you to trust Him more. These promises will enable us to doubt our doubts. Salvation is not temporary. Salvation is permanent. The story is told of the great Englishman Oliver Cromwell on his deathbed. He asked the ministers there (John Owen and Thomas Goodwin, both renowned Puritans) if we could be sure of salvation. They responded by saying that if he had ever experienced true grace, then he could be sure that it had never left. On hearing that, Cromwell was happy, and he said that he had no fears then, for he knew that he had received grace before. Fortunately for us, grace is not dependent on our feelings. Just because we feel something wonderful doesn’t mean that it is grace. So also, just because we don’t feel wonderful doesn’t mean that grace is absent. Grace makes itself known in strange ways sometimes. Grace always makes us grow, and that is a hard thing for us to learn.

And so, whether our problem is a particular sin, or whether it is doubt, we need to put on our helmet of salvation, which is sure to protect us from Satan’s blows.

The Shield of Faith

Ephesians 6:16


Audio Version

The story is told of a teacher who wanted to prove to his class the law of the pendulum. The law of the pendulum states that if you release a pendulum, and it swings to the side, when it comes back it will never reach as high as its starting point. Gravity and air friction will slow it down. So the teacher demonstrated this with a small pendulum he had made for the class. Every time the pendulum came on the back swing, he marked the spot where it came up the highest. Every mark was a little bit lower than the previous mark. However, the lesson was not over. He had a much larger pendulum hanging from the middle of the science room. He asked the students whether they believed that the law of the pendulum was true. They all said yes. So he then got one of the students to stand next to a wall. He held the pendulum an inch from the student’s nose. He asked the student if the student believed that if the teacher let go of the pendulum, the student’s nose would not be in any danger. The student said that he believed that. However, he was sweating already. The teacher released the pendulum. On the back swing, the student simply couldn’t take it, and quickly got out of the way. The teacher then asked the room full of students whether this one student really believed the law of the pendulum. They all answered “NO!” And that was true. The student didn’t really believe it, did he? If he had, he wouldn’t have needed to get out of the way, since he was as safe where he was as he would be anywhere else in the room. What he lacked was faith. Faith would have shielded the student from that pendulum, because the student would have known that the pendulum couldn’t touch him. It looked like the pendulum could. However, the law of the pendulum said that the student was safe. This illustration comes from Ken Davis’s book How to Speak to Youth. Our faith needs to be the kind that will stand firm even when it looks like Satan is going to get us. To understand what Paul is saying here, we must understand what a shield was in Roman times, and how it was used.

There were two kinds of shields used in Roman times. First, there was the smallish round shield that was used in hand to hand combat. It was lighter, made of wood usually, and had a leather covering. That is not the kind of shield that Paul mentions here in the text. The shield that Paul is talking about was the long shield, rectangular in shape, although it bowed out in the middle. It also had a leather covering, and an iron point in the middle of the shield, pointing towards the enemy. That point had a purpose. It was not just for show. It was there so that direct attacks on the shield would be somewhat deflected, and therefore lose some of their force. This shield covered the whole person. The soldier could hide behind this shield and be safe from arrows, spears, or swords. Furthermore, this shield was usually drenched in water before battle, since arrows were often dipped in pitch and set aflame. Those arrows would then thud into the shield and be extinguished by the water-drenched leather. Or, they would bounce off the shield, fall into the ground, and be extinguished. Either way, this shield was an extremely effective piece of defensive armor.

However, there is one more aspect of this shield that is important for us to recognize. This shield worked the best when it went lock step with other soldiers’ shields. If a whole row of soldiers held their shields together, then hardly any arrow could attack, even from an angle. One shield all by itself could not defend from an arrow that comes from an oblique angle. But a whole row of shields could. Normally, the Roman army marched into battle with a protective wall of shields all around the outside of the square of solders. Those in the middle would hold their shields overhead. This would prevent arrows from getting at them from above. When this happened, the entire square (called a phalanx) could reach the scene of battle without loss of life from arrows. It allowed them to close with the enemy with their full numbers intact. This is the metaphor which Paul uses to convey what faith is like.

Faith is like a shield. Because it lays hold of Christ, faith covers us with the righteousness of Christ, which is immune to the attacks of Satan. Satan wants to accuse us as being not worthy of the kingdom of God. He would be right, if we didn’t have that shield. Our unprotected person would be completely open to Satan’s attacks in this regard. But our shield protects us. Now, we must be careful here. It is not faith as we exercise it, in and of itself, that protects us. Faith does not shield us because of the fact that we have it. It shields us because of the object of our faith. Faith lays hold of Christ. Faith opens up to Him. Faith is like a pair of tongs with which we take hold of something that would otherwise be too hot for us to hold with our bare hands. Faith is an empty hand reaching out to God’s fullness. In other words, faith is not a thing. It does not have a substance. Faith is always faith in something or someone. In the illustration, it was faith in a particular law of motion, the law of the pendulum. Notice, then, that faith needs to be in something that does not change. The law of the pendulum does not change. Of course, if the pendulum were to become unattached from the ceiling, then you would have cause to worry. However, the law of the pendulum stays the same, even in that situation, where you would certainly not be safe. But faith in God is not like that. God is not only unchanging, but also powerful enough to ensure that all things work together for good for those who love Him. God’s pendulum will never come undone from the ceiling of heaven. His purposes are unchanging and unchangeable. He is far more worthy of our faith and trust than anything or anyone in this world.

Do you therefore have this shield? Have you taken it up in the heat of battle? I should mention here that anyone’s faith, if it be a true faith, will be this kind of shield. Some people’s faith is stronger than other people’s faith. However, what is true about all faith is that it is a shield against Satan’s attacks. He will try to tell us that we are too sinful for God to forgive us. He will tell us that God didn’t really forgive us of all sin, and that we need to get our act together if we want God to forgive us. The problem with this kind of thinking is that we do need to get our act together! But not because we want God to forgive us. It is rather because God has already forgiven us. Getting our act together therefore is our response of gratitude to God for what He has done, and even there God has to help us to get our act together by giving us the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, do you think of your faith as joining up with your fellow Christian’s faith? Just as those shields need to work together for maximum protection, so also our faiths need to work together. We need to encourage one another, and love one another. If someone’s shield is drooping a little, we need to help them hold up that shield a little better. Of course, those soldiers who are closest to you are your own family. Are we taking pains to strengthen those shields? Are we using the catechisms with our children? Are we having them memorize Scripture? Are we reading through the Bible with them? Are we praying with them and for them? Similarly with regard to our spouses: are we encouraging our spouses in their spiritual walk, or do we cut them down? Do we encourage them to read more Scripture, and pray more? Are we honest with our doubts? Doubt is not the same as unbelief, we must understand. A doubt is something that can actually help us to understand our faith better. Doubts, of course, are never comfortable things. However, there is no Christian in the history of the world who has not had any doubts. Satan, of course, will try to turn that doubt into yet another arrow to shoot at you. But you must take the doubt to God, and ask Him to show you the way out of it. God is faithful, and He will do it.

Thirdly, when you think about your faith, do you primarily think about what is in you, or do you primarily think about Jesus Christ, the object of your faith? Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a great Scottish preacher once said these words, “For every one time you look into yourself, look ten times at Christ.” I am convinced that our faith would be a lot stronger if we would measure the strength of our faith not by how well we believe, but by how well Jesus saves, and by how much Jesus loves us, and by how faithful Jesus is as our great High Priest.

When we do these three things, actually taking up this shield, joining our faiths with other believers, and concentrating our faith on the object of our faith, Jesus Christ, then our shield will be strong, since it will have God’s own iron strength holding it all together for us. None of Satan’s arrows can pierce that shield. So take up that shield!

The Readiness of the Gospel

Ephesians 6:15


Audio Version

In the time of ancient Rome, Rome was famous for many things. However, there were few things more famous that Rome’s military might. They were the only superpower of the world at that time. What made Rome’s armies so famous was the training, discipline, and equipment of the soldiers. Roman soldiers trained with weapons that were twice as heavy as the ones they actually used in battle. Roman soldiers were taken from the elite of Roman free citizens, and so they were well-motivated, since they were defending their own lands. Roman soldiers were famous for their discipline. They were afraid of nothing, since their drills were bloodless battles, and their battles were bloody drills. The Roman solder was a very formidable person. He also had excellent equipment, which enabled him to fight better. We have talked about some of this equipment already, with the breastplate. This week we look to the feet and the shoes. Oftentimes, we look at this passage and think that the shoes are light and feathery, so as to be quick. At least, I used to think this for a long time. However, this week I learned something different from R. Kent Hughes, retired pastor of a church in Wheaton.

The shoe of which Paul speaks is called the caliga, in Latin. It was a cleated shoe that had heavy leather soles with nails as the cleats. In fact, they were somewhat like football shoes today. These boots were then tied to the ankle and calves with straps. These were not running shoes, because Roman soldiers did not run. These shoes were designed to give heavy traction so that the feet would not slip in the time of battle. Most battle in Roman times was hand to hand combat. These shoes gave Roman soldiers a big advantage over their opponents, who, for the most part, did not have such good boots. If conditions were muddy, you can see how these shoes gave the Roman soldier an even greater advantage.

This gives us a clearer picture of how the Gospel helps us in our spiritual warfare. Let’s not forget that the context is that of warfare. We are fighting our own sin nature, and we are fighting Satan and his demons. Knowing the Gospel of peace helps us in the time of war. I never saw the irony before this week when I was studying this closely. As Harold Hoehner points out, the Gospel of peace helps us in war. There is profound truth there for us, if we are patient to see it. For, you see, human beings are always at war with someone. If we are at war with God, then we cannot be at war with Satan. Just as you cannot serve both as masters, so also you cannot be at war with both. So, in a sense, when we are presented with the good news of what Jesus has done for us, that is the peace that starts the war. As soon as we have peace with God, our war with Satan starts. But having peace with God gives us that stability we need so that we do not slip in our war with Satan. Any soldier who slipped in the time of battle was almost sure of being killed.

Furthermore, the Bible uses the image of being barefoot as being unready. 2 Samuel 15 describes David fleeing barefoot from his son Absalom. David had not been prepared for what his son was going to do. In contrast with that, we are to be ready. Paul describes this state of mind as being ready: “having the readiness.” It is being prepared. It is having those nails firmly nailed through the bottom of the boot. It is having those boots securely strapped to your ankles and legs so that they will not come off.

So what is this gospel that we are to have on our feet? Well, this gospel is the teaching concerning Jesus Christ in His Person and work. Listen again to what Isaiah said: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” The God who reigns is Jesus Christ, who now has the Name that is above every name.

We spoke a bit about this Gospel last week when we heard about the breastplate. The breastplate protects us against those sword strokes of the enemy. The breastplate is our righteousness, both that imputed righteousness, and that imparted righteousness; that alien righteousness of Christ reckoned to us, and that personal righteousness that the Holy Spirit gives us by dwelling inside us. This Gospel is only possible because of Christ’s perfect life on earth, His death on the cross, and His resurrection from the dead. In theology, we speak of this salvation in two ways: salvation accomplished by Christ during His lifetime, and salvation applied to us in our lifetimes. That is the Gospel.

Do you have these shoes on your feet? If so, have you made sure that they are strapped to your feet securely? If not, then you will slip in the time of trouble, in the time of battle. But if you have these shoes, then you need to make sure that they are secure. This will keep you from slipping while you are under attack.

Now, Satan attacks us as a serpent. Serpents attack the legs and feet, because serpents are animals of the ground. He tries to get us to stumble and fall. He wants to lead us into muddy ground so that we start slipping and sliding. So, we need to make sure that we are well-grounded in the Gospel of peace. We need to seek peace with God at all costs, because peace with God enables us to fight properly our war against Satan. Jesus once said that if Satan is fighting against himself, then his kingdom cannot stand. Any nation that is divided becomes very ineffective. In our own history, we could see this in regard to Vietnam. The nation was divided about that war. As a result, we did not win that war. Similarly, if we belong to the house of God, we cannot be divided against God and expect to win any battles against Satan. If you have unconfessed sin in your life, by all means, take that to God, and confess your sin. Do not let those confessions lapse. Confess often to God your sin, and receive forgiveness.

Another way in which we can apply this truth is to realize that we can never go deeper than the Gospel. The Gospel is what grounds us, keeping us from slipping. When we learn more about the Christian faith, we are learning more about how the Bible shows us the Gospel. We never outgrow our need for the Gospel any more than we outgrow our need for peace with God. Is peace boring? I should hope not. Then neither is the Gospel boring. If we are bored with hearing the Gospel, then we need to check our boots to see if they are securely fastened. If we are bored with the Gospel, then we need to ask whether God is bored with the Gospel. Does God have a problem sending out the same old Bible all over the world, which tells us about the same old story? Then, by no means should we ever tire of hearing the Gospel, which has many different facets. The Gospel is like a wonderful work of art. There are many, many levels of understanding, when it comes to art. You can appreciate it as someone who is not used to art. But as a person learns more about art, one can notice more and more about that same piece of art. There is depth. Of course, there are people out there who take one look at a piece of art, and then think that they know all there is to know about it. Those people need to be helped along to see more and more. So it is with the Gospel. There is no limit to the Gospel. It always has more for us. Just when we might think that we know it all, something new comes along. I can tell you from personal experience that there are many very familiar passages that I have read many times. However, something that someone says, or something that I read gives me a whole new angle on that passage. I am constantly learning something new about the Gospel, both what it is, and how it applies. Therefore, do not grow weary of hearing about the same Gospel, for it is rich and deep, and you will continue to learn, if you have the desire. Therefore, cultivate that desire by reading the Scriptures and by reading good books about Scripture.

Last, but not least, this passage does tell us about missions. Are we ready to march for our King, and launch an attack on Satan’s kingdom by marching into his territory and doing battle with him? The Gospel of peace is portable. It can move, and it can march. These are not running shoes that we are talking about. But they are firm and steady boots. This is the peace that marches, the peace that fights, the peace that is militant. This is the peace we have with God with which we will march on the world, and reclaim this world from Satan and his demons. For God is our Warrior. He has conquered, and has made us to be more than conquerors. Amen.

The Breastplate of Righteousness

Ephesians 6:14b


Audio Version

Once upon a time, a woman went to an unusual store to buy something for her husband. Only she didn’t quite have enough money to purchase the item. But the store owner was kind, and knew how important this item was to her and her husband. And so, he set up interest-free payments on a monthly schedule so that she could take it home immediately. The woman gave it to her husband on his birthday. It was only a few days later that her husband wound up in the hospital, having been shot in the chest. She rushed to the emergency room to find out how he was doing. They assured her that he was doing fine, and that the damage was mostly bruises. You see, the item she had bought for her husband was a bulletproof vest. He was a police officer. That vest had saved his life. In the same way the breastplate of righteousness saves our lives from the bullets that Satan wants to shoot at us. We should not delay in putting on this vital piece of armor.

The breastplate was a most important piece of armor, second only to that belt that kept your clothes from getting all tangled. However, after you have the truth clearly presented to you, you need something that will protect your heart. That is the very definition of something vital, isn’t it? The word vital means having to do with life itself. The heart is a most important organ in your body. It is essential. Without a heartbeat, a medical doctor will pronounce you dead. And, in this life, there are countless things that will assault your heart, countless things that will compete for your allegiance. As Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Satan will constantly throw things at you to keep your heart from being in the right place, which is being the throne of Jesus, who then sits on the throne of your heart as King Jesus, Lord of your life. So we can see that it is important. There are two questions that we need to answer in order to know its place in our lives. The first question is this: “How do I put on this breastplate?” The second question is this: “How does it protect me?” Related to this second question is how do we use this breastplate.

So, taking these questions in order, we ask the question, “How do we put on this breastplate?” This is not a small question, since our call to worship from Isaiah tells us that God Himself wears this righteousness as a breastplate. In other words, we are seeking to put on God’s own armor. Any breastplate of righteousness that we put on is cut from the same metal as the breastplate that God wears when He goes to battle against His enemies. Of course, this is all metaphorical language, since the righteousness of God is not something distinct from who God is, whereas a breastplate is something distinct from the person wearing it. Righteousness is God’s obedience to His own law. You know, we often say that God can do anything. That is not true. God cannot sin. He cannot transgress the laws which He Himself made. That would be against His own character. So we say then that God is perfectly righteous.

That raises a most important problem. For we are not righteous. So, the question of how we put on this armor becomes nothing less than the question of the gospel itself. How can we be righteous in our lives? To begin to answer this question, we can say that there are two parts to the righteousness that we can have. First, there is the righteousness outside of ourselves that is reckoned to be ours. That would be the righteousness of Christ. Jesus came to earth, and was perfectly obedient to the law in every respect. The reason He did that was not just to take upon Himself the guilt of our sin. It was also so that we might be able to receive a perfect righteousness that answers to the law in every respect. So, it is in no way our righteousness. It is an “alien” righteousness, as Martin Luther would say. It is outside ourselves. When we come to faith in Christ, that “alien” righteousness becomes ours by God’s declaration. I wish to read to you the entire question and answer 60 from the Heidelberg Catechism, which addresses this very question in a very clear way: “How are you righteous before God?” Answer: Only by true faith in Jesus Christ: that is, although my conscience accuses me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.” So, there you have it. It is as if I had done it, but I haven’t. Christ did. But I am reckoned to have done it, because, by faith, I lay hold of Christ’s righteousness. That is the first kind of righteousness which makes up this breastplate. By the way, this is called justification.

The second kind of righteousness that makes up this breastplate is our own righteousness. This is never perfect in this life. And it is something that God works in us. When we come to faith in Christ, not only are we justified by faith, and not by our own works, but the Holy Spirit also comes to live inside of us, and change us. When that happens, then we gradually become more and more righteous over the course of our lives. This process is gradual, and it is not always moving in an upwards direction. However, the trend line is in an upwards direction. This is an important point to remember. We should not become discouraged because there are certain times in our lives when we do not seem to be very righteous at all, and we fall into that same sin time after time after time. Then we come to doubt our salvation. We should not be discouraged. There is a reason why God leaves some sin in our lives to be gradually overcome. If we were perfect already, we would be tempted to take credit for it. Also, we would be tempted to rely on ourselves for our own righteousness, rather than relying on the Holy Spirit. You see, flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, as Paul says. So, our own righteousness is always going to be imperfect in this life. That is no reason to stop fighting sin in our lives. It is no reason to give up. On the contrary, we are in a race to the finish line. Sometimes we run, sometimes we walk, sometimes we stumble. But we still keep going to that finish line. And God is waiting there for us to greet us at the finish line. He is not only cheering us on. He is helping us to get there. What a great and good God we serve! This righteousness is called sanctification. The word comes from a Latin root that means “holiness.” Holiness means being separate from the world. So, the process of sanctification means becoming more separate from the world, more like Christ every day. Of course, we do not mean separated from the world, as if we live in our own little enclave and never come into contact with people who are worldly. But it does mean that we do not behave like them because our hearts are different. We have the righteousness of Christ as a breastplate. And we have the righteousness that the Holy Spirit works in us. Those two things radically distinguish us from the world. The world has neither kind of righteousness. That is why the world will have a very rude awakening. So, again, our question has been this: how do we put on this breastplate? The answer is by faith. Again, as Heidelberg Catechism, question 60 says, just in the very beginning, “How are you righteous before God?” The answer starts out by saying “Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.” Faith is the instrument, the tongs, by which we lay hold of Christ’s righteousness. But faith is also the way in which God implants the Holy Spirit in our sanctification. Faith is our lifeline to God. By it God draws us to Himself. He uses our faith to make us more righteous. So faith is the answer to how we put on the breastplate.

The second main question we wanted to answer was this: how does this breastplate protect me? What good does it do? Why should I have it on? Well, Satan is known as the accuser of Christians. He is always accusing us of leaving the faith, or of having bad motives, or of sinning our way out of God’s grace. He accused Job of bad motives, and he did that to God’s face. What is important to know here is not only that our breastplate protects us (since the righteousness of Christ is not something that can be lost, nor is it imperfect), but also that God uses those accusations to defeat Satan’s own purpose. God turns the table on Satan. I would say, then, that the best thing that the breastplate does is to comfort us. For those who trust in Christ, we have protection for our very hearts. We have the breastplate of righteousness. So put it on by faith so that Satan’s accusations will bounce off like a bullet does against a bulletproof vest. He cannot pierce your heart, for your heart is in the hands of God. Indeed, Satan could no more pierce your heart than he could pierce God’s own heart, since your breastplate is of the same metal and manufacture as God’s own armor. So put it on by faith, and see what it will do.

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