The Breastplate of Righteousness 1

In her compelling book Permission to Speak Freely, Anne Jackson says this: ‘The Pharisees knew the Messiah was coming. They knew people needed a Saviour. They just didn’t believe they were the ones needed saving. This quote from The Prodigal God has been haunting me: “Pharisees only repent of their sins but Christians repent for the very roots of their righteousness too.”’

Now this was the only statement that, in an otherwise superb book, took me completely aback. I sincerely hope that, in context, the quote from The Prodigal God comes across differently. I’d be disturbed to find righteousness and self-righteousness had effectively collapsed into each other and that, for many of us, there is no longer any functional difference between them.

Christians repenting of righteousness suggests a deep core illness in the modern mindset. When we start to equate righteousness and self-righteousness, the spiritual zeitgeist has gone too far: it has started to deify Mercy. We’ve actually started to make a god out of Grace.

This is just as bad as deifying Righteousness—and that’s what the Pharisees’ problem really was: they had elevated Righteousness to the Godhead and seen that as the totality of His being. Depending on the century, the prevailing culture, our own personal inclination, we are apt to do this with other attributes of God’s nature: honour, integrity, truth, love, peace, order.

I’ve had my own struggles to recognise that I tend to deify Honour or Integrity and Truth—so  if I thought that this tendency to deify virtues was what Anne Jackson was talking about, I’d have no trouble with her statement. It’s true that we’ve got to repent of any attitude that subtly leads us from God.

I happen to find the medieval idea of the Four Daughters of God very helpful in rectifying my thinking this regard.  Four personified virtues—Mercy, Peace, Righteousness and Truth—meeting and kissing each other is the basis of this concept.

It’s about getting Mercy and Righteousness in balance—certainly not repenting of them. This medieval concept was developed out of a Jewish rabbinical story of the first century that seems to have vastly influenced Paul of Tarsus. The basis of the story is:

Mercy and Truth meet together, Peace and Justice kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth and righteousness looks down from heaven.

Psalm 85:10-11 NIV

Traces of this teaching can be found in many places in Paul’s writings. Notably they are found in his epistle to the Ephesians where we find mercy, peace, truth and righteousness all mentioned: the shield of mercy, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness.

Oh, you thought it was the shield of faith?

If we go back to Psalm 85, we discover the Hebrew word for mercy there is chesed, which has overtones of love, faith, loyalty, kindness and grace and has almost as many translations as translators. Paul’s preference was obviously ‘faith’.

The overtones of righteousness, however, were justice and uprightness.

To eliminate righteousness is also to sweep aside justice. True we’ve got to untangle righteousness and self-righteousness but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The breastplate of righteousness is the mailcoat of justice.

Indeed as we have already seen, this is a justice that is ‘overshadowed by God’s love’.

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