In a well-known passage from his letter to the Ephesians Saint Paul tells us to 'put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against all the wiles of the enemy'. (Ephesians 6:11)
The primary purpose of armour is bodily protection. Some Christians seek to follow Paul's instructions in Ephesians 6:13-17 by putting each item on in their imagination, possibly making faith declarations such as, "I am saved through faith in Christ," "I am righteous in God's sight by faith," "God's truth is my protection," etc. This isn't a bad thing to do, but I don't believe it is really what Paul was getting at. The armour represents our thoughts, character and actions, and we need it only if we are at war. Let's look at each item in turn.
- The helmet of salvation. In 1 Thessalonians 5:8 Paul also tells his readers to put on a helmet, but here it is not 'salvation' but 'the hope of salvation'. Christian hope is not based on wishful thinking but on God's sure promises. Paul could have said instead, 'For a helmet put on the certainty of salvation'. Christians who were threatened by martyrdom ("Say Caesar is lord or be thrown to the lions") had to be 100% certain of God's promise of everlasting life in return for remaining faithful unto death if they were to have any chance of resisting the temptation to deny Christ. Our own hope of everlasting life, which is securely based on the resurrection of Jesus, is the only thing that can defend us against every attempt of the enemy to make us give up following Jesus when the going gets tough.
- The breastplate of righteousness. The righteousness that God supplies in response to our faith in Jesus is not some nebulous concept characterized by the words, "When God looks at me he sees Christ and his righteousness." It is real, genuine righteousness - being made right in thought, word and deed through faith in Jesus who came to set us free from sin and cleanse us from all iniquity through his blood. Without genuine righteousness we can never hope to stand against the accusations of the devil. "Why do you imagine that God is on your side when you are on my side?" the devil will whisper. In another place Paul writes about 'the weapons of righteousness', weapons that we cannot wield if we are still knowingly and deliberately living in sin. David wrote, 'If I had cherished iniquity in my heart the Lord would not have heard me.' (Psalm 66:18)
- The belt of truth. Just as the Roman soldier's belt held together the other items of armour so it is the truth of God's word that keeps our thoughts and actions together. The better we know God's word, the safer we shall be. And if we don't speak the truth or the whole truth in our conversations we shall again open ourselves to enemy attack. Putting on the belt of truth doesn't mean merely declaring, "God's word is truth": it means knowing the truth and living it.
- The shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. People use the word 'faith' in different ways. "Have faith," they will say, "everything will turn out all right." Paul did not mean this. He didn't even mean having faith in God's word and promises. He meant having faith in God himself. If you are under attack make faith declarations continually. "The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid: what can man do to me?" (Hebrews 13:6) 'There is therefore now no condemnation for them that are in Christ Jesus.' (Romans 8:1) "With God nothing will be impossible." (Luke 1:37)
- 'Having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace.' The Greek word translated 'equipment' means preparation or readiness. Again, Paul does not mean we should simply assent in our heads to the truth of the gospel. He meant we should prepare or ready ourselves to share the gospel with people we meet. When a Chilean friend of mine was at college she used to sing every Saturday morning before she went out to evangelize, "I want to set the world on fire, until it's burning bright for you... I am weak, but you are strong enough. Take my dreams and give them wings... Lord, with you, there's nothing that I can't do." Are you ready and equipped to tell people what Jesus has done for you, and what he will do for them if they will let him?
- 'The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.' Here the Greek refers to the spoken, breathed out, word of God. Paul is not telling us to trust in God's word as a way of defending our mind and spirit from enemy attack. A sword is a weapon for attacking an enemy. Paul is telling us to use God's word to attack the enemy's lies by speaking it out, both in prayer and in conversation with other people. We might do this by quoting God's written word, or by speaking out a word that God's Spirit gives us to say, for that would also be the spoken word of God. A preacher once continually repeated to an atheist the words from Hebrews, 'It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgement.' (Hebrews 9:27) The atheist grew more and more angry, saying, "That's no argument." But that night he couldn't sleep. The preacher's words kept going round in his head. In the end he got out of bed, knelt down, and committed his life to God.
- Faith and love. In 1 Thessalonians 5:8 Paul comes up with another kind of breastplate - 'the breastplate of faith and love'. Faith in God and an assurance of his love for us are great ways to arm ourselves against Satan's accusations, but they are also fantastic 'weapons of righteousness'. With faith we can help people to overcome their doubts and we can keep believing that God will find a way to save them even when it looks impossible; and with love we can speak to people in a way that they will respond positively to, as they sense that we are speaking out of a genuine desire to help and bless them.
Armour is for protection, but protection is needed only in a fight. If you are not fighting the devil, he won't fight you, so you won't need any armour. When Paul tells us to put on the whole armour of God it is because he expects us to be in a fight, to be in a fight every day with the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the world around us. So let us put on God's armour each day, but let us also commit ourselves to fight that day against the world, the flesh and the devil; to use every opportunity God gives us to rescue people from sin and death by prayer, by speaking out in confidence the powerful words of God, and by using the spiritual weapons of faith and love to set them free from darkness and death. And let each of us declare at the beginning of every day the truth in Philippians 4:13, "Lord, with you, there's nothing that I can't do."