As a boy, I was in 8th grade when a teacher gave us some first-day instructions. One of her instructions was, “When you are apologizing to someone for doing something wrong, you are not allowed to use the word ‘just.’ When you use that word, you are no longer apologizing, you are now justifying.” That brief statement has stuck with me throughout the years, and now whenever someone apologizes and I hear them use the word “just,” I have a different attitude. They might say, “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, I was just trying to…” and immediately, I think, “You’re not truly sorry. You still feel just in what you did.” I suppose you could say that very early on I understood that there is a stark difference between being forgiven and being justified.
Now, imagine you are in the Heavenly courtroom, and the trial is set to determine whether you should go to Heaven or Hell. Many Christians, misunderstanding the doctrine of justification, believe that they are simply forgiven of their sins, and that therefore they have a clean slate morally before God. Well, in the courtroom, a clean slate might grant you parole from Hell. After all, no sins could be attributed to your record. However, what about getting into Heaven? After all, the standard for entrance into Heaven is not only the absence of sin, but the presence of righteousness and holiness. (Ref. Matthew 5:20; Hebrews 12:14) Without a positive case, the person who is simply forgiven but not justified would be unfit for Heaven or Hell. So, what is the doctrine of justification?
Most theologians consider the doctrine of justification in judicial or forensic terms, so sticking with a courtroom analogy may be the best way of conveying the thought. Imagine that all of the sinful misdeeds and terrible wickedness you committed in your life was thrown up on the screen as evidence towards the case that you belong in Hell. Indeed, it would be quite damning evidence! But in a moment, Christ might call out, “All of that is inadmissible evidence! It has all been forgiven and remitted due to the atoning death that I endured for them on the cross!” Wow, what a moment that would be. But then the trial turns, and the case becomes one in which they search for evidence that you belong in Heaven. What evidence would they find?
Certainly, your good works could not be admitted as evidence. Isaiah 64:6 makes clear, “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Job would go further in Job 14:4 to say, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one.” To put it simply, in and of ourselves, there is no case for us to be permitted into the presence of God.
But imagine that, to everyone’s surprise, when the evidence for your admission into Heaven is put on screen, all the righteousness of Jesus Christ is shown. Some might shout, “Wait, wait! This doesn’t make any sense.” But God in that moment might read out, “Be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” (Philippians 3:9)
You see, if you have ever heard of “double imputation” you have begun to understand what justification truly is. The sins of all the redeemed were imputed to Christ when He died on the cross, and He bore the full wrath of God that was set to be poured out on His people for all eternity. That was the first imputation. But the second imputation (hence, double) is when the righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to the redeemed. Thus, when they stand before God, they are not only forgiven of their sins, but stand just in the sight of God. They are not only innocent – they are righteous and deserving of rewards!
The Apostle Paul thoroughly outlines this in Romans 3:21-31. In brief, he speaks of how the righteousness of God has been conveyed to believers, saying it is conveyed through faith. But the connection that most people do not make comes in verses 24 and 28, when he specifies that this is how the redeemed are “justified.” He first says they are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” and then says that they are “justified by faith apart from works of the law.” A first-century Jew (like those in the church at Rome to whom he originally wrote the letter) would have heard this and thought that Paul was undoing the Law of God, because in order to stand just before God, one would have to perfectly keep the law. But Paul makes clear in verse 31 that this system of justification by faith does not “overthrow the law” but “on the contrary” would “uphold the law.”
For the Christian, the doctrine of justification by faith means that when you stand before God, you will not only stand forgiven of all the sins you ever did (although that is certainly true). You will also stand justified before God, fully deserving the eternal rewards of a “good and faithful servant” of the King of Glory. Why? Because the righteousness of Christ has been imputed to you by faith apart from works.
This was the central tenet of the Reformation. The Catholic Church taught that one was initially justified by faith and progressively justified by works for the rest of one’s Christian life, resulting in an ultimate justification by faith and works. The Reformers thoroughly rejected this, as Calvin would say, “Man is not made righteous in justification, but is accepted as righteous, not on account of his own righteousness, but on account of the righteousness of Christ located outside of man.” Luther would call it Justitia alienum (an alien righteousness) because it was a righteousness that God reckoned to us despite being altogether foreign to ourselves.
How does this apply to your life today? Consider this: When Jesus spoke with Nicodemus, He referred to those who have not been born again as being “condemned already.” (John 3:18) But just before that, He importantly states that whoever believes in Christ “is not condemned.” In the Greek as well as the English, that phrase is in the present tense. Again, in Romans 8:1 when Paul claims that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” it is also in the present tense. For the Christian, whether you feel like it or not, the reality is that God views you as not only forgiven, but justified and loved right now. And that is not at all contingent on your good works. You did not earn it, and you cannot lose it. That good pleasure from God is entirely the result of your being justified by the person and work of Jesus Christ.
If you have ever heard justification described as being the doctrine that you are “justified, made just-as-if-I’d never sinned.” That’s partially correct. But it is proper to go a step further. It is not only that God has forgiven our sins for Christ’s sake. He has also declared us righteous in His own sight, because of Christ’s perfection being imputed to our account.
 As cited in Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei, Vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 36.