If you know anything about the Reformation of the Church in the 16th Century you will have heard of "Justification by faith alone." The Reformers (Martin Luther, John Calvin and others) taught that we are justified before God by faith alone without works.
Justification depicts God as the Judge and sinners as defendants or the accused.
To be justified before God is to hear God say about us, "This person is perfectly innocent, free from all guilt and worthy of eternal life." To be condemned (the opposite of justification) is to hear God say about us, "This person is guilty and therefore worthy of eternal death." One who is justified knows that his sins are forgiven and that he has a perfect legal standing before God. He is sure that he will go to heaven to be with God forever. One who is condemned does not have his sins forgiven and he will be punished for those sins forever in a terrible place called hell. Do you know, reader, which of the two verdicts God will declare concerning you on that Day? There are only two possible verdicts: justified or condemned!
Justification, then, is a legal declaration about our status.
But, how can God justify us? That is the question! How can God say about one who is a sinner (and therefore has broken all God's commandments and kept none of them) that he is justified (innocent, free from all guilt and worthy of eternal life)?
Some people imagine that God does that simply because He is too kind to punish sinners for their sins. That would mean that God would ignore His own Law and ignore His own justice. What kind of Judge, what kind of God would that be? What would you think about a judge who kept sparing criminals because he was too nice to punish them? You would demand the resignation of the judge!
Some people imagine that God will accept our best efforts to be good and will be kind to us because we are sincere and try hard. But a judge does not care about "best efforts, "sincerity" and "trying hard." The only question before a judge is this: "Did this person keep the law?" If yes, he is justified. If no, he is condemned.
Some people imagine that God will overlook our bad deeds if we make up for them by good deeds. But a judge does not care if a man has a clean driving record, has been a faithful husband and helps at a homeless shelter. He only evaluates one thing: "Is this person guilty of the crime of which he is accused?" Besides, the Bible makes clear that we have no good deeds to offer God to make up for our sins.
The absolutely wonderful thing about justification is this: God justifies the man who is a sinner, and He does so without denying His own justice or ignoring the demands of His Law. The Bible says that God sent His Son "that He might be just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Rom. 3:26). It also says that God "justifieth the ungodly" (Rom. 4:5) and "him that worketh not" (Rom. 4:5).
This is because of the work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Did you ever wonder why Jesus came? Why was He born in Bethlehem? Why did He grow up in Nazareth? Why did He preach and teach? Why did He heal the sick and raise the dead? Why was He arrested, tried, condemned and put to death on a cross? Why did He rise again on the third day?
The answer is: He was providing the just basis for God saying to His people, "You are justified, perfectly innocent, free from all guilt and worthy of eternal life." Jesus Christ obeyed the Law perfectly because we could not do so, and we did not even want to. Jesus Christ answered all the demands of the just Judge. And Jesus Christ submitted to the punishment of the Law. Jesus took the guilt of His people. Jesus went to the cross to pay for the sins of His people. And by doing that He gives them righteousness. Righteousness is a legal standing before God of perfect harmony to God's Law.
But how does that perfect obedience (or righteousness) of Jesus Christ become mine?
God imputes it to me. That word "impute" means to reckon, to account to someone else. My criminal record is accounted (imputed) to Christ. He is punished in my place on the cross. His perfect record is accounted (imputed) to me in justification. And I receive that imputation by faith. Faith makes me partaker of that perfect obedience (or righteousness). "By Him all that believe are justified from all things which ye could not be justified by the Law of Moses" (Acts 13:39). What a beautiful truth! Free salvation for sinners who believe!