To be justified is to be eternally cleared from every charge that could be brought against us, as seen in Acts 13:39, "By Him all who believe are justified from all things, from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses." The law very effectively proved us to be guilty sinners and thus condemned before God. Only by Christ can the believer be righteously cleansed forever from every charge of sin so that the sentence of condemnation is eternally lifted off him.
When we are justified, we pass from the state (condition) and position of condemnation. Thus, condemnation is the opposite of justification just as guilt is the opposite of forgiveness. However, justification implies more than the negative blessing of us being freed from condemnation: it involves the positive blessing of our righteousness standing before God in Christ.
We have seen in Rom. 3:19 that all the world stands convicted as "guilty before God." In v. 20, we are told that the law can only convict. Then in v. 21, God begins to unfold His way of justifying the ungodly. Since "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God," God manifests His righteousness in all its brightness, condemning the sinner and thus clearing Himself of any suspicion that He in any way condoned their sin. But God’s righteousness is "unto" or "toward all, and upon all those who believe." (vv. 21-23). Thus, it stretches out its hand towards the unsaved instead of frowning on them, but it rests on the saved as a robe so that they stand clothed in it in the presence of God. In all this, righteousness never loses its proper character.
How is this possible? Mercy might thus act at the expense of righteousness but how can righteousness itself act thus? Well, Christ has been set forth as a "propitiation" or "mercy seat" (v. 23). On the cross, His blood was shed and this was the fulfillment of the type (picture) of the blood-sprinkled mercy seat of Tabernacle-days. The greatest display of divine righteousness that the world will ever see took place on that cross when redemption was wrought "in Christ Jesus" (v. 24). There, God judged and put to grief His own spotless, sinless Son for us. Of course, the cross also showed God’s love (Rom. 5:8) but if it had not manifested His righteousness, it could not have manifested His love.
Christ’s death has displayed God’s righteousness in a two-fold way: regarding believer’s sins of past dispensations (3:25) and believer’s sins of this present age (3:26). Before Christ came, God passed over the sins of His people even though He was not as yet perfectly satisfied as to them. Today, He justifies the believer in Jesus. Have all of these dealings been in perfect righteousness? The death of Christ declares that they have been fully righteous! Christ’s death was primarily the offering of Himself to God as a sacrifice of infinite value and fragrance. God was thus satisfied regarding the whole matter of man’s sin. All the claims of divine righteousness were met and satisfied.
Christ’s offering was also for us, for all true believers. We thus are entitled to view Him as our Substitute and to make Rom. 4:25 singular, not plural: He "was delivered for my offenses and was raised again for my justification." He died and was judged with our sins in view and he was raised again from among the dead with our justification in view. In fact, full assurance of our salvation can not be enjoyed if the meaning of Christ’s resurrection is overlooked. He bore our sins and their penalty in His death but the declaration and proof of our clearance is in His resurrection.
To illustrate this point, think of a man condemned to six months in jail and another man who is permitted to take his place as substitute. When the substitute enters the jail, leaving the offender outside, the offender might well exclaim that his friend "has been delivered to jail for my offense" but he could not say more at that time. At any time during that six months, the authorities could righteously demand that the offender himself serve the rest of his term. But, if a week or so before the six months were up, the offender met his kindly substitute on the street and learned that he has been discharged from prison as a free man slightly early due to good behavior, the offender would be able to say, "You are released from prison for my justification." He would rightly reason that if his substitute was discharged from prison as free from all further liability, then he himself is discharged, free and completely cleared. In like manner, the resurrection of Christ is the divine declaration of the complete clearance of everyone who believes in Christ.
Observe that God Himself is both the Source of our justification and the One who justifies us (Rom. 8:33). The sentence against us as sinners and the declaration of our clearance as believers in Jesus both came from God’s own lips. Therefore, our justification is complete and authorative. No one can condemn us. But faith is necessary on our part because only believers are justified. In this sense, we are "justified by faith" (Rom. 5:1). We come under the benefits of Christ’s work only when we yield "the obedience of faith" to Him. He is "the Author of eternal salvation (only) to all those who obey Him" (Heb. 5:9). Faith is the link that connects us to Him and to the justifying merits of His blood.
In Rom. 5:18, we see justification from sin (the root) rather than from sins (the fruit, as in most other passages on justification). The one righteousness of the cross has its bearing "toward all unto justification-of-life" (marginal reading). To understand this passage, we must consider the whole passage (Rom. 5:12-21). By nature, all men are related to Adam as the head and source of their race. By grace, through Christ’s death and resurrection, all believers are related to Him as the Head and Source of that spiritual race to which they now belong; and, consequently, are judicially (legally) cleared from all the previous consequences of our life in Adam. This is a very wonderful thing which is too often overlooked.
Romans thus presents justification as the means for complete clearance from all offenses and from the condemnation which we deserved, as well as from all the condemnation attaching to our fallen Adamic nature since we, by God’s act, now stand in Christ risen from the dead. Blessed be God for such a clearance as this!
Sometimes you hear people speak of the righteousness of Christ being imputed to us. But no such idea is to be found in Scripture. We certainly do find the righteousness-of-Christ: that was absolutely perfect and thus He was qualified to be the "Lamb" of sacrifice on our behalf. But we are justified by His blood, not by His perfect life. He died for us but He didn’t keep the Law for us. If he had, we would only be standing in a legal righteousness before God – a righteousness that only goes to the length (and the blessing) of keeping the Law of Moses (Rom. 10:5).
However, the righteousness in which we do stand is "the righteousness of faith" (Rom. 10:6-9) which is connected, not with Christ on earth keeping the law, but rather with God raising Him from the dead after He had died for our sins.
Yet in the KJV, we read in Rom 4:3,6 that "God imputed righteousness apart from works" and that "it was imputed (counted) to him for righteousness." What do these verses mean? In Rom. 4, the words counted, imputed, and reckoned occur several times. They are all translations of one Greek word whose meaning is best expressed by the English word reckoned. "Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness," God reckoned or held Abraham to be righteous in virtue of (because of) his faith. This little word "for" is a poor translation. It can mislead by making one think that faith is a substitute for righteousness – something that can be transformed into righteousness. A better translation is that "Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness."
The argument presented in Rom. 4 is that, whether Abraham of old or believers in Christ today, the only way that we can be reckoned righteous before God the Great Judge is by faith without works – not even by all the great and perfect works of Christ as He lived on this earth for about 33 years.
Rom. 4:25 says that Jesus "was delivered for our offenses and was raised again for our justification." Now, some people incorrectly take this verse to mean that just as Jesus died because we were sinners, so He was raised again because we had been justified in His death. The uninspired chapter divisions get us into trouble here because chapter 5 begins right in the middle of a paragraph. We should keep right on reading; "He was raised again for our justification. Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God." The incorrect interpretation makes our justification an accomplished fact when Jesus died and His resurrection to be the consequence of it. But this entirely eliminates our faith from the question and ignores Rom. 5:1. The truth is that our Lord’s death was in view of our sins and is the basis for our justification. His resurrection was first, God’s declaration that He Who bore the weight of God’s judgment against sin is forever clear of it and secondly, it was in view of the clearance of all who believe in Him.
Thus, our Lord was delivered to death with our sins in view and was raised again with our justification in view. But the justification of each individual person only becomes effective as (and when) they believe.