One of the hardest things to understand about the gospel of Jesus Christ is justification through faith alone. How can unrighteous people actually have a right standing with a holy God? If we are dead in our sins and trespasses, and we are blinded by Satan, and even our good works are as filthy rags, how can we make ourselves clean enough and sinless enough to enter heaven?
One of the most profound passages of Scripture is Romans 4:5 which states, “And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” This passage teaches some very important truths. First of all, salvation does not come from working or doing good or somehow stacking up enough good deeds to earn God’s favor. Salvation is not an achieving, but a receiving. In other words, we don’t achieve our salvation by trying hard or mustering up enough faith to come to Christ. Instead, we receive salvation from Christ as a gift. This is what it means to trust Christ.
Secondly, through our faith in Christ, God justifies the ungodly. This is amazing. How can a holy God justify or declare innocent an ungodly, wicked sinner? It makes no sense. If a sinner is guilty, then he or she deserves punishment or condemnation. How can God just let guilty sinners off “scott-free”? The answer lies in the Person and work of Christ.
We must understand both the active and passive obedience of Christ. When Christ came in the flesh as God, he completely fulfilled all of God’s requirements in the law in thought, word, and deed. This is Christ’s active obedience. He comprehensively obeyed every law of God to the utmost. He was perfect in every way and completely sinless. When Christ died on the cross as a Substitute for sinners, He exhausted God’s wrath against us fully and accomplished a complete atonement. He cried out, “It is finished!” This is called His passive obedience. He obediently died on the cross suffering for our sins by the will of His Father.
In justification through faith alone, a great exchange occurs. Justification is a banking term that denotes credits and debits, ledgers, and accounts. Think of your life like a bank account. As a sinner, you have a negative balance of billions of dollars because of the sin in your life that has been stacking up since you were born. You in no way can pay it down because it is so massive. In contradistinction, Christ’s life is like a bank account as well. While on the cross as He was suffering for our sins, He withdrew your negative balance and it was credited to His account. In other words, He took our sin upon Him. This leaves us with a zero account balance. Our sins have been withdrawn and paid in full by Christ. He has assumed them to His account by being our Sin Bearer.
Yet, you only have a zero balance. That is still not good enough to get into heaven because God requires perfection to His law. Jesus said in Matthew 5:48, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” There must be some type of positive righteousness in order to get into heaven. God requires that if you are to enter heaven, you must be perfect. You must have obeyed Him completely in thought, word, and deed 100% of the time. That’s a grievous impossibility for all of us. No human can ever attempt to be perfectly perfect. How can God let you into heaven with a zero balance?
This is the second part of the great exchange. Christ credits to your account His perfect righteousness. In other words, the active obedience of Christ as He perfectly obeyed God’s law in thought, word, and deed is credited to you—a sinner. Now, you have a positive balance of perfection that comes from Someone outside of yourself. This is what is often called an “alien righteousness” because it is not produced from within sinners. Faith is the instrument through which we are justified or declared “not guilty” in God’s courtroom. We are NOT saved based upon our righteousness, but upon the righteousness of Christ. Our sin was imputed or credited to Him and His righteousness was credited to us.
This is the heart of the gospel. Through the work of Christ on our behalf on the cross, we can have access to a holy Father. Because of Christ, guilty sinners can be declared as if they had never sinned. Many have said “justification” can be summed up with the memorable phrase, “Just if I had never sinned.” And that is correct, but only half of this amazing truth. The second memorable statement can also be summed up with, “Just as if I had perfectly obeyed all of God’s laws and was perfect”.
Many argue against justification through faith alone as a “legal fiction” in that God could in no way be just and at the same time declare sinners not guilty. They think that can’t be true. How can a person be simultaneously a sinner and perfect? The only way it can happen is when God legally declares sinners to be righteous on account of Christ alone. It is only through Christ and His perfect obedience and sacrificial death and resurrection that anyone can be right with God. What better time than now than to call upon the name of the Lord and trust Him to make a withdrawal on all your sins and then to deposit his righteousness into your account so that you can be saved. That’s the only way you can enter heaven.