I remember being taught in Sunday School that “justification means God sees you just as if you never sinned.” As I grew older, I learned that this was a common explanation, probably because it is memorable. The only problem is, it isn’t really right.
Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:
Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.
These two verses in Romans 5 give us two important facts about justification. First, it is by faith that we receive it. Second, it is by the blood of Christ that it is provided to us. We were headed towards wrath, as verse nine says, and deservedly so, but Jesus shed His blood to intervene and spare us from wrath. It is His justification of us, which we receive by faith, that delivers us from condemnation.
21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:
23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:
25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;
26 To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
This says Jesus was a payment (propitiation) for sin. Thus, God is just in justifying — it is the right thing for Him to do, because payment was made. God does not act as if I never sinned, but rather accepts the payment for sin. It is true my sin is not charged to my account, so if that were the whole story, we might say “just as if….” But this passage includes the imputation of righteousness (see “Imputation” — The Way it Works) as part of justification. Justification goes further than removal of sin, imputing the full righteousness of God to my account. It includes both removal of evil and giving of good.
“Justified” in printing refers to text lined up on one or both edges. With left-justified text, the left side lines up evenly, as in my opening paragraph and this one. Right-justified text lines up on the right, as in two of the paragraphs above (and it looks strange because we aren’t used to it, so you probably thought something was wrong :)). With “fully-justified” text, both sides line up evenly as in the next paragraph.
We might view God’s requirement as having two aspects — the absence of sin, and the presence of good, fulfilling all righteousness. We need to be lined up with both aspects — just as this paragraph is lined up in straight edges both to left and right. When God forgave us, not imputing sin to us (see link above), He wiped clear the immense debt of our sin, lining up one aspect. When He imputed to us the righteousness of God, He dealt with the other, bringing everything into line.
God has a perfect standard. We could never match up on one aspect, let alone both. We need to be “fully-justified.” When He pardoned our sin and imputed His righteousness to us, He covered it all. He justified us, lined us up perfectly with His full standard. When God looks at our account, He sees all sin removed, no goodness / righteousness lacking.