“We the Jury find the Defendant...NOT GUILTY!” To an accused criminal no two words in the English language could be sweeter than “not guilty.” That verdict frees the defendant from the punitive powers of the state, perhaps even execution. The apostle Paul’s message in the book of Romans revolves around a word from his day which carried a similar connotation, “justification.” When the Bible speaks of justification, it simply means that God has declared us “not guilty.”

The Greek term dikaiosyne means “righteousness, uprightness.” When used of God it refers to God’s perfect moral character. Paul describes God as the “righteous judge” in 2 Timothy 4:8. But the Bible also uses this term to describe those who live by God’s righteous standards. “If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him” (1 John 2:29).

Under civil law, there are two ways a citizen may be just, righteous, or “not guilty.” A citizen is just if he or she never violates the standards of the law. I would be “not guilty” of breaking the speed limit law if I never exceeded the posted limit. The problem is that at times I have gone over 65 mph, and thus I cannot be justified on the basis of innocence. In the same way, theoretically mankind could be justified by innocence if God’s laws were kept perfectly. But that has never happened. “There is none righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10). Why? “Because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20).

The alternative way to be justified, or not guilty, is through pardon. Suppose that the day I appeared in court with a speeding ticket the judge took the citation in his hands and ripped it into pieces. He could bring the gavel down and simply say, “Mr. Scott, you are not guilty.” Even though I was actually guilty, by pardoning me he could treat me as if I was not guilty. When God forgives a sinner, that is exactly what He does. He tears up our debt of sin and pronounces us justified. This justification does not result from our perfect performance in the face of the law, but from God’s gracious desire to give us the gift of salvation, “being justified as a gift by His grace” (Rom. 3:24).

But this raises a problem. How can a just and righteous God simply tear up the ticket? How can He dismiss the charges against us? Our court systems are full of liberal judges who refuse to sternly carry out the sentences of convicted criminals. When a murderer or serious crime offender gets off easy because of a soft judge, aren’t you outraged? When the law is violated, our righteous instincts demand justice! God is a righteous judge, so how can He offer pardon to sinners, the ultimate criminals?

Paul answers this very question in one of the most important texts in the New Testament, Romans 3:24–26:

Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; this was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

This marvelous text tells us three things about justification:

1. Justification is based on Jesus’ death on the cross. Paul says we are justified “through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” To redeem is to release from an obligation or debt. Through our sins we become indebted to God, obligated to suffer the wrath of God. Jesus absorbed this penalty for us on the cross by taking our place (Eph. 1:7). Thus we can have peace with God (Rom. 5:1), and we no longer face God’s wrath. “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him” (Rom. 5:9).

2. By accepting Jesus as our substitute, God could be just and also forgive us. God’s just nature demands that sin should be punished. And God did punish sin, but He did so without destroying the sinner. Instead He accepted His Son’s death as payment for our sins. To use the legal analogy once more, suppose that when I appeared before the court with my ticket the judge pulled out his checkbook and drafted a check to pay my fine. By doing so that judge would both satisfy the demands of the law (a fine must be paid) and also release me from the debt. By requiring that sin be punished through Jesus’ death on the cross, God satisfied His just nature. This in turn allowed Him to offer salvation to the sinner, so that He could be “just and the justifier.”

3. We receive justification by faith. Since we cannot be saved by our own perfect law keeping, we must turn to Jesus. God is “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Rather than trusting in ourselves we must trust in Christ. When does this justification by faith occur? Paul’s answer in Colossians 2:12 is that “having been buried with Him in baptism” we are “also raised up with Him through faith in the working God, who raised Him from the dead.” If we are indeed justified, we will live in such a way that our genuine faith is manifested in obedience (James 2:24-26). And if we sin, we will confess the transgression to God, “He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

In our legal system, those who are innocent enter a plea of “not guilty.” In God’s system, the only way we can receive forgiveness is if we enter a humble plea of “guilty as charged.” In Luke 18, Jesus told a story of two men, a Pharisee and a tax gatherer. The Pharisee in essence entered the plea of “not guilty,” boasting of how righteous he was and how many good works he did. The tax gatherer entered the plea of “guilty,” simply praying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (v. 13). Jesus summed up that story about two men, and the story of mankind, like this: “I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).