Imagine someone broke into your house and destroyed some of your most valuable belongings, and when they get caught and stand before the judge, they begin to argue about how committed they have been at the PTA and how often they recycle. How would you respond? Even if you were charitable, I imagine it would be something like this:

“I’m so glad you’re doing your part for the community. Seriously, that’s good stuff. But, um, that doesn’t restore what you destroyed of mine.”

In the same way, sin destroys God’s glory in the universe and overturns his justice, a justice God tells us is the foundation of his creation (Psalm 89:14). Our sin leaves us legally guilty before God. And our good works, relative to this massive damage, are even less impressive and relevant than our hypothetical robber’s recycling habits.

For creation to remain good and sustainable, justice has to be upheld.

“But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, attested by the Law and the Prophets. The righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe, since there is no distinction. … [And we] are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

– Romans 3:21–22, 24 CSB

“Justification” is the word that Martin Luther said launched the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church in Luther’s day taught that justification was a process whereby God made you into a righteous person by infusing his righteousness into you, bit by bit, by means of the seven sacraments—baptism, the Eucharist, confirmation, last rites, etc.

Eventually, through observing the sacraments and confession and doing good, you would become a righteous enough person that God would declare you justified. And, if by the time you died you weren’t quite righteous enough (pretty common, I suppose), you’d go to purgatory, where your sin would be purged from you through fire and suffering. Eventually, you’d make your way to heaven, but it might take a few thousand years.

This, the 16th-century Catholic church taught, was the process of justification.

But Luther pointed out that this isn’t what the word “justified” means, nor is it how the Scripture writers talk about it being accomplished. Justification is a legal declaration, and legal declarations aren’t progressive.

They happen all at once.

Justification does not refer to the transformation of the heart (sanctification). It is not a process whereby we become righteous. Justification is a pronouncement whereby we are declared righteous all at once.

In justification, God’s righteousness is not infused into us; it is imputed or credited to us.

If I am accused of a crime and hauled into court, and the jury decides I am innocent of all charges and the judge declares me not guilty, I’m not cleared bit by bit.

I’m cleared in an instant.

I am justified.

The judge hasn’t given me a seven-step program through which I can become innocent. He declares me innocent all at once, and I walk out a free man.

In the gospel, because Jesus’ righteousness is credited to us, we are declared justified. This is where Luther’s phrase simul iustus et peccator comes from—“simultaneously righteous and a sinner.” It’s not that I become righteous enough that God declares me righteous but that while I am still sinful, God declares me righteous because of my faith in Jesus. Simul iustus et peccator.

This was pictured in the Old Testament process of sacrifice: Once a year, each believing Jewish family would bring a perfect, unblemished lamb to the temple and lay it on the altar. As the priest stood before them, the father would place his hand on the head of the lamb and then confess the sins of the family.

As he was doing that, the priest would slit the throat of the lamb. The process signified that the sins of the family were being transferred to the lamb, and the lamb was dying in their place.

In that moment, they were justified. The lamb was held responsible for sin before God, and they walked out free.

This is what Jesus fulfilled.

When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he declared, “Behold the Lamb of God!”  And on the cross, the sins of the entire human race were laid on Jesus’ head.

Luther said,

“All the prophets foresaw that on the cross Jesus became the greatest murderer, adulterer, thief, rebel, and blasphemer that there ever was. Our most merciful Father sent his only Son into the world and said to him: Jesus, you will become Peter the denier; you will become Paul that persecutor, blasphemer and cruel oppressor; you will become David that adulterer; you will become Adam, that sinner which did eat the apple in Paradise.”

Jesus would become the husband who has abused his family, the immoral adulterer who wrecked someone else’s marriage, the drug addict, the hypocrite living a double life, the proud, the selfish, the apathetic.

He became those things and died for them so that we could be innocent of them. Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood … so that when I lay my hand of faith on him, my sin becomes his and his righteousness becomes mine.

Simul iustus et peccator. While we are still sinners, God declares us righteous, because Christ’s righteousness is given to us.

Hallelujah! What a Savior!