There’s an old play on the word justified: “just-as-if-I’d never sinned.” But here’s another way of saying it: “just-as-if-I’d always obeyed.” Both are true. The first refers to the transfer of our moral debt to Christ so we’re left with a “clean” ledger, just as if we’d never sinned. The second tells us our ledger is now filled with the perfect righteousness of Christ, so it’s just as if we’d always obeyed. That’s why we can come confidently into the very presence of God (Hebrews 4:16; Hebrews 10:19) even though we’re still sinners—saved sinners to be sure, but still practicing sinners every day in thought, word, deed, and motive.

The perfect righteousness of Christ, which is credited to us, is the first bookend of the Christian life. The news of this righteousness is the gospel. Christ’s righteousness is given to us by God when we genuinely trust in Christ as our Savior. From that moment on, from God’s point of view, the first bookend is permanently in place. We’re justified; we’re credited with his righteousness. Or to say it differently, we’re clothed with his righteousness (Isaiah 61:10) so that as God looks at us in union with Christ, he always sees us to be as righteous as Christ himself.

And that changes everything.

The Present Reality of Our Justification

From our point of view, however, we sometimes handle our books as though the bookend of Christ’s righteousness is not in place on our bookshelf. We do this when we depend on our own performance, whether good or bad in our estimate, as the basis of God’s approval or disapproval.

And when we take this approach, our assurance that we stand before God as justified sinners inevitably fades.

How can we experience the righteousness of Christ as it was meant to apply to our daily lives? In Galatians 2:15-21, Paul provided much insight on this, beginning with this sentence:

We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we . . . have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)

In this single sentence Paul uses the word justified three times. The repetition emphasizes that we’re justified not by our personal obedience to the law but by faith in Christ.

In this context, faith involves both a renunciation and a reliance. First, we must renounce any trust in our own performance as the basis of our acceptance before God. We trust in our own performance when we believe we’ve earned God’s acceptance by our good works. But we also trust in our own performance when we believe we’ve lost God’s acceptance by our bad works—by our sin. So we must renounce any consideration of either our bad works or our good works as the means of relating to God.

Second, we must place our reliance entirely on the perfect obedience and sin-bearing death of Christ as the sole basis of our standing before God—on our best days as well as our worst.

Just a few sentences later Paul wrote, “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). In the context of Galatians 2:15–21, it’s clear Paul is still talking about justification, yet he’s using the present tense. He writes of the life he lives now in the flesh. This raises an apparent problem. We know justification is a past event—the moment we genuinely trusted in Christ we were justified, declared righteous by God. That’s why Paul wrote, “We have been justified [past tense] by faith” (Romans 5:1). So if justification was a point-in-time past event for Paul, why in Galatians 2:20 does he speak in the present tense: “The life I now live [today] . . . I live by faith in the Son of God”?