A helpful way to remember the important biblical term “justified” is with the phrase “just as if I’d never sinned.” And that is certainly part of what it means to be justified. All our sins are forgiven, and we stand pure and blameless before God. But “justified” actually means much more than that. Jerry Bridges and Bob Bevington explain (from their work, “The Bookends of the Christian Life”):
But it wasn’t enough for us to have a clean, but empty, ledger sheet. God also credits us with the perfect righteousness of Christ “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This happens the same way Jesus was made to be sin—by transfer. Just as God charged our sin to Christ, so he credits the perfect obedience of Jesus to all who trust in him. In what is often called the Great Exchange, God exchanges our sin for Christ’s righteousness. As a result, all who have trusted in Christ as Savior stand before God not with a clean-but-empty ledger, but one filled with the very righteousness of Christ!
… 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; 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.
Martin Luther beautifully called this the “blessed exchange,” where Christ trades our sin for His righteousness:
Faith unites the soul with Christ as a spouse with her husband. Everything which Christ has becomes the property of the believing soul; everything which the soul has becomes the property of the Christ. Christ possesses all blessings and eternal life: they are thenceforward the property of the soul. The soul has all the iniquities and sins: they become thenceforward the property of Christ. It is then a blessed exchange commences.
Charles Spurgeon described the beautiful exchange this way:
There, poor sinner, take my garment, and put it on; you shall stand before God as if you were Christ, and I will stand before God as if I had been the sinner; I will suffer in the sinner’s stead, and you shall be rewarded for works that you did not do, but which I did for you.
We are justified. Our slate is not only clean, it is also filled with the perfection of Jesus.