For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.2 Cor. 5:21
The greatest exchange the world has ever seen is this: Jesus traded our sin for his righteousness. This—and this alone—is the basis for our righteous standing before the holy God. Since God looks at the repentant sinner who trusts in Jesus through the lens of the Savior’s sinless character and sacrificial work, He can instantly declare them righteous on the basis of faith. This justification forever changes our spiritual status.
Justification is the legal act whereby God declares a sinner righteous based on empty-handed faith in the all-sufficient death and resurrection of his Son (Rom. 4:25; Phil. 3:9). Legal is an important word in this definition because it emphasizes the fact that justification is not experiential. Instead, it is an announcement in the “courtroom of heaven.” Justification is not the act whereby God makes us holy; that is sanctification, which is a lifelong process. In contrast, justification is a one-time event that forever changes the sinner’s standing before God based on imputed righteousness alone. Imputed righteousness is the perfect righteousness of Christ credited to our “spiritual account” as the free gift of God’s grace received by faith at conversion.
The verse above is breathtaking in its display of God’s love for us. Indeed, God did this “for our sake.” The apostle goes on, “he [God, the Father] “made him to be sin who knew no sin” [Jesus did not become a sinner, but the sinless sin offering] “so that” [God’s purpose] “in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Your union with Christ immediately and forever changes your status before God. No longer does God see you as Unrighteous Sinner, but Righteous Child. This alone was accomplished by the triune God.
God the Father imputed your sin to Christ while he hung on the cross. Then the Father judged Jesus in your place as if he was the guilty one. When you trust Jesus as the sin-bearing Savior, the Holy Spirit applies the atoning work of Christ on your behalf—the perfect righteousness of God’s Son is imputed to you in place of your sin. God then declares you righteous, treating you as if you had perfectly obeyed his law just as Jesus did. This is the wondrous exchange! As a result, “those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17). “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2). This is all of grace, not by works: “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Rom. 3:20); “we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28); “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also 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” (Gal. 2:16). Nevertheless, your justification is inseparably wed to a living faith that produces works which reflect the glory of God (John 15:8; Eph. 2:10; James 2:17).
Therefore, though justification itself is not experiential, but rather a judicial declaration of your new position before God, it results in experiencing the heart-transforming work of the Spirit, which is sanctification.
Regardless of whether you feel righteous, the Word of God declares you are so in Christ. Bring your thoughts and feelings in line with Scripture.