There are three phases of redemption, as Paul outlines them for us. I am sure you are familiar with them: justification, sanctification, and glorification. Chapter 4 illustrates the meaning of justification. Paul begins this theme in the closing part of chapter three, where he shows us that justification means that God gives us a righteous standing before him on the sole basis of the work of Christ. Someone has died in our place. Someone has met our need. We could never do it ourselves, because, frankly, we are completely incapable of pleasing God apart from this change that occurs in the heart.
It does not make any difference whether we build a moral, respectable life outwardly or live on the wild side. Both are guilty; neither is accepted; neither is any better than the other. So, the only way righteousness can come to us is by accepting the gift of God in Jesus Christ. That is justification. It has to do with the spirit of man. Each of us is a three-fold being; we are a spirit, we possess a soul, and live in a physical body. It is God’s program to save the whole man, and in the next series of chapters, Paul tells us how God does it.
He begins with the spirit, the deepest part of man. What God does in the spirit is to recreate it. He creates a species of being that never existed before. He implants his very life and nature in our spirit—the Holy Spirit comes and resides there. That gives us righteousness, a righteous standing before God. Justification is therefore a permanent, unchangeable thing. It is far more than forgiveness of our sin, although it includes that; it is a position before God as though we had never sinned at all. It is Christ’s righteousness imputed to us, credited to our account. When this takes place, we are delivered from the penalty for sin.
I want to really blow your minds on this. If you turned your Bibles back to the 7th chapter of Genesis, you will see that it opens with an invitation—or, for the Baptists reading this, an altar call: YHWH says “Come into the ark—you and all your household.” Noah may have built the Ark, but YHWH prepared it all. However, it would not be the last Ark of refuge that YHWH would prepare. Also, this was a very exclusive invitation being issued; only those who God chose could come in. This invitation even included an RSVP—Noah had to respond, he had to act. Sitting there and staring at the Ark and doing nothing was death—just like an altar call. What was the dividing line between those who received the invitation and those who were denied—those who were chosen and those who were not? Well, they had to be tzaddik—Hebrew for righteous, and YHWH says that Noah was the only righteous man left on earth.
If interested, you can download the entire study of The Letter to Christians at Rome