I grew up in a time when punishments for children were a bit more severe than they are today. Thus, one of the worst things I could hear as a child was my mother saying something along the lines of, “Go to your room and wait for your father to get home!” This, of course, meant that I had used up her patience and she was handing off punishment to my father, which would include a spanking. The problem was, dad was often at work when this happened, so I had to wait in my room for him to return home. There I would be, guilty as sin, awaiting certain judgment!
When Paul talks about the fate of humanity apart from Christ, the picture is a far more serious version of me waiting in my room for dad to get home. All of history is heading toward a moment when God will step in and act as the righteous judge who vindicates the righteous and condemns the unrighteous. Because all humans are sinners, all humans can expect condemnation. It’s just a matter of time before we receive the just punishment for our trespasses.
Thankfully, condemnation isn’t the whole story. When Christ comes into the picture everything changes. As Paul explains in Romans 5:18-19, Christ brings a status change for those who expected certain condemnation. Whereas Adam threw humanity into guilt and condemnation, Christ brings justification and righteousness. Because of Christ, when the day of judgment comes, those who have placed their faith in Him will receive a verdict in their favor – they will be declared just and righteous before God! Rather than being condemned, we will receive life!
This is what it means for us to be justified – we know that the final verdict will be in our favor. This isn’t because of anything we have done. Our justification flows from Christ’s act of obedience on the cross. It comes as pure gift to those who will receive it. For those who do receive it, justification in Christ becomes the defining aspect of who we are.