“At a certain level, the title above almost seems perverse. The following is how we would prefer that things work:
Members of the jury, I am not asking for mercy or pardon. I want justice. I am demanding full acquittal. Yes, I committed the murder of which I am accused. But I am not guilty. Members of the jury, you must consider all my good deeds—not merely as mitigating circumstances but as reason for exonerating me. The goodness of my other deeds outweighs the crime I committed. My good deeds require a “not guilty” verdict. If justice is to be done, you must find me innocent.
We grin as we read the paragraph above because the argument is so ridiculous. Yet suddenly we see that an approach to God that depends finally on our balancing of good deeds and bad deeds must be no less ridiculous. For this is the lamest of all forms of self-justification—yet this is the case we want to make before God. This argument is not a plea for leniency; rather, it is a bold assertion of innocence. It assumes that guilt is cancelled by good deeds. God must acquit us and declare us “not guilty” because we have done enough compensating good things. This is self-justification. And it is no more believable before the bar of God’s justice than it would be in a contemporary court.
So how should we think that God looks at things, this God who is himself spectacularly holy and who does not see our good deeds as things that are weighed in a balance against bad deeds but sees even this futile effort at self-justification as one more example of our moral defiance against him? What is the Bible’s solution? God does not pretend that good deeds make up for bad deeds. Rather, he has found a way to declare the guilty just—and retain his integrity while doing it. Instead of self-justification, he finds a way to justify us.
Do you want to know where God’s justice is most powerfully demonstrated? On the cross. Do you want to know where God’s love is most powerfully demonstrated? On the cross. There Jesus, the God-man, bore hell itself, and God did this both to be just and to be the one who declares just those who have faith in him. God views the Christian through the lens of Jesus, who absorbed the white-hot wrath of God that we deserve. Your sin is now viewed as his, and he has paid for it. And his righteousness, which he earned by perfectly obeying God’s law, is now viewed as yours (2 Corinthians5:21). God looks at you and declares you to be just, not because you are just (you are guilty, as Romans 1:18-3:20 says) but because he has set forth his Son to be the propitiation (wrath-appeasing sacrifice) for your sins (Romans 3:21-31).”