In Romans 3-8,10, the justification spoken of is a singular legal and forensic event. Believers are counted righteous, imputed with the righteousness of Christ, reckoned with the one act of Christ’s righteousness. God looks them in the eye and says, “I love you, and I have counted your sin to Christ, and counted his perfect righteousness to you.” Even though Christ is sinless, he is counted as a sinner on my behalf. Even though I am not righteous, he counts me as righteous (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21). While Paul looks backward to this event of justification, and continuously and progressively revels in it, it is an already complete, permanent legal state of grace. It is something we stand on, and since it is the righteousness of Christ we are legally being credited with, it is not something that we get more of (because Christ’s righteousness is already complete). We have received the “completely not guilty” and “completely righteous” verdict, once and for all. I am not counted less guilty the next day or more legally righteous the next week. In this sense, I am equally justified with all believers in Christ, and equally so throughout all my post-conversion days.
In Romans 2:13 I would argue that the term “justified” is referring to vindication at final judgment. This also is a legal declaration, but in this case really is pointing to moral transformation that has happened within me. I think this is more of the sense that we see in James 2:21-26 as well. Declarative vindication of inward transformation. On a related note, I personally reject the popular Protestant wholesale hypothetical reading of Romans 2. I don’t think it is necessary for preserving the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works in subsequent chapters.
What is interesting is that neither of these usages of “justified” entail any kind of transformation in the act of justification itself. There is no doubt transformation by the Spirit, i.e. circumcision of the heart, in a justified person, but just as the “guilty” or “not guilty” verdict in a courtroom doesn’t behaviorally transform one into a guilty or righteous person, so also justification itself is not an act of transformation. Hence the strong justification/sanctification distinction historic Protestants make. Inseparable but distinct.
These could be two of the most important paragraphs on the gospel I have ever written, so please read them closely:
The distinction is good news because it means Christ justifies the ungodly by faith, i.e. counts the ungodly as godly, counts sinners as sinless, counts the unrighteous as perfectly righteous. The inseparability is good news because it secures my verdict at final judgment where my heart-orientation and secret works will be courtroom evidence of who I am.
In the end, only those justified by faith apart from works of the law truly become doers of the heart of the law. It is one of the most life-or-death ironies in the universe, which some will celebrate forever in heaven, and others will curse forever in hell: If you work for forgiveness to preserve the necessity of holiness, Christ will neither forgive you nor make you holy. Yet if you stop working for forgiveness, and instead receive it as a free gift, God both forgives you and necessarily and inevitably makes you holy.
“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” (Romans 2:6-8)
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 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.” (Romans 5:1-2)
“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,and whose sins are covered! Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.'” (Romans 4:4-8)
Is this grace too good to be true? Can it be, Lord, can it really be?