How can any sinful human experience right relationship with God?
This question is of supreme importance, though it is not likely on the front of most people’s mind at the moment. There are numerous assumptions in such a question. Here are just some of them: (1) There is a God; (2) God is holy or morally pure; (3) humans are sinful or morally corrupt; (4) God is just; and (5) God is gracious. While many may not regularly consider this question, all people presume at least some of these assumptions. In fact, the Bible argues that all people everywhere are accountable to God precisely because all conscious people know the first four assumptions to be true (Romans 1:18-2:11).
Naturalistic & Humanistic Approach
Some argue for a Naturalistic perspective of the world, and these may deny one or more of the assumptions. “There is no God,” they might say. One Naturalist explained his perspective on the matter of ultimate reality by claiming that the purpose of life is to “stay alive.” If there is no transcendent reality, then I am inclined to agree with such sentiments. However, I find it not the least bit encouraging that all my best efforts to “stay alive” will be frustrated in the end. The life-to-death ratio remains 1-to-1; every living person dies at some point.
A Justified Approach
Since these two worldviews do not seem to be adequate responses to the original question (How can any sinful human experience right relationship with God?), let us now turn to a religious response. Most religious institutions would acknowledge at least a few of the assumptions listed above, but often we find either a denial of God’s justice or the addition of human goodness. It might be helpful to boil things down a bit and arrange religious jargon under a couple of simple headings.
In the end, there really are only two religious answers to the original question.
One, Justification by Works. Many religious people and/or institutions (church, synagogue, mosque, hall, philosophy, guru, etc.) may answer the question with a prescription. “You must do…” While the latter portion of this statement could go in multiple directions, from actions to thoughts and from places to postures, the beginning is always the same. If you want to enjoy right relationship with God (or others, or the universe, or simply with yourself), then you must do, say, and/or think according to a certain prescription. So, this type of thinking we might call “Justification by Works.”
The phrase “Justification by Works” helps us think in terms of what actually brings one into right relationship with God. How is a person “justified” or made worthy to enjoy the right relationship we are after? No matter how you phrase it, if your answer to the question includes something that must be accomplished in order to bring about the desired end, then it is “Justification by Works.” The biggest problem with Justification by Works is that it assumes a great deal more than is reasonable. It assumes that some kind of work (religious or otherwise) can somehow erase disobedience towards God. However, we do not think in such ways even in our own understanding of justice. Think about it: No criminal could think of getting away with murder simply because he promised to go to church; no thief would be relieved from penalty because she started acting with greater kindness; and no adulterer covers over his transgression by doing the dishes one night.
Even though we would not allow such thinking in our worldly experiences with justice, we often presume upon God’s justice in unthinkable ways. We might imagine that God will not punish our millions of sinful actions because we have attended church 10 times over the last 4 years. We might think that God will simply overlook our constant rebellion towards His commands because we got baptized during a church service. We may even think that God will not remember that we have utterly neglected to consider His standards for living just because we prayed several childish prayers at various times in our lives. This is foolish thinking, and we know it.
Justification by Works, then, seems to fall flat on its face when we really think about what we are believing. Therefore, it appears best to consider another option.
Two, Justification by Faith. Rather than a prescription (a list of things to do), the Bible reports a description of what has already been accomplished by another. Jesus (God the Son in human form) was born without moral corruption; He lived a life of perfect obedience to God’s commands; and He was counted by God as the guilty sinner in His death. In other words, Jesus Christ was counted as though He was the one who was actually guilty of the disobedience of all those for whom He died. Then Jesus conquered death itself and demonstrated His power to justify sinners and bring them life.
In mortal life, Jesus lived perfectly obedient towards God. In death, Jesus took upon Himself the due penalty and fully exhausted God’s justice towards sinners. In resurrection, Jesus testified to His own power to bring Justification to all who trust in Him. Rather than Justification by Works, the Bible presents a Justification by Faith or Trust. The biblical option is best summarized (in my opinion) by question and answer number 60 of theHeidelberg Catechism. Fortunately, the question in the catechism is nearly identical to the question we have posed here at the outset.
The question is asked,
“How are you brought into right relationship with God?”
“Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; Even though my conscience accuses me, even though I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and I kept none of them. Even though I and am still inclined to all evil, God, only of sheer grace and without any addition of my works, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ!God looks upon me as if I never had sin in me at all, nor committed any sin whatsoever!Furthermore, God looks upon me as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me! All that I contribute towards my new standing before God is that I embrace such a marvelous benefit with a believing heart.”
 See the full Heidelberg Catechism here: https://www.ccel.org/creeds/heidelberg-cat.html