I’ve heard the question before, “How can God be a righteous God if He declares sinners pure before Him?” The answer is Jesus.
This is a quote from J.I. Packer on God’s grace that just about sums it up:
God’s justifying judgment seems strange, for pronouncing sinners righteous may appear to be precisely the unjust action on the judge’s part that God’s own law forbade (Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15). Yet it is in fact a just judgment, for its basis is the righteousness of Jesus Christ who as ‘the last Adam’ (1 Cor. 15:45), our representative head acting on our behalf, obeyed the law that bound us and endured the retribution for lawlessness that was our due and so (to use a medieval technical term) ‘merited’ our justification. So we are justified justly, on the basis of justice done (Rom. 3:25-26) and Christ’s righteousness reckoned to our account (Rom. 5:18-19).
Sinners can be declared righteous in the eyes of God because the basis of their salvation and righteousness is Jesus (all of Ephesians 1). In place of a sinful human, God sees His Son, who is completely righteous. Jesus died for the sins of His people so that God could justly declare them His own. If God were to declare a sinner righteous without justification, then God would not be a righteous or fair God. But since Jesus paid the price for the sins of God’s people, God is able to give grace.
On the flip-side, there is the question of how a righteous, good, and loving God can condemn people to hell for something that is not their fault. But God is not a mean kid with a magnifying glass who burns some ants and leaves others alone. Humans go to hell because humans are sinful. God cannot declare a sinner righteous without Jesus, and a spiritually dead person cannot follow Jesus because they are in bondage to their human nature, and therefor in opposition to Him.
In theology, the term sin translates into “without grace” or “wrongdoing.” In some cases it even translates into “missing the mark.” In the philosophical sense, sin simply means “without.” So those who are without God, or in a state of being outside of Him, are in sin by default, and we’re all born that way.
One of Plato’s operating philosophies was that “one can not do evil when one knows the good [can access the “form of the Good”]. All evil comes from an ignorance [or absence] of the good.” Obviously to Plato and other pagan cultures the “good” was not God as described in Christianity. However, the point remains that sin is basically the state of being without God. People don’t go to hell for what they do, they go to hell because everything about their being in opposition to God (Ephesians 2). It’s only through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that we can become “Christian” or “Christ-like” because our natural state is one that is in opposition to Him. Another way of putting it is that we make ourselves our own lords and oppose God’s lordship over creation.
Another question that comes up is, “What if I’m a good person? Wouldn’t God let me into heaven?” No. Because good people do not exist (and I’ve had consensus on this even from non-Christians). Think about this: you don’t teach your children bad behavior. You teach them to be good. The reason that we think people are good is because we raise our children morally. When they grow up and go out into the adult world, suddenly we see them become something else. They stray from that moral path that we set down in front of them, and we say, “The world corrupted my children. They had such good hearts.” The world didn’t “do” anything. Humans are born corrupt and moral upbringing just disguises it for 18 years.
So, if we are born into sin by default, and since sin is the absence of God, then there are no good people. This also negates actions as qualifiers for “good” and “bad” if “bad” is just the natural state of mankind. Most people consider themselves good because of their actions. They think that, qualitatively or quantitatively, their actions will be the sum total of their goodness or badness. But that’s what the Pharisees did and Jesus got pretty ticked at them for trying to be righteous and holy through their own merits. We have no merits. Even the saved have no personal merits that make them “good enough” in God’s eyes. They didn’t suddenly start living a different life style or “get their life right” and God said, “Oh, well I guess now you’re good enough for Me.” The only one who was perfect (or “good enough” if you will) in God’s eyes was Jesus, and that’s why He had to die on a cross, so that God’s people could be redeemed through His sacrifice, and God could replace the image of a broken human being with the righteous image of His Son. Not one is good, not even one.
In closing, I’d like to say a couple things. One, I am deeply sorry if you’ve run into Christians who told you that your sins disqualified you from salvation. That you were too horrible for God to save. They do not believe in the all-powerful God of the Bible, or they’d know that the power of Christ can overcome any sin in anybody’s past. Second, I’d like to say that I’m sorry if you’ve ever run into Christians who were just arrogant about the fact that they were Christians. If they truly understood how depraved they were, they’d know that they have nothing to brag about, and I’m sorry for the “holier-than-thou” Christians who make you never want to talk about God or go to church ever again. But I’d also like to say that the only way to Christ is through repentance, by grace through faith. It’s not works that save us, but the evidence of Christ is in the visible transformation of a life. If you continue in sin thinking that God’s grace is a get-out-of-hell-free card, then that’s a dangerous road to be walking and I’d ask you to question whether you’ve really changed. However, if you think only of God’s wrath and miss out on His love, that you’re too horrible for any god to save, realize that Jesus’ blood already paid the price. If you’re His, then you were His before the foundations of the world. This erases the past of the chosen so that they can be made whole in Him.