I'm having trouble understanding how it's possible for imperfect, sinful people to enter Heaven? The Bible says that only the righteous may enter Heaven, and though we may try our best to live right, no one can be perfect. So how can God let us into Heaven?
Answering this question is essentially the point Paul makes in Romans chapters 1-5.
The details are given below, but the answer is simple. Christians (like unbelievers) sin from time to time, but unlike unbelievers, Christians have a promise that one day we will receive new bodies that will never sin again. God will do away with our old bodies before granting us the new body. You can learn more about this process in Lessons 15A-15E from our 1Corinthians study.
How can God grant us this mercy while still being perfect in justice? How does He put away our sin forever without condemning us for it? The answer is the Lord made a way for sinners to meet the standard of perfection required by Heaven. God's Son, Jesus Christ, was born as a man so He could live the sinless life we couldn't, and He did so on our behalf.
Then He died an underserved death on the cross to pay the required price (i.e., a ransom) for our sins (past, present and future). Therefore, by faith in Christ we will be credited with His righteous, perfect life, and His death on the cross will become an acceptable payment to the Father as the penalty for our sins.
Therefore, we are not saved by our good works or by our own righteousness. Rather, we are saved by Christ’s righteousness. Since we receive the righteousness of Christ through faith, our salvation does not depend on what we do, but on what Christ did for us. We will sin from time to time as we await our new, incorruptible body, yet all that sin has already been forgiven. This is the only way God has provided for sinful men and women to enter Heaven: by accepting Christ's righteousness in place of our own.
The details of this explanation can be found in Romans. In Romans 1-3, Paul explains that all people are born as sinners, and we do not seek God nor acknowledge Him as God because our sinful state has blinded us to the truth. Paul says all have turned away, there is none righteous, no not one. The end result is that men and women deserve punishment in Hell.
Then beginning in chapter 4, Paul tells us how a person can be saved despite the fact that we are all sinners who deserve to be punished eternally in hell. Using Abraham as the example, Paul explains that, like Abraham, we are saved by faith and not by works:
“1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered. 8 “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”
This is why we call the message of salvation “the gospel," which means good news in Greek. It is good news to learn that God will save us by faith alone in Jesus Christ rather than requiring that we are righteous on our own.
When we believe in Him, God does two things. First, our sins are placed on Jesus, and on the cross He took the punishment we deserved; thus, God is still a just God in that He punished our sins. Second, by faith God counts us righteous, just as He did for Abraham. There is a great exchange: Jesus took the punishment we deserved on the cross, and at the same time, He credits us with His righteousness that He has from being without sin.
To make sure we understand this, Paul continues the explanation of the gospel in Romans 5. Speaking about our being saved from punishment, he says:
“8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.”
How are we “saved by His life?” God not only requires our sins to be punished, but we must also be perfect. Since we cannot be perfect, we need the righteousness of the only One who is perfect, and that is Jesus. Again, His righteousness is credited to us by faith.
Romans 5:18-19 makes this clear:
“18 So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. 19 For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.”
Here, Paul contrasts Adam with Jesus. In Adam, we are all born sinners because of Adam’s sin. Adam’s sin was credited to all humanity such that we are all born sinners. In Christ, believers are counted righteous because of Christ’s obedience. This is why we must be “born again." born not of the flesh, but of the Spirit. Because of Christ’s perfect, sinless life, His righteousness is credited to us, and as such, we are also counted righteous.
The obvious question at this point is that if I am saved by faith and not by what I do, and Christ has paid for my sins and given me His righteousness, then doesn’t that mean I can sin all I want? Anticipating this question, Paul asks it in Romans 6:
“1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? 2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; 7 for he who has died is freed from sin.”
Having been born again, we now have the power of the Holy Spirit to sin no more. Therefore, we are no longer slaves to sin and are called to walk in newness of life. So, it’s not okay for us to continue willfully sinning, with the thought that “hey, our sins are forgiven.”
While salvation is a one time, eternal act at which point we are justified at the time we come to have faith in Christ, sanctification occurs over the rest of our life. Clearly, believers still sin. However, the goal is for us to become more and more like Christ. This happens over time, and the primary way God does this is through the study of His word.
In His prayer to the Father, Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” (John 17:17) God’s Holy Spirit transforms us as we study Scripture. Nevertheless, how is it we still sin after being counted righteous and being indwelt by the Holy Spirit?
Paul anticipates this question as well, which he answers in Romans 7:
“14 For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.”
As believers, although we have been spiritually born again, we still have the remains of our sinful nature in our flesh. While our desire is to please God by being obedient, our flesh still desires to sin. Although we have the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome this sin, we don’t always do this. Often, our flesh overcomes our desire to please God, and we still sin.
But here again is the good news, the Gospel: Jesus sets us free from this body of sin and death! We are wretched, He is perfect. As long as we live here on earth, we will continue to struggle with sin. We will never be perfect this side of heaven. Again, though, the good news is that our salvation is not dependent upon whether we still sometimes sin, because Jesus lived the perfect life, and His perfect obedience is credited to us as believers. That is why the gospel is good news!
Another very important point is that Jesus’ death on the cross paid for all of our sins: past, present and future. Hebrews 10 makes this clear:
“11 Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; 12 but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. 14 For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying,16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them. After those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws upon their heart, And on their mind I will write them,” He then says,17 “And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.””
Jesus’ one sacrifice on the cross was a one time offering for all time. By this one offering, Jesus has perfected all believers. Because of this, God says He will remember our sins no more. Notice, it does not say God will forget our sins. Rather, because of what Christ has done for us, God consciously no longer remembers our sin. This is a most comforting thought! For even though we still sin, because of our faith in Christ, God will not remember our sins.
This is how we can still sin as believers yet still go to heaven. The punishment for our sins, our perfect righteousness, it is all found in the person of Jesus Christ. Again, this is good news, indeed.