How can man approach God? People from the Aztecs to the Zulus have asked this since the dawn of humanity, and man has imagined thousands of answers. These answers boil down to three possibilities.
- Man cannot do anything to approach God, and therefore can never approach Him.
- Man does something, or a group of things, to earn the right to approach God.
- Man cannot do anything to approach God, but God in His grace brings man to Him.
These possibilities are exclusive, as each includes a world view that is inconsistent with the others. It is logically impossible to select 1 and 3, for example, or some other combination.
How can man approach God?
Given the prevalence of religion in human history, it is difficult to believe that most men can tolerate Possibility 1. The world is a big place, the universe is much bigger, and we are small, weak, and ephemeral by comparison. Crushed by the pressures of life, and even more by the approach of death, mankind grasps for something greater than him.
Possibility 2 is undoubtedly the most popular way to approach God. Stories, parables, adages, congeal over time into metanarratives which describe a view of reality. Three questions predominate:
- Who am I/we?
- Why am I/we here?
- Where am I/we going?
This view of reality constitutes (or develops into) an organized religion. Being human focused, these metanarratives command certain behaviors and prohibit others. “God” becomes a supporting actor in a human drama, and we learn how to use him for our purposes.
We want someone bigger, more powerful, and longer lasting than ourselves so that He can help us, but we don’t want Him so big, powerful, and enduring that He interferes with our desires. I may want a God who does my bidding, and lets me indulge myself, but I don’t want a God who expects me to obey Him and stops me from sins that I enjoy. The solution, from man’s point of view, is to devise a list of good and bad thoughts, words, and actions, and grade ours’ and others’ conduct by that list. When we do well, we convince ourselves that God is somehow in our debt (“Look at all we have done for Him!”) and that others are morally inferior to us. When we do poorly, we dream up excuses for our failures, or change our list entirely.
Ancient Egyptians believed that the god of Death, Anubis, balanced each person’s heart (soul) against a feather at their death. Those whose hearts were lighter than a feather passed into bliss, and those whose hearts were not descended into the underworld. Those in bliss encountered the Ultimate Being (God), and those in the underworld were separated from God. Most religious traditions conceptualize the day of one’s death, the day of judgment, likewise.
In Islam, believers must observe the five pillars, including the Shahada (declaration of faith), Salah (prayer), Sawm (fasting), Zakat (almsgiving), and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). Doing these things, along with other good works such as fighting in a jihad, tips the moral balance in one’s favor and assures that he or she will find his or her way to Paradise after death. Not doing these things tips the moral balance against a person and results in eternal damnation in hell. Religious systems of all sorts, from Animism to Zoroastrianism, require that adherents do as much as they can to put their deity (or whatever greater being they worship) in their debt. Through this transaction (good works in exchange for earthly prosperity and a happy afterlife), believers end up in “heaven” (or Nirvana, or whatever this place of final reward is called).
Every person has a sense of good and evil implanted into him by God (Romans 1:18-23). Called a “conscience” in Western traditions, this sense of good and evil promotes a standard of moral behavior which is consistent across cultures. For example, cultures throughout the world would agree that Person A should not kill Person B unless 1) they are in a war, 2) one of the two has broken the laws of society and is therefore a criminal, or 3) one is in a higher social class and is therefore has more value as a person, in which case the higher could murder the lower. It has long been okay for the king to kill a slave or a commoner, but never the other way around. In the same vein, societies have quarreled about how many women a man could have – none, one, or many – and in which circumstances he could have them, but no society allows a man to have any woman he wants under any conditions. Possibility 2 provides the answer to “how to approach God” in most human belief systems, and the manifestations are endless.
Possibility 3 is the Christian view. God’s glory surpasses the sunrise, His power floods the universe, and His righteousness is brighter than the stars. God simultaneously exists inside and outside of time and space. He knows no limits and has no equal. Our Creator holds atoms together with His right hand and spins the universe with His left. God is not merely a force but a person, the foundation of all intelligence, emotion, and will.
Man has no glory other than that reflected from God. Man’s power is weakness, and ebbs to nothingness with his final breath. We can barely keep our heads above the waters of sorrow, confusion, and fear, until one day we sink beneath the waves. Man has only the faintest sense of what “good” is, and all our righteousness is as bloody rags. No works which humans would call “good” are enough to earn God’s favor. Our situation is hopeless. We can never be accepted by God on our own merits. No one can pass the scale of Anubis and enter into eternal life. Man is dead in his sins, and therefore utterly incapable of approaching God. Man is not merely sick, injured, or handicapped…he is dead, and dead men do nothing.
The Bible is God-focused, not human focused. We are the supporting actors in His drama. His works, not our works, are what ultimately matter.
God provided the only possible solution. In the second person of the Godhead, Jesus Christ, Our Final Judge took all of man’s evil on to Himself. Every thought, word, or act of wickedness, intentional or not, for every person who ever lived or will live, became God’s wickedness and was borne by Jesus Christ. Jesus died so that we might live, and He rose again because the power of sin and death was not enough to keep Him in the tomb. Though the stench of sin sticks to every living mortal, growing with every act of evil in our lives, God makes us clean. At death, our sinful nature sinks into the dirt with our mortal body. Our immortal spirit remains, and God transforms our mortal body, our earthly shell, into a glorified body. Our wickedness is gone, replaced by the righteousness of Christ. We do not go through purgatory because there is nothing to be purged.
Man can approach God, love Him, and live in right relationship with Him because of what Jesus did. Our salvation is not from us but from Him. The work of Jesus Christ alone effects our salvation.
- Our relationship with God does not result from the work of Christ plus the Eucharist, Purgatory, Confession, or Baptism, but from Christ Alone.
- Our relationship with God does not result from the work of Christ plus the veneration of icons, but from Christ Alone.
- Our relationship with God does not result from the work of Christ plus church attendance, tithing, fasting, Bible reading, and prayer, but from Christ Alone.
- Our relationship with God does not result from the work of Christ plus giving all our possessions to the poor and our body to be burned, but from Christ Alone.
Christians do not perform good works to become saved, they perform good works because they are saved. Stated metaphorically, we don’t try to produce apples to become an apple tree, but we produce apples because we are an apple tree. Followers of Jesus should be baptized, remember the Lord’s Supper, attend church, tithe, study the Bible, disciple, fast, and pray, but we do so because of who God made us, not who we are trying to make ourselves.
The problem, from a human perspective, with Possibility 3 is that we don’t like it. Man wants to believe that He is in control of his own destiny. We prefer to perform a set of duties that puts God in our debt. For example, the ancients had ritual sex with temple prostitutes so their gods would be obligated to make their wives and fields fertile. We also want actions by which we can rate ourselves above others. If our salvation is completely from grace, we cannot boast. We are not above other people, in our eyes and theirs. Finally, we have no way to force God to do what we want Him to do.
Man can only gain a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Further, salvation is through Christ alone. Nothing else can be added to it or taken away from it. Any other teaching is not the Gospel. Any other practice will put a gulf of infinity between us and the Almighty at the end of days. The universe is healed, and man is saved, through Christ alone.
 In this context, to approach God includes being in right relationship with Him, and experiencing His favor.
 There are many assumptions behind this discussion, but the most obvious are 1) There is a God, 2) Man, individually or collectively, is not God, 3) Man is somehow separated from God.