Saying Goodbye To The Ladder

Ladder theology is the idea that mankind ascends to God through his/her own will, emotions and intellect in order to draw closer to God.  Ladder theology accepts the idea that mankind has fallen from the glory of God due to sin but then places a metaphoric ladder between mankind and God.  The reason for the ladder is so that fallen man can correct the fall by industriously ascending up each step of the ladder. 

Moralistic Spirituality is one of the forms that ladder theology takes on.  Moralistic Spirituality is the pursuit of behavior that conforms to a system of moral standards, standards held by God.  Jesus becomes a means to the final end of ‘becoming more moral’ with the aim that one may ascend a little higher to God.  Moralistic Spirituality appeals to the ‘will’ of man.[1]

Mystical Spirituality is yet another flavor of ladder theology.  In this thinking, mankind pursues a consciousness of ultimate reality with God through direct emotional experiences and mystical insights.  Mystical Spirituality appeals to the ‘emotions’ of man so that one might emotionally climb the ladder toward God.[2]

Finally there is Speculative Spirituality.  Through the pursuit of reflective rationale and being thoughtful of Godly logic, mankind exercises the ‘intellect’ in climbing the ladder.[3]

According to Gene Edward Veith, 
“All three of these conventional approaches to spirituality involve human beings’ expending strenuous effort to reach God, who is, by implication, an impassive observer, far above the fray, a goal that must be attained, a treasure that must be sought, discovered and earned.”[4]
The problem with ladder theology is that it honestly doesn’t work.[5]  How will one know if he is has an adequate amount of morality?  How will one know if her mystically experience is genuine enough?  How will one know if his reason is enlightened enough?  In looking to ladder spirituality there will always be one more perpetual step to climb, one more degree of spirituality to accomplish and assurance will never be within reach.[6]

To make things worse, mix salvation by grace alone with ladder theology and the ingredients are present for a perfect storm!  Gerhard Forde in his book, Where God Meets Man says, “To make room for grace alone we are forced to push man down to absolutely the lowest possible position on the ladder—if not off it altogether.[7]  He goes on to say, “…since the theology of grace alone always threatens to destroy man’s created goodness… it is quite impossible (satisfactorily) to combine a theology of grace alone with the picture of the ladder...”[8]  In other words, the sinful nature runs for the opportunity to climb the spiritual ladder whether it is through mystical, moral or speculative means.  As a result a person grips the ladder and embarks on an upward journey to God.  At the same time the theology of grace alone directly opposes, slams against and undercuts the whole premise of ladder theology.

What tends to happen when the theology of grace alone collides with ladder theology is an all out pushing match!  With the purpose of trying to make room for grace, pastors and laypersons of grace alone can find themselves pushing downward or even aggressively booting people off of the spiritual ladder.  In reaction to this, ladder advocates ascend to push back.  As a result, a spiritual grade-school game of ‘king of the hill’ breaks out. 

If there is no resolution to the pushing match what can come about is a compromise between the theology of grace alone and ladder theology.  An example of compromise would be: salvation is by grace alone and one also needs to climb the ladder only part way to acquire salvation.  The only problem is that any compromise between the theology of grace alone and ladder theology results in it not being by ‘grace alone.’  History has shown and has already condemned compromises between the theology of grace alone and ladder theology, they are known as the heresies of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.[9]    

So where is the crux of the problem?  The fundamental problem lies not in the tension or compromise but in the very concept of the ladder itself.  First, does the Word even promote, endorse, or even teach ladder theology?  Secondly, should the theology of grace alone even be mentioned in the same breath as ladder theology?  Thirdly, is the theology of grace even capable of co-existing with or capable of being injected into the systematic theology of the ladder? 

In reflecting on Martin Luther’s thoughts and scripture, Gerhard Forde suggests that “The only alternative is to reject the theology of the ladder altogether.”[10]  In other words, the problem that arises is not that mankind needs to be pushed down the ladder in order to free up some space for grace alone.  The problem is not that there needs to be a better compromise and blending of the two theologies.  Rather, the root of the problem is simply the ladder itself!  The predicament is the incorrect underlining presuppositions of the ladder system.  What this means is that there needs to be a farewell party for the ladder! 

By faith in God’s revealed Word, we get to say ‘good bye’ to the ladder and we get to say ‘welcome’ to a brand new alternative.  Unlike the ascending requirements of ladder theology, the theology of grace alone teaches us how God descended to us and how God has already fulfilled all the requirements for us.  Salvation by grace alone reveals to us how God came, “ rescue us from our miserable and deprave human condition, He became a human being Himself.  The God-man Jesus Christ accomplished the perfection moralists only aspire to and took upon Himself the punishment for everyone’s moral failures by dying on the cross.”[11]  The theology of grace alone shows us that our incarnate Christ is not a means to better morality, greater wisdom, or more closeness with God (i.e. means to another end).  In other words Christ is not a life coach that came to cheer us on and give us pointers in how to successfully ascend the ladder.  Rather, Christ is the God-man who comes to us to be our perfect morality, to be our great wisdom, to be in our midst, and to be our mediator (i.e. Christ is the end).

Since the ladder is the crux of the problem this means that one doesn’t have to fight to make room on the ladder for grace.  Because the ladder has defective assumptions there is no need for a pushing match.  Given that ladder theology has faulty presuppositions there is no need for long debates on compromise.  Why fight over or upon the ladder when the ladder is the problem?  Simply put, the ladder itself needs to be dismantled, taken down and cast from our sight… for salvation is by grace alone.[12]  God doesn’t need our ladders to descend to us, nor do we have to meet him halfway.  The reason being He has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ and He daily comes to us in His Word and Sacraments.[13]  God has fully descended to us and He reaches out His hand to us and delivers His forgiveness to us without a ladder![14]

Goodbye ladder, goodbye climbing and hello grace alone…

[1] Gene Edward Veith Jr., The Spirituality of the Cross (Concordia Publishing, 1999), 23.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid. 
[4] Ibid.
[5] Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16
[6] Galatians 5:3
[7] Gerhard Forde, Where God Meets Man, Luther’s Dow-to-Earth Approach to the Gospel (Augsburg, 1972), 46.
[8] Forde, 50.  Parenthesis added.
[9] Summaries of Pelagianism Taken From:  
Robert Walton Chronological and Background Charts of Church History (Zondervan, 1986)
Pelagianism: Man is essentially good and capable of doing what is necessary for salvation (Pelagius ~ Late 4th & Early 5th Century)
Semi-Pelagianism: The grace of God and the will of man work together in salvation, in which man must take the initiative. (John Cassian ~ Late 4th & Early 5th Century)
[10] Forde, 52.
[11] Veith, 23.
[12] Romans 3:28
[13] Matthew 26:28; Titus 3:5; John 1:14
[14] 1 Timothy 1:15; Titus 2:11