Get Off The Ladder, You Have Jesus!

Text:  John 8:31-36

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

During the time of Martin Luther in the 1500s, people were wrapped up in some pretty profound lies.  For the sake of simplicity, the people were enslaved to what we can call ‘ladder theology.’ 

You see, it was commonly held from medieval teachings that mankind needed to ascend to God.  It was taught that a person needed to climb a metaphoric ladder toward a Holy and Righteous God through religious duties, indulgences, penance, monastic vows, pilgrimages, severe discipline, saying the mass, and so forth. 

And so, thousands of well-meaning Christians desired to achieve more conformity with God by climbing a ladder, rung by rung. Each higher religious step was a little bit more of what they believed was God-pleasing acceptance.  Indeed, the people during the time of Martin Luther’s time saw themselves in a spiritual journey that required strenuous effort and endurance to elevate themselves to the same level of God. And so, they climbed a symbolic ladder, rung after rung. 

Dear friends, what we need to take note of is that in ladder theology the emphasis is placed on you and the strategic goal becomes your climbing pursuit of God.  As a result, Jesus becomes a carrot on the end of a stick, He becomes the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and He becomes the prize at the top of the ladder.  And so you must pursue Jesus.  Your Christian faith becomes a journey of pursuing, climbing, and taking steps.  Upward and onward!      

Keep in mind, though, that this ladder theology does not lead to freedom but slavery, bondage, and confinement.  For example, how do you know if you have climbed high enough?  What happens if you fall off the ladder?  Where should the ladder be placed?  And how tall of a ladder do you need to get to God? 

And there is more.  If you believe in ladder theology – the need to climb upward to God – the emphasis is on you being the one who has to be active, busy, and full of endurance!  “Here is a ladder, now get busy climbing.  And if you don’t make it to the top, well… try harder.” 

It makes sense now why people during the time of the Reformation had no assurance.  They were busy climbing a ladder that had no end, and they were doing it by their own will-power.  Step after step, trying to ascend to God by indulgences, penances, saying the mass, and so forth, to somehow obtain peace, assurance, and freedom. 

Now, in case you haven’t noticed, this ladder theology still exists today in the twenty-first century.  Yes, whole church denominations are filled with this kind of ladder theology.  We do not have to look far to find very well-meaning Christians coming to these ladder-climbing-churches every Sunday where the pastor is ready to give them ladder climbing tips.  More specifically in their worship services, people are busily taking notes from the sermons on how to climb and where to climb.  And after the services, they gather to encourage each other in their climbing.  Now, please keep in mind that these churches do not necessarily use the terminology of the ladder, but rather, they talk about the ladder as a faith journey or steps or levels.  Nonetheless, they are always seeking and always moving but never arriving and never finding. 

Sometimes though, fights break out in these ladder theology churches over the best way to climb.  And sometimes a fight breaks out when a person – who is good at climbing – is not respected or revered for how high they have climbed.  And if a person has tragedy and does not have the energy to climb the ladder, well… they are given a pass for a little bit but are then eventually encouraged to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get busy climbing again.  In these ladder theology churches, everyone must be on the ladder!  Everyone must be climbing!  And the pastor is usually at the top showing everyone else how to climb.        

And so, just like the poor people of the Roman Catholic Church of the 1500s, thousands upon thousands of Christians and pastors in modern churches find themselves busy climbing.  They are not doing this through archaic religious duties, indulgences, penance, monastic vows, and saying the mass but climbing through modern ways. 

While these churches may look like they have it all together, what is not being said and what they are not allowed to talk about is the fact that they do not have assurance.  You see, life on the ladder results not in freedom but never-ending bondage - slavery.  The unspoken truth is that they are climbing but never reaching the top.  They are seeking but never finding.  They are traveling but going nowhere.  They are on a journey with no destination.  Lord have mercy on them and us too. 

When Martin Luther realized the problem with this ladder theology some 500 years ago, he rightly understood that he needed to rebuild the theological foundation of the church so that the Word and fundamental teachings of scripture might be adequately understood.  And so, Luther had to knock down, destroy, and clear away all the ladders.  Yes, the ladders needed to be cut down and put through the wood chipper so that people would fall to the ground and realize that the Christian faith rests upon God’s grace alone, through Christ alone, by faith alone.  

Indeed, the heart of the Reformation was a rejection of ladder theology – the frantic effort of climbing into God’s favor through personal pious strivings.  The Reformers broke from ladder theology to a Gospel-centered theology where Jesus comes to us! 

According to our Reformers, it is only at the bottom that church finds its life and hope – not the top, and certainly not on the ladder.  Yes, it is only at the foundational level of Jesus – our cornerstone – that the church has freedom, hope, forgiveness, and salvation.  To paraphrase the words of Martin Luther, a person is not righteous by climbing the ladder but is righteous when he or she does not climb but receives and believes upon Jesus. (Thesis 26: 1518 Heidelberg Disputation) 

This is the message of the Reformation!  This is the most basic and fundamental message of the Christian faith.  This is what we are about as Lutheran!  This is where freedom is found! 

Dear friends, a ladder is not a substitute for Jesus.  Ladders do not cut it.  When Christians and pastors go the way of ladder theology, they are dismissing Jesus and His work.  In fact, when Christians and pastors promote ladder theology, they become so busy climbing that they fail to realize that Jesus has passed by them and is at the bottom with free grace, mercy, and forgiveness.     

You, who have ears, hear: we do not climb to Jesus; He descends to us.  We do not pursue Jesus; He pursues us.  You cannot ascend high enough to God.  You cannot climb enough rungs. You cannot pursue Him enough. 

God be praised, though, that we do not need ladders – we have Jesus.  This is the foundation that the church goes forth with – a lightened step, a joyful cheer of knowing that Jesus comes to sinners.  Yes, Jesus comes to save sinners – sinners like you and me who are at the bottom.  He comes for sinners who can’t climb the ladder – sinner who lie in dust and ashes. 

Dear Baptized Saints, this is the foundation that we are established and anchored upon.  We rest in the finished and accomplished work of Jesus.  We do not huff and puff – climbing the rungs to Jesus, but we simply open our ears to hear Jesus in His Word.  We open our hands and mouths receiving Jesus who comes to us with forgiveness, life, and salvation. 

And it is with this great Gospel that we invite others around us to come down off their ladders – to the bottom with us – where we all receive Jesus together.  This is what evangelism is – we tell people, who have no ladders, to come and receive with us at the bottom.  And we tell those who are busy climbing their ladders that they don’t need them because Jesus has descended.

The Reformation truth and the truth of all the scriptures is that our Savior has descended to gift us His righteousness. It is and has always been about Jesus and Jesus' strategic goal of drawing close to and pursuing sinners.  This is our hope, assurance, and yes, freedom! 

We are free of ladders because we have Jesus.  May we receive Jesus, not by ladders, but by faith.  God be praised for this freedom!

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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