Remember the tower of Babel, humanity coming together to build a tower up to heaven? The project continues. Our sinful flesh is constantly working and striving up into heaven.
Lutheran theologian Adolph Koberle talks about these attempts of man to ascend to heaven as the three ladders. These three ladders are moralism, mysticism, and speculation.
The first ladder is moralism. Moralism is the ladder of the will. The moralist tries to get to heaven by works, efforts and the living of the good life. Human pride often thinks that it has climbed the ladder of moralism into heaven. Time after time the question, “Why will you be in heaven? Is answered by the ladder of moralism. “I’ve lived a good life, I’ve been a good person.” This is perhaps what most people think of religion, and even of the church, that the Christian life is trying to be good enough for God. Lord have mercy! Good enough for God! No, the ladder of moralism in not high enough to reach heaven. The top of that ladder will only reach the peak of pride or the clouds of despair. No, no one is saved by ascending the ladder of moralism.
The second ladder is mysticism. Mysticism is the ladder of emotions. The mystic thinks that heaven can be reached by an emotional experience. If we sing the song enough times, if we sit in profound silence, if we discipline our soul, we can feel God, experience God, somehow climb the ladder of the emotions into the bliss of heaven. But this ladder, like the ladder of moralism, is woefully short. Searching the depths of the human soul for the flower of divinity, it finds instead the horror and the depth of sin clinging not just to our flesh but to our very soul. Mysticism, if it is honest, finds that we are sinners, and that we cannot change that on our own. Mysticism, if it is not honest, becomes inflated with is idolatrous pride that thinks “God lives in me.” No one one is saved by ascending the ladder of mysticism.
The third ladder is speculation, or rationalism. Speculation is the ladder of the mind. This ladder attempts to climb into heaven by obtaining perfect knowledge, as if salvation is a matter of knowing about God. But what do we know of God that He has not told us? So inquiry into the nature of God apart for His Word is like looking into deep darkness, and the ladder of the mind tumbles into this despair, often into the prideful despair of atheism and unbelief. No, no one is saved by ascending the ladder of speculation.
Koberle summarizes the three ladders and their results: “Moralism, mysticism, speculation, these are the three ladders on which men continually seek to climb up to God, with a persistent purpose that it seems nothing can check; a storming of heaven that is just as pathetic in its unceasing efforts as it is in its final futility.” [The Quest for Holiness, 2]
Our sinful flesh is doomed. It cannot escape the idea that it can earn and deserve something from God, but, at the same time, it can never accomplish any work that actually does earn or deserve God’s favor. These ladders are like treadmills, they occupy us, but don’t get us anywhere, and, in fact, they will eventually kill us. There’s irony in there, that the tools we think are saving us are the instruments of our own destruction. Salvation is not the result of man’s efforts.
Salvation is the gift of God. We are saved not because we’ve gotten up to heaven, but because Jesus has come down to us. We are saved not because we’ve climbed a man-made ladder into heaven, but because Jesus was lifted off the earth on a cross. Our salvation is not the result of our doing, feeling or thinking, it is the result of Jesus’ suffering, dying and rising.
Christianity is not about man climbing up to God. The exact opposite is true. Christianity is about God coming down to man, coming to our weakness, coming to our sin, coming to our punishment and death, to take our place under the wrath of God so that we might have life eternal.
With this understand of the three broken ladders we can diagnose the false teaching that we see all around us. When, for example, we hear a preacher telling us that we have to do something to be saved, we can say, “That’s the ladder of moralism. That’s wrong.” When we see a church trying to get their members wrapped up in an ecstatic emotional experience, we can say, “That’s the ladder of mysticism, I’d better stay away.” When we read that science has proven that God does not exist, we can say, “That’s rationalism. No one is saved that way.”
A couple of years ago I was sitting with Mohammed, the President of the Colorado Muslim Association. He wanted to talk about how Islam and Christianity were very similar, how we both believe in a creator, in being good, etc. I, though, was thinking about law and Gospel, and the three ladders. “Mohammed,” I said, “I think Christianity and Islam are the exact opposite.”
“Well,” I continued, “You say that the whole universe and everything in it exists to serve Allah, right?”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“Well the Bible teaches and we Christians believe that God serves us, died for us, so that we might have life.” (You can see how I’m thinking about the three ladders, right. I continued…) “Jesus said, ‘I came not to be served, but to serve, and to give my life for many.’”
Mohammed looked at me for a moment, and then said (I’ll never forget this), “Yeah, that’s different.”
Indeed! The Gospel is totally different from every man-made religion. It is the good news that Jesus has done everything for our life and salvation. Let us, then, jump down off the ladders we are tempted to climb, and rejoice that Jesus has come down to us, to serve us with His mercy and forgiveness and give to us eternal life. Amen.