“No more climbing ladders.” That’s been the ‘Hymn of the Day’ at my house for the past two weeks now. It gets sung to a number of tunes, all of them could easily handle trumpet and trombone parts.
The patriarch Jacob saw a ladder with its feet firmly planted on the earth and the top propped against the edge of heaven itself, and the angels of God effortlessly ascending and descending on it. But angels lack the flesh and bones as you see that I have, which significantly reduces the risks involved.
I’ve had about all the attention I want for my ladder failure and I’m more than ready to redirect the attention to someone else – take for example, the rich, young man who came to Jesus with his question, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Here’s a ‘ladder climber’ if there ever was one. He’d been climbing this ladder all his life trying to get to heaven, and yet he knew he had not climbed high enough.
Jesus patiently tells this man what he needed to do to climb higher – the end that he might once and for all renounce all ladder climbing to get to heaven. “Keep the 10 Commandments,” Jesus tells him. The man replied that he had already climbed those 10 rungs already. “What more must I do?” Jesus replied, “sell all you have and give to the poor and come, take up your cross and follow me.” And at that the man lost his footing and fell, and great was his fall.
Who is this man? Who is this man who believes that he must “climb, climb up sunshine mountain” to get to that place where “heavenly breezes blow” and “faces all aglow”?
I am. And so are you. And so was Martin Luther. Luther was possessed by the same question as the rich, young man, “What must I do to have eternal life?” And the church in Luther’s day answered by giving him a ladder to climb. It was called the ‘sacrament of penance.’ Which Luther climbed and climbed and climbed.
But no matter how high he climbed, he was never convinced that he climbed high enough. He wrote, “My conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, “You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.” The more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weak and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more uncertain, weak and troubled I became.”
And the thought of NOT climbing high enough terrified him. “I was more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created,” he wrote.
It was only when the same Lord who answered the rich, young man, answer Luther. Not a voice in his head or a feeling in his heart or a sign in the sky, but a “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit through the apostle Paul, who was also quite the ‘ladder climber,’ and who also had taken a terrible fall from the deep heights to which he had climbed.
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God. FOR BY WORKS OF THE LAW NO HUMAN BEING WILL BE JUSTIFIED IN HIS SIGHT. Since through the law comes the knowledge of sin.”
Which means that if you’re trying to climb UP to heaven on the ladder of GOD’S LAW, you’re actually NOT going UP at all – but DOWN.
“BUT NOW, the righteousness of God has been revealed APART FROM THE LAW…”
“But now…” Some of the best news you’ll ever hear is announced by those two little words. “But now…” Just when you thought you had it all figured out that the way to heaven was to climb the ladder higher and higher, God knocks the legs right out from us and says, “NO MORE CLIMBING LADDERS!” “I hate it when you try to climb the ladder to get to Me.”
WHICH IS NOT TO SAY THAT THERE IS NO MORE NEED FOR LADDERS, WITH THEIR FEET FIRMLY PLANTED ON THIS EARTH AND THE TOP LEANING AGAINST HEAVEN. It’s just that the ladder is not one that we must climb to get to God. It’s the ladder that God climbs down to get to us.
All of the PLOTS AND SCHEMES OF FALLEN MAN to get to God by climbing UP to Him are answered with a resounding NO. God has His own plot, written before the foundation of the world, wherein He comes down the ladder to get to us.
“He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried…” “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God… BUT NOW… are justified by his grace, as a gift, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 3:23-24)
NO MORE CLIMBING LADDERS.
Holy Baptism is no longer where we come to receive the grace that enables and equips us to climb the ladder up to God. It’s the ladder on which God comes down to us and gives us His Triune Name and RESURRECTS us with Christ, and takes us out this world and brings us into heaven – even now, but not yet.
Confession is no longer the place where we get our assignment of what we must do to be assured that the blessed absolution is FOR ME. It’s the place, whether publicly before the whole congregation or privately with the pastor, where we confess our sins of omission and commission. And based solely on what my Lord and my God has done for me – I hear that word spoken over me that was spoken over me in my baptism, as from God Himself, “I forgive you all of your sins.”
And Holy Communion is no longer the place where a “bloodless sacrifice” is offered UP to God to appease His anger for our sins, but the very body and blood of our crucified and risen Savior, COME DOWN from heaven to YOU for the forgiveness of all of your sins and the strength to take up your cross and follow Him.
We come to the Sacrament of the Altar, not as climbers who are required to climb this rung. We come as beggars come to their merciful and gracious Lord – with hands held out and mouths opened to receive this life-giving food “AS A GIFT, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
This is the heart and soul of the gospel. “Christ has entered, once for all, into the holy places,” that we so desperately want to enter. And “by means of His own blood, has secured an eternal redemption” FOR US. (Hebrews 9:12)
The great “BUT NOW…” of the gospel is that the “The righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
This is the great “BUT NOW…” that moved Luther to quit climbing the ladder. “Now I felt as though I had been born again, and I believed that I had entered Paradise through widely opened doors… As violently as I had formerly hated the expression, ‘the righteousness of God,’ so now I was as violently compelled to embrace the new conception of grace, and thus, for me, the expression of the Apostle really opened the Gates of Paradise.”
By faith alone, “the Son has set us free” from THE LOVELESS LADDER CLIMBING to get to God. And what a relief it is, and what peace that gives. He has set us free to live with both feet firmly planted on the ground – where we strive to walk HORIZONTALLY – to love our neighbor – NOT AS ‘GOOD WORKS’ TO PLEASE GOD – that’s ‘ladder climbing’ again and so, so selfish – but in genuine love for our neighbor – as servants of the living God, WHO LOVES OUR NEIGHBOR THROUGH US.
By faith alone, “the Son has set us free” to TAKE GREAT RISKS and walk with Abraham, who “BY FAITH… obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, NOT KNOWING WHERE HE WAS GOING.” (Heb. 11:8)
Knowing that you have already entered Paradise by grace alone, for Christ’s sake alone, we are set free from all of the angst and fear of God’s judgment against us. Listen to Luther:
“When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: “I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? BY NO MEANS. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.”
Does the Lutheran Reformation still have something to say to us 500 years later? It most certainly does.
After being convicted for his role in the Watergate Conspiracy, Charles Colson was introduced to Jesus Christ while in prison and later reported that even while he was in prison, he was never so free. After his release, Colson founded an organization called “Prison Fellowship” that worked to bring the gospel to prisoners that they too might know of that freedom that transcends even life in prison.
He wrote of the time he visited a prison in Brazil that had been so corrupt that the government closed it down. It was reopened again and operation turned over to an independent group that was given free rein to employ the gospel.
Colson reported how surprised he was to find the inmates smiling and pleasant – especially the murderer who had the keys to the front door. “Where ever I walked,” he said, “I found men at peace.” “How could this be and what was the reason for this extraordinary change,” he asked.
He got his answer when his guide, one of the inmates, escorted him to the notorious punishment cell that had once been used for torturing inmates. “Today,” the guide told Colson, “this cell holds just one inmate.”
As they reached the end of the long, concrete corridor and the guide put the key into the lock, he paused and asked, “are you sure you want to go it?” “Of course,” replied Colson, “I’ve been in insolation cells all over the world.”
Slowly, the guide opened the steel door, and Colson writes, “I saw the prisoner in the cell: A crucifix, beautifully carved by the inmates – the prisoner Jesus, hanging on the cross.” The guide whispered, “He’s doing time for us all.”
“For God has presented Him to be a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.”
“By his stripes, we are healed… Upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace.”
The Reformation was not principally a negative movement away from the Roman Church and its corruption. It was a positive movement towards the Word of God and the eternal gospel it proclaims to all who have ears to hear.
In fact, none of the relevance of the Reformation has faded in the least over 500 years. And that’s because men and women are no different today than they have always been – sinners with the same questions – like:
• ‘What will happen to me when I die and how can I be sure?’
• ‘Is my standing before God based on a process of becoming holy and only completed in purgatory, or is righteousness and holiness a pure gift of God, imputed by grace alone, for Christ’s sake alone?
The Reformation was not a mere reaction to the historical situation 500 years ago. It speaks clearly and powerfully to sinners five centuries later. Even today, when many may no longer be tormented with issues of guilt before a divine Judge – because they have nearly dismissed the idea of a God who cares one way of the other – if He exists at all.
And yet they are nonetheless saddled with heavy burdens and pressures, piled on by a culture that bombards us with messages that THE MORE beautiful and productive we are, THE MORE loved we will be – which is really just another ladder to climb.
Even here, Luther points our present day to the gospel, with its refreshing good news that sets us free. In the last thesis of his HEIDELBERG DISPUTATION, Luther states: “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.” Rather than seeking that which is ‘beautiful,’ God MAKES US beautiful in His sight. SINNERS LIKE YOU AND ME ARE NOT LOVED BECAUSE WE ARE ATTRACTIVE. WE ARE BEAUTIFUL BECAUSE WE ARE LOVED by God.
NO MORE CLIMBING LADDERS.
The 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation is no time for ‘boasting’ – either in Martin Luther or the brave and courageous men and women who have stood for the pure gospel at great cost to themselves. This kind of boasting “is excluded. By what kind of law? By the law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” So today as we celebrate this 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:31)