I received an email in response to my most recent essays (“The Self-Discipline of Faith,” and “Pelagius – Beyond the Jargon”) from Romanos, an Orthodox reader, who was shocked at my evident ignorance of John Climacus, one of the most important spiritual writers in Orthodoxy. In truth I have a draft of an abandoned essay on just that subject, explaining how Pr. Matt Richard in his article opposed to what he called “ladder theology,” muddled his metaphors. I abandoned the essay because it seemed petty to disagree with Richard yet again on what I took to be a relatively insignificant point. But, it’s probably not an insignificant point to readers who are acquainted with and appreciate the classical spiritual writings of the Christian Church but aren’t so familiar with Evangelicalism. So, let me try to unmuddle a metaphor and defend the Ladder.
In the article, Let Us Say Goodbye to Ladder Theology!, Pr. Richard makes the extremely important and timely point that the direction of salvation is from God to us. God comes to us to give us new life; we do not (we cannot!) go to God. Richard illustrates this point by saying there is no ladder up to God. It’s here that he muddles his metaphors, because the biblical metaphor for man trying to reach God (or possibly become gods) is not the ladder but the tower (or ziggurat). The people of Babel said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:4).
In contrast to the tower, the ladder describes God coming to us. The only biblical ladder of significance is Jacob’s Ladder in Genesis 28. In his dream Jacob sees angels “ascending and descending” a ladder that stretches into the heavens and the Lord standing beside him talking to him (v. 12). After considering the dream, Jacob says, “Surely Yahweh is in this place—and I did not know it!” And later, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (vv 16, 17). The Ladder didn’t take Jacob to God, nor did it bring God to Jacob, rather it revealed to Jacob that God was already in this place. In other words, the Ladder is actually the metaphor the Bible uses to describe the revelation of God’s saving presence. (This is no doubt why messengers, or angels, are ascending and descending the ladder — they are revealing God’s presence and promise.)
Jesus later picks up the concept of the Gate of Heaven to describe himself. “Amen. Amen. I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. … I am the Gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:7, 9). On the other hand, Jacob’s other term, “house of God,” has come to describe the Church – the place God resides on earth, within each and every Christian corporately. Both are thoroughly earthly terms. There is no going to heaven to get to God. God is already here and it is Jesus Christ who reveals him to us; it is Jesus Christ who allows us to enter God (the Gate), and it is Jesus Christ who allows God to enter us (the House of God). Both are encompassed in the ladder metaphor.
And this is how the Ladder has been generally understood throughout Christian history. The Ladder is Jesus Christ. So you can see why Christians, such as Romanos, who have an acquaintance with Christian spiritual literature, might be so offended by Pr. Richard’s article. It sounds like he wants us to say goodbye to Jesus Christ, the Ladder, in favor of some disembodied rational concept of faith in grace or something. … oops!
I suspect Matt Richard is not completely ignorant of this classical Ladder Theology. But the concept of Jesus as the Ladder has been often misunderstood within Evangelical Protestantism because of how Evangelicals typically use the term “salvation.” This in turn colors how the ladder metaphor is understood.
For Evangelicals “salvation” is most frequently a synonym for “justification.” How are we saved? An Evangelical might typically turn to Paul’s statement in Rom 3:28. “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Or possibly they would prefer his statement a few verses earlier. “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23f).
But “salvation” is a much broader term that refers to a lifelong process beginning with election, to justification, to sanctification, and finally to glorification. So it is that Jesus and the apostles sometimes say that we will be saved in the future. “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt. 10:22). And once we understand this correctly broad sense of salvation, then we can affirm that while the only way to be justified is by faith, faith alone cannot save us. As James says (in the only biblical text that uses the phrase “faith alone”), “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
In the previous essay I described this as the Arena of Grace. We get into the Arena through grace alone. We are guided through the obstacles by grace alone. We are nourished in the Arena by grace alone. But, we have to do something in the Arena; we can’t just sit around basking in God’s grace, because a person is justified by works — by what he does in the Arena of Grace — and not by faith alone. Paul describes this broad understanding of salvation very well in 1 Cor. 3:12-15
Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw –  the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.  If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward.  If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
This is the same “works and not faith alone” that James is talking about. We are already justified by “faith apart from works prescribed by the law,” but now we must “endure to the end” by building on the foundation of Christ. Some of our works will be self-serving. Some of our works will be holy. And in the end the self-serving work will be burned up. Even if we manage to never get the hang of the Christian life and all of our Christian works are self-serving, and every last bit is burned up, we (that is, “the builder”) will still be saved, as Paul says in v. 15. Salvation – the whole process from beginning to end – is only by God’s grace and that means that even if we muck it up something terribly, we will still be saved, because it is by grace. But this doesn’t nullify the reality that all this occurs within the Arena of Grace where “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” in James’ words.
John of Sinai described this whole Pauline process of salvation from justification to glorification, along with the burning of that which will not endure, back in the sixth century, in a book called The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The book was so influential that John of Sinai came to be known as John Climacus (which, translated means, “John of the Ladder”). Many Christians, for centuries, have read this book every Lenten season in order to be reminded how they might enter into closer fellowship and union with their Savior Jesus Christ. But if one mistakenly limits “salvation” to just the beginning step of “justification,” this spiritual classic will be offensive because it is “treatise on avoiding vice and practicing virtue so that at the end, salvation can be obtained.”
That doesn’t sound much like Paul’s statements in Rom 3:23-28, thus Evangelicals might take offense. But to throw out the Ladder in favor of grace alone is rather opposite of what Jesus says in Mt. 10, what James says in ch. 2, or what Paul says in 1 Cor. 3, thus Orthodox and other Christians who embrace the historical faith (and the more inclusive understanding of salvation) will take offense. Hopefully all of us can come to appreciate how these terms have developed in different Christian communions and understand that each expression is an attempt to be faithful to the incarnate Jesus Christ, “the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls.” And then maybe we call all say together, “Goodbye Tower! Hello Ladder!”