I grew up in church singing the well-known hymn, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” And, climb I did, for years! But, does this hymn reflect “the pattern of sound words,” that Paul made reference to when writing to Timothy (cf., 2 Tim. 1:13)?
The problem is that this “great hymn of the faith,” is not so great. In fact, it represents one of the main problems within the Evangelical church today. In many respects, not unlike the Medieval church, Evangelicalism is increasingly becoming a performance-based culture.
Whether it is the moralistic messages that characterize the seeker churches and established mainline Protestant churches, the “health/wealth,” “name it/claim it” messages that characterize many of the Pentecostal/Charismatic churches, or the “self-esteem gospel” of Robert Schuller or Joel Osteen, there is one underlying common denominator that characterizes them all, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”
There are only two ways to live in reference to God, by one’s own performance (i.e., climbing Jacob’s Ladder) or by faith in another’s performance (i.e., Christ).
The foregoing examples are nothing more than man-made “ladders” whereby man attempts to climb up to heaven. However, in reality, these “ladders” only lead further into one’s self. These “ladders” are at the same level as pilgrimages, indulgences, ascetic practices, invoking Mary and other saints, etc…
Martin Luther speaking of his “ladders,” wrote,
For I myself was a learned doctor of theology and yet I never understood the Ten Commandments rightly. Yea, there were many highly celebrated doctors who did not know whether there were nine, ten or eleven commandments, and much less did we know the Gospel and Christ. But the only thing that was taught and advocated was: Invoke the Virgin Mary and other saints as your mediators and intercessors; fast often and pray much: make pilgrimages, enter cloisters and become monks, or pay for the saying of many masses and like works, and thus we imagined when we did these things we had merited heaven. (Martin Luther, Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 3, “A Beautiful Sermon on the law and the Gospel,” p. 191).
Gospel-driven theology emphasizes the fact that God takes the initiative in salvation and comes down to man. John, in his Gospel writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…,” (John 1:1, 14a).
The ladder that Jacob saw in His dream (cf., Gen. 28 ) did not originate “from below.” It was not a ladder given to man so that man could climb up to God. Rather, the ladder originated “from above.” It was a ladder given by God in which God came down to us.
The incarnation teaches us that God took the initiative and came down to us. It is Christ, Paul writes, “…who descended…,” and “is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things,” (Eph. 4:10).
In the union of His two natures (i.e., divine and human) God came down to man and raises man up to God (Eph. 2:4-7). How great and fit a Mediator and Redeemer we have in Christ, Immanuel, God with us! Christ, then, is the ladder by which man may ascend up to God.
“Gospel-driven theology emphasizes the fact that God takes the initiative in salvation and comes down to man.”
Ralph Erskine writes, “…He (i.e., Christ) has a divine fullness and sufficiency to save us, together with a human meetness and congruity, for applying it in a manner most suitable and proper to our condition,” (The Works of Ralph Erskine, vol. 2, “The Time Of Need, A Time Of Love,” vol. 2, p. 458).
In the ladder “from below,” man is the worker. In the ladder “from above” God is the worker. In the ladder “from below” man is the initiator. In the ladder “from above” God is the initiator, the One coming down toward us while we are helpless (Rom. 5:6).
This well-known hymn vividly illustrates the ever-widening divide within Evangelicalism between those who are seeking to proclaim and establish a religion “from above,” versus proclaiming and establishing a “religion from below.”
“Christ is the ladder by which man may ascend up to God.”
True religion comes from above and originates with God. Paul in Galatians 1:11-12 writes, “11For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
True religion is revealed (Matt. 11:25; 16:17; Lk. 24:45; 1 Cor. 2:14; Col. 1:26). False religion is pursued (Rom. 10:2-3; Acts 22:3; Gal. 1:14; Philip. 3:4-6).
True religion does not consist of man’s attempts to climb his ladders to reach God. Rather, true religion comes by way of revelation from above, through God’s initiative in coming to man.
This distinction of ladders highlights one the fundamental and pressing issues within Evangelicalism today. Though many today profess to believe the Gospel, a great number deny it in their practice.
“True religion comes from above and originates with God.”
In a sermon entitled, “The Promising God, A Performing God,” Ralph Erskine, preaching on Jacob’s meeting with God in Bethel, proclaimed,
Jacob here sees the glory of God in Christ represented as the ladder reaching between heaven and earth. Why then you may call that a Bethel wherever it hath pleased God to reveal Christ in you, and to open your eyes to see His glory in the face of Jesus Christ, as the way to the Father, and as the ladder by which you may ascend up to heaven. Have you seen at this, or any former occasion, Christ to be, as it were, the ladder set upon the earth, in his humiliation, and reaching unto heaven, and so that all the rounds and steps of the ladder are completed in his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and sitting at the right hand; “By him do we believe in God, who raised him from the dead, that our faith and hope might be in God?” 1 Pet. i. 21. And have we thus, by faith, stept up the ladder, the only way? Hath thus the God that commanded light to shine out of darkness, shined into our hearts, not our heads only, but our hearts, to give us the light of the knowledge of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ, so as our hearts have gone out after a revealed Christ, (The Works of Ralph Erskine, vol. 3, p. 343).
Christ is the ladder by which sinful man may ascend up to heaven. The Scriptures unequivocally teach that it is God who takes the initiative and comes down from above.
The Son of God came from heaven to earth to seek and save lost sinners. He made Himself in all things like us, except for sin, excepted as to the inhesion but not imputation of it, as Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” (2 Cor. 5:21). Again, Peter, in 1 Peter 2:24 writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.”
He submitted Himself willingly as our substitute. He “was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him…,” (Isa. 53:5).
He came as the Lamb of God in order to take away our sins (John 1:29). He obeyed the law of God perfectly for us, merited eternal life and imputes to us His righteousness and gives to us a sure title to heaven.
Seeing us under a curse, He became a curse for us and thus redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, so that in Him the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith, (Gal. 3:13-14).
It was God who put Christ forward as a propitiation by his blood (Rom. 3:25). Thus, finding us choking under a cup of heavy wrath, He took it out of our hands and drank every last drop until he exhausted every ounce of God’s wrath toward us.
He was made poor, that we through His poverty might be made rich (2 Cor. 8:9). It is through His stripes that we are healed (Isa. 53:5). Finding us doomed to death, he died and rose for us that we might live. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him,” ( 1 John 4:9).
Christ is the end of the law, the perfection of it. He is our righteousness, which we could never attain regardless of how many ladders we climb.