The Ladders of Lent


This coming Sunday we will begin our Lenten Forum on Prayer as a Means of Grace during the church school hour to be followed by a series of Lenten Prayer Experiences on Wednesday evenings.  On Sunday mornings we will be talking about Richard Foster’s three broad categories of Christian praying in his 1992 book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home – “Moving Inward: Seeking the Transformation We Need;” “Moving Upward: Seeking the Intimacy We Need;” and “Moving Outward: Seeking the Ministry We Need.” This is when and where we will introduce the spiritual movement of prayer and give some specific examples of the kinds of praying that “fits” in each category.  And then on the Wednesday evenings following the Sunday morning sessions, after a simple Soup Supper and a brief recap of the Sunday morning teaching, we are going to be providing participants with an actual experience of each of these three movements of prayer.  And so, next Wednesday evening (April 2), I have been preparing a prayer experience based on the first movement of prayer that Foster describes in his book – “Moving Inward: Seeking the Transformation We Need.”

One of the examples of “Moving Inward” prayer that Foster specifically named in the first section of his book was what he called “Formation Prayer” – the kind of praying that changes us by bringing us into “a life of communion with the Father,” “by the power of the Spirit,” so that we are “increasingly conformed to the image of this kind of Formation Prayer” was St. Benedict’s “Ladder of Humility” from his Rule.  Because our very own Alexander Campbell was just so insistent that the only way that we would ever “come within the understanding distance” of God’s speaking voice in Scripture would be by the conscious cultivation of the kind of “humility of mind” that Mary of Bethany demonstrated as she “sat at the Master’s feet and listened to the words that fell from His lips” (Luke 10:38-42), we decided to take St. Benedict’s Ladder of Humility as our starting point for our first Lenten Prayer Experience.  And that’s when the trouble began.

Ladders as a spiritual metaphor are as frequent as they are tricky.  Last week in my blog I wrote about the propensity towards to Pelagianism that Lent presents us each year with its exhortation to “do more” and “try harder” in our spiritual exercises so that we might be better prepared for the Church’s annual celebration of Easter and thereby derive increasing spiritual benefit from its recital of dying and rising, both Christ’s and our own. And St. Benedict’s ladder can certainly be read this way.  It has been used as a set of instructions for spiritual maturation. “To be like Jesus, you need to get on this ladder and start climbing. Come on – up you go!” As Michael Horton put it in his essay, the “Mysteries of God and Means of Grace” ( –

We believe that the Christian life consists chiefly in finding out what needs to be done, and doing it. Inveterate Pelagians by birth, we do our best to climb the spiritual rungs into God’s hidden presence, but he has plainly warned us against this strategy.  For he has come near to us, through the Incarnate Word, the written, and especially, preached Word, and the visible Word (i.e. the Sacraments). …the Sacraments become for us not a means for attaining grace, but for receiving grace.  They are not rituals through which we proclaim our willing and running, but through which God proclaims His willing and running.


In a really fine little book on Lutheran theology and spirituality, The Spirituality of the Cross by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. (Concordia 1999), I was introduced to the writings of Adolf Koeberle (1898-1990). A German Lutheran theologian, Koeberle launched a withering theological assault on ladder theology and ladder spirituality from the vantage point of the Gospel. He saw three ladders that we use as human beings to ascend to the heights of God: the ladder of moralism, the ladder of mysticism and the ladder of speculation.  Google Koerberle’s name and add the word “ladder” and you will find lots and lots of good material about what he had to say about these ladders of self-righteousness and self-justification, and among the best is what an American Lutheran Pastor, Bryan Wolfmueller, wrote about it in his blog “Three Broken Ladders” at his site “World Wide Wolfmueller” @

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, no 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]

Because of the Gospel, the only significant use of the ladder that I can make in my own theology and spirituality is the one that is implied by Paul’s Christ Hymn in Philippians 2:5-11.

5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,  6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,  7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.  8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.  9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


It’s not about me ascending a ladder into God’s presence by my own best efforts. It’s about God descending to us in Jesus Christ to save us.  In Ephesians 4:8-10 Paul talked about us ascending with Christ back into glory, but only after He had descended to get to us.  I can talk about the ladder like St. Benedict did, as a metaphor of the long growth in grace that follows salvation, but we can only talk like this when it is absoutely clear that it is grace that got us up on that ladder in the first place, and that it is only by grace that we are climbing it at all.  As the old beloved hymn puts it: “’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” Only when it’s well understood that the ladder we climb is the ladder that Jesus Christ first climbed down to get to us, and then uses to take us back up with Him, does it become a metaphor of the Gospel.   DBS+



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