Let Us Say Goodbye To Ladder Theology!

Ladder theology is the idea that mankind ascends to God through his/her own will, emotions and intellect in order to draw closer to God. Ladder theology accepts the idea that mankind has fallen from the glory of God due to sin but then places a metaphoric ladder between mankind and God. The reason for the ladder is so that fallen man can correct the fall by industriously ascending up each step of the ladder.

In Gene Edward Veith’s book, The Spirituality of the Cross,” he comments on the three ways that mankind tries to ascend to God.  Veith expounds on these insights which were originally published in Adolf Koberle’s book, The Quest for Holiness.” 

Moralistic Spirituality is one of the forms that ladder theology takes on. Moralistic Spirituality is the pursuit of behavior that conforms to a system of moral standards, standards held by God. Jesus becomes a means to the final end of ‘becoming more moral’ with the aim that one may ascend a little higher to God. Moralistic Spirituality appeals to the ‘will’ of man.[1]

Mystical Spirituality is yet another flavor of ladder theology. In this thinking, mankind pursues a consciousness of ultimate reality with God through direct emotional experiences and mystical insights. Mystical Spirituality appeals to the ‘emotions’ of man so that one might emotionally climb the ladder toward God.[2]

Finally there is Speculative Spirituality. Through the pursuit of reflective rationale and being thoughtful of Godly logic, mankind exercises the ‘intellect’ in climbing the ladder.[3]

According to Gene Edward Veith, “All three of these conventional approaches to spirituality involve human beings’ expending strenuous effort to reach God, who is, by implication, an impassive observer, far above the fray, a goal that must be attained, a treasure that must be sought, discovered and earned.”[4]

The problem with ladder theology is that it honestly doesn’t work.[5] How will one know if he is has an adequate amount of morality? How will one know if her mystically experience is genuine enough? How will one know if his reason is enlightened enough? In looking to ladder spirituality there will always be one more perpetual step to climb, one more degree of spirituality to accomplish and assurance will never be within reach.[6]

To make things worse, mix salvation by grace alone with ladder theology and the ingredients are present for a perfect storm! Gerhard Forde in his book, Where God Meets Man says, “To make room for grace alone we are forced to push man down to absolutely the lowest possible position on the ladder—if not off it altogether.[7]” He goes on to say, “…since the theology of grace alone always threatens to destroy man’s created goodness… it is quite impossible (satisfactorily) to combine a theology of grace alone with the picture of the ladder…”[8] In other words, the sinful nature runs for the opportunity to climb the spiritual ladder whether it is through mystical, moral or speculative means. As a result a person grips the ladder and embarks on an upward journey to God. At the same time the theology of grace alone directly opposes, slams against and undercuts the whole premise of ladder theology.

What tends to happen when the theology of grace alone collides with ladder theology is an all out pushing match! With the purpose of trying to make room for grace, pastors and laypersons of grace alone can find themselves pushing downward or even aggressively booting people off of the spiritual ladder. In reaction to this, ladder advocates ascend to push back. As a result, a spiritual grade-school game of ‘king of the hill’ breaks out.

If there is no resolution to the pushing match what can come about is a compromise between the theology of grace alone and ladder theology. An example of compromise would be: salvation is by grace alone and one also needs to climb the ladder only part way to acquire salvation. The only problem is that any compromise between the theology of grace alone and ladder theology results in it not being by ‘grace alone.’ History has shown and has already condemned compromises between the theology of grace alone and ladder theology, they are known as the heresies of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.[9]

So where is the crux of the problem? The fundamental problem lies not in the tension or compromise but in the very concept of the ladder itself. First, does the Word even promote, endorse, or even teach ladder theology? Secondly, should the theology of grace alone even be mentioned in the same breath as ladder theology? Thirdly, is the theology of grace even capable of co-existing with or capable of being injected into the systematic theology of the ladder?

In reflecting on Martin Luther’s thoughts and scripture, Gerhard Forde suggests that “The only alternative is to reject the theology of the ladder altogether.”[10] In other words, the problem that arises is not that mankind needs to be pushed down the ladder in order to free up some space for grace alone. The problem is not that there needs to be a better compromise and blending of the two theologies. Rather, the root of the problem is simply the ladder itself! The predicament is the incorrect underlining presuppositions of the ladder system. What this means is that there needs to be a farewell party for the ladder!

By faith in God’s revealed Word, we get to say ‘good bye’ to the ladder and we get to say ‘welcome’ to a brand new alternative. Unlike the ascending requirements of ladder theology, the theology of grace alone teaches us how God descended to us and how God has already fulfilled all the requirements for us. Salvation by grace alone reveals to us how God came, “to rescue us from our miserable and deprave human condition, He became a human being Himself. The God-man Jesus Christ accomplished the perfection moralists only aspire to and took upon Himself the punishment for everyone’s moral failures by dying on the cross.”[11] The theology of grace alone shows us that our incarnate Christ is not a means to better morality, greater wisdom, or more closeness with God(i.e. means to another end). In other words Christ is not a life coach that came to cheer us on and give us pointers in how to successfully ascend the ladder. Rather, Christ is the God-man who comes to us to be our perfect morality, to be our great wisdom, to be in our midst, and to be our mediator (i.e. Christ is the end).

Since the ladder is the crux of the problem this means that one doesn’t have to fight to make room on the ladder for grace. Because the ladder has defective assumptions there is no need for a pushing match. Given that ladder theology has faulty presuppositions there is no need for long debates on compromise. Why fight over or upon the ladder when the ladder is the problem? Simply put, the ladder itself needs to be dismantled, taken down and cast from our sight… for salvation is by grace alone.[12] God doesn’t need our ladders to descend to us, nor do we have to meet him halfway. The reason being He has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ and He daily comes to us in His Word and Sacraments.[13] God has fully descended to us and He reaches out His hand to us and delivers His forgiveness to us without a ladder![14]

Goodbye ladder, goodbye climbing and hello grace alone!


[1] Gene Edward Veith Jr., The Spirituality of the Cross (Concordia Publishing, 1999), 23.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16
[6] Galatians 5:3
[7] Gerhard Forde, Where God Meets Man, Luther’s Dow-to-Earth Approach to the Gospel (Augsburg, 1972), 46.
[8] Forde, 50. Parenthesis added.
[9] Robert Walton Chronological and Background Charts of Church History (Zondervan, 1986)  Pelagianism: Man is essentially good and capable of doing what is necessary for salvation (Pelagius ~ Late 4th & Early 5th Century) Semi-Pelagianism: The grace of God and the will of man work together in salvation, in which man must take the initiative. (John Cassian ~ Late 4th & Early 5th Century)
[10] Forde, 52.
[11] Veith, 23.
[12] Romans 3:28
[13] Matthew 26:28; Titus 3:5; John 1:14
[14] 1 Timothy 1:15; Titus 2:11

Originally Posted At PM Notes with Testimonial Video.


About Pastor Matt Richard

Rev. Dr. Matthew Richard is the pastor at Zion Lutheran Church of Gwinner, ND. He was previously a Senior Pastor in Sidney, Montana, an Associate Pastor of Spiritual Care and Youth Ministries in Williston, North Dakota, and an Associate Pastor of Children and Youth in Rancho Cucamonga, California. He received his undergraduate degree from Minot State University, ND and his M.Div. from Lutheran Brethren Seminary, MN. His doctor of ministry thesis, from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, was on exploring the journey of American Evangelicals into Confessional Lutheran thought. Pastor Richard is married to Serenity and they have two children. He enjoys fishing, pheasant hunting, watching movies, blogging, golfing, spending time with his family and a good book with a warm latte! To check out more articles by Pastor Matt you can visit his personal blog at: www.pastormattrichard.com.


Let Us Say Goodbye To Ladder Theology! — 8 Comments

  1. Excellent post; thanks!

    I would add one thing. Genesis 28:12 teaches a different type of “ladder theology.” The ladder is the Incarnation of Jesus!!! Luther says it this way:

    “Therefore He revealed to Jacob himself that he would be the father of Christ and that the Son of Man would be born from his seed. God did not speak this in vain. Indeed, He painted that picture of the ladder to comfort and console Jacob in faith in the future blessing, just as above (Gen. 22:18) He gave the same promise to Abraham and Isaac in order that they might teach and transmit it to their descendants as certain and infallible, and expect a Savior from their own flesh. In this way God strengthens Jacob, who, like the useless trunk of a tree, is wretched and afflicted in a foreign land; and by means of this new picture He transfers to him all the blessings, to assure him that he is this patriarch from whom the Seed promised to Adam will come.”

    “This, then, is the ascent and descent of the angels of God and of the blessed, who look on this, pay attention to it, and proclaim it, as can be seen on the day of the nativity. They descend as though there were no God up in heaven. They come to Bethlehem and say: “Behold, I announce great joy to you, The Lord has been born for you” (cf. Luke 2:10–11). And in Heb. 1:6 we read: “When He brings the First-born into the world, He says: ‘Let all God’s angels worship Him.’ ” They adore Him as He now lies in the manger at His mother’s breasts. Indeed, they adore Him on the cross, when He descends into hell, when He has been subjected to sin and hell, when He bears all the sins of the whole world. And they submit themselves forever to this lowest One. Thus, therefore, the angels ascend and see the Son of God, who is begotten from eternity. On the other hand, they descend when they see Him born in time of Mary. And whether ascending or descending, they adore Him.
    This is how Christ explains this ladder. I regard this as the chief and proper explanation of this passage. And this is that great and indescribable dignity of mankind which no one can express, namely, that by this wonderful union God has joined the human nature to Himself.”

    Luther, M. (1999). Vol. 5: Luther’s works, vol. 5 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 26-30 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Ge 28:14). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House. (LW 5:216-17; 220-1)

  2. Since you quote false teacher Gerhard Forde, what does Luther mean by the following:

    “Thus far we have heard the first part of Christian doctrine, in which we have seen all that God wishes us to do or to leave undone. Now, there properly follows the Creed, which sets forth to us everything that we must expect and receive from God, and, to state it quite briefly, teaches us to know Him fully. And this is intended to help us do that which according to the Ten Commandments we ought to do. For (as said above) they are set so high that all human ability is far too feeble and weak to [attain to or] keep them. Therefore it is as necessary to learn this part as the former in order that we may know how to attain thereto, whence and whereby to obtain such power.” LC Apostles’ Creed 1-2 (Concordia Triglotta, public domain)

  3. @Rev. Clint K. Poppe #1

    Right on Clint. Your quote reminds me of an audio presentation from John Kleing where he presents on descent theology vs. ascent theology from Genesis 28:14.

    @Robert #2

    Robert, I am unsure what your comment has to do about the idea of ascent vs. descent theology. However, I will offer up some thoughts from Eugene Klug’s book that might speak to the context of this post and your comments. In Klug’s book, “Lift High This Cross,” he states,

    “Luther was not happy with the term or appellation ‘ascent theology’ to describe humanity’s quest to climb the ladder to heaven. He was willing, however, to continue to use the concept because it allowed the opposite emphasis: The situation for humans in their sin must be understood as necessitating God’s descent to us in and through Christ, for sinners’ sake. …Unnoticed and unchallenged was the radical differnce and clash between ‘ascent theology’ and its works-righteousness and the biblical teaching of the thology of the cross, or righteousness by faith in Christ. Garbed in its dress of what is right and proper, theology of glory had subtly insinuated itself into the Christian faith as the more perfect way to salvation. But Luther found that it was lethal and left the believer without the comfort and peace of God’s forgiveness in Christ. Rightly distinguishing between God’s Law–which judges and convicts–and God’s precious Gospel that proclaims redemption through Christ is humanity’s sure and eternal hope.” (pages 52-52)

    Klug goes on to note,

    “Luther noted that Christians also teach obedience to the Ten Commandments, but only ‘after’ the doctrine of faith. Such attention to the commandments was embraced within the believer’s sanctification life, which Luther perceived to be the third use or function of God’s Law in the believer’s life. But the ‘righteousness of faith’ proclaimed by the Gospel is the highest righteousness–and it is “altogether contrary” to the realm of human works. For Luther, the righteousness of faith is a ‘passive righteousness’ that transcends human comprehension because it is hidden in the mystery of God’s unspeakable love and mercy toward His sinful human creatures. But the Gospel proclaims Christ, and Luther noted that ‘there is no comfort of conscience so solid and certain.’ …Human beings, however, tend to ‘look at nothing except our own works, our worthiness and the Law,’ Luther commented. This fact causes sinful human flesh to return to some form of theology of glory, injecting one’s own pious works and efforts into the realm of righteousness before God. Moreover, Luther noted that Satan stands forever ready to capitalize on the natural tendency of human beings to increase and encourage these thoughts. According to Luther, the only recourse or remedy for a troubled, afflicted conscience that is struggling within sinfulness is for faith ‘to take hold of the promise offered in Christ.” (pages 60-61)

    Grace and Peace to you both.

  4. “Jesus himself, though he might have and quite possibly did reckon with a violent death at the hands of his adversaries, seems not to have understood or interpreted his own death as a sacrifice for others or ransom for sin. Such interpretation apparently came as the result of later reflection. Even in their final redaction the synoptic Gospels contain little direct or explicit interpretation of Jesus’ work.”
    Gerhard O. Forde, Christian Dogmatics, 2 vols., Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jensen, eds. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 2:12-13.

  5. @Robert #4


    It seems that you are implementing some sort of “non sequitur logic” into this conversation. In other words, I am having a difficult time following how your conclusions on Forde have a logical connection to the theme of this post on “ascent vs. descent theology.”

    It would be most helpful if you would help me understand where the 3 pithy quotes by Forde in this blog post are in error or if I have misrepresented the views of Adolf Koberle, Gene Veith and Eugene Klug on this topic.

    If your concerns are not with the quotes of Forde in this post, but with Forde’s overall theological framework, that would be a totally different discussion. If we were to have this conversation my friend, I believe that we would find a lot of common ground in our mutual concerns about Forde’s view of women in ministry, his view of the Atonement as well as his rejection of the 3rd use of the Law.

    Grace and Peace to you.

  6. Hi Pastor Richard,

    I am currently reading Forde’s book “Where God Meets Man”. I think that the reason
    Robert has posted excerpts of words written by Forde is that it seems that Forde’s views on “ladder theology” differ from those of yours and many other Lutherans.

    I myself am confused by Forde’s book, as he *explicitly* classifies the doctrine of vicarious satisfaction as “ladder theology”.

    Also according to Forde, Luther considered, or would consider, the doctrine of vicarious satisfaction to be a “theology of glory”.

    I had thought that the doctrine of vicarious satisfaction was central to orthodox Lutheran theology–and should most definitely *not* be considered to be part of “ladder theology”.

    What do you think?

  7. Salvatore,

    In “Where God Meets Man” Forde, if I understand him correctly, classifies vicarious satisfaction as unsatisfactory if you try to make it the one true doctrine about the cross. Luther is concerned not about theories *about* atonement but the achievement *of* atonement, and so vicarious satisfaction is only a part of the picture. If you read from the bottom of page 42 onwards in “Where God Meets Man” you will see that Luther (and Forde) create room for all atonement theories since a theology of the cross can embrace them all. He therefore is not denying vicarious satisfaction – he’s just finding it inadequate if taken on its own.

  8. Hi Pastor Richard,

    I have read and re-read much of *Where God Meets Man*, including the passages about vicarious satisfaction, and including the passage you cited that begins on page 42.

    Forde provides an account of this vital doctrine in the first chapter, in the sections entitled “The gospel becomes another law” (beginning on page 10) and “An absurd theology” (beginning on page 11). After reading and re-reading these sections to ensure I correctly understand him, I believe that, at the time he wrote the book, Forde thought that the doctrine of vicarious satisfaction is not only not scriptural, and not true, but, to use his word, “absurd”. (Notice that his argument that the doctrine of vicarious atonement is “another law”–which he returns to on page 42–runs contrary to Acts 16:29-31 and 20:21, among other verses.)

    Later, on page 34, in the chapter which, according to him, is about the Theology of the Cross, he denigrates the doctrine of vicarious atonement by calling it a “spectator theology”. In fact, he contrasts his understanding (or version) of the Theology of the Cross with the doctrine of vicarious atonement, and believes that the one excludes the other–i.e., the doctrine of vicarious atonement is a Theology of Glory.

    On page 37, Forde says: “A theology of the cross affirms in the first instance that he [Christ] was not doing anything else in his death but dying.” He explains that, in His death, Christ was *not* paying for the sins of anyone vicariously. Furthermore, he states outright that the death of Christ had, and has, no meaning, and says, contrary to the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord entered “the dark nowhere of death”.

    I have noticed that in the book Forde very seldom cites Luther in order to support his assertions as to what Luther believed. He does admit, on page 41, that “One can, for instance, as Luther did, use language which sounds like vicarious satisfaction language”. Because of his use of the phrase “language which sounds like”, I do not think that Forde believed that Luther himself actually believed and promoted the doctrine of vicarious satisfaction–just used words that sound as if he did. The notion that the Theology of the Cross can “embrace”, i.e. include, a doctrine which Forde believes dishonestly ascribes a meaning to the death of Christ, and which he calls “absurd”, is one of the seriously illogical parts of the book.

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