by Robert Andrews

The result of Adam’s and Eve’s sin of wanting to be good as God is good was a fundamental change in how mankind lived. At the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil mankind’s whole way of life changed from living by simple faith in God to living by obedience to God’s law. The whole world, filled with Adam’s and Eve’s descendants, now functions based on this premise: “Is it good or is it bad; is it right or is it wrong?” Our basis of operation as we relate to God is now always naturally obedience to the law—either being religious (moral and ethical) or rebellious, which are really both the same thing. Both ways of life, religious and rebellious, constitute living by the law, by the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—either striving to keep the law or self-consciously breaking it. In both instances the focus is the law—“Have I kept the law or have I broken it?”

Mankind, in Adam, moved from a place where trusting in God’s love and care is the first cause and obedience to His will is a naturally occurring effect, to a place where obedience to God’s law is the cause and His love and provision is seen as the effect of that obedience. We have moved from “Because . . . therefore” to “If . . . then”; from “Because God loves and accepts me, therefore I want to obey Him,” to “If I obey Him then He will love and accept me.” Adam’s decision in the Garden forever confused cause and effect in the minds and the hearts of all mankind. We live today with the tragic effects of that decision on every hand, even among God’s people.

“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” [1]

As a result we now are naturally inveterate “ladder-climbers,” always striving to get more and more righteous as God is righteous by being obedient to His law, thereby climbing a ladder of righteousness. The Christian life has been characterized by the song some of us sang in church youth groups as children: “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, every rung, higher, higher”—to what? The song doesn’t say specifically, but the implication is that climbing the ladder will bring us what Adam and Eve wanted in the garden—to be righteous like God. The Christian life is pictured as progress in experiential righteousness gained by keeping God’s law ever more perfectly, every rung on the righteousness ladder serving as the platform for the next step upward. This model tells me that I get more and more holy as I discipline myself to be good. As a result, I am proud of myself if I think I have successfully made progress up the ladder, and I am discouraged and defeated if I see myself as still sinfully stuck at the bottom.

Ladder-climbers come in three different varieties. First, there is the theological liberal, who thinks that by himself he is capable of good works by which he can make himself more like God. He has confidence that there is a spark of goodness in man that will allow him to get better and better. He is convinced he can climb the ladder himself as he realizes his untapped potential.

Second, there is the theological Arminian, who believes Jesus gave him grace or power to help him climb the ladder by his good works, thereby making himself more and more righteous like God is righteous. He climbs the ladder with Jesus’ help, though a major portion of the responsibility remains his as he takes the initiative to discipline himself to make good choices. Jesus is boosting him up from behind as they climb the ladder of righteousness together.

Finally, there is the Calvinist, who thinks that it is all of grace. He believes he doesn’t do anything at all because he is helpless to climb the ladder himself. Jesus will put him on His back and climb the ladder for him to make him more like God as he becomes more and more holy.

All of these mind sets, however, preserve the concept of climbing the ladder—that is, keeping the law of God—as an objective. The only difference among these three positions is, “Who is keeping the law?” Is it I alone, or is it I, with Jesus’ help, or is it Jesus in me? Our eyes are still fixed on the law—is my conduct right or is it wrong, is it good or is it bad?—and the issue is still my performance! Most of us have never thought, no matter our theological persuasion, that there could be any other way to live but by the law, because that way of living has been worked into the fabric of mankind since the fall. It is how we naturally view the world—through the law that is now written on our hearts—a result of eating, in Adam, from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

I personally like the idea of living by the law, because it gives me something to do, some progress to make in my innate desire to be righteous like God. If somebody tells me that God has instituted a new way to live apart from the law altogether, apart from trying to become more and more obedient, I don’t like that because subconsciously there is glory for me in being a successful ladder-climber; there is progress for me to achieve in my desire to be good like God is good.

God’s radical alternative—the end of the ladder

Any salvation model that incorporates the notion of gradual progress or the idea of becoming more righteous and less sinful as a goal in the Christian life preserves the ladder motif and dooms us to miss the dynamic of the scandalous gospel of the grace of God. For, you see, the gospel is not that I have now become a Christian and therefore I now will be able to live a better life. God did not make us better when He saved us. He did not clean us up, repaint us, give us a fresh start and then give us the Holy Spirit to help in some gigantic reclamation project. No! We have now totally shifted paradigms. As Christians we are now to function in a totally different manner—a radically new way to live. The old obedience model is finished. How so?

The Bible teaches that just as we were “in Adam” when he sinned, God placed those He has saved “in Christ” when He died on the cross, and, therefore, we died with Him. “[I]f One died for all, then all died” (2 Corinthians 5:14).

We descendants of Adam, we old performers who have eaten so well and for so long at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we who have loved to try to be obedient to the law because it has given us something to do to affect our own salvation, even though in our hearts we have been utter failures in doing so—we have been crucified. We are finished. The old performance life is over. The Lord has thankfully put us out of our misery, whether we have been religious or rebellious. We may have been self-righteous Pharisees thinking we were doing everything right or blatant sinners knowing we were doing everything wrong; it doesn’t matter. Those whom God has chosen in eternity past to save, religious or rebellious, have been killed in Christ and buried with Him in the tomb. That old way of living by the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—the law—is finished! The law cannot reach and then condemn those who are dead.

But the cross is not the end of the story. When Christ came out of the tomb on Easter morning, we were raised with Him. The resurrection is the second half of the cross story. We who were in Adam died to a life of obedience to the law and now we who are in Christ have been raised to a totally different way of life—a life of faith, of simple trust—completely apart from obedience to the law. “Christ is,” as Paul says in Romans 10:4, “the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Living by obedience to the law by climbing the ladder to try to be more and more righteous is over. The ladder is gone, and it has been replaced by the cross, restoring us to that life of faith experienced by Adam and Eve before the fall.

My Tree of Life

Now the title of this article makes sense. The cross has become our “Tree of Life,” the source of our new life. It has replaced the ladder in the lives of Christians. The proud, arrogant, self-righteous, independent, self-indulgent, self-promoting, controlling, whining, self-pitying, self-defending person that is Robert Andrews (and I am all of these, though I may fool those who do not know me well; those who do are not fooled)—that old Robert Andrews, who inherited from our first parents such an appetite for the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, died at the cross, and he has been resurrected to a new life of faith alone!

So, the ladder theology is over—no climbing up each rung, higher, higher, because there is no progress in our Christian lives with which we must be concerned. “How can that be, Andrews, are you crazy? How can striving to be obedient to the law of God as a Christian not be a good thing?”

It is because at the cross we have been declared to be righteous with the righteousness of Christ by God Himself, apart from anything we do or don’t do! How can we progress past the righteousness of Christ?! Why must I worry about progress toward a destination if I have already arrived at that destination? The good works that will inevitably proceed from my life are solely the concern of the fruit of the Tree of Life that now abides within me, the very life of the Lover of my soul, Jesus Christ Himself!

I remain susceptible to my former diet, the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, as I continue to live in an unredeemed body. I am still susceptible to living by the “ought to’s, need to’s and should’s” of God’s law, even though I often fail miserably in everyday practice and always fail in the dark recesses of my heart. Somehow, because I live in a sinful body, my default mode is to try to please God by what I do rather than just trusting Him and His love in the midst of my sin. It is so easy for me to forget that God’s agape love does not seek its object but creates its object! In other words, God does not seek someone to love who meets His qualifications, but creates those qualifications in those He already loves! I do not please Him because I obey Him, but I obey Him naturally and spontaneously because I know that He is already pleased with me.

But even in those times of unbelief when I feast on the wrong fruit, I know that I received at the cross what Adam and Eve never had: the very life of God deep within me, to change me, to motivate me, to empower me. That life is activated by my repentance from eating again of the fruit that God forbade and returning again to faith, simple trust in God alone, which is a gift from Him.

Adam and Eve never ate of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. They were innocent until at that other tree they rejected God’s love and care for their own independence. They were never virtuous, because the powerful, righteous, sanctifying life of God was never resident within them. But at the cross we partake of the fruit of the Tree of Life, which is Jesus Christ. It is at the cross, by faith, that the actual life of God becomes ours. Our old man, who loved to strive to be like God by obedience to the law as found in both the Old and New Testaments, is now dead and we have been raised to a new life of faith. We have been made “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). It is true. Believe it!!

If God has captured your heart, you are learning to welcome and embrace your “Tree of Life,” the cross. What does it mean to “embrace the cross;” to “take up your cross” and follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24); to be “conformed to His death” (Philippians 3:10)? Dying on the cross experientially with Jesus means learning to ruthlessly recognize and then repent of all the self-aggrandizing, self-promoting death-struggles your flesh continues to make as it desperately seeks to avoid death and preserve its autonomy.

And the list of those death-struggles to circumvent that ugly old cross is endless: blaming others for relational difficulties, avoiding responsibility for personal sin and failure, looking at the sins of others rather than your own, protecting your reputation as a “good Christian” by not being honest about your besetting sins, refusing to learn from others, seeking to impress others with your biblical knowledge or your holiness and on and on.

If God has favor on you, you will become increasingly aware of this pervasive, ever-present sin in your heart. As you embrace the cross by owning that sin and repenting and then believing that your death, resurrection and ascension in Christ are not just theological clap-trap but reality, you will become an aroma—an aroma of life to all who are being saved, and an aroma of death to those who are perishing (2 Corinthians 2:15, 16). The commands of Scripture that you know have been impossible to keep in your heart of hearts will become promises to you that the mighty Spirit of God will keep as He goes about His job of naturally, effortlessly and unconsciously making you holy (Romans 8:4). You will have been captured by the scandalous gospel of the grace of God.

[1] Gerhard O. Forde, Where God meets Man (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1972) pp. 7-17.

Recommended further reading:

Robert Andrews: The Family-God’s Weapon for Victory
Steven Lawson: Foundations of Grace
John Calvin: Grace and its Fruits