by Robert Andrews

Last week we discussed the commonly held concept of a ladder to righteousness in the Christian life. We see ourselves as being placed by God onto the ladder at conversion and then climbing upward from sinful new believer to righteous mature saint as we grow spiritually. We saw that this whole idea is a mind-set originating at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This mind-set as a way of life was completely eradicated at the cross.

However, the question naturally comes to mind, “If there is no ladder, how do we ‘progress’ in the Christian life, as it seems we obviously do?” This brings up a second corollary question, “What is meant by ‘spiritual growth?’ Surely I can expect to grow spiritually, can I not? Surely I can expect some movement, some increase in righteousness on my part. After all, my sin hurts others, those I love, as well as myself, and I don’t want to do that. Surely I can expect something more than just being saved and going to heaven. Can’t I expect some progress in my conduct?”

To look at these questions, I want to explore first how we arrived at where the majority of the church is today—completely committed to the ladder mentality that I believe misses the dynamic of the true gospel. Then I want to propose what I believe to be a more biblical model for spiritual growth.

The history of ladder theology

At the time of the Reformation, the Medieval Church had been greatly influenced since about the ninth century by a way of thinking known as “Scholasticism.” The scholastics were scholars who attempted to combine biblical thought with the teachings of the Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle. Probably the most famous of these men was Thomas Aquinas. His theological system recognized equally the authority of scriptural revelation and human reason.  It remains the foundation formally for 21st century Catholic theology and, subconsciously and informally, for the rest of the Christian church as well.

The influence on Christianity of these scholastics (and through them the Greek philosophers) cannot be overestimated. We don’t realize how much we have just assumed is true because it has been taught as true in the church, when really it has been pagan, Aristotelian thinking brought to us by way of the scholastics. Also, because of the residual effect of the fall in our flesh, we are spring-loaded to think in that manner anyway. Bible verses have simply been attached to Aristotle after the fact to give his teaching legitimacy among Christians, but these verses do not change our way of thinking from pagan to biblical, from the ladder to the cross.

First, let’s look at the scholastic’s view of progress, as taught systematically originally by Aristotle, and then we will look at a more biblical alternative.

The Scholastic’s (Aristotle’s) view of progress — imparted righteousness

The scholastic’s view of progress remains the official view of the Catholic Church, a perspective that originated at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden. Listen to an example of this view, from Aristotle’s Ethics, section 92. Notice how familiar this idea is, as it has permeated the whole Christian church, not just Roman Catholicism:

Anything we have to do we learn from the actual doing of it: people become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly, we become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate ones, brave by performing brave ones. [1]

This sounds very reasonable. Remember, the scholastics combined reason with revelation as equally authoritative. The concept expressed here by Aristotle and transferred to the Christian life is called “infused” or “imparted” righteousness. This thinking teaches that as I pray, I will become a man of prayer; as I read my Bible, I will become a man of the Word; as I do deeds of thoughtfulness, kindness and love towards others, I will love them; as I do my very best to obey the commands of Scripture, I will grow as a Christian. To summarize: as we do righteous deeds we become increasingly righteous.

So, in the scholastic view, progress in righteousness occurs over time as I exercise Christian disciplines and climb the righteousness ladder. In the medieval church such disciplines included isolation from the temptations of the world through monasticism, subjugating the desires of the flesh by ascetic living, fasting and abstaining from anything pleasurable.

Today, ladder-climbing disciplines commonly include prayer, Bible study, obedience to the law of God, attending church, performing deeds of charity, sacrificial giving and witnessing to non-Christians. The more I do these disciplines, the thinking goes, the more righteous and holy I become.

So, according to this natural, Aristotelian way of thinking, I am always partially sinful and partially righteous. As I begin as a Christian I am mostly sinful but as I am sanctified, I become less sinful and more righteous, until theoretically, when I am mature as a believer and I have it all together, I am still maybe a little sinful (because nobody’s perfect!) but now mostly righteous. That is my goal.

First, the thinking goes, God gives me a dose of pure grace to get me started and to assure me of heaven. Then, while I’m here on the earth, He gives me more assistance in the form of the Holy Spirit to help me grow more righteous and less sinful, but I must cooperate with the Spirit and diligently do what I can myself to mature spiritually.

This way of thinking has been ingrained in mankind since the Garden of Eden, and to suggest that it is not right is considered a heresy today. But I am saying this way of thinking is the heresy and makes, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:17, “the cross of no effect.” In other words, ladder thinking tells me that the cross did not really make me holy with the righteousness of Jesus Christ so in practice I must do so myself.

To a ladder climber, the righteousness of Jesus Christ is nothing more than a “legal fiction,” only theoretically or “positionally” true. God may place me on the first rung of the ladder, but the real job of being righteous remains for me to accomplish by exercising discipline and making good choices, with all my protestations that God is actually doing it notwithstanding. Any spiritual progress in my life toward becoming a good person, i.e., the everyday performance of good works rather than sinful acts, will come from some self-conscious effort on my part to effect change, to climb the ladder by fighting apathy and cultivating diligence. Just as Aristotle said, good works make a good man.

However, we discussed last week that the ladder has been totally removed from the life of the Christian. Efforts to climb it and progress toward righteousness are completely useless, and according to Paul in Romans 7 are even counterproductive, because they take us away from the only path to true righteousness—righteousness by faith in the cross—by making us actually more sinful because of the pride that invariably accompanies thinking we are getting better and better. The cross of Jesus Christ has destroyed the ladder—the Aristotelian way of thinking that originated at the Tree in the Garden of Eden—and has been revealed in the Bible as the only source of true righteousness. If that is true, how does “progress” in the Christian life occur?

That question is the topic of next week’s discussion.

[1] Quoted in Gerhard Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI:Erdmans, 1997) pp. 104, 105.

Recommended further reading:

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