For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God – Ephesians 2:8
Years ago I stood watching people ascend what is commonly known as Pilate’s Staircase. Just today my family and I were talking about it and I got emotional as I thought of the people I saw going up the stairs on their knees just as Martin Luther did in 1510, probably repeating as he did the Our Father on each step. It was said that by doing this work one could “redeem a soul from purgatory.” It is believed that this staircase, Scala Sancta, that was used by Jesus in Pilate’s Judgment Hall in Jerusalem was, according to legend, supernaturally transported from Palestine to Rome.
At the base of the staircase are the statues of Jesus and Pilate. Pilate is introducing the King of the Jews to the people and saying, “Behold the Man!” This reminded of what Jesus said to Nicodemus. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:14, 15). By beholding the serpent, the people were saved by faith. Likewise by beholding Jesus and believing in Him, we are saved.
It was here on the Scala Sancta that the unexpected happened for Martin Luther. It was where his eyes were opened to the truth that salvation comes by the grace of God and not by works. One day, “he was devoutly climbing these steps, when suddenly a voice like thunder seemed to say to him: ‘The just shall live by faith.’ Romans 1:17. He sprang to his feet and hastened from the place in shame and horror. The text never lost its power upon his soul. From that time he saw more clearly than ever before the fallacy in trusting to human works for salvation, and the necessity of constant faith in the merits of Christ. His eyes had been opened, and were never again to be closed, to the delusions of the papacy. When he turned his face from Rome, he had turned away also in heart, and from that time the separation grew wider, until he severed all connection with the papal church.”
Before his revelation, “Luther was still a true son of the papal church and had no thought that he would ever be anything else. In the providence of God he was led to visit Rome.” However, once he received the unvarnished truth, Luther could no longer remain loyal to the church which promised indulgences to those climbing the staircase on their knees or whose clergy he found profanation instead of sanctity. His disillusionment with the church led to his part in the Protestant Reformation. He was declared a heretic and excommunicated from the church.
In Jesus’ time, the religious leaders trusted in the traditions of men instead of the Word of God. Today, where are you placing your faith? In the teachings of men or in the teachings of God?