They are called the Scala Sancta. The Holy Stairs. You can find them in Rome near the St. John Lateran Basilica. They are believed to be the same steps Jesus climbed on his way to trial before Pilate. The 28 steps were moved from Jerusalem to Rome around 326 A.D. by Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. They are marble in construction but encased in wood to protect the marble.
They are protected because for centuries pilgrims have climbed these stairs for various reasons. Some out of devotion. Some to offer prayers. And some because they believe that if they do so they will be forgiven their sins—one year for each step. 28 years of sin removed. When the average lifespan was only 50, two trips to the steps could give a person assurance of entry into heaven.
But climbing the steps is not easy. The only way a person is allowed to climb the stairs is on one’s knees, stopping on each step to offer a prayer. Karen and I have done this once. We thought the experience would be a good one, like crossing off an item on your bucket list. It was an experience. A painful one. And we did not feel a need to have that experience ever again.
Martin Luther climbed them. The great Reformer struggled with his doubts as a young man. He said “my conscience would never give me assurance, but I was always doubting and said, ‘You did not perform that correctly. You were not contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.’”
On a trip to Rome he learned that if he climbed the Scala Sancta he could free his grandfather from purgatory and maybe help his own cause along the way. And so he began on his knees to climb one step at a time.
Maybe you haven’t climbed the Scala Sancta but you’ve had doubts too. Some of you don’t, I know. Some of you have a gift of faith and like a rock cannot be moved. But others of us doubt.
- “With all I’ve done, how could God ever love me?”
- “I just don’t think I’ll ever be good enough.”
- “If the message of Jesus is so clear, why do I have so many questions?”
- “If God is love then why do unloving things happen to people?”
A lack of assurance is nothing new. John’s audience faced the same. “… for whenever our heart condemns us …” he writes (1 John 3:20). If you ever think the first century Christians had an easier road to faith than you, think again.
But John had a remedy for “hearts that condemn.” He said there is a place to find reassurance: “before him.” “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him…” Instead of listening to condemnation listen to the One who works for your transformation.
That is the other place John points us to: our transformation. Do you have a firm belief in Jesus as the son of God who came in the flesh (1 John 2:23; 4:2)? Are you growing in your desire to be more like the Father (1 John 3:19-20)? Do you love those who also love the Father (1 John 4:12)? If your answer is “yes” then you can find reassurance that the fellowship with the Father and the Son is having its effect in your life.
Reassurance is not found in some secret code. It is not found in something detached from the world we live in. It is not found in rule keeping.
And it is not found by climbing 28 steps on your knees. Martin Luther knew the promise. “If your heart condemned you” you could gain assurance of eternal life one step at a time. So dressed as a monk, with a shaved head and bare knees, he began creeping up the marble steps with the hope of his troubled conscience finding peace.
At some point he suddenly heard a voice like thunder say, “The just shall live by faith.” He got up to his feet, left the place, and was reassured of his place with God. Not because he loved God first through any action. But because God loved him through his action. (1 John 4:10).
You will be assured too. When your heart condemns you do what Luther did. Hear the voice of God and believe in Jesus. Just sit before him. It’s so much better than climbing steps.
Question: In what way(s) has your heart condemned you?