The Church in Medieval times used the image of a ladder to talk about piety. The hope was to be close to God. And the perceived way was to work oneself to Him by faith, good deeds and morals. This is not unlike what one hears in many Christian circles today.
That theology, then and now, is a directional error. The arrow, as it were, points from man to God. The practiced belief here is that such piety is the path to God’s favor. The direction of the flow is love, good works, justification.
The Protestant Reformers reversed the direction of the flow. They believed they were following the clear teaching of Scripture. For them the arrow did not move from man to God but instead moved from God to man. The nature of salvation is not striving for union with God through love and good works but receiving the gift of union through faith alone.
Medieval piety taught that love was the highway to God’s favor; the Reformers taught that love is the highway from God’s favor. We don’t produce the fruit of love and good deeds which lead to justification before God. Rather, as a modern Reformation theologian puts it, “The Gospel creates faith that receives justification in Christ and then produces the fruit of love and good works. Consequently, we bring our good works not to God to gain favor, but to our neighbors to show God’s love.”
In the end, it is God who descends the ladder to us. As words of comfort from Paul the apostle we read in his epistle to Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…”