Sinclair Ferguson on the Deformation of Worship Before the Reformation

For many of us today, what passed for worship by the time of the late 15th and early 16th centuries would be completely unintelligible. We would not understand the language. We would not understand most of the actions. We would not grasp many of the symbols. And we would not be far removed from the common people of the day who, like us, would not have a clue what was going on.


In his excellent presentation called “The Priority of Worship” from the 2017 Ligonier National Conference, Sinclair Ferguson examined what had happened to worship by the time of the reformers.* Ferguson specifically highlighted three major deformations of worship by the time of Luther that were part of the landscape begging for reform.


First, Ferguson pointed out that worship had become visual and sensory, even sensual, rather than biblical and spiritual. Consider what New Testament authors often said about the spiritual component of worship in the New Covenant era as opposed to the physical ritual of the Old. Always, the New testament highlighted the superiority of the fact that we are not now performing physical rituals such as sacrifices, but we are instead looking in faith to the completed work of Christ that renders such physical performances obsolete. But by the end of the medieval period, worship was primarily physical and visual. The word of God was not at all central, Instead, symbols, vestments, and performances all took center stage. Sacramental bread had ceased to be a reminder of Christ’s work and had instead become a sacred talisman to cling to as a superstition.


Ferguson points out that the word of God was simply not at all a part of the common worship goer’s experience. He said, “You would not have asked someone leaving a service in the late middle ages, what did you hear? A) Because that person probably did not understand the Latin that he or she heard, and B) because all of the focus was on what we saw.” Instead of being fed by the word of God, worshippers would watch as a sort of performance was done in front of them.


Second, Ferguson points out that worship became vicarious rather than congregational. That is a natural outgrowth of the prior problem. If you, as a common man, could not understand the language being spoken, how could you participate? You also could not sing in worship, as all the singing was done by the formally trained choir. In fact, you could allow someone to say a mass on your behalf without your having to participate at all.


Thirdly, Ferguson points out that worship had become complex and lost its simplicity. The actions of the priests in the ceremonies were quite intricate. Move your hands this way. Speak the Latin at this point. Wear these particular vestments. Gesture just so. As Ferguson points out, “If there had been theological seminaries in the English speaking world, in those days most of the courses would have been on hand actions and vestments, and not on the action of God and the preaching of His Word and the understanding of that Word by God’s people in the sheer simplicity of biblical worship in the New Testament.”


* Sinclair Ferguson, “The Priority of Worship” The Next 500 Years: 2017 National Conference (Sanford, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2017) [transcript and media on-line]; accessed 14 Oct 2017; available from; Internet.