Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon as a Hermeneutic

Did you ever play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? Someone names a celebrity. You have to name a celebrity who appeared with that celebrity in a film. Then you take the second celebrity, name a celebrity who appeared with that celebrity in another film, and continue the chain. The goal is to arrive at actor, Kevin Bacon, as quickly as possible, within six degrees of separation.

For example, start with Charlton Heston:

  • Charlton Heston appeared with Val Kilmer in Tombstone (perhaps my favorite movie).
  • Val Kilmer starred with Tom Cruise in Top Gun.
  • Tom Cruise appeared with Kevin Bacon in A Few Good men.

In my study of 1 Peter 3:18-22, I discovered that Peter was using a method of topical connection somewhat similar to Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon to bring encouragement to Christians. Of course, it is my civic duty to share this with you.

1 Peter 3:18-22 – For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

Peter is here offering encouragement to suffering Christians. In the process, he walks us through some really obscure topics to make his point. And, like Six Degrees to Kevin Bacon, the end of one thought connects us to the beginning of a seemingly unrelated thought. And somehow, when it is all said and done, Peter starts with Jesus and returns to Jesus.

How does that work?

  • Jesus suffered in the flesh, but was made alive in the spirit.
  • Speaking of the spirit, in the spirit, Jesus preached to spirits who were in prison for their disobedience during the days of Noah.
  • Speaking of Noah, Noah built the ark and was one of only 8 people saved from the waters of the flood.
  • Speaking of water, that reminds me of baptism which saves us through an appeal to God based on the resurrection of Jesus.

Here we see a set of leaps that take us through the mystical, from Jesus to Jesus, and leave us with hope. How this all gives us hope, well, that is the topic for Sundays’ sermon. But for now, know that the hermeneutical principle of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon has played a role.

Why Are You Happy about the Rescue of the Soccer Team in Thailand?

How sweet it is to have good new celebrated all over the Internet? From every angle, left, right, center, whatever, people are showing gratitude for the rescue of those kids and their coach trapped in the cave. And I totally agree.

But, just to be that guy, let me ask you a question: why? Why are you celebrating that these 13 people have been rescued? Don’t write me off here. Stop and really address it. Why?

I’m happy because… What do you say? I’m happy because they are alive. Great, why? It’s good that they did not die in the cave. I agree; why? Does your worldview actually have an answer to why this good thing, this thing that everybody who is not a moral degenerate agrees is good, is in fact good?

If your worldview is one of naturalism, I think you will be harder pressed than you think to tell me why the rescue of these people is good. Maybe you can argue that one of those 13 could possibly go on to do something for humanity. Maybe you will argue that giving the globe a psychological boost is positive. Maybe you will argue that this pattern of giving, if imitated, will improve human flourishing. But in truth, are any of those reasons satisfactory? Do any of those get down to the heart of why this is an actual moral good?

In truth, only a worldview that sees human life as valuable, valuable for a valid reason, has a real reason to celebrate. If all that human beings are is a collection of fluids, cells, random atoms bouncing around the universe, then there is no real, moral reason why it is good for this team to be alive. Their random atoms could have stayed in the cave and it would have been all the same to the universe.

But, and here is the truth, if indeed those 13 lives matter for the simple reason that human lives matter, then this is a great cause for celebration. And I argue that those lives matter, regardless of whether or not any of the 13 ever does one single thing to benefit society. Their lives matter because of the existence and revelation of God.

In Genesis 1:27, God declares that he created humanity in his image. That, my dear friends, is the reason that the rescue of those 13 from a flooded cave in Thailand is good news. Thirteen people who bear upon their very souls a reminder of the existence and glory of God are preserved. Thirteen people who are told by the word of God that their value is in the imprint of God on them have been spared. Thirteen reflections of the truth that God is the glorious Ruler over the universe are still living and breathing. This is ultimately good.

Good is good because good is what God declares is good. Saving these lives is good because it matches the purpose for the existence of the universe—to glorify God.

If you are a God-doubter, if you are an atheist, if you are a naturalist, why not stop and ask yourself what reason you have, what real reason you have, to celebrate the rescue of the team in Thailand. We all agree it is a good thing. But I say it is good because it matches the revelation of God and it preserves people made in his image. Why do you say it is good?

Ultimately, what makes human life matter? See, o please see, that life matters because of our Creator. Random chance, cellular mutations, and survival of the fittest just cannot make life matter for the sake of life.

Respect Your Pastor Enough to Talk with Him

The word of God is clear that the role and duties of elders in a local church is a tough role. Elders are charged by God with faithfully handling his word, with shepherding the flock, and with caring for souls. Pastors (elders are the same as pastors) are called to pray for the church, to correct the doctrine of those who stray, to call people back from sin, to comfort the hurting, and so very much more. And all of that is while regularly preaching and studying—and perhaps even writing on a regular basis in the modern world.

I would not give away my job for anything. I love the role to which God has called me, even though it can surely be hard. I love to teach the word of God and care for the people of God. And I pray that, by the grace of God, I might do this work well.

With the pastor’s job in mind, let me share with you an issue that pastors face that I think could be something all church members need to hear about. I have come across something that is necessary in the church, but which I think many Christians shrug off. If you need a prooftext verse for what I’m going to suggest, try this one from Hebrews:

Hebrews 13:17 – Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

This verse of Scripture calls for church members to do their best to make shepherding them easy for pastors. This is by no means a verse that allows pastors to lord authority over people in the body. It is not the Bible saying that, if the pastor wants you to fund a new building, you whip out the checkbook without hesitation. It is simply a reminder that, because your pastors keep watch over your soul, you should help them do their jobs well, with as little pain as possible.

So, what do you do when your pastor holds to a doctrine with which you are struggling or with which you disagree? I would like to suggest, as a pastor and as a student of the Bible, that you have the respect for and love for your pastor to actually talk with him about your struggle. It is wise for church members who are trying to work out their beliefs, or who are even struggling with what the pastor teaches, to actually sit down with the pastor, hear his rationale for his argument, and see what can be done. It is possible that this discussion will sharpen or even change one or both of the people in the discussion.

I have seen a church member call up his pastor, ask for time, and then sit down to talk through a challenging and often-debated doctrinal issue. The young man came with his argument ready, but he also came with grace and humility. The conversation did not end with anyone’s mind totally changed, but the conversation certainly ended in fellowship, in love, and with both sides understanding each other better. This was good.

On the other hand, there are those in churches who disagree with their pastor doctrinally who simply make the decision that they will figure out the issue on their own without ever sitting down with their pastor to talk it through. As a pastor, let me simply say that this is a discouraging decision at the least. Pastors are surely not better than anyone else in the church. But pastors have, by the grace of God, often been given the privilege of years of study in which to wrestle through tough doctrines. To simply refuse to talk with your pastor about a doctrine may communicate to your pastor that his years of study mean nothing to you, and that you, in a few months on your own, will do a better job of figuring out a thorny theological problem. It can come across as a person saying that they will trust an author or a speaker from the Internet more than they will trust the wisdom of one who is in their own church.

The sad thing is, we will sometimes see that church members who do not talk doctrine through with a pastor may bring about division in the body because of their conclusions. They may leave the church. Or they may bring about a major conflict in the church. And often, these conflicts bring great sorrow to the body. All the while, had the person chosen to sit down with their leadership, the pastors the members said they would submit to, they could have avoided a great deal of the pain of the process.

Of course, I do not believe that every church member will agree with his or her pastor on every issue. In truth, I need to be challenged and corrected, and so do all other pastors. Which is why, for a church member to decide that nothing would change from a conversation is counterproductive in the body. Perhaps the pastor will learn something. Perhaps the church member who has his or her mind made up might actually find out that the pastor can lovingly present a truth to them that they had not yet understood. But to not give your pastor the opportunity for this, that is certainly not helping him to keep watch over your soul.

As always, thinking an issue like this through requires wisdom. I am not asking that one brings every petty preference issue to the pastor’s study for a four-hour discussion. There are surely doctrines that are of lesser importance, doctrines that will not demand division or policy changes in the church. Such doctrines do not always have to be addressed. But, then again, why not at least have a single conversation with your leaders about such issues if you are noticing them. No, do not become a thorn in your pastor’s side. But neither disrespect your leadership by assuming that they are wrong and they can say nothing that might influence you.

Also, we understand that not every person leaves a church over doctrine. People may desire to worship in a different setting or to serve a body they find fits them better. There are surely good and godly reasons to leave a church that do not require a doctrinal division.

Hebrews 13:17 commands us to help our shepherds shepherd our souls. Think along those lines as you think about tough doctrines you struggle with or doctrinal disagreements you have with your church. Perhaps thinking this way will help you to love your shepherds enough to talk with them about your struggles. Such conversations, if handled with love and grace, would glorify God and be good for all the souls involved.

What do you do, then, if you have a pastor who is not interested in doctrinal conversation? I have been in such a church in the past, and it was a really hard place to be. When you find out that your pastor is not interested in theology, or that he will not have a conversation about theology, then you may well need to consider another place to serve the Lord. But give the pastor the chance first. Respect him enough to speak with him. Make sure he knows what you are thinking and why you think it is important. Then, if you need to move on, if you have heard his thoughts on your doctrinal issue, you can go with a clear conscience, knowing that you have tried to be led by the shepherd the Lord placed over you.

How the Mighty Have Fallen: A Call for Character as We Respond to the Paige Patterson Situation

What do you do when those who oppose you are hurt or defeated? How do you react when those who would make themselves your enemies are put in their place? Do you rejoice? Do you sing?

David sang when King Saul met his end. But when David sang at the death of Saul, it was not a song of celebration. Even though Saul had chased him and attempted to murder him, David sang in genuine sorrow over the death of the king.

2 Samuel 1:17-19 – 17 And David lamented with this lamentation over Saul and Jonathan his son, 18 and he said it should be taught to the people of Judah; behold, it is written in the Book of Jashar. He said:
19 “Your glory, O Israel, is slain on your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!

It is interesting that, in our world, the snippet of this Scripture passage that is well known is the phrase, “How the mighty have fallen!” You hear that line in the mouths of movie characters quite often. Unfortunately the line is often delivered with a sneer. Good guys or bad guys in the movies like to rejoice when people on the other side get their comeuppance.

But if we were to handle this rightly and learn from David’s example, we would learn that, even when those who were our enemies face their ends, we should experience grief. Even when the evil schemes of mean-spirited people are exposed, we should not rejoice in their pain. Of course we can and should rejoice when justice is done and when righteousness prevails. But, when people hurt, when people fall, when people die, our hearts should also have in them a sorrow for the fact that people had to come to judgment rather than repentance.

To risk a politically charged example, I think to myself of how some are likely responding to the recent removal of Paige Patterson as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Patterson’s pattern of incautious comments and the offense they caused as they were seen together made it impossible for the trustees of the seminary to keep Patterson as the school’s head. I’ll not speak to other accusations of cover-ups and the rest, as I know nothing and have no right to suspect things.

The reason I bring up Patterson, however, is the fact that there will be many on the Internet who will celebrate. Patterson has certainly not always been kind or fair in his criticisms of others. He has often spoken of the reformed or of Calvinists with a smug dismissal. I have heard him say things regarding the exegesis of biblical passages that I believe he has to know are untenable. And the harsh edge of those sorts of comments has certainly widened the divide between Patterson and those with whom he disagrees. Thus, there may be many who would, with a sneer, say, “How the mighty have fallen.”

But, Christians, let us remember that there is nothing godly about rejoicing in the fall of a brother in Christ. While we may think that the seminary trustees of SWBTS have done the right thing, there is nothing godly about somebody doing a little Internet victory dance. There is nothing godly about rejoicing in something that has brought so much hurt to many Southern Baptists who are deeply upset by Patterson’s removal.

Let’s learn from David. When a person who has opposed us falls, let us mourn. It would be so much nicer to see those who oppose us turn from that opposition and graciously change their views. It would be beautiful to have people live with character, above reproach, and with biblical fidelity in all things. But neither we nor those who think we are nuts actually live in perfect faithfulness. I’m sure that I will find, before my life comes to an end, that there are doctrinal issues I’ve missed. I would far rather have the Lord bring me to change gently than for him to have to bring my life and ministry crashing down. And If I would want the Lord to change me gently, how could I ever rejoice when a brother in Christ, flawed like me, is hit hard with the consequences of his own actions? May we give the grace that we wish to receive. May we always take the high road. May we lament at the fall of anyone, especially those who are genuine believers, regardless of whether or not they have been nice to us or our positions.

In this, I am not at all defending anyone. I believe that, in the case of Paige Patterson, his removal from the seminary presidency was overdue. But I can also mourn for the hurt all this has caused and pray that God use this time of sorrow at SWBTS and the SBC for good as he works out his plans for his glory. And I can pray that God have mercy on us all, as it is only the grace of God that keeps any of us from sinful self-destruction.

Cults and Math

With the recent Secret Church 18 presentation on cults and counterfeit gospels, I remembered this clever little trick for identifying a cult. I heard it in a sermon presented by Danny Akin, who is an author and who serves as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. I know I will not have his illustration word-for-word, but the main point will still come through.

You can always tell a cult, because a cult always does math. They will always either add, subtract, multiply, or divide.

Cults will add an extra-biblical source of authority. This source might be a book, prophet, or something else, but they will have something that is authoritative along with the scriptures.

Cults will subtract from the person and the works of Jesus Christ. Generally, this will be to deny the deity of Jesus, but could also include denying the sufficiency of the atonement or other Christological issues.

Cults will multiply the requirements for salvation. No cult keeps the message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  They will all add something else (works based) that is required to get into heaven.

Cults will divide your loyalty. They will tend to present a human leader to whom they call you to be loyal along with Jesus.  This new leader is often presented as a new mediator or prophet between God and the group.

I do not know why, but ever since I heard this little pithy explanation, it has stuck with me. If you find a group adding an extra-biblical source of authority or subtracting from a biblical understanding of Christ, watch out. If you come across a group that multiplies for you a set of good works to do to get into heaven or divides your loyalty from Christ and his word to share that loyalty with a modern prophet or leader, get away. This is how knowing that cults do math can help you evaluate a religion’s claim to be either true or false.

What is Good about Good Friday?

Is it not strange that the single most evil thing ever done by human beings is an event we call “Good?” On Good Friday, the only perfect man ever to walk the earth was murdered. On Good Friday, the Son of God was brutalized by sinful men. On Good Friday the merciful and kind Lord Jesus was tortured and crucified. How can this be good?

2 Corinthians 5:17-21 – 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Mankind, because of our sin, is separated from God. We all have rebelled against the Lord and earned his judgment. The wages of such sin is death, the eternal infinite wrath of a holy God (cf. Rom. 6:23). In our sin, we separated ourselves from God, battling against him and attempting to throw off his rule.

On Good Friday, God worked the work of reconciliation between God and man. Jesus voluntarily substituted himself for all those God will forgive. God the Father laid on Jesus, God the Son, the full weight of his wrath. God the Father justly punished our sin in Jesus so that we would not have to spend eternity suffering the wrath we deserve.

God also did the work to accomplish a glorious trade on Good Friday. Jesus, God the Son, had lived an absolutely perfect life. Jesus had obeyed the word and will of God so that the Father was well pleased. Where you and I have failed, Jesus succeeded. Because of Good Friday, God can grant us the most unbelievable of gifts. God will trade us Jesus’ righteousness for our own failings. Where our record is blemished and calls us to judgment, God gives us Jesus’ perfect righteousness as a gift. Good Friday is good, because there God moves to be able to give us the perfect righteousness without which none of us could ever enter the presence of God.

If you have not come to Jesus for this gift of grace, why not do so today? Believe that Jesus is the Son of God who died and rose again to save your soul. Confess your sin against God and need of a Savior. Commit your life to follow Jesus. Ask God for his mercy because of Jesus. If you turn from sin and trust in Christ, God’s word promises you eternal life and perfect forgiveness because of the finished work of the Son of God.

For us all, pray: Take a moment to pray. Confess your rebellion against the holy God who made you. Thank him for punishing Jesus in your place. Thank him for making a way for you to be reconciled to God. Thank him for giving you the gift of the perfect record of Jesus in place of your own. Ask God to empower you to worship him and to rightly yield your life to him out of gratitude and love for the Savior.

Why My Kids Do Not Believe in Santa

My children do not believe in Santa Claus. To some, this is an obvious move. To others, this is a shock. What’s the deal? Am I some sort of anti-holiday Scrooge? Am I some sort of overzealous fundamentalist? Why in the world would I not have my little ones believe in Santa?


I am probably asked every year about what our family has decided to do about Santa at Christmas time. And, every year, I share a version of this post to try to explain the process that my wife and I went through in deciding our answer to the big question: To Santa or not to Santa.

Since you know the answer already, let me very briefly tell you the reasoning that made the no Santa policy in my home. Then, I will share with you a bit of how we deal with Santa.


Christmas is a holiday that has been highly over-commercialized in the US for years. People focus on winter, on trees, on lights, on gifts, and not on Jesus. And you know what, none of those are the reasons why my family did not tell my children that Santa was real.


Here is my bottom line reasoning: If I tell my children to believe in a figure that they cannot see, that he watches them from afar, that he judges their motives and actions, that he has supernatural powers, and that he will visit them with gifts every Christmas, they will eventually find out that I have intentionally told them to believe in something that is not true. This fact will not do much for my credibility in telling them true things about God, who is invisible to them, who watches over them though they cannot sense it, who judges their thoughts and actions, and who will bless them with eternal blessings if they will follow Christ. So, simply put, my wife and I have determined that we will never tell our children that something is true when it is not, because it is far too important that they be able to believe us when we tell them some things are true that they cannot see.


How do we deal with Santa and Santa stuff? It’s quite simple. Ever since Abigail was tiny, we have worked to distinguish the difference between true stories and pretend ones. In our house, if a story begins with “A long time ago…,” it is a true story. If a story begins with, “Once upon a time…,” it is a pretend story. The kids have done surprisingly well making those distinctions. They can still enjoy the stories that they know are not real just as any children can.


Since my children have no trouble enjoying that which they know not to be real, my wife and I do not get all crabby when a family member wraps a Christmas gift and puts “From: Santa” on the label. We do not find ourselves upset when they want a musical Rudolph toy from Wal-Mart (well, no more upset than we are when they want any noise-making toy). We do not get bent out of shape when a Santa ornament makes its way onto a tree near us. We don’t even mind taking snapshots of them sitting on the knee of a portly, bearded guy in a red, fuzzy suit once a year.


I think that you can tell from what I’ve already written, but just in case it is not clear, Mitzi and I do not look at our decision about Santa as the only possible one. This is a matter of conscience and preference. There is not Scripture that states, “Thou shalt not ho, ho, ho.” I grew up believing in Santa, and it really didn’t harm my worldview that much (so far as I can tell). But, for me and my house, we have simply made a decision that we want our children to know that Mommy and Daddy will always tell them the truth, and that trumps our desires to have beaming little people listening for sleigh bells on Christmas Eve.


Oh, and in case you are wondering, we also try our best to keep our children from being the ones who spoil it for others. Abigail and Josiah have both been told in no uncertain terms that they are not to make it their mission to correct the Santaology of other children. They have answered truthfully when asked by other little ones, but they, to my knowledge, have never tried to be anti-Santa evangelists. So far, so good. We’ll have to see how Owen handles it when he is old enough to play the spoiler role.


Hear my heart as I wrap up this post. I am not here attempting to change any family’s plans for how to handle Christmas. Nor am I asking any person not to do Santa things with my little ones. Nor am I suggesting that, if you have just watched a Claymation special with your kids that you have ruined their spiritual chances for the future. So, please, no cranky comments defending your traditions. Santa stuff is a lot of fun. I love fun stories and the joy of imagination. (We even watch Harry Potter every year around the Christmas season simply because the music feels Christmassy to us; so obviously we are not the strict, non-fiction parents that you might be imagining.) But, since many ask, here is the answer: we have made a choice to be able to tell our children that, when mom and dad say something is real, we fully believe it to be real.   

Luther and Calvin on Scripture and Song in Worship

When the reformers endeavored to reform worship, they strove to turn the church back from the failings so common throughout history. They made the preaching of the word central to the role of the pastor. As Calvin wrote:


They would sing or mutter in the church, exhibit themselves in theatrical vestments, and go through numerous ceremonies, but they would seldom, if ever, teach. According to the precept of Christ, however, no man can claim for himself the office of bishop or pastor who does not feed his flock with the Word of the Lord.1


For worship to be returned to something God-honoring, the word had to be central. And, once the word, rightly taught and understood was returned, the participation of the congregation in worship could also be reinstated. Thus, in the reformation, after centuries of silence, congregations again sang the truths of the word of God. Christians again began to obey the command of God in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”


Martin Luther saw the tremendous value of music both for the joy of the soul and for the training of the Christian mind. He designed worship services that returned singing to the congregation and he understood that singing was a glorious and godly way for people to learn true theology.


Eric Metaxas puts it this way:


Music was not to be banished from our lives as Karlstadt and Müntzer felt it must be, nor was it to be separated into “church music” that could only be sung by priests and monks and “secular music” that was sung by the people outside the churches. All that was good was of God, and to create walls where God has built none was far worse than a mere tragic mistake. So Luther, in creating the worship services for the new Reformation church, sought to bring every kind of good music into God’s service and sought to bring the “priesthood of all believers” into God’s choir in church. Because it is so ubiquitous today, including even in Catholic churches, it is hard to believe that before Luther introduced it, there was no congregational singing in churches. He knew the power of music and wanted to use it for God’s purposes.2


Luther said:


Music is a fair and lovely gift of God which has often wakened and moved me to the joy of preaching. St. Augustine was troubled in conscience whenever he caught himself delighting in music, which he took to be sinful. He was a choice spirit, and were he living today would agree with us. I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like. Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor. I would not exchange what little I know of music for something great. Experience proves that next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart. We know that to the devils music is distasteful and insufferable. My heart bubbles up and overflows in response to music, which has so often refreshed me and delivered me from dire plagues.3

1 John Calvin, On the Necessity of Reforming the Church (1543-44) [book on-line]; accessed 14 October 2017; available from; Internet.

2[1] Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), Chapter 18.

3 Ibid.

Eric Metaxas on the Decline of Worship Before the Reformation

How bad was it really? Eric Metaxas, in his brand new biography on Luther that just appeared at the beginning of October, 2017, described one of Martin Luther’s experiences during his first journey to Rome as follows:


Another disturbing aspect of his time in Rome was the astonishing incompetence and cynicism of many of the priests there. Luther had never seen anything that began to approach it. It was one thing to have questions about God and the religious life, but what to make of these priests who seemed to go through the motions with a contemptuous indifference, or in some cases even a mocking blasphemy? It was positively diabolical. On the first score, Luther noted that Mass was said with such breathless speed that even he, who was exceedingly familiar with every word, found it utterly unintelligible. It was mystifying, as though the priests had secretly been replaced with fast-talking auctioneers. For Luther, who had revered the Mass to the point of awe and even terror, this cavalier attitude toward this holiest of privileges must have been a horror to behold. If ever one needed a picture of “dead religion” and “dead works,” here it was in all of its most legalistic ghastliness. Luther saw that these priests hadn’t the slightest reverence for the holy act in which they were participating but wished only to tick off the appropriate box and gallop off to something less demanding. The shortest time officially allowed in which a priest could hurry through the Mass was twelve minutes, but Luther recalled that at the basilica of St. Sebastian seven masses were said in an hour—in other words, in something less than nine minutes each. And when Luther himself said Mass, the next priest—fidgety with impatience—almost literally breathed down his neck. “Quick, quick!” he said to Luther, sarcastically adding, “And send our Lady back her Son!”—obviously a joke about the transubstantiated host. At St. Sebastian, Luther also recalled the freakish oddity of two masses being said simultaneously at the same altar, the priests merely separated by a painting.*


What Luther saw, and what many other reformers grasped, is that, by the time of the reformation, so much of what the church was doing was exactly in line with the failures in worship which have always been a part of human sinfulness. Worship was not about the word of god, but was rather filled with the vain imaginings of men who made up ceremonies and rules for themselves. Worship was not about the glory of God any longer, but was a tool for the religious elite to use to enrich themselves as they horded political power. Worship was not simple and congregational, but it was complicated, confusing, and only for the priests to perform on behalf of the people.


*[1]Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), Chapter 3.

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.