Christ Our Salvation: A First Engagement with John Webster
Some opening sentences address readers similarly to when the door knocks but you know that it is only the UPS worker dropping off a package—there is no urgency to open the door; there is no urgency to keep reading, other than the commitment you already made to reading a book you purchased. Other opening lines hit you like a ton of bricks, like the author kicks in your door and wrestles you to the ground, so capturing you that you need to read on to find out how the situation will play out.
John Webster’s opening lines to chapters in Christ Our Salvation: Expositions and Proclamations are the latter kind. Some examples: “We can’t go too far in reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus without grasping that his presence and activity constitute a fundamental disturbance of human life and calling” (83). “One of the most striking things about the gospel stories of Jesus is that they present him as one who is always at the center of conflict” (173). “The affliction of the prophet is that he simply cannot evade the call of God to declare God’s word” (165). “One of the hallmarks of the genuine Christian community is the way in which it deals with failure” (140).
Nor does Webster’s follow-through disappoint; he sustains a reader’s interest and backs up the strong claims of his opening lines. Webster’s style engages the reader, beginning with powerful opening lines and continuing with clear, sharp language. He wastes no words, and the sermons in Christ Our Salvation are far shorter than in, for example, Grace and Glory by Geerhardus Vos, which also features wonderful opening sentences.
Christ Our Salvation, a posthumously published collection of Webster’s sermons from 1998-2002, provided my first direct exposure to Webster, a figure who looms large in the recent boom of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS) movement. To gain more understanding of that movement, one can read Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation, by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, or, as I’m currently enjoying, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and its Interpretation by Scott R. Swain.
Like Vos’s Grace and Glory, Webster’s sermons in Christ Our Salvation are profoundly powerful and meditative in style. Unlike today’s three-point, alliterative sermons, Webster uses few headings. Yet seldom is the reader lost, for the path stands clear—and is not disrupted by clunky transitions. Seminarians should take note of Webster’s expositional style (as well as Vos’s)—he devotes very little time to setting up the background of each passage or sharing an outline. Rather, from his first words he dives to the heart of the issue in the text and then swims deeper in that issue through the text. As I have grown as a preacher, this is something I have sought to do—giving background details purposefully, sprinkled throughout as needed, in order to show what the text says—not to check an expository box.
While the topics covered in Christ Our Salvation reflect the diversity of various biblical passages, Webster repeatedly highlights two themes that are dear to me and others in my ecclesiastical circles: the Word and the church, and how those relate to each other. For example, he writes, “The church of Jesus Christ is defined by, among other things, two very basic activities that it undertakes: the activity of hearing God’s word and the activity of speaking God’s word. That is, the church is both a hearing church and a teaching church” (179). As a pastor, I must know this personally: only as the Word of God captures my heart can I proclaim the Word with winsomeness that invites others to be similarly captivated. As the Apostle Paul declared in 2 Corinthians 4:13-14, “…we also believe, and so we also speak…”
While some might criticize that meditative academics like Webster and Vos get caught up on internal church discussions, the sermons in Christ Our Salvation reflect the urgency of missions. Webster asserts, “Because the word addresses the church, it’s to be a church in which voices are lifted up in the speech of proclamation. Such proclamation is no casual business…It is, very simply, urgent” (180).
Furthermore, Webster clearly believes in the immense power of the Word of God. The Bible confronts human beings in their sin; “That’s why reading the Bible isn’t a tame business…” (91) The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is a creation of the Word of God and is a community constantly addressed by God. We are “faced steadily by this intrusive word…because however painful and disturbing and dismaying it may seem—hearing what it has to say is the way in which we are healed…” (91) Webster therefore challenges us: are we ready to hear “what the Spirit says to the churches” (91, Rev. 3:1-6)?
In our day where the power of God’s Word is questioned and downplayed, with so many churches eschewing preaching in favor of flashy programs and fog machines, Webster reminds us that God changes people as he addresses them by the Spirit with the Word. In another brilliant opening line, he declares, “Close to the heart of the transformation of human life, which the Christian gospel brings, is the recovery of praise. To be a Christian believer is to be converted to the praise of God” (98). We were made for this chief end (98; see Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 1).
To be addressed by God, to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, to encounter God as he makes himself known in the gospel with effectual calling—this changes a person: “human life is overtaken by a truth of such magnitude, goodness, and worthiness that we cannot but praise…‘He is the LORD our God’ (Ps 105:7)” (99). “…praise issues,” Webster explains, “from our encounter with that reality: the sheer fact of God’s majesty: he is the Lord.” But not only that, Webster explains, “praise flows from the realization that God’s majesty is not just high over us or distant from us but turned towards us. ‘He is the LORD our God’ (Ps 105:7): his whole being is for us, for our sake; he is the one who has pledged himself to bring about our welfare and salvation” (99, italics added). This is indeed a glorious, doxology-inspiring truth: God has applied his attributes, including his justice and power—for our good, for our salvation. As the Puritan Thomas Goodwin put it, redemption is God’s “masterpiece, wherein he…brings all his attributes upon the stage.”
At the same time that Webster takes us to doxological peaks where we can take in wonder-filled glimpses of God’s glory, he is also down to earth, and recognizes that on a daily basis we often live in the valley. As much as we should praise God, he writes, “One of the most basic experiences of worship is that, far from being natural, easy, and spontaneous, welling up within us and overflowing, praise is hard, strange, and laborious” (100). Here Webster is very practical in his principles: he reminds sinners that “we need to ask God to help us praise him” because “in the end, praise is something that God works in us…Praise is the Spirit’s gift” (101). We must echo David’s prayer: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise” (Psalm 51:15).
I heartily recommend Webster’s Christ Our Salvation as a rich devotional that will enrich your soul and mind in its reflections on the Word of God. Through these sermons you will feed on Christ—with spiritual morsels that are easy to digest yet profound enough to sustain the most erudite academics. Many of Webster’s chapters are themselves worth the price of the book, such as his chapter on Psalm 119:97-104. “One of the most weighty claims that the Christian gospel makes on human life,” Webster begins, “is the reordering of our affections…our loves, which are fixed on certain realities, and our desires, which long for what we long—are one of the driving forces of our lives” (6-7). Underneath all the changes that the Triune God works in a Christian is a deeper change, “a change in what we love” (6-7).
 I am not the only one to notice Webster’s vigorous language. See Ivor J. Davidson’s introduction in John Webster, The Culture of Theology. Edited by Ivor J. Davidson and Alden C. McCray (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 13.
 Goodwin, Christ the Mediator, in Works, 5:16; cited in Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 72.
Andrew J. Miller is the pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church (O.P.C.) in Fredericksburg, VA. He is a graduate of Grove City College and Westminster Seminary California.