My series of posts on John Webster has attempted to cast him as a theologian devoted to an all-encompassing view of God’s holiness—His complete and utter otherness, and His sufficiency in Himself. It was Webster’s task to retrieve theology from the grasp of a mere spiritualized sociology or a glorified anthropology, and to simply ‘let God be God.’ For Webster, this God-oriented focus extended profoundly into the realm of human action, where the holiness of God was the grounds for what he termed “the theatre of grace.”[1] Because God is God, He creates and forms us to be in communion with Him, which includes the breadth of human spiritual activity—our habits, our prayers, and our reading of Scripture must be viewed subservient to the simple reality of the God who is there. It is a realization of the givenness of our life together with God in Christ.

This devotional turn in Webster’s thought, an extension as it is of his own all-encompassing dogmatics, can be exemplified in his sermons, many of which are contained in the two volumes, Confronted by Grace: Meditations of the Theologian (2015) and Christ Our Salvation (2020). At first glance it might be surprising to consider John Webster in a more ministerial capacity, yet it must be kept in mind that Webster was a life-long Anglican minister who regularly preached at local churches and in university chapels. In fact, Webster’s own comments concerning the task of the preacher in the preface to Confronted by Grace directly extend his own rich theology of God as a God who speaks:

“Preaching is one of the principal ways in which the God of the gospel has dealings with us. The gospel’s God is eloquent: He does not remain locked in silence, but speaks. He does this supremely in the mission of the Son of God, the very Word of God who becomes flesh, communicating with human creatures in human ways, most of all in human speech.”[2]

Thus, for Webster, preaching and pastoral work is one of a profound vocation: it is the task of the minister to reflect Christ, who is not only the very Word of God Himself, but also came to us as a preacher. To put it another way: the vocation of a preacher is a calling to emulate the God who preaches.

To put it another way: the vocation of a preacher is a calling to emulate the God who preaches.

Essential Elements of Preaching

Webster goes on to state three indispensable elements in preaching that are derived from this theological reality: First, Holy Scripture. Of first and foremost importance for Webster is the centrality of the Word in preaching, which he succinctly states is “his communication with us in human language.” Here, Webster is keen to demonstrate that preaching is no mere “public Christian discourse,” but the activity of the church as the “the creature of the divine word.”[3] Elsewhere, in Domain of the Word, Webster contrasts the concept of the preacher’s freedom versus the Word’s freedom, where, in reality, it is the Word that forms and establishes true ecclesiastical freedom: it is not the responsibility of the pastor to redeem the church, for Christ has done this, and therefore he must simply proclaim Christ while allowing the congregation to be formed by Him. In this, he advises against preaching too dictated by the ebbs and flows of culture: “It is tempting,” Webster muses, “to think of the task of preaching as one in which the preacher struggles to ‘make real’ the divine message by arts of application and cultural interpretation, seeking rhetorical ways of establishing continuity between the Word and the present situation.” On the contrary:

“…in acting as the ambassador of the Word, the preacher enters a situation which already lies within the economy of reconciliation, in which the Word is antecedently present and active . . . The preacher, therefore, faces a situation in which the Word has already addressed and continues to address the church, and does not need somehow by homiletic exertions to generate and present the Word’s meaningfulness. The preacher speaks on Christ’s behalf; the question of whether Christ is himself present and effectual is one which—in the realm of the resurrection and exaltation of the Son—has already been settled and which the preacher can safely leave behind.”[4]

As such, Webster defines preaching as “commissioned human speech in which God makes his appeal.” For Webster, then, preaching revolves around that great Pauline teaching that “He has committed to us the Word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19).

Nonetheless, Webster’s second element of preaching is the congregation. There is a profound corporate reality to preaching that revolves around what it means to be the very body of Christ, unified in that reality of reconciliation already accomplished by Christ. In his lectures on holiness he had memorably stated that “The Church is holy as a hearing Church”—that is, the faithful “gather in the expectation that something from God will be said to them.”[5] In short, the congregation gathers in order to turn itself away from itself, and toward God. Elsewhere, in an article outlining principles of ecclesiology, he will define the church as a society: “the church is the human assembly … in which God restores creatures to himself,” later noting three examples of its spiritual visibility: “assembly, hearing the divine Word, and order.”[6] Elsewhere, in a sermon on Psalm 95:6-7, he will state poignantly, “God himself has gathered these tatters of humankind for himself,” and it is here that the church receives her consolation and comfort: “… however anxious, weary or indifferent they may be, the God of the gospel will address them with the gospel, will help them to hear what he says, and will instruct them on how to live life in his company.”[7]

The sermon repeats the scriptural Word in other human words, following the Word’s movement and submitting to its rule.

John Webster

Webster’s third and final element in preaching is the sermon, which he sees mainly as a repetition of the divine word: “The sermon repeats the scriptural Word in other human words, following the Word’s movement and submitting to its rule.” This follows the more Anglican view that preaching should be simple and stick closely to a plain reading of the text.[8] Here, the agency of the preacher is one that acknowledges his own limitations within the scope of God’s mysterious and gracious hand, and it is significant that a fourth and perhaps underlying theological principle is articulated in his sermon on 2 Tim. 4:1-4, “Preach the Word”: “the church’s hearing and speaking are gifts of the Holy Spirit.” This falls within one of Webster’s greater theological emphases, i.e. that all created reality is a grace and that our very natures are given from God and dependent on Him, and helpfully locates the office of the minister and church within the Trinitarian economy in consistency with his own principles of systematic theology:

“We’re sinners; we don’t know how to hear, we have no capacity in ourselves to put the right words in our mouths. Right hearing and right speech aren’t within the range of our competence. They’re given to us, given by the activity of God’s Spirit, in which God opens the ears of the deaf, opens the mouths of the dumb, and makes it possible for us to become true hearers and speakers of God’s word.”[9]

Yet even here, Webster adds what could be viewed as a fifth element, a subspecies of the work of the Holy Spirit: prayer. “If we hear and speak because the Spirit makes it possible for us to do so, then at the heart of the life of the church, and at the heart of its listening to the Bible and its talk about the Bible, will be prayer: prayer for the coming of God’s Spirit, prayer in which the Spirit is invoked because he alone establishes us in the word.”[10]

As such, it is telling of Webster’s own spirituality that he immediately moves toward downplaying his own preaching capabilities, stating, “The sermons in this book hardly match up to this understanding of preaching.”[11] Webster’s self-deprecating comments aside, his sermons follow this scheme remarkably well, standing as short, devotional homilies that communicate and apply rich theological truths into everyday life. These themes demonstrably converge in Webster’s own devotional preparation for the sermon, of which Daniel Bush writes,

“When he was called upon to preach, he would read the Scripture passage for the service a few times and prayerfully mull it over. He would check one or two commentaries and perhaps look at what John Owen had said, then he would just write so as to submit himself personally to the rule of holy Scripture, saying again in contemporary speech what had already been said and nothing more. His aim, as he emphatically put it to me, was for listeners to hear what the Spirit-rather than John Webster-says to the church.”[12]

Pastoral Theology

In closing, two sermons highlight Webster’s pastoral theology for the church of Christ: “The Lie of Self-Sufficiency” on Matthew 21:33-39, and “The Great Revolutionary Act” on Psalm 105:1-6, both demonstrating his view that God’s grace confronts and transforms.

In “The Lie of Self-Sufficiency,” from Confronted by Grace, Webster considers the horror of the Parable of the Vineyard as it relates to the Passion narrative, which he sees as “the acting out of a lie”: whereas, “in the man Jesus they are faced with the presence of God himself,” nonetheless, they choose to be “the embodiment of the great lie, the ultimate untruth.” In a particularly compelling passage Webster contemplates the spiritual pathology of lie-telling:

“Why do we tell lies? We lie to evade reality; we lie because the truth is too painful or too shameful for us to face, or because the truth is simply inconvenient and has to be suppressed before it’s allowed to disturb us. We invent lies because, for whatever reason, we want to invent reality. And the false reality which we invent, the world we make up by our lying, has one great advantage for us: It makes no claims on us. It demands nothing. It doesn’t shape us in the way that truth shapes us; it faces us with no obligations; it has no hard, resistant surfaces which we can’t get through. A lie is a made-up reality, and so never unsettles, never criticizes, never resists, never overthrows us. It’s the world, not as it is, but as we wish it to be: a world organized around us and our desires, the perfect environment in which we can be left at peace to be ourselves and to follow our own good or evil purposes.”[13]

Nonetheless, “Lies are a desperately destructive force in human life,” going on to state that “Lies can kill.”[14] This is why the worst edifices of human society capitalize on untruth—“Totalitarian societies, dishonest businesses, abusive human relationships.” In the words of Romans 1, they must “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18).

This is why the revelation of Christ is so provoking to the grand institution that is the kingdom of darkness:

“At the heart of the story of the passion, therefore, is the confrontation of truth and falsehood. Why does Christ die? Why is he suppressed, cast out and finally silenced by death? Because he speaks the truth. He dies because in him there is spoken the truth of the human condition. He is the truth. In his person, as the one who he is, as the one who does what he does and says what he says, he announces the truth of the world and thereby exposes its untruth. He shows up human falsehood in all its depravity. And he does so, not as a relatively truthful human person, nor even as a prophet inspired to declare what is hidden, but as God himself.”[15]

For Webster, then, the theological reality of Christ is sufficient for confronting the sin-darkened recesses of the human heart. As such, he moves to draw the congregation into spiritual fraternity with those who crucified Christ: “There are two things we must consider here if we are to let this story do its work among us. We must ask, first, about the nature of this final act of rebellion against God; and we must ask, second, about the identity of those who rebel in this way.”[16] In the former, the rejection of Christ is an act of sinful finality in relation to absolute truth: “What is this act of refusal of God? At its heart, it’s a refusal to consent to the reality of their situation as those who owe everything to God. Like tenants who pretend that what they rent is really their own property to do what they like with, so Israel lives by denying the reality of God.” This is in contrast with the actual reality of the situation, where, “In truth, Israel lives, not out of their own resources, but out of grace.” It is here that Webster invokes the concept of obligation: “When that happens—when independence is declared—then the first thing that goes out of the window is obligation. The first and most tenacious lie that has to be set up is that Israel owes nothing to God. Once grace is spurned, law is abolished.”[17] It is this falsehood that, horrifyingly, “presents itself as religion.” Taking aim at religious legalism, Webster observes, “What offended was his denunciation of the whole cultural apparatus of holiness as a way of controlling God.”[18]

Yet, before getting too comfortable with finger-pointing, Webster quickly moves toward identifying the congregation—himself included—with Israel’s rejection of Christ:

“But if we are to hear the witness of Scripture properly, we need to be especially careful and clear at this point. Israel acts in the name of and in the place of all. This collection of assorted religious leaders is not just a particularly wicked set of specimens, whom we can inspect and then congratulate ourselves by saying we would have done otherwise. Not at all: They act in our name, they take our place. In doing what they do, in acting out the lie of self-sufficiency…”

Webster sees human sinfulness as the transcendent category of our state before God, and as such, “…what therefore is condemned is us.”[19]

Even so, Webster sees in the gospel what he calls “one great Nevertheless,” the hope of the restoration the God alone can give us in Christ. Quoting Psalm 80:19 (“Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let your face shine, that we may be saved!”), Webster pleads, “What is the only hope? That the face of God may shine upon us. That God may so present us with the truth that our falsehood is put away. That God may restore us by interposing himself between us and our destruction. That God will intercept our death-dealing ways and give us life.”[20]

Likewise, his sermon on Psalm 105:1-6, “The Great Revolutionary Act,” found in Christ our Salvation, seeks to reorient the congregation toward the biblical truth of doxology, as the outflowing of seeing ourselves as creatures of God. He begins the sermon with the thought that, “Close to the heart of the transformation of human life, which the Christian gospel brings, is the recovery of praise … praise is the proper end of human life: it’s that for which we are made.”[21] For Webster, a biblical theological anthropology is the mirror into which he desires his congregation to look: “What is it to be a human creature? Ultimately, it’s to be one who praises God. Before we are rational or moral creatures, we’re creatures made for praise, doxological creatures.”[22] In short, what Webster wants is for his congregation to realize that praise, worship, and the practice of true religion is not an isolated or compartmentalized part of our lives: it is the entirety for which we were created by God.

“What marks us out as the creatures of God isn’t that we can do amazing things that other animals can’t do create language and culture and technology, make promises and break them, wage wars and forgive our enemies, and all the myriad other distinctively human activities. What marks us out is that we can glorify God, that we can glory in God’s glory. We alone of all creation are appointed by God to praise and celebrate him, to call on his name, to proclaim his deeds to the nations.”[23]

As such, praise is essentially a rallying of the individuals “in the celebration of the sheer fact that God is God.” In a beautiful litany, Webster describes the multifaceted qualities of praise: “As Psalm 105 has it, praise involves thanksgiving; it involves extolling God’s mighty deeds in speech and song; it’s a matter of glorifying in the name of God; it involves rejoicing in the heart; it is about seeking the presence of God; and, as we praise, we remember the wonderful works of God,” all of which are unified by the truth of Psalm 105:7, “He is the Lord our God.” Thus, “In all its forms, quiet or exuberant, internal or external, praise issues from our encounter with that reality: the sheer fact of God’s majesty: he is the Lord.”[24] Praise is simply “the acknowledgment that God is God, and God is our God.”[25]

Yet, it must be acknowledged that, “Praise seems awkward and difficult,” like “wearing a suit of clothes that doesn’t quite fit.” This is because of our sinfulness: “we praise God in the shadow of our fallenness.”[26] What had been natural is now unnatural, and we need supernatural aid: “…we need to ask God to help us praise him. Praise isn’t natural-we can’t just turn on the tap and let it flow, In the end, praise is something that God works in us. There’s no question here of skill, of capacities that we can work on and hone to perfection. Praise is the Spirit’s gift.”[27] It is by the Spirit that we are prompted to declare, “O Lord, we pray, make haste to help us: break down our glum resistance and in your mercy make us into a people who can celebrate your glory.”[28]

Although the sermon proceeds grandly along these notes, it is here where our analysis must conclude, this time with Webster’s practical thoughts on praise-filled prayer:

“It’s a turning away from self toward God, and as such it confesses two primary truths about our situation: our utter need for the grace of God, and the infinite capacity of God to provide for that need. Invoking God, calling on him in prayer, isn’t an emergency measure. It’s not just something that we turn to in extremity, at the hour of death or disappointment or depression. Calling on God’s name accompanies all human life and all human activity when they are properly ordered.”[29]

Webster’s sermons demonstrate how a rich, God-oriented theology defines, shapes, and empowers preacher and congregation alike, unified as it is by the Spirit and the Word. Likewise, they demonstrate how these theological realities pierce into the present human condition, seeing as humanity is and remains a fallen creature in God’s image and thus in need of redemption. Webster’s model of theological theology, far from being mere ivory-tower speculation, provides the very foundation for how faithful preaching can call congregants back to God-shaped reality we were always intended to glorify. It’s holiness both preached and personified, by God and Christ.

[1] The Culture of Theology, 144.

[2] Confronted by Grace, xi.

[3] Christ our Salvation, 180.

[4] Domain, 26.

[5] Holiness, 72; Confronted by Grace, xii.

[6] God Without Measure, 177, 190.

[7] Confronted, 113;xii.

[8] “In my Anglican tradition, this is expressed as the primacy in church of the reading of holy Scripture. It’s the lectern that is the primary home of word of God in church, not the pulpit. It’s Scripture read, not Scripture proclaimed, which is the first great act of speech in the church.” (Christ our Salvation, 182).

[9] Christ our Salvation, 184.

[10] Christ our Salvation, 184.

[11] Confronted, xii.

[12] Christ our Salvation, xvi.

[13] Confronted by Grace, 5-6.

[14] Confronted, 6.

[15] Confronted, 6.

[16] Confronted, 7.

[17] Confronted, 8.

[18] Confronted, 9.

[19] Confronted, 10.

[20] Confronted, 10.

[21] Christ our Salvation, 98.

[22] Christ our Salvation, 99.

[23] Christ our Salvation, 99.

[24] Christ our Salvation, 99.

[25] Christ our Salvation, 100.

[26] Christ our Salvation, 100.

[27] Christ our Salvation, 101.

[28] Christ our Salvation, 101.

[29] Christ our Salvation, 101-2.

John Webster and the Holy Habits of Theology

According to Webster, holiness is not something we merely learn about, study, or contemplate: it is something we cherish, do, and emulate.

Robb Torseth
Public Service Librarian & Adjunct Professor at Gateway Seminary

Theologian of Holiness: Introducing John Webster

Webster’s life-long project of ‘theological theology’ could be said to be an expansion of a theological category many evangelicals would consider theologically-basic: holiness.

Robb Torseth
Public Service Librarian & Adjunct Professor at Gateway Seminary