In 1988 John Piper, who been for 33 years pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota and he is the founder of Desiring God Ministries, started the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors. Inspired by the storing and moving in which Iain Murray, one the founders of the Banner of Truth, made church history relevant for today in his messages, Piper gave a biographical message on the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors for the 27 years. Seven collections with three historical figures were published under the title The Swans Are Not Silent.
In 2018 Crossway Books republished this series in one volume with the title 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed and Fruitful. The title of the series alluded to the words of Eraclius, the assistant of Augustine. At the age of seventy-one, four year before he died the church father handed over the administrative duties of the church of Hippo to Eraclius. Overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy in Augustine presence, Eraclius said: ‘The cricket chirps the swam is silent.’
But although Augustine died four years after these words, through his writing he speaks until now. The same message brought by Augustine was brought in lager ages by other men, although with their own accents and emphasizes. The Reformation can be called an Augustinian revival. Augustine influence on the Reformation was tremendous. The swan also sang in the voice of Martin Luther in another sense. The council of Constance condemned John Huss to death. On July 6, 1415, he was burned at the stake along with his books. A tradition says that in his cell just before his death, Hus wrote: ‘Today, you are burning a goose (the meaning of ‘Huss’ in Czech0, however, a hundred years from now, you will be able to hear a swan sing, you will not burn it, you will have to listen to him’. Luther saw himself boldly as the fulfilment of this prophecy. That is the reason that all over Germany you will find swans on church steeples.
In 21 servants of Sovereign Joy we hear the voices of Augustine, Athanasius, the Reformers, the puritans and of several of their spiritual heirs from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. Most of them were preachers. They are three exceptions the great Christian politician William Wilberforce, the marvelous poet William Cowper, and C.S. Lewis. William Cowper who never occupied a public function. He had a life long struggle with deep depressions, but made the redeeming love of Christ his theme, until he died.
C.S. Lewis does not need further introduction, I suppose. Piper is a decided calvinist and Lewis an anglo-catholic, although a moderate one, but certainly not an evangelical. Piper speaks much more explicitly than Lewis one the content and meaning of the atonement. For him the hell is not obnly a place where men are separated fom God, but also a place where men are punished eternally. Nevertheless, he values Lewis very much for him emphasis on the joy of a Christian which far surpasses all earthly pleasures. Both Piper and Lewis are with regard of the meaning of Christian joy spiritual pupils of the great church father Augustine.
Piper does not hide that each of the persons whose life he describes had his shortcomings. Just as the Biblical saints the saints of church history had their flaws. And nevertheless they were faithful and fruitful. So we can learn from them, but studying their lives and learning from their writings we must never forget to see on the Author and Finisher of our faith, Jesus Christ. He is flawless. His sacrifice is the only foundation of all salvation. We may learn from the saints Christ gave to his church, but we must not lean on them. We must lean on Christ alone.
But then again we must say that men during the history of the church gave us examples in leaning on Christ and living for him, bearing fruit for him. Piper calls them servants of sovereign joy. These men found their joy in God through Jesus Christ. Just a Iain Murray, to whose audio messages Piper listened as a beginning pastor with so much joy, Piper is a good storyteller. And just as Iain Murray the way he does it is not superficial. He has studied the writings of the persons whose portraits he gives us, and also some of the most important secondary literature on them.
I have read 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed and Fruitful with joy and fruit for myself. It encouraged me to be more faithful and to seek more communion with Christ in order to bear more fruit. I can heartily recommend this volume. I am sure you will enjoy in too.
John Piper, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed and Fruitful (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2018), hardcover 816 pp., $35,– (ISBN 9781433562525)