(I am traveling in the US until mid-February, so my initial posts will be based on books I’ve read recently.)

blsj_large1The Legacy of Sovereign Joy is one of Piper’s biographical series, The Swans Are Not Silent. The series title comes from Augustine’s successor, Eraclius. Augustine was an excellent teacher, and Eraclius felt small and inadequate as he preached in Augustine’s presence. Eraclius remarked, “The cricket chirps, the swan is silent.” This book surveys these “famous and flawed fathers” who triumphed because of grace. Their lives continue to speak to the church today—these swans are not silent.

In the introduction, Piper describes their lives in themes: Augustine reflects the triumph of sovereign joy, Luther the sacred study of Scripture, and Calvin the divine majesty of the word.

Augustine: The triumph of sovereign joy

Piper mentions Augustine’s five great works (Confessions, On Christian Doctrine, Enchiridion, On The Trinity, City Of God) and focuses on his Confessions to draw out his life story. Augustine was well-educated and worked as a teacher, exploring various philosophies. By age 31 (AD 386), Augustine was aware of God’s presence but was also weighed down by sexual lust, having lived with a concubine for 15 years. He was converted upon meditating on Romans 13:13-14 and became bishop of Hippo, establishing a monastery and installing priests and bishops throughout Africa for almost forty years.

The key passage according to Piper is Augustine’s testimony to the superior power of God’s grace:

“How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose!…You drove them from me, You who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, You who are sweeter than all pleasure…O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation.” (57)

Augustine argued that the desire for happiness is ultimate, guiding and governing the will. Furthermore, because man’s free will leads only to sin, our love for and delight in God is itself a God-given ability. So Augustine especially argued against Pelagius, who asserted that human nature is good and able to do all it is commanded to do. (56) Augustine himself listed over 80 heresies he had addressed, but the subject of sovereign, joy-giving grace was his greatest pleasure. (60) His passion for delighting in God was manifest in his prayers and study. Piper notes Augustine’s influence on Luther and Calvin’s works and the tension in Augustine’s thought which has led both Roman Catholics and Protestants to claim him as their own.

Martin Luther and sacred study

Born in 1483 to a copper miner, Martin Luther began as a law student but vowed to become a monk in 1505 after enduring a violent thunderstorm. He joined a monastery and eventually worked as a university theology professor in Wittenberg. More than an academic, Luther was a prolific preacher. The church in Wittenberg had no church programs, only worship and preaching. He was not the pastor but shared the preaching, often preaching several times a week. Piper notes, “…the average in [the years 1522-23, 1528-29] was one sermon every two and a half days…He knows the burden of preaching.” (87) Luther also fathered six children and led household devotions, which were “virtually another worship service for an hour…” (88) Then there were the frequent controversies and conferences which he managed. Lastly, he constantly published works to guide the church. Luther was busy!

Piper summarized Luther’s devotion to the word:

1. He elevated the biblical text far above the commentaries or church fathers.
2. He seriously grappled with the biblical writers.
3. He was convinced that reading Greek and Hebrew was one of the greatest privileges of the Reformation preacher.
4. He was diligent in spite of tremendous obstacles.
5. He suffered, experiencing temptation and affliction.
6. He prayed in dependence on the Holy Spirit for his study.

John Calvin and the divine majesty of the word

John Calvin’s life could be headlined as “zeal to illustrate the glory of God.” According to Benjamin Warfield, “No man ever had a profounder sense of God than he.” (119) Initially studying theology then law, Calvin at 24 realized the errors of his past life: “God, by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame…” (123) He recognized the Holy Spirit, through the Scriptures, had enlightened his mind.

For his involvement with “Lutheran” teaching, Calvin was forced to escape France and hide in Brasel, Switzerland from 1532-34, where he published the first edition of his most famous work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, to speak out against those who were burning many French believers to death. On his return to France, he traveled to Geneva and was challenged to remain as professor and pastor there. Despite initial resistance from the city council, Calvin had submitted his heart to God. His personal emblem depicts a hand holding a heart out to God with the motto prompte et sincere—“promptly and sincerely.”

After marrying in 1540, Calvin experienced the loss of his first son then the death of his wife in 1549. Calvin worked frenetically in studying, preaching and writing, despite continuous ill health. He also battled the libertines—men who persisted in adultery yet also participated in communion. This was a common problem in the church and finally, in 1553 Calvin dramatically confronted this issue:

The sermon had been preached, the prayers had been offered, and Calvin descended from the pulpit to take his place beside the elements at the communion table. The bread and wine were duly consecrated by him, and he was now ready to distribute them to the communicants. Then on a sudden a rush was begun by the troublers in Israel in the direction of the communion table…Calvin flung his arms around the sacramental vessels as if to protect them from sacrilege, while his voice rang through the building: “These hands you may crush, these arms you may lop off, my life you may take, my blood is yours, you may shed it; but you shall never force me to give holy things to the profaned, and dishonor the table of my God.” (136)

Calvin’s reverence for God was especially evident in his exposition of the word. Piper: “Calvin’s preaching was of one kind from beginning to end: he preached steadily through book after book of the Bible.” (138-39) In his dedication to Bible exposition, Calvin exalted the majesty of God.

In this book, Piper blends theology and biography with relevant application to today’s church, which struggles in a lustful culture and needs more devotion to God’s word for a greater sense of God. This book is brief (148 pages) but full of interesting insights into these flawed, faithful men. It is inspiring, convicting, and challenging to read their testimony.

The Legacy Of Sovereign Joy. John Piper. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000. 148pp.

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About Ben Kwok

Ben is part of a church plant team establishing the Rouse Hill Church. He holds a Master of Divinity degree. Ben and his wife Diahanna live in Sydney, Australia with their four young children.


  1. Steven Mock 29 January, 2009 at 7:27 pm - Reply

    Ben! Great article. I have that book but haven’t read it yet. What are you doing in the US? I’m looking forward to your other articles. Thank you for serving us in this way. Grace!

  2. Ben Kwok 29 January, 2009 at 11:05 pm - Reply

    Hi Steve, thanks–we’re reporting to all our supporting churches. Arrived mid-Dec, returning mid-Feb. 8 inches of snow yesterday. :)

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