Book Review: 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy by John Piper
John Piper is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for thirty-three years as pastor for preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is the author of more than fifty books, including Desiring God and Reading The Bible Supernaturally. This work represents more than twenty years of writing short biographies that he has preached at an annual conference. These biographies were originally organized into seven distinct volumes but have now been combined into one larger volume.
John Piper freely admits that this work is largely based on the works, both written and spoken, of Iain Murray from Banner of Truth. As a young pastor, John speaks of being helped greatly by reading the biographies of other Christians who had gone before. He says: “it has always felt to me that biography is one of the most enjoyable, edifying, and efficient ways to read history. Enjoyable because we all love a good story and the ecstasies and agonies of real life. Edifying because the faithfulness of God in the lives of contrite, courageous, forgiven sinners is strengthening for our faith. Efficient because, in a good biography, you not only learn about a person’s life but also about theology, psychology, philosophy, ethics, politics, economics, and church history. So, I have long been a lover of biography.” (p. 8) That love of biography is made clear throughout this volume that considers the lives of such men as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Bunyan, John Newton, William Tyndale and George Whitefield.
Perhaps the best way to see the benefits of this volume are to consider Piper’s biographical sketches of two very different Christians: C. S. Lewis and Charles Spurgeon. One was an untrained pastor while the other was a highly trained academic. Coming from rather different backgrounds and strikingly different testimonies, these men offer a good summation of the breadth and help offered in this book. Both men’s works have lasted far beyond themselves and both were leaders in their respective fields. Truly both men seemed to be from another world as John Piper points out (p. 685).
Both men had a prodigious output in their lifetimes. C. S. Lewis became the foremost authority in his professional field, Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Throughout his life, he found time to produce works of literary history, literary criticism, theology, philosophy, autobiography, biblical studies, historical philology, fantasy, science fiction, letters, poems, sermons, formal and informal essays, a historical novel, a spiritual diary, religious allegory, short stories and children’s novels. (p. 685) Spurgeon’s sermons, on the other hand, fill sixty-three volumes of content. Yet, in recent years, more than a dozen additional volumes of previously unpublished sermons has come to light. Even without these, his printed sermons serve as the largest set of books by a single author in the history of Christianity. This is not counting the more than 140 books he wrote and published in his lifetime (p. 751). It is difficult to believe that both men could have such an output amidst the difficulties of their lives, the many personal letters each wrote, and the duties required of them by their modes of employment. Yet both were constantly choosing the good of individuals in need of their help over their larger readership. Whether it was Spurgeon during the Cholera epidemic when, to his own risk, he stayed in London and ministered to as many individuals as possible, or Lewis’ resolve to personally respond to every letter that was sent to him, their care for others in need of their aid is commendable. (Incidentally, the three volumes of Lewis’ letters that have been printed surpass 3,800 printed pages).
Both men experienced significant adversity and hardship. For Lewis it was being wounded in WWI, experiencing adversity at Oxford for his Christian convictions and eventually watching his wife struggle and die from cancer after only four years of marriage. For Spurgeon, it was the hatred of many in society and their constant criticisms of him as a public figure. Additionally, he had many health problems, his wife was an invalid starting in her early thirties, and he endured a campaign at the end of his life as he sought to uphold orthodox Christianity in the Baptist Union of his day. Both men experienced more trying difficulties than most people are aware, but both also attributed a great deal of their usefulness to those trials and they submitted to them as coming directly from their creator.
Both men gave great emphasis to their personal relationships to God. Spurgeon’s significant output is no doubt due, in part, to his investment of time with God and His Word. C. S. Lewis often practiced the same. The consistency of his spending time in prayer and the Word is seen in how he then tries to apply Christian truth to the many areas of life on which he wrote. Both men show that the strength for effective ministry comes from drawing on the power of our Redeemer and Savior. Only from that position of strength can one minister and help others consistently.
Throughout this work, the author draws attention to the many positive lessons we can learn from these individuals. Yet, he is also not reticent in pointing out their flaws. Spurgeon may have overworked himself and attempted too much. Lewis had some significant theological flaws and positions that are generally not held as proper orthodoxy. Learning from the failures and successes of others is part of what makes this volume so powerful. John Piper does not shy away from difficult topics nor does he fail to praise where praise is due. There are also many moments when he will give a personal evaluation or an additional set of advice from his own life and these are very valuable for the reader as well. Indeed, if part of the reason for writing these short biographies was to help others learn from godly men of past generations, then it is only fitting that he expresses where those men have helped him as well.
An additional and unforeseen benefit to this book is being able to follow the growth and maturity of John Piper himself. These biographical sketches were written over more than twenty years and the growth in his person and ministry as well as the impact of these men on his life can be seen as one reads the book.
Finally, such a book is most helpful for those who would otherwise be unable or unwilling to pick up a full-length biography of the individuals written of in this volume. Each biographical sketch averages about 40 pages of content. This can be read in one sitting or split in half very easily. For many, this will be a selling point. For others, this will be an excellent introduction to the lives of these men about whom they may wish to read more extensively later. Also, by placing seven volumes in one, the reader is able to purchase this volume at a mere fraction of the price it would cost to purchase the seven individual volumes. This book would not just be a help to any young minister but also to any young Christian. By seeing how others have lived out the gospel in their lives, we will be encouraged and equipped to do the same in ours.
John Piper, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful. Wheaton: Crossway, 2018. 814pp.