Piper, John. The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. The Swans are not Silent. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000. 158pp. $17.99.

Introducing the Series

John Piper’s series The Swans are not Silent began as a series of biographical messages delivered at the annual Bethlehem Conference for Pastors which have now been compiled into a series of five books.

Piper introduces this series with the following viginette:

At the age of seventy-one, four years before he dies on August 28, A. D. 430, Aurelius Augustine handed over the administrative duties of the church in Hippo . . . to his administrative assistant Eraclius. . . . At the ceremony, Eraclius stood to preach, as the aged Augustin sat on his bishop’s throne behind him. Overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy in Augustine’s presence, Eraclius said, “The cricket chirps, the swan is silent” (9).

By God’s grace the swan has not remained silent; his life and his theology have continued to speak and his influence heard throughout the past 1,600 years. At less than $15 a book and all of them under 200 pages in length this series presents the church with a fantastic opportunity to learn from both the lives and the theology of numerous prominent figures in church history. I will be reviewing one of these volumes in each of my next five book reviews and I hope that they prove to be as great of a benefit to you as they have been to my own life and study.

Summary

The text is divided in to five sections; an introduction, a conclusion, and a chapter each on Aurelius Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin.

Piper begins the introduction noting, “God ordains that we gaze on his glory, dimly mirrored in the ministry of his flawed saints. He intends for us to consider their lives and peer through the imperfections of their faith and behold the beauty of their God” (18). This is the great aim of this series, and subsequently this book, we are exhorted to begin this study with the understanding that the purpose of God’s providence in human history is to stir our hearts to worship. The introduction then briefly introduces us to these three men, the themes of their ministry and their flaws, over which God’s grace has triumphed. He then concludes where he began reminding us that we need these flawed me and we need to learn from their strengths and weaknesses because “there are life-giving lessons written by the hand of Divine Providence on every page of history.

The chapters on Augustine, Luther, and Calvin all follow a similar outline they begin with a brief biography, the majority of the chapter is focused upon explaining the particular theme in their theology after which the chapters are entitled, and then the chapter concludes with a brief exhortation. The chapter titles and subsequent themes are “Sovereign Joy: The Liberating Power of Holy Pleasure in the Life and Thought of St. Augustine,” “Sacred Study: Martin Luther and the External Word,” and “The Divine Majesty of the Word John Calvin: The Man and His Preaching.”
The concluding chapter provides us with “four lessons from the lives of flawed saints” (143).

Evaluation

Strengths

One of the greatest strengths of this series is their brevity and clarity. Volumes on church history and biography are often so dry and cumbersome that their benefit to the Church is rarely felt. This series reverses that trend and presents the church with a profound opportunity to listen to and learn from these men.

I also appreciate Piper’s emphasis upon God’s grace over human achievement as he notes, “[this] is a book about grace, not only because the faithfulness of God triumphs over the flaws of me, but also because this was the very theme of their lives and work. Paired with this is his exploration of their weaknesses in hopes that we will learn from them; Piper does not view these men through rose-colored glasses.

Finally, this series is profoundly practical. Not only does Piper allow history to speak but he allows it to speak for our benefit and practical instruction. There is much in this volume for the pastor and his study but there is much the whole church can learn as well. Piper has written these volumes with a wider audience in mind and that is a great strength of this work.

Weaknesses

The only complaint I have about this volume is that while Luther’s language was certainly a weakness his position towards the Anabaptists, while briefly mentioned by Piper, proved to be, in my estimation, a far greater detriment to both Luther and the Reformation. Because of this I wish he had given this a lengthier treatment.

Conclusion

“By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4). Though dead these men continue to speak, the swans are not silent; I pray that you will take the time to listen and be blessed by what they have to say.

Resources for Further Study

Books

Conference Messages

The Legacy of Sovereign Joy

The Hidden Smile of God

The Roots of Endurance

Contending For Our All

Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ

Other Biographical Messages by John Piper