27 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed and Fruitful by John Piper (Part 2)

Whoever subtitled this book, “Faithful, Flawed and Fruitful”, said more than he knew. For he was not only describing the saints in this book, he was also describing the book itself.

Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today’s episode is Part 2 of my review on John Piper’s “27 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed and Fruitful.” 1024 pages, published by Crossway in September 2022. This book is available in Amazon Kindle for USD34.99, and in Logos for USD35.99, but as I revealed in the last episode, you can get this Piper book, for free in desiringgod.com. That’s desiringgod.com. (I feel like I’m revealing a secret, something publishers don’t want me to tell anyone but Piper’s books are free, legally free.)


A brief recap of the last episode. 27 Servants of Sovereign Joy is a collection of nine books. Each book consists of three biographies. In the last episode, I picked one man that best represents the theme of the entire book, and that man was Augustine. So if you are wondering whether you will like this book, you can listen to the last episode or even better you can read the 26 pages that make up Piper’s biography on Augustine.

I also pointed out that each book has a theme and that theme is conveyed from a Reformed base. Before these biographies were written books, they were first messages spoken in the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors, a ‘conclave of Calvinists’. Piper tells these stories to teach and encourage those pastors first and later to all Christians how to live in joy, in endurance, in contending for the faith, in suffering and more, the more that we will see today.

The Most Piper-Like Book

In Part 1, I looked at Books 1-5 now I look at Books 6-9.

I thought I would have an easy time doing Part 2. I expected the remaining books to be the same well-written God-magnifying, Christ-exalting, Holy-Spirit-edifying reading that I enjoyed. Looking ahead to the final book, I expected a climatic conclusion with Jonathan Edwards (Piper’s hero), Martyn Lloyd-Jones (my hero) and Bill Piper (Piper’s father). Those were my expectations, but after finishing the book, I’m disappointed to say… well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You must listen till the end.

We have here the last four books in this collection.

  • Book 6 is titled, “Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully”, we have here the lives of George Herbert, George Whitefield and C.S. Lewis.
  • Book 7 is “A Camaraderie of Confidence” with Charles Spurgeon, George Müeller and Hudson Taylor.
  • Book 8 is “The Power of Doctrinal Holiness” with Andrew Fuller, Robert Murray McCheyne and J.C. Ryle.
  • Book 9 is “The Passionate Pursuit of Revival and Christ-Exalting Joy” with Jonathan Edwards, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Bill Piper.

Book 6 is the most Piper-like book. Piper did not launch a Reformation like Martin Luther (Book 1), nor suffered in the Indian wilderness like David Brainerd (Book 2), nor contended against the world like Athanasius (Book 4).

Book 6 is a special book because here, we have George Herbert the poet. Piper is a poet. We have George Whitefield the dramatic preacher. Piper is a dramatic preacher. We have C.S. Lewis, who makes Christianity simple and beautiful. Piper makes the faith simple and beautiful.

Vividly Speaking of Spectacular Realities

Let’s focus on one man. George Whitefield, the Preacher of the Great Awakening. In an age without cars or planes, thousands upon thousands came from far away to hear him. Thousands upon thousands stood in the field under the night sky under the rain just to hear him. There were many preachers so why does Whitefield stand out? Because he saw beauty and expressed it beautifully.

Piper quotes Benjamin Franklin who said:

Every accent, every emphasis, every modulation of voice, was so perfectly well turned, and well-placed, that without being interested in the subject, one could not help being pleased with the discourse: a pleasure of much the same kind with that received from an excellent piece of music.

Strong praise from a non-believer. But maybe it is damning praise. Piper quotes a critic, Harry Stout, who claims that Whitefield was plying a religious trade, pursuing religious fame, craving respect and power, driven by egotism and putting on ‘performances’ and ‘integrating religious discourse into the emerging language of consumption’.

Piper writes, “I do not doubt that Whitefield was ‘acting’ as he preached.”

If Piper himself concedes that Whitefield was acting on stage, is it wise of us to look up to an actor, no matter how gifted or devout the showman may be?

Then Piper asks the crucial question, “Why was Whitefield ‘acting’?”

Piper quotes Whitefield. Whitefield is speaking.

I’ll tell you a story. The Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 1675 was acquainted with Mr. Butterton the [actor]. One day the Archbishop … said to Butterton … “Pray inform me Mr. Butterton, what is the reason you actors on stage can affect your congregations with speaking of things imaginary, as if they were real, while we in church speak of things real, which our congregations only receive as if they were imaginary?” “Why my Lord,” says Butterton, “the reason is very plain. We actors on stage speak of things imaginary, as if they were real and you in the pulpit speak of things real as if they were imaginary.”

Soon after that, Piper concludes:

This means that there are three ways to speak. First, you can speak of an unreal, imaginary world as if it were real — that is what actors do in a play. Second, you can speak about a real world as if it were unreal — that is what half-hearted pastors do when they preach about glorious things in a way that implies they are not as terrifying or as wonderful as they are. And third, you can speak about a real spiritual world as if it were wonderfully, terrifyingly, magnificently real, because it is.

So Piper takes the essence of Whitefield, the great preacher, and asks what does the man see and why does he express it the way he does.

He does the same with the next person is C.S. Lewis.

Romantic, Rationalist, Master Likener, Evangelist

In previous biographies, Piper showed us how the Reformed doctrine is the ground from which Bunyan, Machen, Paton would tower mightily and shine for Christ. But not all Reformed. For example, Piper makes a footnote that in one of William Wilberforce’s letters, he writes, “I myself am no Calvinist.” Yet Piper notes that many of Wilberforce’s closest and admired friends were Calvinists. And when he looked for a church to attend, he often chose to sit under Calvinists. So we will always get a Reformed perspective on all these men, whether they are Reformed or not.

And C.S. Lewis is not. Piper has a sub-heading that reads: “Lewis’s defective views” which includes views on inerrancy of Scripture, salvation without Christ and atonement. Those are fundamental doctrines that fill up Piper’s theology.

Piper writes:

Lewis rarely shows his exegesis. He doesn’t deal explicitly with many texts. He is not an expositor. His value is not in his biblical exegesis. It lies elsewhere.

Piper shows that it lies in him as a romantic, rationalist, master likener and evangelist.

What is a master likener? C.S. Lewis famously wrote:

Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

I’m not sure whether Piper was the first to see Lewis as romantic, rationalist, master likener and evangelist, but those categories fit him well and I’ve taken to think of Piper on those terms as well. And in doing so, shows us how to distinguish the man from his doctrine, and that we can embrace one without the other.

Why No Women?

For the second half of this episode, I want to present two criticisms against the book. The first criticism is all too prevalent, especially in today’s race- and gender- sensitive culture and it’s a criticism I refute.

The second criticism comes from my finishing the book and I want to express my disappointment because this should have been a much stronger book.

Let’s start with the first criticism. When I started the book, I went through the list and, without meaning to, noted that in this list of 27 people, they are all men. Not only that, they were all white men. And without any malice or hidden agenda, without being in one political party or denomination, or ideology or theology, one could innocently ask, “Pastor John, are there really no women or non-white people in all history who could make your list?”

Nowhere in the book does Piper directly answer that question but I think I can draw out a reasonable response based on what he wrote here and the complementarian view I know he holds. The complementarian view is that God created men and women to hold different and complementary roles. For example, the role of the pastor is only for men, and not for women.

This is not the podcast or the book to get into this debate. My purpose is not to persuade you the complementarian view, but it is to show how that view permeates the book and helps explains the all men list.

Consider the genesis of this book. These were not messages to married couples, or to the family, or to the church in general.

These were exemplary men that Piper picked to encourage and teach pastors. Only men can be pastors. So his examples are men.

Does this mean that women have nothing to offer to pastors? No. Piper never says that. You would be making an argument from silence. He brings out men as examples because he believes men need to see men being manly.

“To see men being manly?”

Yes. And there is a chapter in Book 8 that proves my point. The title of that chapter is: “The Frank and Manly Mr. Ryle: The Value of a Masculine Ministry”.

As part of the lessons from the life of J.C. Ryle, Piper gives us 8 traits of a masculine ministry.

Listen to the first one: “A masculine ministry believes that it is more fitting that men take the lash of criticism that must come in a public ministry, than to unnecessarily expose women to this assault.”

Piper goes on to explain how this masculine ministry is seen in J.C. Ryle. What about women? For this first trait, Piper ends by saying:

Courage in the midst of combat, especially harsh and painful combat, whether with arms or with words, is not something a woman can’t exercise, nor even something she shouldn’t exercise under certain circumstances. The reason we call such courage “manly” is not that a woman can’t show it, but that we feel a sense of fitness and joy when a man steps up to risk his life, or his career, with courage — but we (should) feel awkward if a woman is thrust into that role on behalf of men. She may be able to do it, and we may admire her for doing it, if necessary. But we wish the men were numerous enough and strong enough and courageous enough that the women could rejoice in the men, rather than take their place.

And he does this for all of the 8 traits. First, what he means by it and how J.C. Ryle demonstrates it, followed by how masculine ministry works with respect to women, with the expectation that both men and women welcome it.

You may agree or not agree with Piper’s complementarian view but we have to agree that Piper is consistent within the confines of this worldview.

Why All White?

That explains why they are all men, now let’s attempt to justify them being all white.

Can you name me ten Christians who have impacted your faith? And if you can do so, praise God for surrounding you with ten witnesses of Christ! The question is should you be expected to pick names to fulfil a diversity quota? And how does that diversity quota even look like?

Does Augustine fulfil it? He is from modern day Algeria. Or Athanasius from Alexandria in Egypt? Does Hudson Taylor count? A British man who gave his life for the Chinese. Does Adoniram Judson count? An American who gave his life for the Burmese. Because in his time, you couldn’t find a Burmese Christian, so would he do?

There is a place for diversity because God has created a diverse human race. But even though I’m not white, I find I have a deep connection to these men, not because of the skin colour or even gender, but because they are Christians.

I saw a meme the other day where on the top you have a group of girls agonising over the right skin tone for Ariel in the Little Mermaid. While at the bottom, we have boys of all colours looking at a giant robot, thinking, “I am Optimus Prime.”

In the same way, all of us should look at these giants of faith and say, “I am a Christian.”

Ramming A Theme Distorts A Life

So that’s my rejection to what I consider as an invalid and unfair criticism against Piper’s list of heroes. What I say next, is my criticism against what should be a stronger book.

After completing the book, my conclusion is “Less is More”. The book should have ended with 21 servants instead of 27. And if listened to Part 1 of this review, you will remember that it was 21 but it was expanded to 27, with the inclusion of Books 8 and 9.

In Books 1 to 7, the theme works. For example, in Book 5, Tyndale, Paton and Judson suffered for Christ. In Book 6, Herbert, Whitefield and Lewis saw beauty and gloried in it. These themes jump at you. You would naturally group these men together.

The problem I have is the theme for Books 8 and 9 don’t work.

Book 9 is titled the “Passionate Pursuit of Revival and Christ-Exalting Joy.” We have Jonathan Edwards, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Bill Piper. In order to make the theme work, Piper distorted the the life and ministry of Lloyd-Jones.

It would be like describing the life and ministry of John MacArthur by Strange Fire, a cessationist position, rather than his crowning achievement of expounding through the New Testament book-by-book, verse-by-verse, and completing this task in 42 years.

Or it would be like describing the John Piper’s life’s work by saying he objected to women being pastors. That’s not wrong. But imagine reading a 40 page biography on Piper and the emphasis and concluding thought was John Piper doesn’t like women pastors. Is that the emphasis? What about Christian Hedonism? Or you know… desiring God?

So I am not saying that what Piper wrote on Martyn Lloyd-Jones is wrong. It is a possibly good analysis of Lloyd-Jones’ position on revival, Pentecostalism and his practice. The section that ends the chapter is titled, “Did He Practice What He Preached?”. And I would say that is not how the story of any of these 27 men should end. All of these men, including Martyn Lloyd-Jones deserves a better conclusion.

Where is the Conclusion?

And that is the second part of my criticism. Where is the conclusion? In Books 1 to 7 we have a concluding chapter after the three biograhies. We have a separate chapter that ends the book.

In Book 1, we have a chapter on Augustine. We zoomed into the life of Augustine, then we switched targets and zoomed into Martin Luther, then lastly we zoomed into John Calvin. The most important part of the book is when Piper zooms out and tells us how Augustine, Martin Luther and John Calvin all connect to the theme of the Legacy of Sovereign Joy.

Piper puts these men side-by-side, standing shoulder to shoulder, we can see their similarities and differences with respect to, say, Sovereign Joy. Or Hidden Smile of God. Or The Roots of Endurance. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say the conclusion is what sets this series of biographies apart from all the other biographies you can get out there.

So when I get to Books 8 and 9. It is missing. And I’m left guessing. The revival connection between Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Jonathan Edwards and Bill Piper is very tenuous. Do you know who would be a better replacement for Lloyd-Jones? Billy Graham. From what I heard and read elsewhere, Bill Piper and John Piper have a stronger personal connection to Billy Graham than they do with Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

And that personal connection would work well with the personal touch that Piper ends with.

21 is Better Than 27

In conclusion, 27 Servants of Sovereign Joy is a splendid book. These are all men you want to know. They will encourage you. They will teach you many things. These short biographies will show you the wide spectrum of what it means to be faithful, some came to faith early, some late, for some their faith bloomed in a short life, some live a good long life of service.

We see here flawed saints. We have depression, loneliness, sexual addiction, pride, it’s all here. Whatever trials and temptations you face, you will find solace in these companions.

And they were fruitful. Some saw their fruits while they lived by God’s mercy, but some never saw any fruits. But how they would wonder to see what amazing things God has done to bring entire nations to faith and inspire missionaries, martyrs and ministers. We thank God that their faith is proclaimed in all the world.

If I had a wish, it would be that Piper would re-write Books 8 and 9. This could have been a much stronger book. A go-to classic for biographies for everyone. If not for the fatal flaws in the last two books. Less is more. 21 is better than 27.

But don’t let that stop you from getting and reading and profiting from this book. You can always stop yourself at 21.

This is a Reading and Reader’s review of 27 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed and Fruitful. 1024 pages, published by Crossway in September 2022. Available for USD34.99 in Amazon Kindle, USD35.99 in Logos and free in Desiring God. You can check out all the links in the show notes of this podcast or you can go to the website at www.readingandreaders.com. That’s www.readingandreaders.com.

The next episode will be a special episode where I do a long term reflection. Of all the books that I have reviewed, which books have made a lasting impression in my life? As we know, we could read a book and rave about it but it’s forgotten after the next great book. On other other hand, we could read a book and didn’t think much of it, at first, but later we could trace the unexpected impact of that book. And I have one book in mind. Let me tell you about it in the next episode.

Why don’t you join me in this reflection? It’s the end of year, why not take a minute to reflect which books or book reviews you enjoyed and drop me a note. You can contact me at www.readingandreaders.com, that’s readingandreaders.com. I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for listening. Have a Merry, Merry Christmas!

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