27 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed and Fruitful by John Piper (Part 1)

If you were on a deserted island, what one book would you bring with you (other than the Bible)? Think about it, if it’s only one book, it should be a big, big book cause you might be spending a long time on the island. Seeing that you will have no friends on the island, you should bring some spiritual friends. How about bringing exactly 27 spiritual friends?

Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “27 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed and Fruitful” by John Piper. A whopping 1024 pages, published by Crossway in September 2022. Available for USD34.99 in Amazon Kindle, USD35.99 in Logos, but listen to the end to get this book for free.

A Collection for the Generation

Preacher, teacher, writer, poet. Pastor John Piper has made many, many grown men and women all around the world cry with joy through his sermons, books and podcasts. But what will be John Piper’s most enduring work? Will it be one of his books? Perhaps “Desiring God”? It is after all the book that gave the name to his ministry. Or his magnum opus, “Providence”, a book I reviewed in Episode 7. Another likely contender is today’s book, “27 Servants of Sovereign Joy”. This book is an update of his 2018 book titled, “21 Servants of Sovereign Joy”.

That book was a collection of 7 books. This book is a collection which adds the never before published Books 8 and 9. This is a great deserted island book. It’s kind of like cheating cause it’s 9 books in 1 but it’s not because it is technically one book.

In today’s review, I’ll review Books 1 to 5. In the next episode, I’ll review the rest. You might think that it’s because it’s such a good book that it deserves two dedicated episodes. That might be true but real reason is I haven’t finished it. I’m only up to Book 7. I don’t want to delay the podcast release nor do I want to rush through the book. I’m taking Piper’s advice here. To read good books, slowly.

To get an idea on how these books are organised and how they can help you, let me ask this question: If you could phone three friends, who would you call to remember joy, to endure or to suffer well? Well here are the names Piper picked.

  • Book 1: The Legacy of Sovereign Joy. Augustine. Martin Luther. John Calvin.
  • Book 2: The Hidden Smile of God. John Bunyan. William Cowper. David Brainerd.
  • Book 3: The Roots of Endurance. John Newton. Charles Simeon. William Wilberforce.
  • Book 4: Contending for Our All. Athanasius. John Owen. J. Gresham Machen.
  • Book 5: Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ. William Tyndale. John G. Paton. Adoniram Judson.

Do you know those names? Do you have some idea on the richest men, or the prettiest women, or the strongest, fastest, smartest sportsmen in the world? Then it is only right and good that Christians know the saints who have rejoiced the most, endured the most and suffered the most.

Though They Died, They Still Speak

In the preface to this book, Piper writes:

I think that what was said of Abel in Hebrews 11:4 can be said of any saint whose story is told: “Through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (ESV). It has been a great pleasure as I have listened to these voices. But not only a pleasure. They have strengthened my hand in the work of the ministry again and again. They have helped me feel that I was part of something much bigger than myself or my century. They have showed me that the worst of times are not the last of times, and they made the promise visible that God works all things for our good.

There is more but you get the purpose of the book, the reason why Piper presents these lives to the pastors in the Bethlehem Conference.

This means that if you are looking for critical scholarship, if you are looking for a new perspective on George Herbert, or George Whitefield, or George Muller, this is not the book for you.

Piper did a good study. The evidence is in the footnotes. Lots of them. Lots of quotes. Quotes from their own sermons and writings. Quotes from contemporaries, family and friends. Even quotes from critics and skeptics and modern scholars, but I repeat myself.

In Piper’s own words:

Throughout the year before each conference, I would read about the life and ministry of some key figure in church history. Then I would decide on some thematic focus to give unity to the message, and I would try to distill my reading into an hour-long message. The messages — and the edited versions — are unashamedly hortatory. I aim to teach and encourage. I also aim never to distort the truth of a man’s life and work. But I do advocate for biblical truths that his life illustrates.

You may ask, “Why read Piper?” You could read Augustine’s Confession or David Brainerd’s Journal. Why not get it straight from the saint’s mouth? Because Piper takes what he reads in a year and distills them. Augustine’s Confession is 161 pages long, Brainerd’s Journal is 426 pages. And if Piper read what the saints wrote, he might even have read John Owen’s commentary on Hebrews. All 3600 pages of them.

For the rest of us mere mortals, we benefit from Piper’s biographical portrait, each person has, give or take, 40 pages long. And after reading these short portraits, nothing would give Piper more pleasure than to know how you thirst to better know such true pilgrims.

The Man Who Best Represents The Book

Let’s pick one man as an example. And I struggled at this! From Books 1 to 5, I have fifteen man to choose from. Do I choose my favourite? Oh, how can I choose?

I can’t even choose my favourite John! The book has John Calvin, John Bunyan, John Newton, John Owen, John G. Paton, John Charles Ryle (a.k.a. J.C. Ryle), John Gresham Machen. All the men have impacted me in different ways in different times of my life, it is an impossible choice. I was going to roll a dice until I thought of a different question.

“Who best represents the book? Whose life crystallises the theme of the book?” And when I asked that, one name rose above the rest. And it’s a name that I believe the other 26 men would agree with a smile on their face.

Let me read the prayer he wrote in his most famous book, titled “Confessions”.

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, though not to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light, yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honor, though not in the eyes of men who see all honor in themselves. … O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation.

This man coined the phrase “Sovereign Joy”, which is the title of the book and the theme of the whole series.

Remember, before this collection was published as one big book, it was a series of small books. The series was titled, “The Swans Are Not Silent”. You can read the origin story in Book 1. The man I’m thinking of is the swan, the original swan, in that story.

Martin Luther was a monk in his order, John Calvin quotes him extensively in his writings, and John Piper listed him as the first of the twenty seven, he is none other than St. Augustine of Hippo. He coined the phrase “Sovereign Joy”.

What Sets This Book Apart From Other Biographies

This sovereign joy is what sets this collection apart from other biographies. Someone else might tell a better story of William Cowper, or William Wilberforce or William Tyndale. A biographer like Iain Murray can undoubtedly do a masterful work of art with these subjects. Iain Murray inspired Piper to do this series.

Even so I can’t think of any one better than John Piper to tell the story of the sovereign joy in these 27 men, in their persevering, in their suffering, in their contending. I can’t think of anyone better than John Piper. Merely because his entire life and ministry is an extension of Augustine’s.

Piper writes:

Few people in the history of the church have surpassed Augustine in portraying the greatness and beauty and desirability of God. He is utterly persuaded by Scripture and experience “that he is happy who possesses God.” “You made us for yourself, and our hearts find no peace till they rest in you.” He will labor with all his might to make this God of sovereign grace and sovereign joy known and loved in the world.

And what may turn some readers off is the Reformed flavour of the book as captured in Piper’s quote of Augustine here:

A man’s free-will, indeed, avails for nothing except to sin, if he knows not the way of truth; and even after his duty and his proper aim shall begin to become known to him, unless he also take delight in and feel a love for it, he neither does his duty, nor sets about it, nor lives rightly. Now, in order that such a course may engage our affections, God’s “love is shed abroad in our hearts” not through the free-will which arises from ourselves, but “through the Holy Ghost, which is given to us” (Romans 5:5).

Unabashedly Reformed

If your blood pressure goes up every time you see a tulip, then allow me to put things in perspective.

John Piper is unabashedly Reformed but Piper does not set out to be tribal or controversial.

I say this because of how he groups the people. In Book 4, Contending For Our All, the theme is to contend, to fight! Piper could be tribal here. He could have rallied people to the Calvinist cause. In the blue corner, George Whitefield the Calvinist. In the red corner, John Wesley the Arminian. Piper could have called us to join Charles Spurgeon to contend against the Arminian belief.

Instead, Piper puts George Whitefield in Book 6: Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully, where he brings out Whitefield’s preaching power. Every Christian can celebrate Whitefield’s preaching prowess. Piper puts Charles Spurgeon in Book 7: A Camaraderie of Confidence, where he brings out Spurgeon’s common man ministry.

And who does he put in Book 4? He introduces to us Athanasius who contended against Arianism, the belief that Jesus was not truly God. He picks John Owen who contended for holiness, public and private. And lastly he gives us Machen who contended against modernity a.k.a. liberalism.

As he tells the story of all these men, he brings out the Reformed doctrine — not to persuade you to take Reformed, he doesn’t want you to take the Reformed doctrine, he wants you to take Jesus. The doctrine is the bedrock from which they grasp Jesus and they contend, they fight. You may ask, “How can Piper ask us to take Jesus and not the Reformed system if he brings out the Reformed system to present Jesus?”

Piper articulates it better than I ever can. Let me read what is currently my favourite paragraph. Piper starts Book 4: Contending For Our All, with these words.

Some controversy is crucial for the sake of life-giving truth. Running from it is a sign of cowardice. But enjoying it is usually a sign of pride. Some necessary tasks are sad, and even victory is not without tears—unless there is pride. The reason enjoying controversy is a sign of pride is that humility loves truth-based unity more than truth-based victory. Humility loves Christ- exalting exultation more than Christ-defending confrontation—even more than Christ-defending vindication. Humility delights to worship Christ in spirit and truth. If it must fight for worship-sustaining truth, it will, but that is not because the fight is pleasant. It’s not even because victory is pleasant. It’s because knowing and loving and proclaiming Christ for who he really is and what he really did is pleasant.

And to the Christian who thinks that the time spent on endless arguments about doctrines should be better spent doing good. Or for Christians who cannot see how doctrine can be a bedrock to faith. Piper says this:

There are more immediately crucial tasks than controversy about the truth and meaning of the gospel. For example, it is more immediately crucial that we believe the gospel, and proclaim it to the unreached, and pray for power to attend the preaching of the gospel. But this is like saying that flying food to starving people is more immediately crucial than the science of aeronautics. True. But the food will not be flown to the needy if someone is not doing aeronautics. It is like saying that giving penicillin shots to children dying of fever is more immediately crucial than the work of biology and chemistry. True. But there would be no penicillin without such work.

Thus the Reformed doctrine is not an ends but rather a means to seeing Jesus. And that’s why I think this book is useful for all Christians. Piper’s enthusiasm for Jesus is contagious and as you read, you wish you can see Jesus the way Piper sees Jesus. You wish that you can live wholeheartedly for Jesus the way these 27 men lived for Jesus. Don’t you wish for that?

Finding Joy in Suffering

Especially, and this is my final point for this episode of this review, when we see them persevering, enduring and suffering. As is my custom when I read a good book, I shared excerpt with people I who I think can benefit.

On the life of John G. Paton, a name I didn’t know before this book, Piper writes:

Over and over this faith sustained him in the most threatening and frightening situations. As he was trying to escape from Tanna at the end of four years of dangers, he and Abraham were surrounded by raging natives who kept urging each other to strike the first blow.

Then Piper quotes from Paton’s autobiography:

My heart rose up to the Lord Jesus; I saw Him watching all the scene. My peace came back to me like a wave from God. I realized that I was immortal till my Master’s work with me was done. The assurance came to me, as if a voice out of Heaven had spoken, that not a musket would be fired to wound us, not a club prevail to strike us, not a spear leave the hand in which it was held vibrating to be thrown, not an arrow leave the bow, or a killing stone the fingers, without the permission of Jesus Christ, whose is all power in Heaven and on Earth. He rules all Nature, animate and inanimate, and restrains even the Savage of the South Seas.

The story of John G. Paton is far more exciting than any Marvel or DC or Hollywood movie. This is a true story of our brother in Christ battling the kingdom of darkness. It’s not a scriptwriter’s comic book adaptation where an actor pretends to be a god of thunder in front of a green screen. I tell you, on that Day, many who ridiculed Christians worshipping Jesus, those people will be ridiculed for idolising men and women who pretended to be gods.

My life is richer as I read of William Cowper’s depression, David Brainerd’s loneliness and Adoniram Judson’s lost after lost after lost. One of Adoniram Judson last words were, “How few there are … who die so hard!”

The movies you watch, the books you read and the music you listen to can be inspiring, but where does your hope come from? In Piper’s book, for these 27 men, their hope comes from the Lord.

Ending Part I

This is the end of Part I of this book review. It’s a 1000 page collection of nine books of 27 servants of God picked by John Piper to encourage Christians to savour joy, to endure, to contend, to suffer and so much more.

There are plenty of biographies out there, but what you get here is a determined expression of sovereign joy from a poet-writer whose whole ministry is caught up in that heavenly joy.

You know those shows where a soldier reviews war movies and he tells you things that you never noticed or consider those behind the scenes clips where we see the movie makers produce their work.

In this book, we have John Piper, himself a servant of sovereign joy reviewing the lives of other outstanding servants of joy and as he rejoices and his joy bleeds out from the pages, we also rejoice. And he also shows us what goes on behind the scenes. We see their flaws, struggles and pain. They have every reason to reject God, except for one, they know him and love him.

So that’s all for this episode. Give me two weeks to finish the book and put my thoughts in order. In the next episode we will see how Piper deeply admires and firmly disagrees with C.S. Lewis. Something for us to learn there. Looking ahead, Piper has saved the best for last because the final book lists Jonathan Edwards, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Bill Piper (his father). I can’t wait to get there.

This is a Reading and Readers review, Part I, of “27 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed and Fruitful” by John Piper. A whopping 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.

Thank you and I’ll see you for the next episode.

Book List