Book Review: The Legacy of Sovereign Joy (John Piper)

The great thing about going on holiday is that it takes one away from his/her regular activities. This gives him/her the opportunity to engage in such activities as extensive reading. I wish I could say that this is what I did, but I can’t. However, in the past week I did finish reading John Piper’s “The Legacy of Sovereign Joy”, the first book in his series “The Swans are Not Silent” (available as a free pdf ebook download here [600kb – it’s worth it!]). The subtitle is an accurate summary of the books content, “God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin”.

The book is divided into 5 sections. Before I discuss each chapter’s contents, however, I should mention that the Preface contained a fantastic defense of the series’ title “The Swans are Not Silent”; this is the most significant portion:

In December 1414, Hus … was arrested and kept in prison until March 1415. He was kept in chains and brutally tortured for his views, which anticipated the Reformation by a hundred years. On July 6, 1415, he was burned at the stake along with his books. One tradition says that in his cell just before his death, Hus wrote, “Today, you are burning a goose [the meaning of “Hus” in Czech]; however, a hundred years from now, you will be able to hear a swan sing, you will not burn it, you will have to listen to him.
As to the book’s actual content, the first chapter is simply an introduction as to why Piper appreciates Augustine, Luther and Calvin. The second, third and fourth are, naturally, each devoted to the most significant aspects of each of man’s life and faith. I doubt any biographer would claim to be producing an exhaustive account of any individual’s life and this is certainly not Piper’s goal here, nevertheless, it is an highly readable, enjoyable and encouraging account. Finally, by way of conclusion, Piper draws applications from the lives of these men in the fifth chapter talking of triumphing over sin by savouring Christ above all things and highly esteem His Word.

As I read of Augustine’s struggle with sin but his savouring of Christ (Piper meets his match in Augustine’s revelry of God) and the quotations Piper inserts regularly I find myself immensely drawn to reading Augustine’s writings (his “Confessions” was already on my tentative reading list but it received a promotion). However, this is immensely true of each character; reading of Luther and Erasmus added “The Bondage of the Will” to my reading list and Calvin, well – I already read bits of Calvin (the Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life is amazing if you want to get into some of Calvin’s writing!).

What I particularly appreciated about this book was its constant reference to God, His Word and His Glory as being absolutely central to each of these men. Constantly I was pointed back to the Bible as Piper marveled at God’s grace revealed in the lives of these men – one of my favourite quotes from this book (by Martin Luther) is,

The writings of all the holy fathers should be read only for a time, in order that through them we may be led to the Holy Scriptures. As it is, however, we read them only to be absorbed in them and never come to the Scriptures. We are like men who study the signposts and never travel the road. The dear fathers wished by their writing, to lead us to the Scriptures, but we so use them as to be led away from the Scriptures, though the Scriptures alone are our vineyard in which we ought all to work and toil.
Which is a very useful (and in a way ironic) reminder and so my prayer for myself and all those who may read this book (or any other that has the potential to take away time spent in God’s own Word) is that we would not be pretend tourists who study the signposts and never travel the roads – let us be veterans! Let me conclude with a further, apt quote by Martin Luther once again (which I hope will not discourage you from reading this excellent work but illustrate where your focal point should be and, hopefully, will be when you close the final page in “The Legacy of Sovereign Joy”),

O how happy the dear fathers would have been if they had our opportunity to study the languages and come thus prepared to the Holy Scriptures! What great toil and effort it cost them to gather up a few crumbs, while we with half the labor–yes, almost without any labor at all–can acquire the whole loaf! O how their effort puts our indolence to shame!

James Cuénod
Student at Wheaton College
I love Jesus, preach his Gospel, disciple his children, study his word and I am incurably passionate about the glory of God.
Inching my way towards teaching pastors in South Africa. Student at Wheaton College. Excited by Hermeneutics, Old Testament and Biblical Theology.