[Obviously I am very delinquent in posting the reviews associated with this year’s reading list. My goal is to catch up by the end of September.]
In this first book in this year’s reading list John Piper introduces us to the lives of three of the most transformative figures in church history: Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. Piper’s interest in biography is long-standing. As a regular feature of the Pastors’ Conference hosted at Bethlehem Baptist Church during his years as pastor there, Piper presented the biography of a great figure from Christian history as a keynote. Many of these messages, and other similar ones are available here. They are worth listening to because they, like this small book, give us the opportunity to learn about how we ought to live as Christians from those who have lived great lives before us.
Each of the men profiled in this book are associated with major moments of Christian history as big doctrinal and ecclesiological issues were being debated. Each of these three men was a participant in the debate over how we are saved in Christ. All three agreed that it is by grace alone through faith in Christ. In fact, Augustine can be seen as a direct ancestor of Luther and Calvin in the origins of the Reformation. Piper says, “The experience of God’s grace in his own conversion set the trajectory for his theology of grace that brought him into conflict with Pelagius and made him the source of the Reformation a thousand years later. And this theology of sovereign grace was a very self-conscious theology of the triumph of joy in God.” (54)
In Augustine’s life, Piper points us to his understanding of the the essence of the work of saving grace. “Grace is God’s giving us sovereign joy in God that triumphs over joy in sin.” (57) This understanding of grace means that nothing gives us the joy that grace does, and we are thus motivated to seek more of that grace that rules our lives, gaining joyful living as one of the out-workings of our salvation by that grace.
In Luther’s life, the focus is on the transformative power of God’s word.it was study of that word, specifically the letter to the Romans, which brought Luther the the realization that salvation was by grace alone, in contrast to the Roman Church’s teaching. Piper says of the study of the word, “The Word of God that saves and sanctifies, from generation to generation, is preserved in a book. And therefore at the heart of every pastor’s work is book-work. Call it reading, meditation, reflection, cogitation, study, exegesis, or whatever you will—a large and central part of our work is to wrestle God’s meaning from a book, and then to proclaim it in the power of the Holy Spirit.” (79) Luther had engaged in this wrestling match and had been surprised with the meaning that emerged, which drove him deeper and deeper into the word, and then led him to proclaim what he learned from it. We can see the results of how this transformed both him and the whole church. The Protestant emphasis on the preaching of the word in our worship has its origins here. Piper gives us six characteristics of the way Luther studied that provide an excellent pattern for us: the text of the Bible comes first; wrestling with the biblical text means secondary works are secondary; original language matters; diligence is necessary; “trials make a theologian”; and study involves prayer and dependence on God’s sufficiency.
The lesson of Calvin is the centrality of the supremacy of God. Piper argues that the way God identifies himself in Exodus 3:14-15 is the key to this. Piper insightfully points out that the we ought to understand God’s “I am that I am” statement to Moses might be rephrased thus: “‘Tell them, the one who simply and absolutely is has sent you. Tell them that the essential thing about me is that I am.'” (116) Like Augustine and Luther before him, Calvin understood that salvation was by faith in Christ alone. The centrality of God’s supremacy made him understand that it is the glory of God, of Christ, that is at stake. When anything else is at the center, God’s glory is diminished.
Piper draws four lessons from these great lives, and these are summarized in the last chapter. First, don’t let your weaknesses and flaw paralyze you. Second, learn the secret of sovereign joy. Third, it is seeing Christ in the Word that bring supernatural change in us. And finally, we should exult in the exposition of the gospel’s truth and announce the glory of Christ so that all may come to know the joy it brings.
This is a well-written, engaging book that will give the reader an excellent introduction to those not familiar with the lives of these three men of faith. For those more familiar with them, this little book will provide an enriched perspective on their individual contributions to church history by a gifted writer and pastor. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.