Published on October 15, 2018 by Joshua R Monroe

Crossway, 2018 | 816 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

By Gary Steward


From 1988 to 2014, John Piper gave twenty-seven biographical addresses to the attendees of the Bethlehem/Desiring God Conference for Pastors. Piper presented these addresses with the needs and challenges of pastoral ministry in mind, his immediate audience being the pastors at his annual conference. From his own experience as a pastor, Piper came to view Christian biography as an indispensable source of instruction, encouragement, and edification for pastors, and Piper delivered these addresses as a way of serving his fellow laborers in ministry.

In the preface to this compendium volume, Piper credits Iain Murray for “sow[ing] the seeds from which this has all grown.” As a young pastor, Piper found that “one of the most enjoyable and inspiring things I did to deepen my grasp of the pastoral calling was to listen to a master life-storyteller, Iain Murray” (7-8). Piper describes how he used to listen to cassette tapes of Murray’s biographical lectures while jogging in the early 1980s, and he asserts that his own volume of biographical lectures “would not exist without the inspiring ministry of Iain Murray’s audio tapes” (8). (Many of Iain Murray’s biographical lectures can be freely obtained here: https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/bio/iainmurray.html).

Piper’s 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy is a combined reprinting of seven books previously published by Crossway in The Swans are Not Silent series, with each of these previous books containing three of Piper’s biographical lectures. The original content and organization of these previous volumes has been preserved in this volume. Altogether, lectures on the following Christian leaders are included:

  • Augustine
  • Martin Luther
  • John Calvin
  • John Bunyan
  • William Cowper
  • David Brainerd
  • John Newton
  • Charles Simeon
  • William Wilberforce
  • Athanasius
  • John Owen
  • J. Gresham Machen
  • William Tyndale
  • John Paton
  • Adoniram Judson
  • George Herbert
  • George Whitefield
  • C. S. Lewis
  • Charles Spurgeon
  • George Muller
  • Hudson Taylor

Each lecture contains a specific theme, and each set of three lectures has been grouped around a general theme as well (e.g., endurance for Newton, Simeon, and Wilberforce; contending for the faith for Athanasius, Owen, and Machen).

The lectures contained in this book are not strictly biographical. They are “unashamedly hortatory,” in Piper’s words, blending together biographical details, theological reflection, and pastoral exhortation (9). Piper states, “I am 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” (9). Piper uses the lives of eminent believers to present truths and exhortations for today.  

Crossway has not published all of Piper’s biographical lectures. There are six lectures not included in this volume: Jonathan Edwards, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Andrew Fuller, Bill Piper, Robert Murray McCheyne, and J. C. Ryle. It is to be wondered if there are any plans to publish these, given that Crossway did not include them in this compendium volume. Both recordings and manuscripts of these lectures, however, can be found on the Desiring God website.

Christian leaders need more Christian biography and church history in general, and this volume will serve as an excellent introduction to the theological and spiritual riches that can be gained from the faithful believers who have gone before us. Pastors will especially profit from this volume. I first heard Piper’s lectures on audio cassette as a teenager in the mid-1990s, and they inspired in me a desire to pursue church history and historical theological as a life-long study. It is hoped that this book will continue to inspire and instruct many others in the same way.


Dr. Gary Steward
Assistant Professor of History
Colorado Christian University
Lakewood, Colorado

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21 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful

Crossway, 2018 | 816 pages

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