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21 Servants of Sovereign Joy

There is always something to be learned when looking at the life of others, especially others who call themselves Christians. In fact, we suffer when we think we cannot learn from others. There is wisdom to be followed and folly to be avoided. Some stories provide inspiration while others work as a warning. John Piper’s massive volume 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy will leave a lasting impact on me. There is no doubt in my mind I will return to it from time to time, like a good friend for counsel. Here are my favorite quotes from each chapter:


“Loving God is being so satisfied in God and so delighted in all that he is for us that his commandments cease to be burdensome…loving God is always a delighting in God….” (53)

Augustin on loving creature over Creator: “Suppose, brethren, a man should make a ring for his betrothed, and she should love the ring more wholeheartedly than the betrothed who made it for her…Certainly, let her love his gift: but, if she should say, ‘The ring is enough. I do not want to see his face again’ what would we say of her?…The pledge is giver her by the betrothed just that, in his pledge, he himself may be loved. God, then, has given you all these things. Love Him who made them.” (62)

Martin Luther

In one of his prayers: “Dear Lord God, I want to preach so that you are glorified. I want to speak of you, praise you, praise your name. Although I probably cannot make it turn out well, won’t you make it turn out well?” (74)

On lazy pastors: “Some pastors and preachers are lazy and no good. They do not pray; they do not read; they do not search the Scripture…The call is: watch, study, attend to reading. In truth you cannot read too much in Scripture; and what you read you cannot read too carefully, and what you read carefully you cannot understand too well, and what you understand well you cannot teach too well, and what you teach well you cannot live too well….The devil…the world…and our flesh are raging and raving against us. Therefore, dear sirs and brothers, pastors and preachers, pray, read, study, be diligent…This evil, shameful time is not the season for being lazy, for sleeping and snoring.” (84-85)

John Calvin

On the scope of Calvin’s preaching ministry: “…he began his series on the book of Acts on August 25, 1549, and ended it in March 1554. After Acts, he went on to the epistles to the Thessalonians (46 sermons), Corinthians (186 sermons), the pastoral epistles (86 sermons), Galatians (43 sermons), Ephesians (48 sermons)—until May 1558. Then there is a gap when he was ill. In the spring of 1559, he began the Harmony of the Gospels and was not finished when he died in May 1564. On the weekdays during that season he preached 159 sermons on Job, 200 on Deuteronomy, 353 on Isaiah, 123 on Genesis, and so on.” (110)

John Bunyan

“For nothing glorifies God more than maintaining our stability and joy when we lose everything but God.” (152)

“There is more of God to be had in times of suffering than any other time.” (170)

On trying to escape suffering: “Thou mayest do in this as it is in thy heart. If it is in thy heart to fly, fly; if it be in thy heart to stand, stand. Anything but a denial of the truth.” (171)

William Cowper

On facing a difficult situation: “A thunderbolt would have been as welcome to me as this…” (184)

“What is dark to God’s children—objectively and subjectively—is not dark to God.” (202).

David Brainerd

“God is at work for the glory of his name and the good of his church even when the good intentions of his servants fail—even when that failing is owing to sin or carelessness. One careless word, spoken in haste, and Brainerd’s life seemed to fall apart before his eyes. But God knew better, and Brainerd came to accept it.” (211)

On being at a complete loss: “And being that lost I became a suitable object for the compassion of Jesus Christ to be set upon, since he came ‘to seek and to save that which is lost’ (Luke 19:10).” (216)

Conclusion: A Plea to Follow in the Fruitful Wake of the Suffering Swans

On dealing with those hopeless: “(William) Cowper was sick. But in his sickness he saw things that we so desperately need to see. He saw hell. And sometimes he saw heaven. He knew terror. And sometimes he knew ecstasy. When I stand to welcome the people to worship on Sunday morning, I know there are William Cowpers in the congregation. There are spouses who can barely talk. There are sullen teenagers living double lives at home and school. There are widows who still feel the amputation of a fifty-year partner. There are single people who have not been hugged for twenty years. There are men in the prime of their lives with cancer. There are moms who have carried two tiny caskets. There are soldiers of the cross who have risked all for Jesus and bear the scars. There are tired and discouraged and lonely strugglers. Shall we come to them with a joke? They can read the comics every day. What they need from me is not more bouncy, frisky smiles and stories. What they need is a kind of joyful earnestness that makes the broken heart feel hopeful and helps the ones who are drunk with trifles sober up for greater joys.” (238)

John Newton

A month before he died: “It is a great thing to die; and, when flesh and heart fail, to have God for the strength of our heart, and our portion forever. I know whom I have believed, and he is able to keep that which I have committed against that great day. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me that day.” (281)

An illustration of evangelism: “A company of travelers fall into a pit: one of them gets a passenger to draw him out. Now he should not be angry with the rest for falling in; nor because they are not yet out, as he is. He did not pull himself out: instead, therefore, of reproaching them, he should show them pity…A man, truly illuminated, will no more despise others, than Bartimaeus [see Mark 10:46-52], after his own eyes were opened, would take a stick, and beat every blind man he met.” (296)

Charles Simeon

On facing criticism: “I need this inspiration from another century, because I know that I am, in great measure, a child of my times. And one of the pervasive marks of our times is emotional fragility. It hangs in the air we breathe. We are easily hurt. We pout and mope easily. We blame easily. We break easily. Our marriages break easily. Our faith breaks easily. Our happiness breaks easily. And our commitment to the church breaks easily. We are easily disheartened, and it seems we have little capacity for surviving and thriving in the face of criticism and opposition….We are surrounded by, and are part of, a society of emotionally fragile quitters.” (300-301)

On the aims of preaching: “To humble the sinner, To exalt the Savior, To promote holiness.” (308)

William Wilberforce

On letting society dictate what is sin: “For the good of society, the good of society must not be the primary good.” (330)

After abolishing slavery in Britain: “In that early morning hour, Wilberforce turned to his best friend and colleague, Henry Thornton, and said, ‘Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?” (337)

Introduction: Sacred Controversy in Scripture, History, and the Lives of the Swans

“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….The reason enjoying controversy is a sign of pride is that humility loves truth-based unity more than truth-based victory.” (379)


Contending against heresy: “Some of the most crucial and precious truths of the Scriptures are counterintuitive to the fallen human mind. They don’t fit easily into our sin-soaked heads.” (415)

John Owen

“It seems to me that the Christian leaders today who come closest to being heroes are the ones who had great heroes.” (427)

J. Gresham Machen

On reaching young people: “…to hold young minds, there should be both intellectual credibility and joyful, passionate zeal for Christ.” (457).

On changing culture: “…this process is not a straight line to glory on earth (some saved — culture altered — more saved — culture more altered, etc.).” (476)

Conclusion: Contending for Our All

“…when we contend for the fullness of Christ with our lips, we must confirm the love of Christ with our lives.” (481)

Introduction: Tears of Blood to Bless the World

“…God designs that suffering of his ambassadors is one essential means in the triumphant spread of the good news among all the peoples of the world. I am saying more than the obvious fact that suffering is a result of faithful obedience in spreading the gospel. That is true….I am saying that this suffering is part of God’s strategy for making known to the world who Christ is, how he loves, and how much he is worth.” (502)

William Tyndale

On two ways to die to bear fruit for God: “On the one hand, we must die to the notion that we do not have to think hard or work hard to achieve spiritual goals. On the other hand, we must die to the notion that our thinking and our working are decisive in achieving spiritual goals.” (517)

John Paton

While surrounded by armed natives on the mission field: “I…assured them that I was not afraid to die, for at death my Savior would take me to be with Himself in Heaven, and to be far happier than I had ever been on Earth. I then lifted up my hands and eyes to the Heavens, and prayed aloud for Jesus…either to protect me or to take me home to Glory as He saw to be for the best.” (549)

On God’s protective hand: “Did ever mother run more quickly to protect her crying child in danger’s hour, than the Lord Jesus hastens to answer believing prayer and send help to His servants in His own good time and way, so far as it shall be for His glory and their good?” (549)

Adoniram Judson

Piper shares the story of God’s providence in saving Judson. As a sixteen year old student at Brown University, he was being lured away from the faith by a fellow student named Jacob Eames. By the time Judson finished Brown University he had abandoned the faith. He traveled to New York and participated in a “reckless, vagabond life….” After visiting his uncle, he was returning home when he stop to stay in a small village in where he had never been before. “The innkeeper apologized that his sleep might be interrupted because there was a man critically ill in the next room. Through the night he heard comings and goings and low voices and groans and gasps. It bothered him to think that the man next to him may not be prepared to die.” The next morning as Judson prepared to leave he inquired about the man next door. “He is dead,” the innkeeper told him. “Do you know who he was?” “Oh yes. Young man from the college in Providence. Name was Eames, James Eames.” (558-559)

“The question is not whether we will die, but whether we will die in a way that bears much fruit.” (571)

George Herbert

“Every Christian is called to speak of God’s excellencies.” (644)

In his poem “Prayer (I),” Herbert describes prayer as “reversed thunder.” “Twenty-five images of prayer….Think of it!” (649)

George Whitefield

While giving an illustration of the difference between actors and preachers: “‘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.’” (666)

On fighting pride: “I am nothing, have nothing, and can do nothing without God.” (670)

On preaching with passion: “Everything is real. And that’s the way it was for Whitefield. The new birth had opened his eyes to what was real and to the magnitude of what was real: God, creation, humanity, sin, Satan, divine justice and wrath, heaven, hell, incarnation, the perfections of Christ, his death, atonement, redemption, propitiation, resurrection, the Holy Spirit, saving grace, forgiveness, justification, reconciliation with God, peace, sanctification, love, the second coming of Christ, the new heaven and the new earth, and everlasting joy. These were real. Overwhelmingly real to him. And infinitely important.” (671)

C.S. Lewis

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” (697)

Clyde Kilby describing Lewis: “[He was]…the lifelong pointer toward Heaven…” (699)

Lewis’ ability to liken: “Likening some aspect of reality to what is not can reveal more of what it is…if the key to the deepest meaning of this world lies outside this world, then the world will probably be illumined most deeply not simply by describing the world as what it is but by likening the world to what it is not.” (705)

Charles Spurgeon

Defining preaching: “To know truth as it should be known, to love it as it should be loved, and then to proclaim it in the right spirit, and in its proper proportions.” (751)

On what should be the subject of worship and identity: “I would propose that the subject of the ministry in this house, as long as this platform shall stand and as long as this house shall be frequented by worshippers, shall be the person of Jesus Christ. I am never ashamed to avoid myself a Calvinist; I do not hesitate to take the name of Baptist; but if I am asked what is my creed, I reply, ‘It is Jesus Christ.’” (754)

A prayer while in pain: “Thou are my Father, and I am thy child; and thou, as a Father art tender and full of mercy. I could not bear to see my child suffer as thou makes me suffer, and if I saw him tormented as I am now, I would do what I could to help him, and put my arms under him to sustain him. Wilt thou hide thy face from me, my Father? Wilt thou still lay on a heavy hand, and not give me a smile from thy countenance?” (765)

On being yourself: “That is a good and wise caution against using ‘Be yourself’ as an excuse to never change more fully into the likeness of Christ.” (768)

George Mueller

On trusting God to provide through others: “God is almighty, the hearts of all men are in his hands, and when God chooses to influence their hearts, they will give.” (785)

On knowing God: “The more we know of God, the happier we are…When we become a little acquainted with God…our true happiness…commenced; and the more we become acquainted with him, the more truly happy we become. What will make us so exceedingly happy in heaven? It will be the fuller knowledge of God.” (788)

Hudson Taylor

“Depend upon it, God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supplies.” (794)

You can purchase Twenty-One Servants of Sovereign Joy from Crossway here.

Author: John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is the founder and teacher of and the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for thirty-three years as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than fifty books, including Desiring God; Don’t Waste Your Life; This Momentary Marriage; A Peculiar Glory; and Reading the Bible Supernaturally.

Quotes taken from Twenty-One Servants of Sovereign Joy by Dr. John Piper, ©2018. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187,”

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