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God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin


John Piper

Crossway Books, 2000, 156 pp.


This book for pastors is the first in a proposed series of books on the lives of great saints called “The Swans are Not Silent.”  These books arise from the author’s preparation for his pastors’ conferences.  In a few pages, Piper is able to draw out some of the best from the lives and works of these men.


“This book, which is about Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, is a book about the glory of God’s omnipotent grace, not only because it was the unifying theme of their work, but also because this grace triumphed over the flaws in these men’s lives.”  (26)


Aurelius Augustine (354-430), Martin Luther (1483-1546), and John Calvin (1509-1564) had this in common: they experienced, and then built their lives and ministries on, the reality of God’s omnipotent grace.  In this way their common passion for the supremacy of God was preserved from the taint of human competition.  Each of them confessed openly that the essence of experiential Christianity is the glorious triumph of grace over the guilty impotence of man.”  (18)


“…at the heart of Luther’s theology was a total dependence on the freedom of God’s omnipotent grace to rescue powerless man from the bondage of the will.”  (22)


“…the key for Calvin: the witness of God to scripture is the immediate, unassailable, life-giving revelation to our minds of the majesty of God that is manifest in the Scriptures themselves.”  “The Word mediated the majesty, and the majesty vindicated the Word.  (He was) utterly devoted to displaying the supremacy of God’s glory by the exposition of God’s Word.”  (23)


“Augustine towers over the thousand years between himself and the Reformation, heralding the Sovereign Joy of God’s triumphant grace for all generations.”  (24)


“The conviction behind this book is that the glory of God, however dimly, is mirrored in the flawed lives of his faithful servants.”  (37)  “The aim is that the glorious Gospel of God’s all-satisfying, omnipotent grace will be savored, studied, and spread for the joy of all peoples….”  (38)



For Augustine.  Start with the Confessions.  His other four great books are On Christian Doctrine: the Enchirodion: On Faith, Hope and Love; On the Trinity, and City of God. (45)


“Far too much Christian thinking and preaching in our day…has not penetrated to the root of how grace actually triumphs, namely, through joy, and therefore is only half-Augustinian and half-biblical and half-beautiful.”  (36)


Augustine’s understanding of grace:  “Grace is God’s giving us sovereign joy in God that triumphs over joy in sin.  In other words, God works deep in the human heart to transform the springs of joy so that we love God more than sex or anything else.”  (57)


“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.”  (58)


“So saving grace, converting grace, in Augustine’s view, is God’s giving us a sovereign joy in God that triumphs over all other joys and therefore sways the will.”  (59)


“For Augustine freedom is to be so much in love with God and his ways that the very experience of choice is transcended.”  “Rather, one transcends the experience of choice and walks under the continual sway of sovereign joy in God.”  “…the entire Christian life is seen as a relentless quest for the fullest joy in God.”  (62)  “In other words, the key to Christian living is a thirst and a hunger for God.”  (63)


“…many do not long for anything very much.  They are just coasting.  They are not passionate about anything.  They are ‘cold’…toward everything.”  (63)


All 350 pages of the Confessions was written as prayer.  Every sentence is addressed to God. (64)


“Prayer is the path to fullness of sovereign joy.”  (65)


Augustine’s way of study:  “he sought for soul-food that he might feed himself on God’s ‘holy Delight’ and then feed his people.”  (68)


“God is our soul’s joyful resting place.  To make this known and experienced through Jesus Christ is the goal of evangelism and world missions.”  (70)



Luther said…, “Let the man who would hear God speak, read Holy Scripture.” (78)  “…at the heart of every pastor’s work is book-work.  …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)


“The Word of God is the greatest, most necessary, and most important thing in Christendom.”  (79)  “The incarnate Word is revealed to us in a book.”  (80)


“Ministers are essentially brokers of the Word of God transmitted in a book.  We are fundamentally readers and teachers and proclaimers of the message of the book.”  (82)


“He was driven by a passion for the exaltation of God in the Word.”  (86)


“…in the church in Wittenberg there were no church programs, but only worship and preaching.  On Sundays there were the 5:00 A.M. worship with a sermon on the epistle, the 10:00 A.M. service with a sermon on the gospel, and an afternoon message on the Old Testament or catechism.  Monday and Tuesday sermons were on the Catechism; Wednesdays on Matthew; Thursdays and Fridays on the Apostolic letters; and Saturday on John.” (86)


“(Luther) could never treat study as anything other than utterly crucial and life-giving and history-shaping.”  (90)


Characteristic s of Luther’s study:  (93-106)

1.      He elevated the biblical text far above commentators or church fathers.
While not neglecting writers, “The Bible is the pastor’s vineyard where he ought to work and toil.”  (94)

2.      Intense and serious grappling with the words of Paul and other biblical writers

3.      Reading Greek and Hebrew was a great privilege and responsibility
(and required to preserve a pure gospel).

4.      Extraordinary diligence in spite of tremendous obstacles

5.      Suffering – for Luther, trials make a theologian.  Temptation and affliction are hermeneutical touchstones

6.      Prayer and reverent dependence on the all-sufficiency of God
“Prayer is the echo of the freedom and sufficiency of God in the heart of powerless man.”  (111)


“That is how we live, that is how we die, and that is how we study, so that God gets the glory and we get the grace.”  (111)




“Let that speechless wonder rise.  God never had a beginning!  … And one who never had a beginning, but always was and is and will be, defines all things.  Whether we want him to be there or not, he is there.  We do not negotiate what we want for reality.  God defines reality.  When we come into existence, we stand before a God who made us and owns us.  We have absolutely no choice in this matter.  We do not choose to be.  And when we are, we do not choose that God be.  No ranting and raving, no sophisticated doubt or skepticism, has any effect on the existence of God.  He simply and absolutely is.”  (117)


“If we don’t like it, we can change, for our joy, or we can resist, to our destruction.  But one thing remains absolutely unassailed.  God is.  He was there before we came.  He will be there when we are gone.  And therefore what matters in ministry above all things is this God.  We cannot escape the simple and obvious truth that God must be the main thing in ministry.  Ministry has to do with God because life has to do with God, and life has to do with God because all the universe has to do with God, and the universe has to do with God because every atom and every emotion and every soul of every angelic, demonic, and human being belongs to God, who absolutely is.  He created all that is, he sustains everything in being, he directs the course of all events, because ‘from Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to Him be the glory forever.’ (Romans 11:36)” (117)


“…may God inflame in you’re a passion for his centrality and supremacy in your ministry, so that the people you love and serve will say, when you are dead and gone, ‘This man knew God.  This man loved God.  This man lived for the glory of God.  This man showed us God week after week.  This man, as the apostle said, was ‘filled with all the fullness of God’ (Eph. 3:19)”  (117)


“I suddenly saw that someone could use all the language of evangelical Christianity, and yet the center was fundamentally the self, ….  I also saw that quite a lot of evangelical Christianity can easily slip, can become centered in me and my need of salvation, and not in the glory of God.”  (Newbigin) (118)


A fitting banner over all of John Calvin’s life and work, the unifying root of all his labors is his passion to display the glory of God in Christ. (121)


“Calvin assumed that his whole theological labor was the exposition of Scripture.” (quoting Dillenberger) (138)


Three reasons for Calvin’s commitment to the centrality of expository preaching:

1.      He felt the Word was a lamp that had been taken away from the churches.

2.      He had a horror of those who preached their own ideas in the pulpit.

3.      He saw the majesty of God in his Word.  (140)


“God’s Word is mainly about the majesty of God and the glory of God.  That is the main issue in ministry.”  (141)


Four lessons from these saints:

1.      “Do not be paralyzed by your weaknesses and flaws.”

2.      “In the battle against sin and surrender, learn the secret of sovereign joy.”

3.      “Supernatural change comes from seeing Christ in his sacred Word.

“Therefore let us exult over the exposition of the truth of the Gospel and herald the glory of Christ for the joy of al peoples.”  (143-148)