I recently finished John Piper’s The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin.
John Piper’s biographies are written with a pastor’s eye and so are more than just the story of a famous individual. Rather, they focus on how the person ticked, and how they lived for Jesus. This book looks at 3 great men in the history of the Church, and even though each man had serious flaws, Piper points out the evidences of God’s grace and how these men were used so mightily for God.
I am going to spread this review over 3 posts and look briefly at the lives of each character. May God bless us as we see Him in these men.
Augustine is a difficult character to study because he has been so influential in both the founding of Roman Catholicism, with its undue emphasis on sacraments and the Church, and the birth of the Reformation, with its praiseworthy emphasis on the authority of Scripture and salvation by grace through faith. In the eyes of many historians Augustine is the most influential figure in all of Church History after Christ and Paul. Benjamin Warfield helps us with this comment, “The Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.” (quoted in Legacy pg. 25)
Many conservative Christians can not get past Augustine’s contribution to Roman Catholicism and so they have no appreciation for his life. What many do not know is that Augustine has one of the greatest stories of conversion in the history of the Church.
Despite the prayers and pleadings of his mother, Augustine started out on a life of sin. He studied philosophy and indulged in the pleasures of a mistress or concubine, living with the same woman for 15 years. In time God moved him from Carthage to Milan where he was influenced by the Christ-centered preaching of Ambrose. He came to understand and even intellectually believe in Christianity but could not submit to Christ due to his sexual passions. It will be best to let Augustine tell his own story:
I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes…. In my misery I kept crying, “How long shall I go on saying ‘tomorrow, tomorrow’? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?”… All at once I heard the singsong voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain “Take it and read, take it and read.” At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall.
So I hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting… seized [the book of Paul’s epistles] and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: “Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites” (Romans 13:13-14). I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.
[quoted Legacy pg. 53 from Augustine’s Confessions pg. 177-178 (VIII, 12)]
After this experience, Augustine’s life was transformed, he submitted to baptism and eventually became a priest and then bishop of Hippo.
What Piper focuses on in this book is how Augustine said it was the superior joys of God which drove him from the “fruitless joys” of sin. God, to Augustine, was “sweeter than all pleasure”. Piper calls this the “liberating power of holy pleasure”. And even as he describes Augustine’s stalwart defense of sovereign grace against the threat of Pelagius (who denied original sin and claimed people could be saved apart from Christ), Piper highlights Augustine’s treatment of joy.
I would very much encourage you to read this book. And follow me in purposing to pick up Augustine’s Confessions and read his story from his own lips. Augustine should challenge us to be so satisfied and thrilled with God and “the joy of the Lord”, that we forsake all other joys to know Him more fully.
Let me leave you with a quote which summarizes Augustine’s joyful, God-centered theology.
A man’s free-will, indeed, avails for nothing except to sin, if he knows not the way of truth; and even after his duty and his proper aim shall begin to become known to him, unless he also take delight in and feel a love for it, he neither does his duty, nor sets about it, nor lives rightly. Now, in order that such a course may engage our affections, God’s “love is shed abroad in our hearts” not through the free-will which arises from ourselves, but “through the Holy Ghost, which is given to us” (Romans 5:5).
[quoted in Legacy 59-60]
See part 2 of this review.