This is the fourth book in Piper’s series, “The Swans Are Not Silent,” and follows his pattern of looking at three “swans” of church history through the lens of a central theme. The three presented here are Athanasius, John Owen, and J. Gresham Machen; the theme is the subtitle, Defending Truth and Treasuring Christ.
I was immediately captivated by Piper’s Introduction, so much so, that I read portions of it aloud to several people, prefaced by an excited “Listen to this!” His discussion of truth, controversy, and humility sets the tone for what is to come. Piper lays out the historical background for his treatment of Athanasius by discussing the nature of orthodox theology in the fourth century, particularly with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity and the heresy of Arianism. In the second half of this first chapter, he gives seven practical lessons we can learn from the life of Athanasius, and shows that old battles are still being fought, but with new terminology.
John Owen is the only “swan” I had read previously. Piper begins his discussion of Owen by relating the impact Owen has had on men like J.I. Packer, Sinclair Ferguson, and on Piper himself. He gives a brief biography of Owen, including a short definition of Puritanism. He sees the heart of Owen’s life and ministry as the mortification of sin and personal holiness: “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” I particularly loved Piper’s comment about the relationship between private spirituality and public ministry:
One great hindrance to holiness in the ministry of the Word is that we are prone to preach and write without pressing into the things we say and making them real to our own souls. Over the years words begin to come easy, and we find we can speak of mysteries without standing in awe; we can speak of purity without feeling pure; we can speak of zeal without spiritual passion; we can speak of God’s holiness without trembling; we can speak of sin without sorrow; we can speak of heaven without eagerness. And the result is an increasing hardening of the spiritual life. (p. 109)
Piper’s final chapter is about J. Gresham Machen and his valiant battle against the Modernism of the early 20th century. After saying that it is not much different from the postmodernism of our day, Piper lists twelve lessons from Machen’s life and work applicable to today, and is not shy about bringing up his flaws. In fact, the final section of the chapter is titled “Hope in God’s Sovereignty Through Human Shortcomings,” an encouragement to us all.
The Conclusion is a gem. With a brief nod to another “sweet-singing twentieth-century swan,” Francis Schaeffer, Piper reminds us that passionately standing for the truth is inextricably linked to love. He discusses several Scripture passages where this is taught. He then closes the book with “Our Prayer In a Time of Controversy.” This brief prayer, combined with the Introduction and Conclusion, are, in my mind, reason enough to read Contending For Our All. This is not just a history lesson, but also a book for your spiritual benefit. – Pam Glass, Christian Book Previews.com
Athanasius. John Owen. J. Gresham Machen.
Each of these men stood for the truth of God’s Word in the face of opposition—all out of a deep love for Christ and a desire for people to know God in his fullness. Popularity was not a concern, and they took no joy in controversy for argument’s sake. However, these men were willing to suffer for the sake of guarding the sanctity of the gospel. Many threats, years of exile, deaths of loved ones, opposition from friends and authorities, sickness and pain—none of these setbacks could keep these three from maintaining their efforts for the furthering of Christ’s Kingdom or quench their zeal for Christ himself.
In his fourth book of The Swans Are Not Silent series, Contending for Our All, John Piper has given us biographies of Athanasius, John Owen, and J. Gresham Machen—bishop, pastor, and seminary founder. In the life of each one, personal holiness was emphasized publicly and privately despite suffering. They were true soldiers for the sake of the cross, and each man offers life lessons for Christians today.
The deity of Christ and all its worth consumed Athanasius. He devoted his life to defending it. The great adversary was the Arian heresy. Athanasius would be banished by the emperor five times. He was contending for his all—the essential, life-giving truth of Christ and his gospel.
Communion with Christ was the focus of John Owen’s vast intellect and expansive heart. He battled Christ-belittling errors of the mind and heart with passion and skill. Going deeper in the understanding of Christ was for him the key to going deeper in fellowship with him.
J. Gresham Machen
Representing Christ in all his fullness with all of Scripture drove J. Gresham Machen. He saw in the liberal Christianity of the early twentieth century another religion. His exposure of its subtleties and his emphasis on the facts of history are astonishingly relevant for our time in the early twenty-first century.
The Swans Are Not Silent
When Augustine handed over the leadership of his church in A.D. 426, his successor was so overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy that he declared, “The swan is silent,” fearing the spiritual giant’s voice would be lost to time. But for 1,600 years Augustine has not been silent—and neither have those who faithfully trumpeted the cause of Christ after him. Their lives have inspired every generation of believers and should compel us to a greater passion for God.