I love biographies. I love John Piper. So I really love biographies written by John Piper. The Roots of Endurance: Invincible Perseverance in the Lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon and William Wilberforce is the third book (of four) in the Swans are not Silent biography series. Piper, each year, hosts a pastor’s conference at his church. One of the favorite portions of this conference is Piper’s own contribution. Each year he gives an one hour lecture on the life of a great saint of the past. Over the past 20 years, Piper has mined wealth from the lives of men like Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Bunyan and William Cowper, just to name a few. These excellent lectures eventually make their way into book form. Each book contains short, 30-40 page biographies of three saints; each section focusing on particular distinctives of that specific saint.
John Newton, Charles Simeon and William Wilberforce are the subjects of book three and are brought together under a common theme: each man possessed and exhibited character qualities that are essential to perseverance in Christian life and ministry. For Newton, it was the “tough roots of his habitual tenderness”; for Simeon, it was the “ballest of brokeness” that kept his ship from being tossed to and fro; and for Wilberforce, it was child-like joy in Christ that enabled him to steadily persevere with patience and hope in the midst of great opposition.
John Newton: Tough Roots of His Habitual Tenderness
Piper shows us John Newton as a man who, after his conversion to Christ, lived out these words:
Whoever…has tasted of the love of Christ, and has known, by his own experience, the need and the worth of redemption, is enabled, yea, he is constrained, to love his fellow creatures. He loves them at first sight, and, if the providence of God commits a dispensation of the gospel and care of souls to him, he will feel the warmest emotions of friendship and tenderness, while he beseeches them by the tender mercies of God, and even while he warns them by his terrors (54).
John Newton had tasted of the love of Christ and therefore had a heart full of love toward his fellow creatures. During his life, he cared for two flocks: one for 16 years at a Church of England parish in Olney; and another for 27 years, at St. Mary’s Woolnoth in London. During his ministry, he was characterized by a ‘habitual tenderness.’ One of the first things he did when he came to Olney was begin a meeting for children on Thursday afternoons. He would meet with them, give them assignments and teach them from the Bible. At one time, he had approximately 200 children who would attend. “The young,” wrote Josiah Bull, “had a warm place in his affectionate heart…” (54-55).
Newton also demonstrated his tenderness in how he counseled that one should handle controversy:
As to your opponent, I wish, that, before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing. This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him; and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write…[if he is a believer,] in a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you know. Anticipate that period in your thoughts…[If he is an unconverted person] he is a more proper object of your compassion than your anger. Alas! “He knows not what he does.” But you know who has made you to differ (64).
There is much, much more; but to suffice it to say, Newton was a man who lived the truth of II Timothy 2:24-26:
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
Charles Simeon: The Ballast of Humiliation and the Sails of Adoration
Charles Simeon helps us to obey the commandment, “Be patient in tribulation” Romans 12:12. Piper wants Simeon’s life to help us “see persecution, opposition, slander, misunderstanding, disappointment, self-recrimination, weakness, and danger as the normal portion of faithful Christian living and ministry” (78). Simeon himself endured such things and so becomes a model to us as we seek to live faithfully in the present age.
Simeon, after his conversion, he received a fellowship at Cambridge University where he was dean for nine years and once vice provost. But this was not his main calling. In 1782, he was called to be the pastor of Trinity Church where he stayed for 54 years until his death on November 13, 1836. But it was not smooth sailing by any stretch of the imagination. Piper writes, “…in 1812 (after he had been there thirty years!) there were again opponents in the congregation making the waters rough. He wrote to a friend, ‘I used to sail in the Pacific; I am now learning to navigate the Red Sea that is full of shoals and rocks.'” Simeon suffered rejection, opposition and slander from not only his own congregation, but also from the university for his evangelical faith.
Piper explains that Simeon’s ability to persevere grew from “Roots of Endurance:”
- He had a strong sense of his accountability before god for the souls of his flock
- He was free from the scolding tone even through controversy
- He was not a rumor tracker
- He was not a heresy-hunter
- He dealt with opponents in a forthright, face to face way
- He learned to receive rebuke and grow from it
- He was unimpeachable in his finances and he had no love of money
- He saw discouraging things hopefully
- He saw suffering as a privilege of bearing the cross with Christ
But the deepest roots that gave health and life to these other ‘roots’ was Simeon’s devotion to Bible study and meditation; and his experience of “Growing downward in humiliation before God and upward in adoration of Christ.” Simeon said, “Meditation is the grand means of our growth in grace; without it prayer itself is an empty service.” A friend of Simeon’s wrote:
Simeon invariably arose every morning, though it was the winter season, at four o’clock, and after lighting his fire, he devoted the first four hours of the day to private prayer and the devotional study of the Scriptures…Here was the secret of his great grace and spiritual strength.(106)
But it was his experience of humiliation before God that could be considered his ‘deepest root.’ Simeon said,
Repentance is in every view so desirable, so necessary, so suited to honor God, that I seek that above all. The tender heart, the broken and contrite spirit, are to me far above all the joys that I could ever hope for in this vale of tears. I long to be in my proper place, my hand upon my mouth, and my mouth in the dust…I feel this is safe ground. Here I cannot [error]…I am sure that whatever God may despise…He will not despise a broken heart” (110).
William Wilberforce: Child-like Joy in Christ
William Wilberforce’s most well known accomplishment was his success in fighting for the abolition of slavery and slave trade in the British Empire. Both evils were abolished before his death in 1833. But Wilberforce was not a ‘Single issue candidate.” After his conversion in his mid -twenties, Wilberforce, who was already a member of the British Parliament, fought on a number of levels for the good of mankind. Piper informs us that “There was a steady stream of action to alleviate pain and bring greater social (and eternal!) good. ‘At one stage, he was active in sixty-nine different initiatives.'”
Wilberforce, however, did not lose his edge on pure doctrine while pursuing social good. Piper explains,
Many public people say that changing society requires changing people, but few show the depth of understanding Wilberforce did concerning how that comes about. For him, the right grasp of the central doctrine of justification and its relation to sanctification–an emerging Christlikeness in private and public–were essential to his own endurance and for the reformation of the morals of England (158).
Wilberforce would write,
The grand distinction which subsists between the true Christian and all other Religionists…is concerning the nature of holiness and the way it is to be obtained…[nominal Christians think that] morality is to be obtained by their own natural unassisted efforts: of if they admit some vague indistinct notion of the assistance of the Holy Spirit, it is unquestionably obvious on conversing with them that this does not constitute the main practical ground of their dependence (159).
Amidst all his efforts for the good of all men, Wilberforce would suffer great slander, pain at home (with his wayward son), and tremendous physical sufferings brought about by medical ailments. But he persevered through these trials by a child-like joy in Christ:
He was also a most cheerful Christian. His harp appeared to be always in tune…his sun appeared to be always shining; hence he as remarkably fond of singing hymns, both in family prayer and when alone. He would say, ‘A Christians should have joy and peace in believing (Romans 15:13): It is his duty to abound in praise (146).
He also loved children, which is another attribute of a child-like joy in Christ:
He was an unusual father for his day. Most fathers who had the wealth and position he did rarely saw their children. Servants and a governess took care of the children, and they were to be out of sight most of the time. Instead, William insisted on eating as many meals as possible with the children, and he joined in their games. He played marbles and Blindman’s Bluff and ran races with them. In the games, the children treated him like one of them (147).
Joy, to Wilberforce, was a Christian’s high duty:
We can scarcely indeed look into any part of the sacred volume without meeting abundant proofs, that it is the religion of the Affections which God particularly requires…joy…is enjoined on us as our bounden duty and commended to us as acceptable worship…A cold…unfeeling heart is represented as highly criminal (150).
With these ‘roots,’ Wilberforce was able to persevere through great trials to perform great good upon the world for Christ’s sake. And his perseverance was steady, as he would later write, “I daily become more sensible that my work must be affected by constant and regular exertions than by sudden and violent ones” (12). He was faithful, day-to-day; and his faithfulness paid off in great dividends for the good of many.
In each example, I gave only a taste of what is in the book. And I strongly recommend not only this volume, but each volume of the Swans are not Silent series. They are edifying, strengthening, and very interesting. I am confident that they will encourage you as you seek to persevere with tenderness, brokeness, and joy in Christ.