Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ: The Cost of Bringing the Gospel to the Nations in the Lives of William Tyndale, Adoniram Judson, and John Paton

By John Piper
Wheaton, IL : Crossway (2009). 126 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Irv Busenitz
21.2 (Fall 2010) : 254-256

This is the fifth book in the popular series entitled “The Swans are not Silent.” The title of the collection is adapted from Eraclius’ comments at the retirement of St. Augustine in A.D. 430. As the successor to the esteemed Augustine, Eraclius observed: “The cricket chirps, the swan is silent.” Contending that the greatest voices of church history go on speaking, Piper contends, “if someone tells their story and gives them voice” (9). He powerfully bids his readers to drink from the reservoir of God’s faithfulness—in this case by recounting the trials endured and the trails blazed by three men from previous centuries.

Piper introduces this trilogy with a treatise on the role of suffering in the lives of Christ and the Apostles and then illustrated in the lives of these three men. He contends, “Afflictions are not merely the result of missionary fruitfulness, but also the means” (9-10). He adds: “God designs that the suffering of his ambassadors is one essential means in the triumphant spread of the Good News among all the peoples of the world…. Suffering and death to save others is not only the content but it is also the method of our mission” (14, 15).

Utilizing Col 1:24 as the scriptural foundation of his thoughts, Piper explains that “Paul’s sufferings fill up Christ’s afflictions not by adding anything to their worth, but by extending them to the people they were meant to save” (22). “Christ has prepared a love offering for the world by suffering and dying for sinners. It is full and lacking in nothing—except one thing, a personal presentation by Christ himself to the nations of the world. God’s answer to this lack is to call the people of Christ (people like Paul) to make a personal presentation to the afflictions of Christ to the world” (23).

The focus of Piper’s first biography is William Tyndale. Born in 1494, Tyndale was an avid learner, becoming fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and English. From his love for the natural power of language grew a passion to translate the Scriptures into English so that “a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scripture than [the Pope] dost” (30). Thus Tyndale was driven to uncover what lay hidden in the Latin Vulgate and thereby liberate the life-saving gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone (40-42). “Bible translation and Bible truth were inseparable for Tyndale, and in the end it was the truth—especially the truth of justification by faith alone—that ignited Britain with Reformed fire and then brought the death sentence to this Bible translator” (43).

Such passion led the British parliament in 1401 to make heresy punishable by burning at the stake. A few years later (1408), the Archbishop of Cantebury declared that translating the Scriptures into English or reading such translations were forbidden (43-44). Facing the heat of hatred, Tyndale fled in 1544 to the continent and went into hiding in Germany and the Netherlands.

Piper then turns his attention to the missionary endeavors of John G. Paton on the islands of New Hebrides. Known today as Vanuatu, this South Pacific country occupies a 450-mile stretch of islands between Hawaii and Australia. Known for their cannibalistic ways, the first missionaries were killed and eaten on November 20, 1839, only minutes after going ashore. Less than 20 years later (1858), Paton, together with his wife and infant son, landed on the island of Tanna. Within the year, his wife and son died of the fever, and by 1864, he was driven from the island.

Two years later, he and his second wife returned, this time to the island of Aniwa, where they labored together for the next 41 years. They learned the language, reduced it to writing, and translated the Scriptures. A hundred years later, over 90% of the Vanuatu population claimed to be Christian (56-58).

Paton went to New Hebrides against the wishes of his church elders. When told by one that he would be eaten by cannibals, he replied, “Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and … soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms…” (58).

Piper attributed Paton’s great courage to his godly heritage (cf. Paton’s stirring tribute to his father, 70-72); his deep sense of divine calling—“Since none better qualified can be got, rise and offer yourself” (72); and his unshakeable confidence that the sovereign hand of a loving God controlled all adversities (74-78).

Lastly, Piper opens the biography of Adoniram Judson with the exclamation, “How few there are who die so hard” (85), noting that he was “a seed that fell into the ground and died again and again” (86).

After eighteen months of marriage, the 24-year old Judson sailed for India with his young wife. After a brief time with William Carey, they left for Burma— there to labor under the difficulties of discouragement, imprisonment, and diseases that would take the lives of his first two wives and seven of his thirteen children. Buoyed by the certainty of God’s sovereign providence in all of life, Judson remarked: “If I had not felt certain that every additional trial was ordered by infinite love and mercy, I could not have survived my accumulated sufferings” (87).

Judson entered Burma in 1813 and labored there until his death 38 years later. Though his nearly four decades were punctuated with numerous bouts of suffering and death, they were eventually rewarded with remarkable fruitfulness. Six years elapsed before there was a single convert, yet twenty years later thousands were requesting tracts and copies of his Burmese Bible translation (96-97). Since that time, thousands of congregations have been established and hundreds of thousands have come to faith in Jesus Christ.

Ultimately, this is a book about missions and about the men who sacrificed their lives to proclaim the Good News, “to fill up what was lacking in the afflictions of Christ.” Each of these men gave their all. Though the length of their lives varied—Tyndale died at forty-two; Paton at eighty-two; Judson at sixty-one—the fruit of their lives continues on. Indeed, “the swans are not silent.”