Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness–A Summary



Seven Men and the Secret of Their Success by Eric Metaxas (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013).  Page numbers are in parentheses.

Os Guinness states, “This is a book to be read aloud to others, and then read again. In a day when children are growing up stunted because of our diet of empty-headed celebrities and contemptible villains, true heroism and manliness need special nourishment.”

The book addresses the idea afloat today that no one is in a position to declare anything right or wrong. Metaxas wanted people to see moral greatness in heroes and role models. He choose these seven men because they surrendered “themselves to a higher purpose of giving something away that they might have kept.” (xxii). Service and sacrifice is at the heart of great people. They selflessly put their strength in God’s hands and give what is theirs to the service of others.

Great examples challenge us and inspire us. This is an excellent book for families to read, especially boys.

George Washington (1732-1799) refused to be crowned King George I of America for the good of the country choosing rather to go back to being a Virginia farmer. His voluntary surrendering of power caused King George III of Britain to say he was “the greatest man in the world.” (24) His voluntary surrendering of power as Commander of Chief of the army and stepping aside as president after two terms demonstrated that he realized that he did not rise above human weakness. Though he could have enjoyed the luxury of his home he chose to serve and sacrifice for his country and his men. He prevented a possible mutiny by unpaid Continental Army veterans by appealing to their shared sacrifice.

William Wilberforce (1759-1833) gave up the chance to be prime minister of the greatest empire of his day to promote the cause of freedom for slaves and other oppressed people and abolishing slavery. Metaxas calls him “The most successful social reformer in the history of the world. . . . His life stands as a shining example of what one human being–submitted to God’s purposes for his life–is capable of doing.” (33-34) By age 24 Wilberforce had a powerful seat in Parliament. William Pitt was prime minister.

Conversations with Isaac Milner on a trip together changed his life. He came to believe in the God of the Bible, Jesus as the Messiah, and the Bible as truth. He believed God had called him to champion the cause of abolishing the slave trade and bring a biblical world view to his culture so they would respect everyone as a person made in the image of God. He knew he had to change hearts before he could get laws passed to improve social conditions.

When he was 48 the bill abolishing the slave trade passed. In 1833 a few days before he died, he learned that the House of Commons outlawed slavery. “The world that Wilberforce left behind was dramatically different from the one he had entered seventy-three years earlier. Not only had the slave trade and then slavery itself been abolished, but the once foreign and strange idea that one should help those less fortunate had taken hold.” (55)

Eric Liddell (1902-1945) gave up the chance to run for (1924) Olympic gold medal in the 100 meter race, an event he was favored to win, in order to honor God. He could not conscientiously compete on the Lord’s Day. He held the Lord’s Day as a day of rest and worship and believed he was obeying God rather than men. This Flying Scotsman used his world class talent as a runner to glorify God.

He was part of the Oxford group  from Oxford University advocating surrendering themselves to God each day and pledging themselves to absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, absolute love.

In the 400 meter race, not on Sunday, he won the gold metal against all odds. He announced to the world he would stop running and be a missionary to China. He studied theology preparing to go to the mission field. He placed obedience to God above the greatest treasures the world could offer.

Eric and his finance waited three years while she completed nursing degree before their marriage in 1934. They had two daughters while serving as missionaries in China. Japan attacked China in 1937. (74-76)

Because of Japan’s war with China, his wife returned to the States in 1940 with their two daughters and pregnant with a third. He never saw his family again. He spent the last years of his life ministering in an internment camp. He died of a brain tumor in 1945.

When honored after the 1924 Olympics one said Liddel deemed the honor of being the fastest runner in the world “as small dust, compared to remaining true to his principles.” 86

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) gave up personal freedom and his life in an effort to gain freedom for his German people stifled by the Nazi regime. His The Cost of Discipleship exposes phony religiosity as “cheap grace.” He ”put his whole life on the line for what he believed.” 90

Bonhoeffer was raised in an impressive German family. At thirteen Dietrich decided to be a theologian. At seventeen he began study of theology, earning a PhD at age twenty-one. At twenty-four he studied in America for nine months. When he returned to Germany in 1931 he taught at the University of Berlin and taught the Bible as the Word of God through which God speaks and taught students to pray.

Bonhoeffer taught Jesus Christ as the only Savior, not Hitler. Despite Hitler’s claims to be a follower of God’s will, Bonhoeffer foresaw he would lead them to a dark future. Two days after Hitler became chancellor (January 1933) Bonhoeffer gave a radio address on “The Fuhrer Principle.” The Germans turned to Hitler as a strong leader who could lead them out of the mess of their weak democracy. Bonhoeffer described the true leader as one who submits to the higher authority of God and leads as a servant of others in contrast with the Fuhrer (mis-leader) and Hitler who were the opposite of this and would lead the German people to tragic results. (101)

Hitler pretended to be a Christian for political purposes, but in reality he despised Christianity. He worked to capture and control the church from the inside and free it from any Jewish elements. Bonhoeffer tried to waken the German Christians and formed the Confessing Church to fight the Nazified official church. He trained disciples, but the Nazis forbad Bonhoeffer to teach and speak in public and to publish.

“The Nazis kept increasing the scope of government with more and more laws and regulations, constricting and choking off the liberties of every German and especially of serious Christians.” (104) Bonhoeffer refused to fight for Hitler’s war of national aggression. He went to America to teach, but want back to Germany twenty-six days later believing God wanted him to stand with his people. He became a double agent seeking the overthrow of Hitler.

The Nazis arrested Bonhoeffer for planning to save the lives of seven German Jews and executed Bonhoeffer by hanging on April 9, 1945 on Hitler’s direct orders, three weeks before the end of the war. He viewed death as “the last station on the road to freedom.” He worshiped God who conquered death through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. He believed, “To accept the God of the Scriptures is to die to self, to embrace his eternal life in place of our own, and to henceforth banish all fear of death. For Bonhoeffer, this was the only way to live.” (112)

Jackie Robinson (1919-19972) gave up the right to respond and retaliate to viscous racial attacks in order to secure an opportunity for minorities.

His father left the family soon after his birth. His Christian mother moved with the children from the south to Pasadena, CA. He faced racial slurs and excelled in sports. A Methodist preacher named Karl Downs lead him to a deeper faith in Christ and taught him that anger was not the answer to injustice. Jackie began to see “that the path to justice would be won not with fists and fury but with love and restraint.” (116)

At UCLA he lettered in four sports and met Rachael Isum, his future wife. He left UCLA before graduating to play pro football. He was drafted into the army where he encountered racism. An officer tried to court martial Jackie for disrespect and disobedience to a superior officer, but the court judged him not guilty. On November 27, 1944 the army discharged him. He and Rachael were engaged, but marriage had to wait while he played for the Kansas City Monarchs.

Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers determined that the major league must be integrated in spite of opposition. “Rickey’s deep Christian faith told him tht injustice must be fought wherever one found it.” (123) Rickey wanted to change the moral history of America as Lincoln had done.

Rickey selected Jackie Robinson as the right man–an excellent athlete, a college man, a veteran, and a handsome man with a smile. He was a strong Christian with high moral character. Rickey needed someone who would not fight back. Rickey told Jackie, “I know you are a good ball player.” “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” Rickey believed, “They could open the doors for other black players and change the game forever.” Jackie believed God had chosen him for this noble purpose. Rickey cited Jesus words on Matthew 5:38-41 on non-retaliation. He said with God’s help it would be possible. They shook hands. (127-128)

Jackie first played for the Montreal Royals. Jackie married Rachael in an independent Church of Christ. When they went to spring training at Daytona Beach they endured mistreatment by being bumped from planes, refused admittance in restaurants and hotels, put in uncomfortable seats on buses. He had a great year of baseball at Montreal and the people treated him well.

April 10, 1947 Rickey met with Jackie. The next day he started at first base for Brooklyn. He faced abuse. Even the Phillies manager encouraged the mistreatment. The abuse of Jackie unified the Dodgers in support of Jackie. He won Rookie of the Year in 1947, without even one incident of retaliation. In Cincinnati when the crowds abused Jackie, Pee Wee Reese put his arms around Jackie as if to say to the bigots in the stands “if you are against him you’re against all of us.” In 1949 Jackie was an All Star and MVP. (132-133)

In 1955 the Dodgers won the World Series. Robinson experienced the effects of undiagnosed diabetes and left baseball. He helped the poor and participated in the civil rights movement. At age 43 he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His health declined and he died of a heart attack at age fifty-three in 1972. He changed baseball forever and lifted his people by his moral courage to follow Jesus’ teaching about non-retaliation.

Pope John Paul II (1920-2005)  (Karol Wojtyla of Poland) gave up his personal ambitions by accepting power as pope in 1978. He did not seek the office but used it to serve the poor and needy.

The piety of his father influenced him after his mother and brother died when he was a child. He had a philosophic mind and athletic body. Karol (Charles) was brilliant in studies and devoted to God. He opposed the growing anti-Semitism. The Nazis killed millions of Poles, but Karol stood fast with faith in God during the occupation. (140-145)

He took secret training for the priesthood and when the Germans retreated he taught at a university emphasizing the morality of the right to life. He stood against communism and for the Solidarity movement in Poland. He also criticized materialistic capitalism. (145-150)

Respected for his tremendous intellectual and pastoral gifts and youthful vigor, he rose to prominence in the Catholic Church and succeeded Pope John Paul I. He advocated religious freedom for all and absolution of the Jewish people as a whole for the crucifixion of Christ. (152-3) He addressed the needs of the modern world but maintained strict Catholic orthodoxy. His believed “that we are creatures in God’s image, that we are his beloved children, and that all of our rights, freedoms, and responsibilities come from him.” (155)  He advocated openness, compassion for poor, and ecumenism. He wanted to heal any wounds created by the church, reached out to the young, expressed good humor and unwavering faith. (156)

When sixty-one a Turkish assassin shot him and he nearly died. He was thankful for being able to identify with the suffering. He did not seek greatness or power but both came to him. He was a key figure in the collapse of communism across Europe. (157)

He developed Parkinson’s disease. “In suffering and weakness, he would show God’s strength.” He took unyielding stand against using human embryonic stem cells in medical research and championed the unborn. He refused to sacrifice these beliefs in the interests of helping himself. (158-159)

“In his strengths and weaknesses alike, he demonstrated charity and compassion born out of the belief that every human being is a beloved child of God.” He is remembered for his spiritual depth, prayer life, intellect, compassion and sympathy for oppressed, vision of Christians living in unity, power through humility and strength through weakness. (161)

Chuck Colson 1931-2012), after his involvement in the Watergate Scandal, gave up the opportunity to escape prison through a plea bargain, but pled guilty and served his prison time. He devoted the rest of his life in service to prisoners and other social causes. 

Ambitious and intelligent, he rose in the ranks of the Marines to be the youngest captain in history. He became a lawyer and worked in politics using dirty tricks to win elections. He helped Nixon win the presidency and became his special counsel at age 38. He was ruthless, but his self-deceit led to failure. (167-169)

Colson visited Tom Philips who told him he had accepted Christ in a Billy Graham meeting and it had changed his life finding a personal relationship with God. Colson tried to justify his Watergate actions. Phillips read the chapter on pride in C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  Then he read “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37) and John 3. After he prayed. Colson felt a wave of emotion. Phillips gave him his copy of Mere Christianity.( 170-171)

He soon committed himself to God. “God, I don’t know how to find you, but I’m going to try! I’m not much the way I am now, but somehow I want to give myself over to you.”  (Born Again, 117) He began a study to learn about Christianity. (173-4)

A group of Christian politicians helped him deal with the attacks and humiliation of the Watergate investigation. Hughes, a former liberal enemy, embraced him. Colson learned his relationship with Christ should never be used as a political tool. A principle he followed in 40 year advocacy for prisoners.(174-175)

The prosecutor offered Colson a plea bargain if he would plead guilty of a crime he did not commit and he would not go to prison. Against his lawyer’s advice, he refused and pled guilty to a wrong he had committed. He chose to be honest and put it in God’s hands. The judge sentenced him to one to three years in prison. After the decision he said, “What happened in court today was the court’s will and the Lord’s will. I have committed my life to Jesus Christ and I can work for him in prison as well as out.” Colson was really a changed man. (176-178)

As a prisoner he responded to the humiliations of prison life with a willingness to do menial tasks seeking no special favors. He accepted prison as a part of God’s greater purpose. He sought out other Christians and prayed and studied the Bible together. (179-181)

In January 1975 other Watergate conspirators were released but he was not. His son was arrest for drug abuse and he was disbarred from practicing law in Virginia. While at a low ebb, Hughes visited and told him to turn his problems over to God. That night Colson thanked God for these setbacks and for letting him walk with Jesus. Unknown to Colson his lawyer asked to judge to give him a ten-day furlough to be with his son. Surprisingly, the judge released him permanently. Colson viewed this as God’s response to his prayer. (182-183)

Convinced that God was telling him to teach prisoners and build Christian fellowships in every penitentiary in America he established Prison Fellowship Ministries. (184-7)

He championed the need to develop a Christian worldview. He believed the moral problem of crime needed a moral solution and worked for many moral and social causes, including the sanctity of human life, traditional marriage, and freedom of religion.


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