When it comes to a book about missions, there are a couple of ways to grab a reader’s attention. You could lead off with gripping statistics about the sobering state of the world. You could choose to start with powerful stories of missionary sacrifices or suffering. Or you could even begin by recounting inspiring stories of gospel advances among remote, formerly hostile people groups around the globe.
However, “Let the Nations Be Glad”, the now-classic book written by John Piper, starts off distinctly different. In keeping with the book’s subtitle, “The Supremacy of God in Missions,” Piper deliberately chooses to begin this book about missions with a compelling vision of God’s glory rather than simply leading with a story, statistic, or catchy anecdote.
Piper’s Focus: Missions Is God-Centered
In doing so, he not only emphatically sets the theological tone for the entire book (spoiler alert, it’s decidedly “God-centered”, not “man-centered”), but also manages to serve up one of the weightiest and most memorable chapter one opening lines to ever be penned about the topic of missions:
“Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abide forever” (35.)
After this thunderous opening salvo, the remainder of his book is then spent carefully examining this premise in light of God’s Word, with nearly one thousand Scripture passages woven throughout the three sections, each beginning with the tagline, “Making God Supreme in Missions”.
In section 1, Piper focuses on the supremacy of God in missions through worship, prayer, and suffering. He takes the reader on an overarching tour of the Bible, pointing out the consistent thread of texts woven throughout both the Old and New Testament which demonstrate God’s zeal for his own glory. He also does not shy away from discussing how doctrines some might label as “controversial”, such as the purpose of hell and the role of predestination, fit into God’s global plan of salvation: “There will always be people who argue that the doctrine of election makes missions unnecessary. But they are wrong. It does not make missions unnecessary; it makes missions hopeful” (75).
Why God Allows Missionaries to Suffer
For me, the most inspiring (and challenging!) part of this book is undoubtedly his detailed discussion why God allows, and even appoints, his servants to suffer in the task of proclaiming his glory.
The section is so rich and full of encouragement, I feel compelled to briefly list the six reasons Piper describes, followed by a short quote from each one:
1. Suffering deepens faith and holiness
The first purpose of missionary suffering is “to wean us from the world and set our hope fully in God alone” (109).
2. Suffering makes your cup increase
“One of the aims of God in the suffering of the saints is to enlarge their capacity to enjoy his glory both here and in the age to come” (112).
3. Suffering is the price of making others bold
“If He must, God will use the suffering of his devoted emissaries to make a sleeping church wake up and take risks for God” (112).
4. Suffering fills up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions
“Christ’s afflictions are not lacking in their atoning sufficiency. They are lacking in that they are not known and felt by people who were not at the cross. Paul dedicates himself not only to carry the message of those suffering to the nations but also to suffer with Christ and for Christ in such a way so that what people see are ‘Christ’s sufferings” (114).
5. Suffering enforces the missionary command to go
“God spurs the church into missionary service by the suffering she endures” (116)
6. The Supremacy of Christ is manifest in suffering
“Loss and suffering, joyfully accepted for the kingdom of God, show the supremacy of God’s worth more clearly in the world than all worship and prayer” (112).
Section 2: The Necessity & Nature of Missions
The second section is entitled, “the necessity and nature of the task” and begins by seeking to answer a series of foundational, fork-in-road theological questions. The first is, “Will anyone experience eternal conscious torment under God’s wrath?” Piper then deals with the question of whether Christ’s work of atonement is specifically necessary in order for one to be saved. Thirdly, he addresses the question of whether or not it is necessary for people to specifically hear of Christ to be saved.
In our increasingly pluralistic society—even among those who would label themselves “evangelicals”—these are hardly peripheral questions! In response to them, Piper provides well-reasoned biblical defenses. He outlines the historic understanding of hell, salvation, and the need for one to call on the name of the Lord in order to be saved.
Section 3: The Practical Outworking of Compassion & Worship
The third section of the book is by far the shortest and is entitled, “The practical outworking of compassion and worship.” After defining worship as the ultimate goal of the Church, Piper ends his book by declaring how worship, or “right affections in the heart about God, [must be] rooted in right thoughts in the head about God, becoming visible in right actions of the body reflecting God” (231).
Piper concludes that our rightful worship causes us to increasingly value the glory of God above all things—thus propelling us outward to proclaim the glory of God to others. On the other side of the equation, he soberingly points out that it is our lack of treasuring the glory of God that will ultimately cause us to be indifferent to missions.
Why This Book Is Impactful
Now in its third edition, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions stands as one of the most significant and influential books on missions from the last thirty years. Since its initial publishing in 1993, numerous global realities have shifted and cross-cultural church planting trends have come and gone. This book’s unrelenting God-centered focus has continued to serve as a useful resource, though, for new generations of Christ-followers around the globe.
It’s been many years since I first read Let the Nations Be Glad, but I have yet to find a better book on missions. While it’s not a detailed “how-to” handbook on mission methodology, church-planting strategies, or suggestions about cultural adaptation; Piper’s compelling, biblically-based arguments and pastoral tone are anything but dull or dry. As a reader, you come away with the impression that he’s pleading with you to supremely value that which has supreme value.
Yes, Piper offers weighty theological truth for the reader to wade through from time to time. But this marvelous book is well worth the effort. If I had to recommend only one “go-to” book for missions that Christians ought to read, it would be Let the Nations Be Glad.
I’ve heard it said that we need more “theologians with a heart for missions and missionaries who are solidly grounded in theology.” I agree, and I heartily recommend this book is an excellent resource to help equip all of us Christ-followers to grow in our ability to be both.