Book Review: Let the Nations Be Glad!, by John Piper
Growing up in the United Kingdom, I always had an interest in what God was doing globally, yet I was fairly ignorant of the "missions world." For the last five years I have served cross-culturally in a local church in South Asia, and they have been real eye-opening.
At one level it is exciting to see how God keeps his promise to bless the nations through Christ and uses wonderful people to do so. At another level, I have been alarmed to see how much of the missions field is obsessed with numbers, reliant on pragmatism, and virtually ignorant of the local church. Aren't all these characteristics evidence of a deep-seated man-centeredness? Perhaps this is because, apart from a few notable exceptions, "Bible believing" churches seem to send fewer people to serve cross-culturally than those churches which we would perceive to be weaker on Scripture. So much so, that I'm often left asking on the mission field, "Where are all the Reformed guys?"
First published in 1993, John Piper's book Let the Nations Be Glad, to my mind at least, remains both the best antidote to a man-centred approach to missions and the best challenge to the Reformed community to have a heart for global evangelism. Piper's passion stated in his preface is seen on every page and in every sentence: "My passion is to see people, churches, mission agencies, and social ministries become God-centred, Christ-exalting, Spirit-powered, Bible-saturated, missions-mobilizing, soul-winning and justice-pursuing" (9).
As part of his characteristic God-entranced view of all things, Piper roots mission in worship, prayer, and suffering. As he does so, he draws heavily not only on the Scriptures, but also on men and women down the ages who have obeyed the call of God to make the nations glad with the good news of the Saviour.
Missions for Worship
His opening chapter on worship contains much that will be familiar to Piper readers with its emphasis on the chief end of man being to glorify God by enjoying him forever. In this work on missions, that basic philosophy is put to work by making missions the servant of worship. Here's how he puts it: "Missions exists because worship doesn't….Worship, therefore, is the goal of missions" (17).
This is something understood by men serving in different places and different times, men such as William Carey, David Brainerd, and John Dawson.
Missions Through Prayer
Chapter two on "the supremacy of God in missions through prayer" is powerful enough to transform either an individual's or a church's prayer life. The Christian life is a fight, Piper explains. And the weapon of prayer is indispensable in the spiritual warfare of missions. Rebuking contemporary Christians for the absence of austerity and what J.I. Packer has so aptly dubbed "laid back religion," Piper points to why our prayer lives are often so lame:
Probably the number one reason prayer malfunctions in the hands of believers is that we try to turn a wartime walkie-talkie into a domestic intercom. Until you know that life is war, you cannot know what prayer is for. Prayer is for the accomplishment of a wartime mission…But what have millions of Christians done? We have stopped believing we are in a war. No urgency, no watching, no vigilance. Just easy peace and prosperity. And what did we do with the walkie-talkie? We tried to rig it up as an intercom in our houses…not to call in firepower for conflict with the enemy, but to ask for more comforts in the den. (49)
The Puritan John Eliot, the martyr Jim Elliot, and orphan-lover George Mueller all understood the basic idea here, which is surely one of the reasons the Lord used these pray-ers so powerfully.
Missions and Suffering
At a time when very few churches or church members have a theology of suffering, Piper's third chapter on suffering is much needed. He explains Christ's call to follow him and die, and how God uses "the blood of the martyrs to be the seed bed of the church." He then shows us how the relationship between missions and suffering was fleshed out in the lives of people like Henry Martyn, Richard Wurmbrand, Charles Simeon, and, touchingly, the "five inspiring wives" of those who died taking the gospel to the Auca Indians.
We also read of how God has used the suffering of his people to "make people glad" in countries as diverse as the Sudan, Uzbekistan, Mozambique, and the South Sea Islands. The last of these nations was made glad by John G. Paton, who embraced the possibility of death by cannibalism because he had such a deep conviction of his own future bodily resurrection.
Engaging Current Missiological Issues
Part two of the book shows just how adept Piper is in engaging with current missiological issues. The chapter on why the Lord Jesus is the only way to salvation is the single clearest explanation on this subject that I have come across. If either you or people you know are unclear on this issue, this is the chapter to read.
Then Piper engages with the ethnology debate, making clear the biblical emphasis on the gospel going to every nation, tribe, people, and language. This then answers the question, "Is then the task of missions to maximize the number of people redeemed or the number of people reached?" (233). Piper's answer, based on the witness of Scripture, runs deeply counter to the current obsession in missions with numbers and people groups:
The Biblical answer is that God's call for missions in Scripture cannot be defined merely in terms of crossing cultures to maximize the total number of individuals saved. Rather, God's will for missions is that every people group be reached with the testimony of Christ and that a people be called out for his name for his name among all the nations… Our responsibility is to define missions his way and then obey. (233-234)
Edwards, God's Glory, and Compassion for People
No book by Piper would be complete without some direct engagement with his dead mentor Jonathan Edwards. Sure enough, he draws on Edwards' material in part three of the book. Specifically, he discusses the idea of the "unity of motives in world mission" in which Piper shows that there is no conflict between passion for God and compassion for people. In our day of "holistic mission" (which means different things to different people), this is an important contribution to the discussion.
So I would unreservedly and wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who desires to be a "world Christian," either as a sender or a goer. Given how much modern missions by-passes the local church, I would like to have heard Piper speak more of the centrality of the church in God's plan to bless the nations through Abraham's seed. So often in missions it feels like the organisations are the bride and the church is the bridesmaid. And it is interesting that the word "church" does not appear in the book's index. But that does not diminish this magisterial call to place God's glory once more at the centre of missions.