John Piper’s volume Let The Nations Be Glad presents a cogent, clear, and commendable case for making world missions a celebrated means, rather than a mere necessary end. Missions books often promote a view that the end goal of missions is to make missionaries, train them, and get them “into the field.” As long as we have gotten them there, we have achieved our goal. Piper does not move so fast. Missions, he says, is not the end. It is the means. “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” What is the glorious goal of missions? It is nothing less than the collective peoples of the earth, together treasuring the glory of God in the face of Christ. That is the end for which the means of mission was purposed, and worship, prayer, and suffering—the book’s three-pronged first part—are integral in getting us there.
Space allows only a brief survey of the books contents, so we will glimpse them in short. In the first chapter, Piper introduces the supremacy of God in missions through worship. Here Piper establishes his foundation, that worship is ultimate because God is ultimate, and the grateful acknowledgement of his supremacy (worship) is what we are seeking when we involve ourselves in missions. Chapter two issues a call to prayer. We the church have received our marching orders. “Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” (Matthew 6:6) We are to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) For missions to succeed, we must plead prayerfully, putting the fruitful outcome of missions under the sovereign mercy of God. In chapter three, Piper richly portrays how the inevitable life of suffering brought by the pursuit of missions is a life most worthy of living. “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35) Jim Elliot, a missionary martyr among the Auca natives of Ecuador would agree. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Chapter four preaches Christ as the only means to salvation from the horrors of hell, as the object of conscious, saving faith. Piper here does nothing less than radically draw our eyes to the depths and trepidations of the biblical doctrine of hell and the heights and rising peaks of God’s love for us in Christ as the only Savior from it. This is perhaps one of the greatest contributions of this book. Piper closes in the final chapters by in chapter five defining missions not according to love, but by God. It is God and his acknowledged glory which must be the foundation for our understanding of missions, not love for the souls of nations. Chapter six and seven end the volume with a survey of the life of Jonathan Edwards and an elaboration on Piper’s purpose for writing the book.
For whom is the book written? Let The Nations Be Glad is written with the Christian lay-believer and the Christian pastor in mind. With some careful attention, a non-believer will likely be able to follow along. Yet I do not see it likely they will be interested in what is here. The volume is no-holds-bar, black-coffee Christianity—the real stuff. Piper does not cut corners. He opens the Bible with lucidity and without apology. Yet in doing so, he is sure to assume nothing of his reader. That is a good thing. He is plain in speech, thorough in explanations, and (sometimes tediously) clear in his arguments; so clear that sometimes (a rarity) the broader scope is clouded in the slow belaboring of excessive detail. I experienced this in chapter 5 where Piper sets forth an extended argumentation on what he sees as the correct way to interpret panta ta ethne (“all nations” in Matthew 28:20). Piper may be justified in his laborious defense, for how we interpret “all nations” will determine in large part our view of the extent of the great commission, one of Christ’s final commands and a battle cry for Christian missions. (Is Christ telling us to go to all nations, all ethnic groups, all individual unsaved Gentiles, or something else entirely?) Yet the point could have been received with more immediateness were there a more succinct presentation. Overall, Piper approaches and touches on many strong, complex theological arguments, while keeping his prose at a simple level of reading. He brings the reader along with him.
MEDITATION: A LOVE OF THINGS
Every now and again as one reads a book, uncovering some distant theological landscape or familiarizing oneself with a new spiritual topic, a sentence will suddenly leap from the page, gripping the reader and making so forceful an impression as to change them in their seat. The mind stops. The book falls into the lap. A deeper reflection is prompted. This did not happen for me in my reading of Let The Nations Be Glad. Yet there were two times that came close.
One statement I found worthy of meditation was in the third chapter. Piper wrote: “It will be difficult to bring the nations to love God from a lifestyle that communicates a love of things.” It is a statement innocuous enough, yet it deeply struck me, first and most importantly because of the overwhelming consensus today in the West that material things are of all things most dear. Things hold an inordinate sway on us all. We are blind men; materialists, consumed by the physical and averse to the spiritual. Yet this is not how it ought to be, and we believers who share Piper’s passion for the supremacy of God must feel this incongruency more deeply. How unseeing are we of our stinginess? Are we giving sacrificially to the labor of the gospel in our local church? Are we demonstrating love for things of God by taking responsibility for our church, pursuing membership, and involving ourselves financially in its well-being and continued sustenance? Supporting its missionaries? Its pastors? We are told: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15) We may well do this, leaving our homes to evangelize the greater world. Yet what of it, if we come with the wealth of Westerners? It would be delusional to think we can preach a gospel of grace with our mouths and not preach the prosperity gospel with our lives. We can, and we do. Piper’s statement jarred me into wondering how readily my own lifestyle communicates the love of things, and what damage that could do to my commendation of Christ.
In his sermon “The Weight of Glory” delivered at St. Mary The Virgin Church at Oxford in 1942, C.S. Lewis commented on the worldliness of Christians. “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Does this not describe the people with whom we pray, sing hymns, hear sermons, enjoy fellowship? Too easily pleased by earthly delights? Taken by the allure of the latest iPhone? In our culture, materialism reigns. Have we unwittingly imbibed the toxin? This I believe is a point that requires more emphasis in the local church—radical generosity, counter-cultural living, in our finances, our things, our time. The theme of Lewis’ sermon was not self-indulgence but self-denial. We must see that it is only in the giving up of ourselves that the Deep Joy will be found.
MEDITATION: A VIEW FOR ETERNITY
A second phrase that seized me was: “I know of no one who has overstated the terrors of hell.” The reality of hell and eternity is a dogma taught infrequently in our churches today. We (especially in the secular west, but increasingly in the global scene) live in “the now,” a me-focused, present-oriented mode of being where the latest is greatest, forward progress dominates our thoughts and industries, and anything remotely old is deemed eternally out of date; the future is worth thinking about, only as much as it pertains to our days here, now, on this earth. Heaven is no longer on our minds. That is old-fashioned. Many of us, Christians included, pass our days unaware that our moment on earth is a mortal one, that our first breath is one of our last, and that we, like a seed, will one day be planted. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor identifies this as the “immanent frame,” that is, the unconsciously inhabited view of the universe as a place entirely absent of the supernatural; all there is to reckon with is the “immanent” or immediate context, that which is before us, the natural world disenchanted of the numinous, metaphysical, or eternal. We seize the triviality which stands in front of us at the expense of the sunset in the distance.
With the rest of the secular West, evangelical Christians have drawn this air largely unawares. As a result, we think on the here and now (finances, marriage, parenting—all important realms no doubt) and neglect the deep soul work of preparing for eternity. It is a long labor and a haunting one, facing death. It intimidates. Yet we must face it. We must turn, and allow ourselves to approach the endless hall of eternity. We need to open back up our perspective, and work ourselves to accommodate the eternal into our very temporally bound state of living. Where will we be spending our days, the real length of them? In the place where moth and rust do not destroy, where thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19). It is of vital import. May we, as Piper encourages us to do in Let The Nations Be Glad (chapter 5, but the beam shines across the whole thing), store up our treasure not here, in the immanent and the temporary, but there, in the transcendent and the eternal, as have many great missionaries who precede us. They counted the cost. They numbered their days (Psalm 90:12). They knew they were but breath, their days a passing shadow (Psalm 144:4). And their kingdom work was better for it.
In close, there is much to be gained by the believer in studying these pages. John Piper is a pastor, and a good one. He wants to point his readers to Christ. This book does that with remarkable immediacy and effectiveness; I found my affections for Christ and my gratitude for his work being consistently stirred and my limited view for international missions being opened to the biblical view. That does not happen every time one reads a book. Therefore I would recommend it heartily. I have not cited too much in this review. Yet on such an ending note, perhaps one ought to close with a statement from the work itself. In some ways, the following quote on the love of God summarizes exactly the entire message of the book’s 288 pages. Read it slowly. “The love of God for perishing sinners moved him to provide at great cost a way to rescue them from everlasting destruction, and missions is the extension of that love to the unreached peoples of the world.”
It is indeed.
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 2007).
Elizabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty - The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot (Hodder and Stoughton, 1958).
John Piper, Let The Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1993, 2003, 2010), Kindle Edition.