“Missions exists because worship doesn’t.”
This is the heartbeat of John Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad, first published in 1993. In keeping with his pastoral ministry at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Piper’s vision for the book—and all Christian missions—was to “spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.” With the publication of an anniversary edition, I asked missions leaders and practitioners to reflect on how this book has shaped their ministries and the work of global missions for the last 30 years.
In 1992, Bethlehem Baptist Church was in its 10th year of a missions renewal that began in the fall of 1983. At that time, Pastor John and I were freshly gripped by the truth that if we love the glory of God, we’ll want to do everything we can to extend that glory to the ends of the earth.
Meanwhile, a missionary couple from Bethlehem had persuaded us that when the Bible talks about “nations” it’s not referring primarily to countries but to ethnolinguistic groupings of people. When God looks at the world today, he doesn’t just see 200 countries, he sees (and loves!) thousands of people groups. So when Jesus commands us to make disciples of “all the nations,” he’s giving us the mission of proclaiming the gospel to every people group on the face of the earth.
Seeing with fresh eyes the biblical understanding of “nations,” we were also alerted to the vast number of “unreached peoples” that had little or no gospel witness among them. As the missions fire began burning brighter than ever, we wanted to stress that the ultimate goal of the church isn’t missions but worship. Pastor John put it in these words: “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.”
The most fundamental transcultural reality is that every human from every culture has a God-shaped hole in his or her heart that can only be filled by seeing and savoring the glory of God in the face of his Son: The Son of God who came into this world, lived a perfect life, and paid the penalty for the sins of people from every tongue and tribe. The Son of God who rose again from the dead, commissioned his disciples to preach the gospel to every nation, ascended to the Father’s right hand where he’s reigning now, and promised to one day return to be wed to his multiethnic bride gathered from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.
The ultimate goal of the church isn’t missions but worship.
This clarified understanding concerning the “nations” was too important to keep to ourselves. We joined others who were championing the cause of frontier missions. When we met with missions leaders from our denomination, some of them were skeptical about the focus on unreached peoples that was gaining momentum. We wanted to encourage them to consider not just geographic mission fields but also specific unreached people groups.
This group then invited John to serve on the denomination’s board of world missions and commissioned him to lay out the biblical arguments for this “unreached peoples” focus. His report convinced them. And several years later that report became chapter 5 in Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions.
Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions
John Piper’s bestselling book on missions (more than 300,000 copies sold) draws on key biblical texts to demonstrate that worship is the ultimate goal of the church and that proper worship fuels missionary outreach. Piper offers a biblical defense of God’s supremacy in all things, providing readers with a sound theological foundation for missions.
I’ll leave it to others to highlight the worldwide influence of this book. But I want to close my thoughts by sharing the delight I now have as I use Let the Nations Be Glad in the classroom of a church-based seminary in Yaoundé, Cameroon, an extension of Bethlehem College and Seminary. To watch these students, who represent several of Cameroon’s 293 people groups, be ignited in their concern to reach the unreached peoples of Cameroon and surrounding nations is a delight beyond words. Over the last 30 years, I’ve experienced this delight again and again as I’ve watched men and women transformed by the God-sized, gospel-saturated vision of Let the Nations Be Glad.
When I think about the effect Let the Nations Be Glad has had on my life, I can’t help but recall where I was when I first read this book. I was 19 years old and had just made a commitment to follow Christ. Little did I know the import that reading and discussing this book with my friends would have decades later.
At the time, I’d been asking questions about life’s purpose and goals, wondering what—if anything—joy and happiness had to do with it all. To answer those questions, the world pointed me to myself. But in Let the Nations Be Glad, John Piper pointed me to Scripture, highlighting the God-centered joy of God himself. Since then, the truths in that book concerning God’s zeal for his glory displayed among the nations and his absolute sovereignty in election have helped move my feet and open my mouth. They’ve shaped my life’s purpose and goals.
In Let the Nations Be Glad, John Piper pointed me to Scripture, highlighting the God-centered joy of God himself.
Some quotes in the book stand out for their immediate and ongoing influence. “Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man” knocked the legs out from under my self-centered worldview as a teenager. Thinking of prayer being misapplied as “a domestic intercom to call upstairs for more comforts in the den” continues to challenge my idolatry of comfort and how it creeps into my prayers.
“Worship is the goal and fuel of missions” highlights God’s sovereignty and supremacy over every missions plan and effort ever. “The diversity of the source of admiration will testify to [God’s] incomparable glory” speaks to the beauty and worthiness of the Lamb who ransomed people for God by shedding his own blood on the cross.
“Magnify the Lord with me!” is the missional heartbeat of every believer. And Let the Nations Be Glad explains from Scripture how this heartbeat is a reflection of God’s desire that we—from every people group—would know him and treasure him.
When I was a new student at Asbury Seminary in the early 1970s, we had a young woman from Latin America who was a student at Asbury College come to our missions class and share her thoughts about the missionary enterprise. She was harshly critical of the way some people were motivated for missionary involvement by highlighting the cultural peculiarities, idiosyncrasies, and deficiencies of unreached peoples.
I was immediately shocked by the diatribe of this outspoken and brave young woman. As someone who grew up in post-colonial Sri Lanka, I had listened to and rejected liberal teachers who criticized evangelism and missions as being an extension of the detested colonial mentality. But now I was surprised to hear this critique of missions coming from an evangelical source. I began to realize that, for some people, a key motivation for missions was introducing the supposedly superior Western culture to “backward” peoples.
Fortunately, my missions professor at the time, John T. Seamands, had grown up in India and was very appreciative of Asian culture. He didn’t give me any hint that he thought that Western culture was superior to our cultures. He actually helped me discover riches in my Sri Lankan culture that I hadn’t previously appreciated. Cultural anthropology was beginning to become a prominent discipline in missiological studies, and I became convinced this field of study could help us be more effective in our witness for Christ.
After my studies, I returned to Sri Lanka, where Christians had been influenced markedly by the theologically liberal disdain for evangelism. They rejected conversion to Christ as the proper aim of missions. I realized we needed a way to motivate the church to the great task of evangelization without the cultural insensitivity the Latin American student had highlighted. We needed a fresh emphasis on the biblical case for missionary involvement. I decided to concentrate on demonstrating biblically the supremacy of Christ and his gospel. In Let the Nations Be Glad, John Piper focused us on biblical teaching on the supremacy of God in missions, especially highlighting worship as the ultimate goal—not only of missions but of the whole church.
John Piper helped to focus us on biblical teaching on the supremacy of God in missions, especially highlighting worship as the ultimate goal—not only of missions but of the whole church.
Thirty years ago, John Piper was already an influential voice in the church and his biblical approach to missions was a needed corrective to the much-criticized cultural-supremacy understanding of missions. According to Piper, missions wasn’t just a valuable contribution that America was making to the world, it was a key aspect of God’s agenda for the world as explained in the Bible.
Today, it’s wonderful to see that, 30 years after it was released, Let the Nations Be Glad is still having a wide influence on the church. As the temptation to succumb to lesser mission motives continues to be real, I pray this book will continue to influence the thinking about Christian mission in the church.
J. D. Payne
In the late 1990s, I was pastoring in Kentucky, finishing graduate studies, and preparing for the PhD program at Southern Seminary. Email had become the norm, a 14.4k dial-up modem was acceptable, and websites were the next great thing for businesses. TV, radio, and mail-ordered cassettes were the means for hearing favorite preachers. Though I would periodically get sermons from my childhood pastor through these mediums, I listened to few preachers beyond my denomination.
During this time, I was provided a reading list of important works on mission in preparation for my doctoral program. One of the numerous books, Let the Nations Be Glad, puzzled me. What was this book about? Who in the world was John Piper? Why was this work alongside noteworthy mission books and thinkers such as William Carey, John Nevius, Roland Allen, and Donald McGavran?
It’s almost embarrassing to admit, but I was ignorant of John Piper at the time. And I’d never heard the now-ubiquitous Piperisms found in this book: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Missions exist because worship doesn’t. Prayer is a wartime walkie-talkie. Worship is ultimate, not missions.
Piper’s book came at a time when North American evangelicals were arriving late to the missio Dei conversation. Tension and change were occurring in missionary circles at the turn of the century. Yet without using the phrase missio Dei or referencing the 20th-century debates, Let the Nations Be Glad accomplished something few books do: effectively communicate complex contemporary matters to both scholars and people in the pews, resulting in a paradigm shift.
It accomplished something few books do: effectively communicate complex contemporary matters to both scholars and people in the pews, resulting in a paradigm shift.
The book won the hearts of evangelical theologians and pastors by providing a biblical argument for a theocentric approach to the church’s Great Commission labors. This was a shift from a long-standing anthropocentric focus. God owns and determines the mission. It’s for his glory and will be accomplished as his church labors in view of his sovereignty and according to his parameters. Piper’s work also captured the hearts of evangelical missiologists and missionaries by providing a biblical foundation for worship, prayer, and suffering for the cause; motivations for going; and the stewardship of strategy. Theologians and pastors as well as missiologists and missionaries now had a unified biblical argument for mission belief and practice.
Piper popularized complicated yet significant theological and missiological matters to challenge the church in her apostolic task. He showed theology and missions should be wed together and derived foremost from exegesis. He led with the Scriptures but understood the times. Here was a pastor who quoted Calvin, Edwards, and the Puritans as well as Jim Elliot, David Barrett, Ralph Winter, and the Lausanne Strategy Working Group. He referenced classic theological writings while citing Mission Frontiers and Evangelical Missions Quarterly. Christological, soteriological, and eschatological terminology were explained alongside novel extrabiblical expressions like “people blindness” and “unreached people groups” and evangelism categories like E1, E2, and E3.
Here was an author with a pastoral heart and an apostolic imagination who was able to make arguments from the Bible that resulted in transformation both in the church and on the field.
The first time I read Let the Nations Be Glad, my wife and I were six months away from leaving for Papua New Guinea. Others who had gone through missionary training with us were recommending the book. But I was mystified as to what a new book on missions could add to what we’d already learned.
About halfway through chapter 1, its significance started to dawn on me. Thirteen years later, as I was wrapping up the translation of the Scriptures into the Yembiyembi people’s language, I recalled how many times I had profited from the rationale, clarity, and biblical grounding this resource brought to our missionary task.
The great value of Let the Nations Be Glad comes from the way it elevates the overarching glory of God in and through missions while at the same time diving into the most critical details that guide us, the people of God, in how we’re to go about that mission. Too often the metrics of missions tacitly supersede the true goal. But by snapping the goal of missions into its rightful place, all other motivations and methodologies find their proper alignment.
By snapping the goal of missions into its rightful place, all other motivations and methodologies find their proper alignment.
The opening two sentences of chapter 1 alert the reader to the great scope and seriousness of Piper’s agenda: “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is.” And Piper’s zeal to see the worship of the God of heaven put front and center carries through the entire book.
One of the reasons I regularly hand out copies of Let the Nations Be Glad to college and high school groups is chapter 5. In an age when nearly every Christian activity is somehow slotted under the heading of “missions,” Piper’s biblical explanation of who exactly are the “nations” gives sharp relief to an often-nebulous topic.
If we’re called to make disciples of all nations, it’s a tremendous help to know who’s meant to be the focus of that command. Specifically, Piper’s explanation of Romans 15:18–21, where Paul makes the outrageous claim of no more work existing from Jerusalem to Illyricum, is still one of the best sections of missions reading anywhere.
Today, Let the Nations Be Glad is mandatory reading before coming to Radius International, the missionary training school I lead. The influence this book has on our incoming students continues to encourage me and speaks to the timeless truths within it.
If our King should tarry another 30 years, his church will do well to imbibe the lessons of this book so that God’s glory may be known among all tribes, languages, peoples, and nations.