Let the Nations be Glad by John Piper
Subtitled The Supremacy of God in Missions, this book is marketed as the “sequel to the Supremacy of God in Preaching [and] draws on key biblical texts to show that worship is the ultimate goal of the church and that proper worship fuels missions.” To a large extent, Piper satisfies this goal and goes beyond it.
Touted by many as the book to read on missions, for the most part Let the Nations be Glad lived up to its billing. The book is composed of two parts, the first entitled “Making God Supreme in Missions, The Purpose, the Power, and the Price.” Here Piper speaks of the relationship between missions and three important actions: worship, prayer and suffering. Each of these chapters is loaded with scriptural support and, as usual, Piper’s favorite theme of seeking our own happiness in God emerges. It often disturbs me how smoothly Piper can turn a text of Scripture on its head to prove his point. One example: in a subsection titled “Love Seeks Its Own Joy in the Joy of Others,” he quotes 1 Corinthians 13:5, “Love seeks not its own.” He writes, “[Paul] did not mean, for example, that if doing good for someone happens to make you happy it ceases to be love.” Agreed, as the old hymn says, “There is Joy in Serving Jesus.” But Piper goes further, “In other words he did not mean that seeking your happiness in loving others is loveless” (p. 23). He tries to establish this understanding of the text with an equally distorted interpretation of Acts 20:35. My point is that Piper is resorting to eisegesis when he brings to these texts what he wants them to say. The passage quoted says nothing about seeking our own happiness in loving others. That happiness may result in such love is very possible, but nothing is said here about seeking our own happiness. In fairness to Piper, he rarely mishandles Scripture throughout the book. This is the exception (I will point out a few more below), not the rule.
On a more positive note, the theme of chapter one is, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t” (pp. 11, 40). Piper proves his point and also writes a helpful section on why God seeks His own glory.
Chapter two deals with prayer. Piper states, “Until you know that life is war, you cannot know what prayer is for.” Excellent statement. Piper’s postmillennialism comes out most clearly in this chapter, although in a footnote (p. 51) he attempts to minimize its impact on missions. Still there is a major difference when it comes to missions whether or not we believe that the goal is to extend the worldwide reign of Christ (p. 50).
Chapter three on suffering was the most troubling for me, not because of his superb examples of suffering for the cause or because of the powerful section on retirement (pp. 107-112), which is the overall thrust of the chapter, but because of several other disturbing factors. First, he spiritualizes away the true meaning of Hebrews 13:12-14 (pp. 80-84), a passage that plays a prominent role in this chapter. Then two extremely questionable examples are given. The quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (p. 74) without any explanation that he was not an evangelical is perhaps forgivable (everyone quotes Bonhoeffer). But his reference to Catholic counter-Reformationist Francis Xavier (1506-1552) is not. Piper tells us that the founder of the Jesuits (who also participated in the Inquisition) “was always in pursuit of a deeper life in God” (p. 88). How can Piper use this Roman Catholic denier and persecutor of the faith as an example of suffering for the cause of missions? Next is Piper’s uncomfortable habit of elevating the words of Jonathan Edwards to near canonicity. He offers from Edwards an interesting but mostly speculative explanation of degrees of happiness and glory in Heaven (pp. 89-91). Most of us find Edward’s thoughts worthy of pondering, but when the dust has settled he doesn’t know any more about Heaven than I do and that needs to be clearly stated by Piper.
Finally there is a series of largely unsubstantiated missionary stories, many of which are questionable at best. The most disturbing was that of thirteenth century Roman Catholic mystic Raymond Lull whose life was supposedly changed due to five visions he reportedly received from the Lord (pp. 109-110). (See a similar story on pp. 146-147)
In the final part of the book, “Making God Supreme in Missions, The Necessity and Nature of the Task,” Piper moves from the experiential to the doctrinal. Here he shines as he usually does when he is addressing more scholarly subjects. In chapter four, Piper is eager to prove that “God’s will is to glorify His Son by making Him the conscious focus of all saving faith” (p. 115). He proves from Scripture the reality of Hell, the necessity of Christ’s atonement and gives an excellent rebuttal to inclusivism (pp. 131-164).
The final chapter discusses the Great Commission, handling particularly what it means to make disciples of all nations. Piper’s view is that it means to reach all “people groups” not all individuals from within these groups (pp. 169, 172-173, 194, etc.). It should be mentioned that Piper’s postmillennial views show up again in this chapter (pp. 199, 204).
So we have a mixed bag in Let the Nations be Glad. The vast majority of the book is a wonderful treatise on missions from a biblical perspective. Piper manages to interweave heavy theology with practical exhortation toward the missionary task—no easy feat. I see why so much praise has been lavished on this work. But due to the several criticisms identified in this review I could not recommend this book without reservation. Most concerning are the implications of Piper’s Roman Catholic examples and mystical testimonies. What is Piper saying about the gospel if he truly believes that Francis Xavier serves as a model for missions today? Xavier’s message is not the biblical gospel but a Roman Catholic distortion. Much can be learned from Piper’s book but these things put a damper on it for me.