The Book That Mobilized a Generation of Missionaries Turns 25

Hikers visit Lake Garda in northeast Italy outside Verona.

Classic Missions Works seriesThe year 2018 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first edition of John Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad! and it would be a tragedy to let the year end without celebrating that anniversary. Because of Piper’s immense influence on my life and thought, I have, on occasion, pondered the question of what might be his greatest contribution to the church and to her Lord? In turn, I then consider that question in my own life. What area of ministry is the Lord smiling on right now? What might be the most fruitful way to live out the rest of my days? I suggest you, too, from time to time, do likewise. To put all my cards on the table, my instinct is to say Piper’s greatest single contribution is Let the Nations Be Glad.

I make my claim based on three assertions: First, over the past twenty-five years, Let the Nations Be Glad (LNG) has caused a complete upending of theory and practice of modern missions—and that for the better. Second, our Lord has espoused a stunning degree of worth to every single soul, and Piper’s book is, at its essence, a plea for local churches and would-be missionaries to seek each soul with the good news of Jesus Christ. Third, LNG probably more than all of Piper’s other ventures combined, has and will continue to inflict devastating blows upon the kingdom of darkness by mobilizing countless missionaries. Let me expound on and defend these three claims.

LNG changed the terms of the missions conversation.

LNG reshaped the conversation of how churches, sending agencies, missions professors, and practitioner-missiologists conceive of reaching the unreached and unengaged peoples of the earth. But how exactly did Piper change the conversation? He did it in a most unlikely way—he challenged everyone to a Greek fight.

Piper’s rendering of panta ta ethne—all the ethnic groups—shifted the gravity of the missions conversation away from geopolitical strategy and toward primarily targeting ethnolinguistic people groups. He was not the first to cast our minds to panta ta ethne (that was Ralph Winter), but Piper has been the loudest advocate of this approach. He says,

The task of missions may not be merely to win as many individuals as possible from the most responsive people groups of the world but rather to win individuals from all the people groups of the world [panta ta ethne]. It may not be enough to define missions as leaving the safe shore of our own culture to conduct rescue operations on the strange seas of other languages and cultures. Something may need to be added to that definition that impels us to leave one rescue operation to take up another (179).

Definitionally, Piper writes, “Our immediate concern is with the meaning of panta ta ethne in Matthew 28:19: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’” (186). Piper indicates that Jesus’s intent and concern in the Great Commission is to compel churches to make disciples by planting churches among unreached peoples. He writes, “The singular use of ethnos always refers to a people group” (189). The evidence Piper brings forward demands a verdict: faithfulness to the Great Commission is not bound up in merely pursuing church planting and worldwide evangelism but pursuing them in hard places among the unreached and unengaged peoples.

To give primary importance to ethnolinguistic groups and not geopolitical realities has proven to be a tectonic shift in missions. What panta ta ethne means is that our strategies ought not be less than geopolitically conscious, but they must be more than that too—namely, tribal, linguistic, and ethnically focused. Piper says, “The ‘children of God’ [in John 11:52] will be found as widely scattered as there are peoples of the earth. The missionary task is to reach them in every tribe, language, people, and nation. The way they are to be reached is by the preaching of missionaries” (206).

With an emphasis on panta ta ethne, Piper armed a generation of missionaries with the necessary biblical categories and nomenclature to take on the unreached and unengaged peoples of the earth.

“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 abides forever.”
—John Piper

LNG calls us to seek souls with the saving name of Christ.

“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 abides forever” (227). Sentences like these, and others peppered throughout LNG, have poured steel into the spine of many a missionary and would-be missionary as they consider the cost of going, seeking, and wooing lost peoples to Jesus Christ.

Much like Jonathan Edwards’s publication of David Brainerd’s missionary diary, which sold more than any other Edwards book, it would seem the Lord has attended LNG with an uncommon effectiveness. For twenty-five years, God has used LNG to catapult scores of gospel missionaries behind enemy lines.

Piper writes, “Compassion for the lost is a high and beautiful motive for missionary labor. Without it, we lose the sweet humility of sharing a treasure we have freely received.” This is not really a new concept in missions. Piper did not stumble on a formerly undiscovered motivation in that sentence. What was new is found in his next sentence: “But we have seen that compassion for people must not be detached from passion for the glory of God” (63). Piper has sought to anchor biblical compassion for the lost, ultimately, in a deeper foundation: God’s glory found in global worship.

LNG mobilized a generation for mission.

Let the Nations Be Glad! by John Piper

Let the Nations Be Glad! by John Piper

When I meet a new missionary, I make it a practice to ask when they first read LNG. My default assumption is that they have. And nine times out of ten—probably more like nineteen times out of twenty—they respond by telling me the place, conviction, and accompanying vows they made after reading it. My point is simple—every missionary has an LNG story!

At Spurgeon College, where I serve as dean, we have an incredible program called Fusion, which, in concert with the International Mission Board, trains and deploys sixty or more students each year for gospel ministry and church planting in hard places. (That number is growing by the way!) When these students articulate their calling, experience, and motivation, they use Piperian language found in LNG. Many of these missionary-students are unaware of just how intertwined their missiological categories are with Piper’s in LNG. The conversation is forever changed, and I would argue for the good. One phrase, in particular, had incredible mobilization power: “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.”

The words that launched a movement

I’ll never forget my first experience hearing the phrase “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” The year was 2006, and I was a junior in college. I had just hit the weight room and popped in my headphones to catch a first listen to Lecrae’s new album, After the Music Stops. At the end of the song, “Send Me, I’ll Go,” Lecrae weaves the phrase into his final bar. I thought, “That’s intense . . . and true!” I went another two or three years without recognizing the phrase wasn’t original to Lecrae but to Piper. And that’s exactly my point! Piper’s influence has permeated far beyond LNG. Piper says,

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 abides forever. Worship, therefore, is the fuel and goal of missions. (36, emphasis added)

This is Piper at his best. By God’s grace, the Lord has used this curt little phrase to deploy scores of missionaries to hard-to-reach and even completely unengaged peoples. They could have been compelled by anything—guilt, unsustainable empathy, or legalism—but God chose Piper’s little quip instead. At the start of LNG, Piper states, “All of history is moving toward one great goal, the white-hot worship of God and his Son among all the peoples of the earth. Missions is not that goal. It is the means. And for that reason it is the second greatest human activity in the world” (38–39).

“I believe that when it is all said and done, Let the Nation’s Be Glad! will be the most important contribution of Piper’s ministry.”

Would David Platt be who he is today if it were not for John Piper’s LNG? If Piper had not written LNG twenty-five years ago, would Platt have written Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (a massive mobilizing agent in its own right)? Would Cross Conference have ever gathered without LNG? Would the International Mission Board and other sending agencies have been laser-focused on reaching the unengaged peoples concentrated within the ten-forty window? I don’t think they would.

One minor quibble with LNG

Last, I point out one quibble that I have with LNG (or at least a request for clarification). The frontier of frontier missions is ecclesiology. It’s important, then, that missiological treatises, like LNG, give aid to contextualizing the corporate worship gathering of newly planted churches. Thus, Piper’s rendering of worship in the chapter “The Inner Simplicity and Outer Freedom of Worldwide Worship” is not as precise as I would prefer. He does not properly account for the corporate gathering texts in the New Testament. Instead, he opts to focus wholly on the inward aspects of the individual disciple’s worship.

It seems to me that, in an attempt to detach worship from “place and form” (241), he inadvertently overstates his position (see 245). He writes there is “a stunning degree of indifference to outward form” and “my thesis is that worship in the New Testament moved toward something radically simple and inward, with manifold external expressions in life and liturgy” (239).

I trust Piper’s ecclesiology ably accounts for the corporate gathering imperatives in the New Testament, but he does not give proper space to that fact in LNG. The reader is left in the dark as to the Lord’s mind on how to contextualize the New Testament’s prescriptions regarding aspects of corporate worship gatherings: singing (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:18–20), praying (1 Tim. 2:1–2), preaching (2 Tim. 4:2), reading of Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13), confession of sin (James 5:16), baptism (Matt 28:19–20), and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11–14).

Piper devotes a whole section, called “Little Explicit Teaching in the New Testament about Corporate Worship,” to develop his point regarding indifference to form, but based on the texts and concepts above, the idea that there is little explicit teaching on corporate worship is simply not true (240). The Lord has told us what we are to do when we gather, and that is to sing, read God’s Word, preach, pray, confess sin, witness baptisms, and participate in the Lord’s Supper. Worship, then, as the New Testament depicts and prescribes it, is certainly not less than “inward” worship (239), but it is reductionistic to fail to acknowledge that it is also more than that. The local church worship gathering of a covenanted body is essential to the Christian life.

Surveying the landscape of modern missions

LNG has completely reshaped the landscape of modern missions. Piper did this by challenging all of us to anchor our missiological strategies to clear and observable New Testament texts. I dare say, twenty-five years ago, Piper presented a convicting and nearly impenetrable argument for shifting our focus to unreached and unengaged peoples. In essence, LNG challenges us to reconsider what is of first importance. It’s a call to reconfigure how churches and missions agencies allocate their resources. Given these observations, I believe that when it is all said and done, LNG will be the most important contribution of Piper’s ministry. God will likely continue to use LNG to deploy whole multitudes of missionaries marching out, carrying the message of the gospel. For that, I am eternally grateful for the contribution Piper has made through Let the Nations Be Glad.

Samuel Bierig serves as the undergraduate dean and as professor of biblical studies at Spurgeon College. He also serves as an elder at Liberty Baptist Church. He is a regular contributor at For the Church.

Fusion sends Spurgeon College students (ages eighteen to twenty-five) to hard places, specifically among the most unreached peoples of the world. Spurgeon College, the IMB, and NAMB work together to equip students for a lifetime of obedience through intense discipleship, rigorous academics, and practical field skills. The college courses taken during Fusion serve as a launching pad for their degree at Spurgeon College and readies graduates for a variety of vocations. For more information, visit Spurgeon College or contact the Fusion office at -816-414-3777.