The Supremacy of God in World Evangelism

Westminster Theological Seminary | Philadelphia

Thank you, Todd, and thank you all for coming and for inviting me. What I’d like to do to begin with is bring you right up to speed as to how I understand my mission here today and in my church in words that are newer and fresh for me. They come from a text in Matthew 24, and I’m going to give it to you and then try to explain to you why I’m here and why I do what I do at Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis. The text is Matthew 24:12–14:

Because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold. But he who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the world as a testimony to all the nations and then the end will come.

Now what I hear in those verses is the juxtaposition of two surprising things. The end of the age is going to be with a glacier. Robert Frost: “Some say the world will end by fire; some say by ice.” Well, this text says ice. “The love of many will grow cold.” So I picture the end of the age coming with a great glacier of lovelessness moving across the world and across the church, and the love of many growing cold, verse 12.

But when you juxtapose that with verse 14: “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all the nations” — you know somebody’s love has not grown cold. These are primarily the people that are taking that gospel, because verse 9 says, “When you go to those nations they’re going to kill you and hate you. You will be hated by all the nations.”

Torching the Glacier

So what you described in verse 14 is a band of people who are going to finish this work. This gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all the nations who will kill them and hate them, and then the end will come; and those are not cold people. Those are not loveless people. In other words, the end of the age is not all dark and it is not all cold. My job here at Westminster is to torch the glacier. I’m going to write a book one of these days called “Torching the Glacier,” and I hope I get it done before Jesus comes because then it would be pointless.

But there’s a glacier on every seminary campus. There’s a glacier moving in on every church. There’s a glacier in every city. And God is going to raise up at least fifty of you to torch the glacier, and I hope all of you will torch the glacier. So my job here in these three messages that I have to give is basically to torch the glacier of creeping coolness, lukewarmness, indifference, settling in, taking on the contemporary culture of comfort and letting the world go to Hell without any thought that that might make a difference in any pastor’s life. I want to torch that glacier in your life this morning. And my pastoral strategy for torching it at my church and torching it everywhere I go is simply to kindle a vision of God. And that vision is heavy on God’s heart and is what God is most passionate about.

My job at Bethlehem with regard to missions is to kindle a fervor for missions and recruit missionaries and stir up support in senders for missionaries and to build missionary budgets and all of that, but that’s not the strategy. That’s just sort of the few things that have to happen if the job is going to get done. My strategy is to teach and preach and live the centrality of God in all things and the supremacy of God in all things. That’s my basic strategy for missions — to teach and preach and live the centrality and the supremacy of God in all things.

Worship Fuels Mission

One of the effects of that at my church I pray — though in recent days I have had reason to believe there is more opposition than I ever dreamed — is that earnest heartfelt passionate worship be cultivated in our life as a family of believers. Because worship is simply the echo of the excellency of God made supreme in all of life. What echoes out of the life in all of its forms is his worth and his value. And worship is the fuel and the goal of missions. Without worship, missions won’t be fueled aright and missions won’t be done all right if its goal is not the worship of the peoples of this great supreme God.

Here’s another way to describe the strategy: missions for us is not the ultimate goal of the church. I’ve seen books that say it’s the number one priority. But it cannot be the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is the ultimate goal of the church, and missions exists because worship doesn’t. One of these days, when the Lord Jesus wraps up this world, missions will be no more — it is a temporary stop-gap measure because among thousands of people groups in the world he is not duly worshiped. Thus missions come into being as a temporary, necessary, secondary means of accomplishing the ultimate purpose, which is the nations worshiping God.

Until we see the greatness of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and until we are stunned by the majesty of God’s power and his freedom, we will not have any lasting mission in the church. The worship is the fuel — you can’t commend God if you haven’t tasted God. You can’t commend him to the nations if you aren’t ravished with him. It’ll be all work and duty if you haven’t tasted God — that he is good.

And if his word isn’t sweeter than honey to your taste and if it isn’t a reward to you, and if it isn’t more precious than gold, yea much fine gold; if that experience isn’t on you in worship what will you commend to the nations? And so worship is the fuel, and when you’re out there you have no other goal but to draw the nations into that experience of God, which means it’s the fuel and the goal of missions.

Supremacy of God in Everything

Now what I want to do this morning is show you an insight that made this live for me. I think the raw contours of what I just said I would have nodded to a long time ago growing up in a Christian home. But it did not hit me until this truth came home to me. That when I say, my goal in life and ministry is to teach and preach and live the supremacy of God in everything, the everything includes God. Now let me say it with that.

“The ultimate foundation for our passion to see God glorified is his passion to be glorified himself.”

The teaching and preaching and living of the supremacy of God is to reveal to the world the supremacy of God to God, that God is supreme in God’s heart, and when that grips you, that the most ultimate value to God is God, then, at least for me, the sparks began to fly in my talking about the ultimate value of God to me and in my ministry. The ultimate foundation for our passion to see God glorified is his passion to be glorified himself. He is the center of his own affections. He will brook no competition at all, even in his own heart.

God is not an idolater. He will not be denied the highest pleasures of the universe, namely worship, and he will not worship anything but what is infinitely worthy — himself namely. This is why the Father, when he beholds the whole panorama of his perfections in the fullness of his Son says, “This is my loved son.” I love my son because my Son is me in full perfection, radiant. God is not an idolater.

And when he beholds himself standing forth in the fullness and the perfections of his son, and in his Holy Spirit loves his Son and his Son loves him, what you find there is a God totally and absolutely self-sufficient, and thus free and able to be there for his people.

Why Do You Exist, God?

I always asked questions in college like Why do I exist? Why am I here? What is my life for? But I didn’t ask Why do you exist, God? What’s your reason for being? What do you love with all your heart and soul and mind and strength? How do you fulfill the great and first commandment? I never even asked that question, so it had no power over me. But when I began to ask it to Scripture (Jonathan Edwards is the one who forced me to ask it basically), I began to see that God will not deny himself the highest of pleasures; he will delight with infinite energy in his glory.

Now I want to show you that reality just from a string of texts. You’ll have time to look these up with me. I’ll just walk you through a few of the high points of redemptive history to show you. If you want the whole book, just go to the library and get the works of Edwards and read Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, and you will find hundreds of texts that just absolutely blew me away in 1970.

Everything to Uphold the Riches of His Glory

Why Did God Create the World?

Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth, says the Lord. Everyone who is called by my name whom I created for my glory. (Isaiah 43:6)

What you will find in these texts is that God does everything he does, from creation to consummation, for his glory — to uphold and display the riches of his glory for the enjoyment of a redeemed people gathered from every people, tongue, tribe, and nation. And until all those peoples are worshiping him, he will not receive his due glory, and he is so passionate for that glory because he delights in it so fully that he will not be done until this mission is completed.

You cannot love this glory the way God loves this glory without having a burning heart for missions. You cannot. You will be phony Calvinists unless you have a passion for the glory of God to be manifest among all the nations. If you don’t do it the way God does it, you’re just phony.

Why did God choose a people, Israel, for his own possession?

I made the whole house of Israel cling to me, says the Lord, that they might be for me a name, a praise, and a glory; that’s why I chose Abraham. (Jeremiah 13:11)

Why did he rescue them from bondage in Egypt in?

Our fathers, when they were in Egypt,
   did not consider your wondrous works;
they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love,
   but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea.
Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,
   that he might make known his mighty power. (Psalm 106:7)

I’d love to linger here over the experiences in recent days at my church, as I’ve discovered awful sin in the body and wondered why the Lord tolerated it for seven years. It has broken my heart. It has caused more tears to flow than you can imagine in these recent days.

And as I’ve sought the Lord — why seven years did you tolerate this sin at the heart of our church? — the answer I got was, The frogs didn’t do it. The locusts didn’t do it. I took ten plagues to do it because I wanted to show off my power. I have timing and I have ways and I know how to get most glory. I could have done it after the first plague. I could have done it after the second plague. I could have done it after the third plague, but I did it after the tenth plague because I had a few things I wanted to show the Egyptians.

Why did God spare them again and again in the wilderness, these rebel people?

But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived, in whose sight I made myself known to them in bringing them out of the land of Egypt. (Ezekiel 20:9)

Why, when they chose to have a king to be like the other nations, why didn’t he just wipe them out?

Fear not, you have done all this evil in desiring for yourself a king, yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, for the Lord will not cast away his people for his great namesake. (1 Samuel 12:20)

Why did God bring them back from bondage after they went to Babylon? Why didn’t he just let them go, start over with some other group?

For my namesake I defer my anger; for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, for my own sake, for my own sake I do it for how should my name be profaned; my glory I will not give to another. (Isaiah 48:9)

His passion, the zeal of his heart was his glory in rescuing his people from Babylon.

The Son of Man for His Father’s Glory

You come over into the New Testament and ask why did the Son of God come into the world; you could pick many texts.

Father, the hour has come now; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee. (John 17:1)

This conspiracy of trinitarian glory, where the Father will glorify the Son that the Son may glorify the Father and in glorifying the Father bring more glory to the Son — all done through the power, the glorious power of the Holy Spirit.

And why will He come back? Why is this age going to end the way it’s going to end with Jesus coming on the clouds?

He will come on that day to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at in all who have believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:9)

We Can’t Fail in Missions

Now missions is simply the reflex of people gripped by that passion in God’s heart. It’s in God’s heart. God wills to be glorified. God is passionately in love with his glory, and its exultation in the world.

All nations whom thou hast made shall come and worship before thee, O Lord; and shall glorify thy name. (Psalm 86:9 KJV)

You can’t fail in missions. It’s going to happen. You can either get on board or be left behind. It is going to be done. This gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and in the end, will come in that way on board or not. All you can do is choose to be involved or left behind. It’s going to happen.

“Missions is simply the reflex of people gripped by that passion in God’s heart.”

Yesterday on the plane, I was pondering this point, right here in the message, and was drawn back to Numbers 14:21, and it just hit me like it never had before. God took an oath in that verse to say why the people in the wilderness who had opposed him would not enter the Promised Land. And he took the oath on two things. He laid his hand on two things. You know, we lay our hand on the Bible in court. He said, “As I live.” Okay, he laid his hand on his being. “And as this world will be filled with the glory of the Lord,” and then he made the promise.

Just think of that. He took an oath on two things. He put his hand on two things: his existence, and the completion of the great commission. “As this world will be filled with the glory of the Lord when that redeemed people from every tongue and tribe and nation are reached and drawn into the family, as I live and as that will happen, I swear,” which means, that the filling of the earth with the glory of the Lord through the finishing of the great commission is as sure as his existence.

This is no peripheral thing; you don’t go to your churches to become pastors and say, “Well, some pastors are mission oriented and some pastors are doing other things.” You can’t think that way as Calvinists who care about the glory of God, as Reformed people who know what the banner over life is and what the universe is all about. You can’t unless you have your head absolutely in the sand biblically.

The Center of God’s Universe

“For my own sake, for my own sake I act, says the Lord. My glory I will not give to another.” Now I like to say these things everywhere I go. I just kind of put the torch in people’s face and say, “Will you, will you see this centrality of God to God and if to God then to everything? And I find that it doesn’t sit well with a lot of people, because the culture you will minister to is in another universe from the universe I’m talking about right now.

We are at the center of God’s heart, not him. You’ve never seen a child bring home a Sunday school paper with the words God loves himself more than he loves you. Never. And therefore, generation after generation of little Evangelicals grow up with themselves square at the center of God’s universe. And they have no capacity or even categories to grasp what I’m saying, except maybe by the grace of God after ten years of preaching the light might go on.

God is at the center of God’s universe, and at the center of God’s heart. We get drawn into that vortex as he becomes the center of our universe, and it’s a glorious walk, a sword — what’s the air thing? Not hurricane — tornado. Thank you. It’s a glorious tornado to be sucked into.

In a Class by Himself

There’s a biblical objection, however, not just a cultural man-centered one. There’s a biblical objection to what I’ve just said, and those are the objections I care most about wrestling with. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:5: “Love seeks not its own.” And here you are, Piper, telling us that God is driven totally by his own glory, and a love for his glory.

So he’s not loving. Biblically, he’s not loving. In other words, what you’ve just said just doesn’t sound like John 3:16. It doesn’t sound like the loving Father that I desperately need so badly. And my answer to that objection is this: Since God is unique as the most glorious of all beings and the source of all being, and is totally self-sufficient, he must be for himself. He must be radically, primarily, fundamentally committed to the exultation of his glory if he is to be loving.

He’s in a class by himself. You can’t bring God down and make him in love with something more than himself, which we have to be if we are to be human. We have to love God more than we love the things of the world. But not God; God would be an idolater and be unrighteous and would fail in his self-sufficiency if we required of God that he be that way.

In view of God’s infinitely admirable beauty and power and wisdom, we have to ask now, what would love look like? Love is when you give someone the very best thing that you can give them for their very best good, and ask what would God give to me if he loved me infinitely. You’ve got it — himself.

Now that’s very arrogant of God. I mean, if you asked me, what’s the best gift you can give and I said, me, you would say, You are an egomaniac. So let this hit you. You answered it. You got the right answer, but let this hit you. The best gift God can give to a person is himself. This is something we can never say of ourselves. And so he’s in a class by himself.

Praise Completes Our Enjoyment

But now here’s the second step in my thinking of how this is loving. I learned this from C.S. Lewis. When you love something and a gift is given to you and you delight in that gift, that delight is not complete until it is expressed in some kind of praise. Let me read you the quote where I learned this from Lewis:

The most obvious fact about praise, whether of God or anything, strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of complement or approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment, all enjoyment, spontaneously overflows in praise, unless shyness or the fear of boring others in deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise; lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game, praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians and scholars. My whole more general difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us as regards to the supremely valuable; what we delight to do, what indeed we cannot help doing about everything else we value.

I was just down talking with the counselors down the hill and mentioned this experience I had with a fellow who said, “Well, I don’t delight in God and can’t delight in God the way you talk about it.” And I said, “I don’t believe you. Tell me, has there ever been an experience where you felt tremendous joy?” And he said, “Well, in the boundary waters one time on a starry night I had this experience.” I said, “Okay, that’s enough. Now I know you’re capable of it. Everybody has that capacity down there hidden away to praise and delight.” Let me finish the quote from Lewis:

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment. It is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment or duty that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are. The delight is incomplete until it is expressed.

The Twins have won two World Series in the last so many years and my church is four blocks from the Dome. You can hear the Dome at those moments at my church. Now suppose you handed out little slips of paper as people walked in on the seventh game and said — at the big top it said — enjoy yourself. And then it said, but for circumstances beyond our control no sounds will be allowed out of your mouths. No cheering, no booing, no hollering, but enjoy yourself fully.

That would not be possible, because a delight reaches consummation, not just expression, when it’s expressed. You can’t just sit there and say, “I’m experiencing the fullest possible delight I could have in this game, and the jumping out of my seat and the waving of my arms and the hollering is just totally irrelevant to that joy.” It is not true. It is not true.

Fullest Satisfaction

Therefore, if you’re thinking with me you’ve got it. Now you know where I’m heading. God in his utter self-centeredness says to us again and again, praise me, praise me, praise me, praise me, and this bothered Lewis when he read the psalms. Not realizing that if God gives us himself to enjoy and his love is full enough to bring that joy to consummation, he cannot be indifferent to whether it reaches consummation in praise.

And therefore his command, praise me, praise me among the nations, praise me among the peoples, gather the peoples to praise me is love. It’s the consummation of love because he is the satisfaction of all of our longings and those longings reach their fullest satisfaction when we render back to him praise and honor and glory verbally, and in lives lived as expressions of our valuing of God.

So the unique thing about God is that when he seeks his own glory and his own praise, he’s doing that without which he could not be loving. God is the one being in the universe for whom self-exaltation is the highest virtue and the most loving act. If he did not exalt himself in my life and require my exalting of him, he would not love me. And the reason the world can’t hear this is because they don’t know him. They don’t know anything about what it means to taste and see that he is good.

And therefore, the preaching of the gospel and the elevation of people’s hearts in the missions has to be a radically God-centered message that just awakens people to the majesty and beauty and glory and satisfying worth of God. Until they have those spiritual taste buds awakened, God’s self-centeredness won’t make any sense as love.

Because if you give somebody a gift they don’t want and then you tell them, now praise the gift, like give a kid black socks for Christmas. Now, I love you and you want to keep your feet warm, so thank me. Praise me. Well, he could say the words, which is what a lot of worship is, thank you for the socks, God. Thank you for the socks. There’s a lot of Reformed worship like that, isn’t there? Thank you for the socks — just read it out of a book. O, God, thank you for the socks.

We don’t have a passion that’s socks. It’s an ice cream sundae that will last forever and ever, and it’s a big red fire truck. But God isn’t a big red fire truck to a lot of people; he’s a duty; he’s just socks.

A Heart for the Nations

Okay, back to the torching strategy. What you’ve just been hearing is a response to objections to saying that God is supreme to God. Because when I heard from Jonathan Edwards and then saw all over the Bible that at the center of God’s heart is the glory of God, the sparks started to fly for my own living, for the glory of God.

“The center of God’s heart is the glory of God.”

So I come back now to where we started and try to wrap things up here and relate them to missions again. He’s infinitely worthy and infinitely beautiful. He loves that. He has a passion that beauty and glory be upheld in the world. He’s committed to it. This is his righteousness. His unswerving allegiance to doing right by his glory is his righteousness. And therefore, he’s utterly, utterly self-sufficient.

Now I came to Bethlehem in 1980. I’ve been here thirteen and a half years at the church. And in 1980 I began to sound these notes, and I was not a world Christian in any real rigorous or serious sense. Missions wasn’t top priority or second or third. And I began to preach. In 1983 Tom Steller, my associate, and a little green book out there is dedicated to him, and he’s been my right-hand man for thirteen years. In 1983 during a missions conference, God did something to him and he did something to me.

It was in the middle of the night and Tom couldn’t sleep during missions week. And he got up and he turned on John Michael Talbot and he sat on the couch in the living room so he wouldn’t bother his wife and daughters and listened to John Michael Talbot sing a song, and I don’t remember which one it was, about the glory of God filling the earth. And Tom said he began to weep, because God was putting together in his heart his love, his Reformed love, for the glory of God with God’s infinite passion that that glory be known and worshipped among all the nations. And a world Christian was born that night in an hour of weeping.

The Battle Cry

I was in a sermon series called Desiring God, which became the book in 1986. And I was at sermon number nine, and for the first time in the history of my being at Bethlehem, the missions committee asked me to preach one of the missions messages, a dangerous thing to do for a pastor. If you want your pastor not to become a missions pastor, don’t have him preach on missions.

Well, they asked me, and I preached the “The Battle Cry of Christian Hedonism: Missions.” And I began to see the connections more clearly than ever. And God has been very gracious. For Tom and me, we changed his job description and made him Associate Pastor for Missions and Leadership Development. I began to read missionary biographies, and I began to see the Bible through new eyes, and my theology of God-centeredness so kicked in to God’s passion to be glorified among the nations that the two have never, since 1983, been able to be separated very far.

And so I leave you with the passion to torch the glacier of lovelessness. The means of torching the glacier is a radically God-centered ministry that elevates God’s God-centeredness so that people can see it and be shocked and be drawn up into it and then, as I hope you will see in the next couple of lectures even more clearly, why a commitment to that kind of God-centeredness makes you into a pastoral or faculty or missionary world Christian that never has these things separated into little boxes.