There are many reasons for translating the Bible. Are they all equally important? How do they relate to each other? Are some not reasons at all??
After researching this topic in some depth, I have drawn up this list of 10 reasons to translate the Bible.
Most of these reasons are commonly heard today. They are each important in a sense but they are not all complete in themselves.
In fact, the first few reasons are not able to stand on their own. But when they are all taken together with the later reasons, they help us better grasp the importance of Bible translation and the biblical basis for this vital ministry.
1. To end Bible poverty
In 2003, a challenge went out to place a portion of Scripture in every home in the world, and specifically in the mother tongue of those living there. Loren Cunningham, the late founder of Youth With A Mission (YWAM), responded by launching the End Bible Poverty Now initiative at YWAM and eventually wrote a Covenant to End Bible Poverty.
It has become increasingly common to hear the call to “eradicate” or “end Bible poverty.” I think these expressions were fresh and attention-grabbing at the time they were first used. Bible “poverty” is more gripping than Bible “translation” or “distribution.”
However, the idea of ending Bible poverty cannot stand on its own. Once a person’s attention is focused on the topic, it is important to move to more profound motivations. It’s essential to move past the focus on the need in an abstract sense and consider the people who have the need.
2. Because so many languages lack Scripture
Another way to highlight the need for Bible translation is to mention the number of languages that lack Scripture.
William Carey, the father of modern missions, may have been the first to have a vision to translate the Bible for the languages of a given region of the world. He translated the Bible into six languages, including Bengali, Hindi, and Sanskrit; and the New Testament into 26 other languages of India. Having a burden for South Asia, he spoke of the number of people and languages there.
A century later, William Cameron Townsend had an even greater burden. He wanted to see the Bible translated into all the languages of the world. But was that practical? How many translators would be required? How many languages were there?
After several years of research, he and his colleagues concluded that there were 2,000 languages that needed a Bible. They set out their vision in a book entitled Two Thousand Tongues To Go; the Story of the Wycliffe Bible Translators.
Over the past several decades, research has continued, and the number of languages has grown.
I think the vision of all languages having Scripture is important, but only as part of a greater vision to see the redeemed of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev 5:9) know and worship their Lord.
When I have an opportunity to speak on the topic of Bible translation, I often mention the number of languages in the world and the number without Scripture. As with “Bible poverty,” though, the focus on need must be supported by more profound motivations.
3. To provide for the Bibleless (who deserve a Bible)
Another common way of expressing the motivation for Bible translation today is in terms of the “Bibleless” who “deserve” to have God’s Word in their own language.
In the book mentioned earlier, Two Thousand Tongues To Go; the Story of the Wycliffe Bible Translators, the term “Bibleless” was used as a concise way to refer to the language groups in need of a translation.
Before Townsend and Wycliffe Bible Translators used the term, the American Bible Society and other organizations were using “Bibleless” to refer to those who didn’t possess their own copy of the Bible. But Townsend rightly expanded the term to refer to those who didn’t possess a Bible because it wasn’t translated yet.
More recently, I have noticed that the “Bibleless” are said to be deserving of the Word of God. I believe that we have a responsibility to proclaim the Gospel to everyone; I also believe that God wills that His people have His Word. But I am not comfortable about saying that someone in particular deserves these gracious gifts from God.
If someone deserves a Bible, who owes it to them? Does God owe them a copy? Or perhaps it is just the donor who is supposed to feel the burden of responsibility and give. No, we only owe God our obedience and a debt of love to others. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for having a Bible in English while others don’t yet have a Bible in their language.
For those who have a Bible and love the Word of God, the term “Bibleless” may be very impactful. Yet the idea of giving Bibles to those without is only a part of a larger picture. It’s important to view the need for Scripture in light of what the Bible is itself, the very Word of God.
4. Because the Bible is the very Word of God
The previous reasons focus on the need for Bible translation without saying anything about what the Bible is itself.
Some translators, though, are motivated to translate because of what the Bible actually is itself, the Word of God. They recognize that the Scriptures are inspired, inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient for life and godliness (2 Tim 3:14-17; 2 Peter 1:3; Acts 20:32).
The translators of one recent English translation state that they were motivated by the fact that “Scripture is sacred and that the words of the Bible are the very words of God.”
Their convictions resemble those of the translators of the King James Bible, who wrote in 1611 that, “God’s sacred Word . . . is that inestimable treasure that excelleth all the riches of the earth.”
I think the very nature of what the Bible is and what God intends for His Word should be an even stronger motivation than the needs. But we shouldn’t forget about the needs of others. In fact, we should remember our greatest need.
5. To enable people to understand the Gospel
With this fifth reason we have shifted our focus to the spiritual benefit that comes from having a Bible in one’s language.
We don’t translate the Bible simply so that people might have it or even read and understand it. No, we translate with the hope and eager expectation that they will understand the Gospel message and put their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
As Dave Hare states, “Bible translation is necessary because people cannot be saved if they do not understand the Gospel. And for many people, they will never understand the Gospel unless it is communicated in their heart language.”
When we recognize and affirm the importance of people coming to faith in Christ and the role of Scripture in that miraculous work of grace, then we can also affirm the first three reasons.
In other words, it is only appropriate to talk about the lack of Bibles if we recognize that this physical need is part of a greater spiritual need, the need to understand the Gospel and be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Yet we shouldn’t stop here in our discussion of the reasons for Bible translation. If we do, we risk viewing Bible translation in general and the Scriptures in particular as merely part of evangelism.
6. To enable Christians to understand the Scriptures and use them in ministry
With this sixth reason we have broadened our view of the Bible. The Scriptures are more than a tool for evangelizing the lost; they are actually an essential part of the life of the people of God.
With this in view, William Barrick writes, “Without the Word of God, no ministry can be satisfactorily performed—the Word provides the authority for ministry, the instruction for ministry, the power of ministry, and the message of ministry.”
An essential part of this reason is the recognition of the Church as the audience in translation. Furthermore, the translated Scriptures equip the visible Church to read, preach, and teach the Word. To read more about this view, check out my blog post on the ultimate purpose of Bible translation.
But what about the Great Commission and taking the Gospel to the nations? Let’s consider that next.
7. To fulfill the Great Commission
For many years, I quoted Matthew 28:18-20 as the scriptural basis for Bible translation, the passage commonly known as “the Great Commission.”
In this passage, we read: “And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to keep all that I commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’”
I suspect that many if not most Bible translators working in missionary contexts look to this passage as their personal commission to engage in Bible translation.
For many translators today, “all the nations” includes the language community they serve. Furthermore, they view translation as part of disciple making. If asked for more specifics, they might add that the command to teach presupposes that the Bible has been translated. And so, they translate to fulfill the Great Commission.
And modern translators are not alone in viewing Christ’s commands as the basis of Bible translation.
In 1542, the French Bible translator Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples wrote: “And doesn’t he also say through Saint Mark ‘go through the world and preach the gospel to all creatures’? And through Saint Matthew ‘teaching them to keep all that I have commanded you’? And how will they teach them to keep Christ’s commandments if they don’t want the people to see and read the gospel of God in his own language?”
Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples translated the Bible into French and impacted a young reformer named John Calvin. To read more about John Calvin’s views on Bible translation, check this blog post.
8. To obey God’s command to read and search the Bible
If you are familiar with the Westminster Confession of Faith, you might know that it has a short but profound section addressing Bible translation.
The first chapter of the confession addresses the Scriptures. In section 8, it says that the people of God have a right to a Bible in their own language because they are commanded to read and search the Scriptures in the fear of God.
This statement was the first of its kind in a Protestant confession, addressing both the topic of Bible translation and specifically stating that the translation of Scripture is for the spiritual benefit of the people of God. Furthermore, they are to read and study the Scriptures in obedience to God.
It is worth noting that the writers of the confession drew on the earlier writings of the Cambridge theologian William Whitaker. Whitaker defended the translation of the Scriptures in his classic work Disputations on Holy Scripture.
Whitaker focused on the reading of Scripture and defended the right of each believer to read the Bible. He was responding to the Council of Trent and leading Roman Catholic theologians of his day who did not want the common person in the pew to read Scripture and thereby fall into heresy.
It may seem narrow at first to focus on reading, yet when you think about it, reading is the first and most important manner in which one may interact with the text. And by the public reading of Scripture, the Holy Spirit has spoken through the Scriptures to the people of God over the millennia.
If you want to read more about the public reading of Scripture as part of worship, check out this blog post.
9. Because the Holy Spirit ministers through the Bible in the hearts of the redeemed
Another reasons for Bible translation relates to how the Holy Spirit ministers to us. In short, the Holy Spirit ministers through the truths of Scripture as we comprehend them and respond in faith.
In 1 Corinthians 14, the apostle Paul confronted the practice of publicly speaking in a language that the church didn’t understand. He stated that this practice was of no benefit to the congregation.
On the contrary, it was essential to speak to the church in a language they understood in order for them to comprehend and then for the Holy Spirit to minister to their hearts according to that truth. Interestingly, Paul writes that the Holy Spirit had given the gifts of tongues as well as of interpretation for the edification of the church (1 Cor 14:10, 27-28).
There are many unanswered questions about the gifts of tongues and interpretation at the church in Corinth. But it is clear that the Holy Spirit was moving to ensure that the believers understood the truth in their own languages.
Even today, the Holy Spirit ministers in every heart regardless of language. And when the Spirit convicts a person of sins and drives that person to repentance, the Spirit also places a desire in their hearts for the written Word.
So, in a sense, Bible translation is part of the larger ministry of the Holy Spirit. When the Bible has been translated into a particular language, the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of the members of that language community as they comprehend the Scriptures in their language.
10. To obey Jesus Christ who is working out the will of God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit through His Word in the hearts of His redeemed.
This final reason focuses on translation as an act of obedience to the triune God. Whether you are a Bible translator or involved in the ministry of Bible translation in another way, I believe it is important to recognize that the translation of the Bible, just like reading, teaching, or preaching it, is an act of obedience to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
It’s also important to recognize that Jesus Christ is working out the will of God the Father, having redeemed a people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation and making them a kingdom and priest to God (Rev 5:9-10).
In this light, the ministry of Bible translation is part the work of Jesus Christ, equipping those He redeemed for God from every language group with the Word.
Furthermore, as noted in the previous reason, the Holy Spirit is the power of God working through the Word. The Holy Spirit moves us to serve in this key ministry, sustains us during it, and is our hope as we put the translation into the hands of others.
The translated Word changes lives because the Holy Spirit uses our feeble efforts to accomplish God’s glorious purposes.
It’s essential to view Bible translation as obedience to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and, by extension, to our Triune God. We must seek to glorify Him in this endeavor as well as in all we do.
I have presented the major rationales for Bible translation that you will encounter today as well as some that you may not encountered.
It’s hard enough to get people’s attention today. I think gripping language and moving images have a role in getting people to stop and think about Bible translation.
But once this important topic is in view, we have to move beyond the level of needs and focus on the glories of our Triune God.
And I hope these reasons will encourage you to reflect more deeply on the topic and specifically on the centrality of our triune God and His purposes as it relates to His Word.