Five Points for All Peoples
How Reformed Theology Is Transforming Africa
Article by Dieudonné Tamfu , Professor, Bethlehem College & Seminary
Recently a missionary to our country asked me about my ministry. I explained that we are planting a church and have started an extension site of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Cameroon to train gospel ministers. I mentioned that our seminary program places a major emphasis on teaching the biblical languages and God-centered theology. She expressed her surprise. She told me that in her ministry they do not teach Cameroonian pastors the biblical languages or theology. She said, “With all the problems in the church here, we consider it more important to give pastors practical teachings on ministry.” It was sad to hear.
Good practices in ministry are driven by sound theology. We may think that practical teaching, void of theological discussion, is better because it gains faster results, but that change will not last. If we don’t aim to change people at the worldview level, we won’t change them at all. Yes, the African church is weak, but Christians and pastors here need more than instructions on what to do and what not to do. Missions should be more than crisis management. The people we serve on the mission field need a big, God-centered, Christ-glorifying theology. They need Reformed theology. If it is good for Americans, it is good for us.
Africans need the same theology that Americans and Europeans need. We may look different and have different accents, different skin colors, different economic powers, different diseases, and different levels of scientific advancement, but we are the same at the core: sinners in need of a Savior. The relevance of sound doctrine is not contextual; it is global. People of all colors, tribes, and languages share in Adam’s sin. They are all depraved. God has unconditionally elected people from amongst all of them. And Reformed theology reforms every race of people.
Humbled by Depravity
Man, though created in the image of God, is born dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1). He is unwilling and unable to turn to God in repentance (Romans 8:7–8). By nature, man is only able to sin. No one does good; neither is anyone willing or able to do good, since the good works that God requires must flow out of faith in Christ, which we all lack by nature (Romans 14:23; 1 Corinthians 2:14).
No matter where one serves, this doctrine informs how we view the people we minister to. When we believe that all men are totally depraved, we do not view Africans or Americans as morally inferior. We have different skin colors, but our hearts are all black apart from Christ, darkened by our depravity. Americans are equally as depraved as Africans, and the same God who overcomes American depravity overcomes African depravity.
This understanding is relevant for all ministers. God uses the gospel to triumph over depraved hearts. So, we preach the gospel boldly and confidently, and we encourage preachers of all nations to do the same. We plead with men to turn to God, while pleading with God to turn men to him.
Motivated by Election
God graciously and willingly, uncoerced or influenced by anything foreseen in us, appointed some for salvation before time began (Ephesians 1:4). God elected before time because it did not depend on time or anything within time. Even within time, we are slaves, sinners, fools, hell-deserving, with no merits before God.
When God chooses undeserving sinners, he does not show partiality. Men of all colors, tribes, languages, and social backgrounds are part of God’s elect. So, Paul courageously traveled to distant lands to proclaim the same gospel because he knew God’s elect people were scattered around the world. He believed God already marked them out, but he also knew they could not be saved unless someone preached the truth to them (Romans 10:14). Even though he presented the truth in different ways, he presented the same truth. Ministers in every tribe need to understand this. The same truth that motivated Paul motivates Americans, and also motivates Africans. The same gospel that saves Americans will save the elect in Africa. Do not water down the gospel or minimize the importance of teaching the Reformed doctrines because you are in Africa.
Someone once asked me why I was getting a PhD when I was planning to return to Cameroon. Although I do not know the person’s motives, that question assumes that Africans do not need a well-articulated gospel from well-trained and theologically sound ministers. Wrong! Wrong! If the elect in America need Reformed pastors with PhDs to teach them, so do Africans. Those preparing to serve in third-world countries should get an excellent — and I will add Reformed — education for the sake of the elect, and train African pastors in the same theology. They are worthy of that sacrifice. We need more than how-tos and do-nots. We need God-centered Reformed theology.
Saved by Atonement
Limited atonement means that Jesus died effectually for those whom God freely appointed for salvation. Christ died for his bride, the church (Ephesians 5:25). Although Christ’s death is not limited in its power, it is particularly applied toward the elect. Although Christ’s death is limited to the elect, by it, God saves from every tribe, race, language, and tongue through faith (Revelation 5:9).
In ministry, our calling is to preach the limited, sufficient, and powerful redeeming work of Christ. We preach the limited atoning work of Christ limitlessly, praying that God would apply the limited atonement of Christ to all we minister to.
So, when we evangelize, and evangelize, and the people do not believe, we do not lose heart. We say with Paul, “Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:3–4). Understanding the doctrine of limited atonement protects us, African and American gospel ministers alike, from using manipulative strategies in evangelism. Like Paul, “we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).
Overcome by Grace
God’s Son died precisely for the appointed people of God, and God irresistibly applies the atoning work of his Son to those he has elected. Although our depraved hearts may resist it for a time, God’s saving grace cannot ultimately be resisted. God draws all the elect to his Son.
No human — American, African, Asian, or European — is so depraved as to resist the saving grace of God in Christ. Thus, we labor in ministry, trusting God’s Spirit to overcome any human resistance.
As an African pastor, this doctrine gives me confidence in evangelism and ministry at large. It helps me refrain from methodologies that are unbiblical. Because God’s saving grace is irresistible, we ministers of the gospel must refrain from approaches to ministry that may strengthen human resistance. I find Americans in Africa fronting their gospel ministries with financial and material gifts, perhaps to gain a hearing. While such generosity is good and biblical, we must be careful that we do not feed the money and material-mindedness driven by the so-called prosperity gospel. If God can save Westerners without our baits, he can save Africans and Asians without them. We must trust God’s irresistible grace and preach God’s word as it is.
We must be careful that we do not come to Africa and approach Africans as though they are able to resist God’s grace. No gifts can overcome an African’s depravity. No financial support can. No relaxation of biblical expectations can. We make them more ready for hell with these things, if we are not careful.
Kept by God
When God saves, he also preserves. God guarantees every believer eternal life because he saves and safeguards every one of them. God will complete his work of salvation in every saint at the day of Christ (Philippians 1:6). God will keep his saved ones saved by his power through their faith in Christ, which he himself will sustain in them (Hebrews 13:20–21; 1 Peter 1:4–5). The same gospel saves and keeps.
What this means for ministry to an African, American, or Asian pastor is that we never cease proclaiming the gospel. We do not preach the gospel to bring in the elect and then go on to other practical things. The gospel, which is at the heart of God-centered Reformed theology, is the power of God for the salvation of the saved. We receive the gospel and get saved, we keep believing the gospel to stay saved, and it is that same gospel that will save us at the end.
African, Asian, and every third-world saint needs a constant gospel diet for their perseverance, and we serve them best when we serve them the full, undiluted gospel of Christ. God keeps the third world the same way he does the first world. We must minister to them in like manner and train their native men with the same worldview to minister in the same fashion.
My Prayer for African Churches
A proper grasp of Reformed doctrines, relevant even for African village pastors, should make it easier for us to minister in any context, understanding that all men are fundamentally identical and need the same solution for their salvation.
Let us transform gospel ministry globally by equipping every minister with Reformed theology, no matter where they serve. Every pastor must embrace and teach these doctrines to show his people how big our God is and how great a salvation he offers. When we give people great theology, we can expect great things. Expect lasting transformation. Expect reformation. That is what I am praying for the African church.
Dieudonné Tamfu is assistant professor of Bible and theology, and coordinator of the Cameroon Extension Site for Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Dominique, live in Yaoundé, Cameroon, with their two children.