Laying Firm Foundations: Why Theology Matters in Missions

Desiring God 2003 Conference for Pastors

Good Fences, Bad Fences, and the Glory of Christ

Let me say it is wonderful to be here this morning. I have looked forward to this day and since Monday it felt like it would never come. I should just say in the church, God has given some to be Sinclair Ferguson, some to be John Piper, some to be Antoinette Carter, and some to be Philemon Yang. Therefore, do not make any comparison.

My name is Philemon Yong and my mother gave me that name the night before I was baptized, and I was okay until I came to America where Americans have the right to do anything they want. So they call me Filet Mignon. But seeing that we have to get along, I figured I shouldn’t complain about it. I was born in 1964 or 1965, I think. Nobody knows. For all I know I could be 60, but that’s okay. People ask me what was it like growing up? I say, how can I even begin to describe it? The only thing I can think of is the movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy, Part 1. If you want to see it, you will have an idea.

Take Care How You Build

Yesterday I was so encouraged to see people come forward, promising to think and to pray and to see where God leads them in missions. Wherever you go, let me give you a piece of advice. The first white man I met was a missionary, and the first words out of his mouth have stayed with me to this day, and I regret that they were not from the Bible. He came to our church. Everyone was waiting for him. And his first words were not English. You’re thinking, what is that? Well, let me interpret. It means the ruler of the tribe is giving a thigh of goat to each leader in his kingdom. And we laughed and laughed and laughed at him.

And I thought, what is he getting at with that? Well, he was learning our language so we liked it. But what? Who says things like that? What would happen if he had said things like:

The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift . . . (Romans 3:21–24).

I never heard those words before. Think about what the first words are out of your mouth especially, if you’re learning a language. Then I came to America, a wonderful land, very developed. The first time I flew was in a Boeing 747. My greatest moment of unbelief was that I didn’t think that thing could fly. But when I came to this country I was shocked to see the riches in this land, things like sweet corn from Iowa. Corn is sweet. I grew up with wild corn.

But at the same time I realized the wealth of knowledge — commentaries, books written on the Bible, too many books written on the Bible. And then people are still starving. What’s wrong? Why is it that in this country we have so much at our disposal and we are so lazy and so weak spiritually? My biggest concern is not that we are not sending out missionaries, necessarily; my biggest concern is we might end up sending out people who have no message because they did not eat first.

So I pray that we will call upon God to move us to learn and to study and to be theologically sound so that when he sends us wherever he sends us, we will have something for the people. The church is dying. As they said, the African church is a mile wide and an inch deep. The church is dying because we don’t have theological foundations on which to stand, and we could do something about it. We could do something about it. So be encouraged and go wherever the Lord is leading you to go.

A Product of Missions

I’m a product of missionary work. By 1847 there was a missionary in Cameroon, and by 1922 our first church was planted in my village. And through the missionary influence, specifically Carl and Hedwick Bender — the parents of Helga Bender, the wife of Carl FH Henry — they came to Cameroon. Some of their first converts were from my tribe, and when they heard the gospel and believed they ran home, they abandoned their jobs and went home to preach it.

My grandparents became Christians, my parents became believers, although I doubt my father’s faith right now, and I became a Christian through that. You see, there is work going on out there, the results of which you’ll never see unless God is gracious enough to bring someone like me out here to say your work is not in vain.

I am a third generation Christian and I am thankful to those missionaries who came, some who even put their clothes in their coffins because they knew they would not come back. I thank the churches that sent them, and most of all I thank God, who loved us while we were yet sinners in that Christ died for us. So I plead with you not to take missions lightly because whatever you do in the Lord is not done in vain. So please do not be discouraged.

The Sovereignty of God and Sunday School

I go to churches and it looks like we are so poor we cannot do much, so it’s better to do nothing. No, let me tell you a $50 story, not like you pay me 50 bucks, but you get the sense of it. And this just shows God’s sovereignty.

In 1987, I attended a conference and felt strongly led to introduce myself to a single missionary that I met. It wasn’t Linda, in case you’re wondering. And I thought why should I? And I just felt led to introduce myself to her. When I said, “Hi, my name is Philemon.” She said, “Young man, have you considered going to seminary?” I said, “Yeah, but I have no money.” And she said, “Somebody back home just sent me $50 to use as I see fit.” And she said, “Go to school, it will be there for you.”

He paid my tuition, and if she did not take that step and if that individual did not take that step, I may not have come. God is good. He moved a Christian to send $50, and he put that missionary and I in the same place and made the connection with the seminary, and I met Linda and wow, no wonder I believe in God’s sovereignty.

When I was asked to speak at this conference, I was also asked to give a title. Do you know what it is like to give a title before you research the topic? So I had to come up with something, and I came up with a title: Laying Firm Foundations: Why Theology Matters in Missions. But I want to change it a little bit. It should be: Laying Firm Foundations: Why Theological Education Matters in Missions. And by theological education I don’t mean only training pastors in seminaries, I mean teaching every person in every single church the doctrines of the Bible. We need it.

I have this vision that someday there will be missionaries from the West coming to Third World countries to teach Sunday school. I will do it. Do you know why? Because the people in the Sunday school classes are those that go out and share the gospel with people, and they don’t know what the gospel is. They don’t know what the Bible is about and what place to begin. So if you ever feel led to go and teach Sunday school, call me and we’ll try to convince your church to let you go.

The Need for Theological Education

Theological education, I think, is a big need for the church here and a big need for the church on the mission field because as the church goes here, so goes the church on the mission field. I was teaching a class in Cameroon in January of 2000 when a student said to me, “We are just realizing that we have homosexuals in our congregation. What does the church in America think about these things?” And I thought, how much to share and how much not to share?

And I thought, well I’ll let him deal with the information. So I said to him that some churches, and I think wrongly, think that it is okay and they can even ordain ministers who are homosexuals. And he said to me, “If people in America think that, maybe we are wrong.” I couldn’t talk. I thought, why did you say that? And he said, “They are smarter than we are. They have had the word of God longer. They have studied it and they know it. So if they believe that, maybe we should rethink our position.”

And I thought how much I wanted this guy to read the Bible for himself and decide for himself and shape his view with everyone else and have a Cameroonian church that can interpret Scriptures, so that we don’t have to depend on someone’s interpretation, which is wrong.

What I’m going to do now is give you a few reasons why I chose this title, and I’m going to focus on reasons why theological education is important in the mission field. And maybe by doing that I pray that you will see the need. What I’m going to say you don’t hear in missionary reports, and there’s a reason for that. So I want to give you a different perspective.

Why Theological Education?

But first of all, let me give you a few reasons. There are three of them regarding why I chose this topic. The first one is that it’s the right thing to do. If I were going to be sent to a country where the gospel is not allowed, what is the first thing that I’m going to want to do? Preach the gospel. And when the Lord brings a convert, I would teach that person everything I know about the Bible because our time there is not guaranteed. So when we leave, what happens?

If we make the mistake to think that what this person needs is more loving and more discipleship, whatever that means. I would like someone to define discipleship for me. If we think that way we are wrong because you can disciple a person and leave and nothing will happen. And I have been on that side. It’s good when you’re paid attention to. Someone takes you under their wing. You are the most special person. I just go, “Man, bring it on. This is good. Tell me more about your God.” I like it but not much is getting in.

How about sitting down and teaching that person Scripture? If that person is not real they will run away because they will find the Bible boring, and if they stay the word of God is taking hold of them. So that’s one reason why I chose this method. Frontier missions on unreached people groups should go with a view to train people to understand the Scriptures so that in the event you are not there, the church will do just fine.

The second reason I chose this is that looking back in my own context in Cameroon everyone believes that the church has heard the gospel. They think it is an evangelized area and we should move on. But that is wrong. I go to the church in my tribe, and I’ve taken some people there. The gospel is not preached. It is just so bad. And I say, why is nobody coming back here to say, “What are you teaching? What do you believe? Do you understand faith, grace, justification?”

The reason the gospel is not preached is that people are not taught to understand it. The few that knew it did not teach others and died and therefore it was gone. I think that we should not forget those places either. We should do frontier missions, and we should go back to the evangelized areas and teach the doctrines of Scripture because without it the church will crumble.

The third reason why I chose this title is that it is personal. It is not common to find Reformed theologians or people who are inclined to think along the Reformed lines in Cameroon. I know of two, and we have something in common, Bethlehem Baptist Church. Just think what you can do with two people for each church. Wow. So the third reason is personal. And this is it.

Believe What You Preach

When I was growing up, I said to my mother two things. First, I said, “I’m not going to marry in the village.” I didn’t see any girl that I liked. And she said, “We can arrange someone.” And I said, “I don’t care. I don’t see any girl I like.” And the second thing I told her was, “By the way, I will never become a pastor.” And her answer was — my mother had a great influence on me — “Start praying for your wife.” And I started at age 12.

How do you pray for a wife at age 12? I’m thankful that she moved into praying that way. And then she said, “Don’t be so sure that you will never be a pastor.” The reason I didn’t want to become a pastor was because at age 11 I could read the Bible better than my pastor. And every time he preached he had the same application: “Don’t drink. Don’t sleep with your neighbor’s wife. Don’t steal. Go home.” It didn’t matter which text he was preaching. I did not want to be like that. But then God wasn’t done with me.

I moved to a different city when I met a young man who was from the seminary and he would say things like, “Philemon, you have been saved by grace through faith. It is a gift, lest you should boast.” And I was like, “What is he saying?” I had no idea what he meant. And then he would say, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” And I said, “Can you explain that?” And then I realized he was doing it because I was an Arminian by default. I didn’t know what to think. I had no theology. And he was trying to help me see things differently.

One time he said, “God chose you before the foundation of the world for his good pleasure.” I was like, “What does choose mean? What does God mean? What does foundation of the world mean? What does good pleasure mean?” He didn’t fully understand it until I learned, when I went to another conference, that he had gotten all of that from a teacher of his and that’s what the teacher was teaching him.

I went to this conference and this guy was preaching and he was not shouting. I was used to preaching where people were shouting and saying nothing. But he was preaching with joy and I thought, “I want to be like that. He believes what he is saying.” And when I greeted him, he said, “My name is Steve Roy and I am from Bethlehem Baptist Church.” And he was teaching at our seminary and my friend was learning from him. He impacted my life theologically before I ever went to the seminary. Imagine if he hadn’t come. Imagine if he did not believe what he was teaching.

If you met this man, he had some sleepless nights because us Africans like to torment our missionaries to put you in your place when you think that you know what you’re saying. But he never gave up. He never gave up. Theology is important. For the first time I realized it is not totally up to me. And that was freeing. It was so freeing. I was like, “You mean God has something to do with it? That is good news.” Because people think that as they serve the idols, they have to serve God in order to win his favor. And that is not right. We should teach grace.

Then I went to seminary and met Linda and she gave me Piper tips to listen to. And again I thought, “Wow, he believes what he is saying just from the sound of his voice,” except that I expected a man who was very tall from his voice. When I came to Bethlehem they said, “Hey, that’s John Piper,” and I said, “No it’s not.” Then I saw David Livingstone and I said, “That’s John Piper.” Would you see what love for God can do to you? It makes you speak powerfully.

Blessed to Be a Blessing

So my question is, what moves someone to preach and teach like that? And my answer, from being at Bethlehem, is that it comes from an unquenchable passion for God. Oh, try that. If you want your preaching to mean something, have a passion for God. And if you want to find out more, you can read his books. My point about Steve Roy is that he had theological convictions and had established the boundaries so that he was able to teach in the midst of suffering. He thought, “I will say it and not give up, and not compromise, and not let the Africans think the way they want to think.” He never gave up. And even those who rejected his teaching hold to it now. Our school president just gave him a hard time. But see where he is now. It is amazing.

The third reason why I choose this topic is because of Psalm 67:1–4 and Romans 1:5. I hear complaints that the church in Africa is not getting serious about missions. And I say, how could they? If missions is a command to be obeyed, nobody will do it. You can obey for a time and then just give up. When I came here and started going to school and started learning how to read and pay attention, the Bible began to make so much sense to me. And then I read Psalm 67:1–4, which says:

May God be gracious to us and bless us
     and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known on earth,
     your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
     let all the peoples praise you!
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
     for you judge the peoples with equity
     and guide the nations upon earth.

What dawned upon me when I read that was that I have been too quick to pray for blessings and to sit down and say, “He must love me. See what he has done. He has blessed us.” I realized that when God blesses his people, it is not for their sake, it is not for our own selfish reasons. He blesses us with an eye on the nations. And I had no clue what “nations” meant. This is an interesting thing. We were sitting there in a mission field receiving the gospel, and nobody told us what “nations” mean. I have been to unreached people groups and had no idea it was an unreached people group. The only thing I knew was there is no church in this place and it is depressing.

I had no idea that there are people on earth who have never heard the gospel. I wonder what I could have done if I knew. I don’t know. But it would be helpful to let people know that they are the nations and that there are other nations including America. God blesses us with an eye on the nations. He blesses us for the sake of the nations.

Blessed to Show God’s Character and Saving Power

Why is this? So that they will know his way, they will know his salvation. So someone has to go and to declare in response to that blessing to go. And I believe that God’s blessing, the blessing of salvation, in particular, moves me to go to the nations. I cannot just sit and do nothing. And then I realize it is not enough to receive the blessings and go, but the nations are to worship. They will know your way and your salvation. Let the nations praise you, oh God.

It seems to me that if I take the gospel to the nations, I am not done until someone is worshiping God. Too often we are satisfied with a sinner’s prayer, and that is so wrong. How we need to linger with that person and see how they’re working with the Lord, and see if they’re worshiping the Lord and help them understand what it means to worship God. But that will not happen without theological education. We have to lift God up in all his attributes. We have to lift Christ up. We have to lift the Scriptures up. We have to help them see God as he is revealing himself in the Scriptures, and they will say, “Wow.” We don’t have the word “wow” in my tribe. So they will say something with that equivalence.

Psalm 67 has been transforming for me. And then I read something in a book, something like this. See if you can guess who wrote it:

Missions exist because worship doesn’t. Worship therefore is a fuel and goal of missions. It is a goal of missions because in missions we simply aim to bring the nations into a white-hot enjoyment of God’s glory. Passion for God in worship precedes the offer of God in preaching. You can’t commend what you don’t cherish.

I can take you to Cameroon and I can say to you, “These people are not going to the nations because they don’t cherish God.” And the only way they will cherish God is if we help them, and we help them by teaching and by cherishing God ourselves. Did you know that — sorry to missionaries who are in here, none of you fit this category — missionaries can be the most boring people on the mission field?

Who just sang the song here? They knew an African was coming up here and we sang it. That was a great song. You should come to Africa with people singing like that instead of standing by the roadside and singing, “I love you Lord . . .” Did somebody die? Can I help you? Come on. If God is glorious and you are excited, how can you sing like that? Somebody put some rhythm into it because that is who we are. It was difficult for me to learn to worship here because we stood still, but that is fine. That’s how they did it here. I had to move past that and be drawn into God’s presence by other means.

For the Sake of His Name

Okay, let’s consider Romans 1:5. Paul explains that he has “received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations . . .” So Paul’s missionary call is to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles. Why? It’s for the sake of his name. I believe he means he does this so that God will be glorified, that Christ be glorified. God being worshiped and Christ being worshiped is the goal of his missionary task. And I want that to be mine.

So I say amen to John Stott when he says:

The highest of all missionary motives is neither obedience to the Great Commission (important as that is), nor love for sinners who are alienated and perishing (strong as that incentive is, especially when we contemplate the wrath of God), but rather zeal — burning and passionate zeal — for the glory of Jesus Christ.

In all honesty, that is what is sending missionaries to Africa. Life is so good in this country. My parents think I am crazy to bring my family to live in Africa. And I say, “I have worshiped God in America and we cannot sit there.” Would you join me please? Ah, in Revelation 7:9–12 all those people from all over the world worshiping God, where did they come from? I want to go to heaven and see some of those, and if God allows me to recognize them and to say, “I know you”. And he will say, “Yeah, you came to the Mungo people, a weird tribe in the southwest province of Cameroon that nobody wants to go to.” To me that is more joyful and more glorious than enjoying life here.

I’m not saying that if you are staying here, you think that you will be second class in heaven. No. Because some stay it means that others can go. So we are all in it. We’re all coworkers in this together.

So the three reasons why I chose this topic are, first, that it is practical; second, my own experience leads me to see that without theological education it is impossible to really worship God because we don’t know who he is or what we are supposed to believe; and the third reason is that worship is the motivation for missions. It has to be that for me. Otherwise, I will think of all the reasons not to go. And I have seen missionaries when asked, “Why are you going to Africa?” their reply was, “I just love those black people. I love Africans.”

I’m thinking, “No way.” Because if you go there and you get out of the plane, you smell the place and you go, “Ugh, where’s the deodorant?” We don’t have it. You get in the taxi and you put your hand behind your seat and a goat licks your fingers and you go, “Ugh, why am I riding in a car with goats?” It is not easy out there, but simple love for the people will not keep you there. Something greater has to keep you there, so that when they say, “Why are you staying when we are so mean to you?” you’ll say, “Because I love God and I worship God.” And you will know what I mean when you worship God.

The Shift of Global Christianity

What are some reasons why? I have four reasons why I believe that theological education is important in missions. It is not an option. Reason number one is that according to the statistics on the growth of Christianity around the world, Patrick Johnson has estimated that by 2025, 83 percent of evangelical Christians will live in the non-western world. Can you believe it? Eighty-three percent of evangelicals will live in a non-western world by 2025. That is how many years from now? 21? I will still be alive. I may be alive. That should be scary for you. Do you know why?

Look at Africa. Look at Third World countries. We love power. That is dangerous. And when we come to realize that we hold the majority of Christianity around the world, we can do with it as we want, if we don’t have the right theology. When Dr. Ferguson was speaking yesterday about the cancer of false doctrine and people that will breach the fences, like those who are quarrelsome and those who have had drive for power, I started there thinking, “Oh no, we are in big trouble because that is the leadership in the convention that I come from.” Some divisions drive for power. What will happen if there is no right theology at that time? And to make things worse, the 83 percent include groups such as Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons.

In Cameroon, for example, people don’t distinguish among those groups. They don’t know how to distinguish among those groups. People are rejecting groups. People think they ought to be accepting and embracing groups. But they ought to be rejecting them because they just don’t know who they are supposed to be, and therefore, they don’t know how they should see and judge the other groups. We cannot let that go on. So we help build good fences. We help teach people the truth of Scripture so that they can learn to be discerning and know wrong doctrine when they see it.

The Remedy for False Teaching

In one of the big cities in Cameroon, the city Bamenda, I was there in January of 2001 and I was going to teach and all of a sudden I had no voice. I was supposed to start teaching the next day and my sister said to me, “Brother, you cannot. You’re sick.” And I thought she was kidding. I said, “Oh no, that’s fine. Don’t worry, it will come back.” And then she said, “No, you cannot be sick.” And I thought, “No, don’t worry, don’t say that.”

Then the second day she said, “You cannot be sick.” And I realized she thought I may not be a Christian because I am sick. I walked into her room and she was listening to a tape, and I said, “Who is that preaching?” And she said, “It’s Brother Etar.” And I said, “Who is Brother Etar?” She said, “You don’t know? Sunday morning at seven o’clock the whole city goes silent to listen to this man. And he’s preaching the health, wealth and prosperity gospel. You cannot be sick. If you are sick, something is wrong.” So my sister believed it, and therefore, in her mind her brother was maybe not a Christian and nobody in the church was rising up to address it.

So when I said to my students, “Why are you doing nothing about it?” They said, “What are we supposed to say? The guy knows his Bible.” Anybody who gives people water on Sunday morning and says to them, “This is the blood of Jesus. Sprinkle it on your cars, on your children, on your house, and God will bless you” ought to be kicked out of the country, and nobody is addressing it. Why? There are no solid foundations from which they can build and go against that kind of a teaching. So it just goes on and on.

Look around you. Dr. Piper will not always be there. Dr. Ferguson will not always be there. Anthony Carter will not always be there. Whoever you respect will not always be there. What if this man did nothing? What if John Owen never wrote anything and Calvin and Luther. I’ve heard a lot about them here and I’m thinking, I did not hear the name Calvin till I was 23. If we cherish those kinds of doctrines, let’s go and teach them. The Muslims are doing it. Stephen Neil describes Christianity in Africa and says one of the biggest threats is the growth of Islam because they offer you God without the necessity of a holy living. And people are embracing it. It is easy to do it that way, but we have the truth and we are just sitting.

So let’s see this opportunity and impact people so that the name of Christ will be glorified in them, and when they go back to their countries, they will make Christ known. There are so many international students here and there is no reason why any of them should go back without a suitcase full of doctrinal truth so that when they go back they can teach it. And when they go back people listen to them. So please lay hold of them and teach so that by 2025 the 83 percent will be teaching the truth.

And in case you didn’t know, they’ll be coming back here to teach. Can you imagine me standing here and telling you that your ancestors are speaking to you through me and I could get people to listen to me? Hopefully that isn’t happening in this room. Given the way American culture is going, trying to be so nice and tolerant, the message should be, “Listen to him. Don’t make him feel bad, he’s from Africa.” I want people to come in here with the truth, and that will only happen if we are concerned about the truth and teach it and train people to believe it.

An Eroding Theological Emphasis

The second reason why theological education is important is that — and this is a little bit controversial — among my missionary colleagues, there is an argument that we should not emphasize theology. It is a thing of the past. It is a Western way of thinking, and therefore we should not impose it on the Africans. And I say, “Why don’t we ask the Africans if they will like it? Why don’t we not tell them what they should think and learn and believe?”

And that is frightening because when I was in seminary somewhere in a preaching class, the teacher brought in two pastors who have loved seminary and they came in to encourage us and they stood up and the teacher said, “What word do you have for these guys here and these women?” And the first guy said, “What I have learned in ministry is that in seminary you should not read dead theologians because ministry is not about dead theologians.” I thought that they were basically addressing that to some of us. They were saying, “You pray for the sick, you visit the sick, and you love people.”

And I said, “How can ministry possibly happen without theology? How can I pray for someone to be healed when I don’t believe that the Scripture teaches that I should pray for healing?” And those are people that will end up on a mission field and they will teach it and people will believe it. Interestingly, those same people who argue that we should not emphasize theology are quick to emphasize their own theological point of view, like their view of the millennium.

In 1995, we were in Cameroon as missionaries and our missionary came over to teach and he convinced my students to hold a certain view of the millennium, so they took his advice. Of course he was a white man with knowledge. I used to think like that so I don’t blame them. Your opinion trumped mine. But we need to change that. And they came to class and said, “Oh, he told us to believe this.” And I said, “I am your teacher, and I will flunk you if you don’t do what I say. Go and do the research and tell me why you believe what you believe.”

That same afternoon the guy was having lunch with us and I was already upset, and he sat at the table and he said to me, “Philemon, what is your biggest concern for this place?” And I said, “My biggest concern is for 50 years of existence. It is only within the last four years that Reformed theology has started coming through this country.” And he said, “Reformed theology is an abomination.” And I’m feeding him. I thought this guy had no sense. And I could see Linda just tensing up, hoping that I would not say anything. And I was trying to decide how to kindly tell him to leave. And then he said, “What is Reformed theology anyway? It is an abomination and you don’t know what it is.” Let me say this, we must train nationals to understand scriptures and to hold the doctrinal truths of scripture because in the history of missions, the gospel has tended to be watered down so that we can digest it. And the problem is when we digest the milk, we live on it forever.

Ready to Teach What Accords with Sound Doctrine

I was in a class and the teacher was teaching on the Old Testament prophets, and I kept thinking, “I have read something like that in a New Testament.” And I said, “Can you explain how that relates to the New Testament?” And she said, “You don’t need to know that.” And I thought, “Why not? I do need to know. That is my question.” And she said, “Where you are going to serve those questions will not be asked.” And I said, “Fine.” Then I thought I better teach.

Eight years later we are back at the same school teaching and I went out with our students to supervise his work in the field and he was teaching Sunday school when an old man in the back of the class, who was never going to school, put his hand up and said, “Pastor, if Jesus is the only way to God, what about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Will they be in heaven?” And he looked at me and I said, “Don’t look at me, answer his question.” And then I realized that we need to do a better job in theological education.

William Carey believed that we should train national leaders so that they’ll be competent and so that they will teach and finish the Great Commission. It may not be dependent upon us. It may be that God is calling us to teach and train people so that they will understand the gospel, understand the Great Commission, and then go to the peoples of the world and reach their own people. Carey wrote that another part of our work is:

. . . the forming of our native brethren to usefulness, fostering every kind of genius, and cherishing every gift and grace in them; in this respect we can scarcely be too lavish in our attention to their improvement. It is only by means of native preachers we can hope for the universal spread of the gospel through this immense continent (India).

If we teach and train people to interpret Scripture, to have the right doctrine, they will do amazing things because they have seen the vision of God first, not because we tell them to. When we de-emphasize theological education and theology, one of the consequences is that we don’t have godly leaders. As Tom Stellar pointed at the beginning, that is the biggest problem in Cameroon right now. They cannot find people to lead the church.

Consequences of Our Negligence

Another consequence is that tradition becomes the center and not Scripture. It is not only Christ; it is Christ plus other things. There is a play in South Africa called Ipi Tombi, or A Dance Celebration, and it is very famous. It is also disturbing because in one place a young man comes home to get married and he says to his father, “I am a Christian and I want to get married the Christian way, whatever that means.” And his father was upset and said to him, “No, that witch doctor must marry you.” And the son said, “No.” And then he went to his priest and his priest said, “Why are you upset?” And he said, “My father wants the witch doctor to marry me.” And the priest said, “What is wrong with that?” And the man said, “I am a Christian.”

And the priest said, “Son, listen to me. There is one God. And there are many ways to God. There is the dark way and there is the light way, tear the middle road.” What is the middle road in that context? It is syncretism where you take things on your traditional worship and take things in Christianity and put them together and bring them to the church, and that is destroying the church. And we have many church leaders like that because they don’t know what the truth is.

Let us not teach about particular theological points of view that are not necessary. There was a short time I came out to do evangelism, and after a week where it was really difficult to get people to listen and we tried to help. After a week, they decided to do discipleship with those of us who are in the church. One day we were worshiping and this young lady came to me and said, “Philemon, are you a Christian?” And I said, “Yes I am.” And she said, “Did you receive the gift of the Spirit, the baptism of the Spirit?” And I said, “I’m a Christian and I have the Holy Spirit.” And she said, “Do you speak in tongues?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “Come with me.”

And we went to the back room and she grabbed my friend along and we started praying and she said, “I’m going to pray for you to receive the gift of tongues.” And I thought, really? And she prayed for 20 minutes, then 30 minutes, and she said, “Say anything that comes to your mind.” And I thought, “There’s nothing coming to my mind.” And then it was 50 minutes, then it was one hour. And then I thought, “There is a way to get out of here. Pray in your dialect. She will never know.” That for me was a spiritual struggle because I was thinking, should I lie? And I was thinking, “It’s not right,” but I needed to go home. I knew I shouldn’t lie.

As I was trying to make that decision, my friend started praying in tongues, except he was praying in my dialect and he was holy and I was the pagan. I do believe in the gifts of tongues, I just don’t have it. But if your mission is defined by getting believers to receive that, I think you’ve missed the point. What I needed was how to understand the doctrines of Scripture, not how to receive the gift of tongues by the laying on of hands.

The Theological Nature of Missions

My third point regarding why theological education is important is this, and this to me is very important in every tribe and culture that we go to: people believe in a God who created the world but he’s too far removed to have anything to do with him. And our only hope is to appease the spirits that he has put in place to punish us for the wrongs we do and therefore we sacrifice so that they will be happy with us and our children will not die. And then we come into that context with the gospel of Jesus Christ. What are you going to do? This is my argument.

Don’t tell them that they have been wrong for all these years because they will not believe you. Listen, don’t argue for the existence of God because they already have it. Desmond Tutu says that Africans find a classical argument for the existence of God to be an interesting intellectual game because Africa taught us long ago that life without belief in a supreme being was just too absurd to contemplate. But there is a way to minister in this context.

When people say God is too far, we bring the Scriptures. God is not far. He is near to those who seek him. When they say I must serve the spirit in order to maybe please God, we say our God serves those who wait for him. When they say to you they believe that sacrifices must be offered because they are sinners, we say there is one perfect sacrifice, Jesus Christ. When they say that our ancestors are now gods, we say there is only one God who is to be worshiped.

When they say we worship idols because they keep track of our tribe, we say to them, God alone is the one true God, and we can go to Isaiah 40:25–26:

To whom then will you compare me,
     that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
     who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
     calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might
     and because he is strong in power,
     not one is missing.

And they will say to you, “Is there a God like that?” And you say, “Yes.” The way to move people from worshiping idols to worshiping God is to display the glory of God and to point it out to them.

The Living God Is God Alone

When I was 10 and I was trying to hold onto my Christian faith while there was much idol worship around me, I went to the woman I call my grandmother — though Linda points out she’s my great-aunt because in my home we have one word, Nini, which means grandmother — and she was cooking and I was hungry, and I knew there was going to be food. And she said to me, “This is for sacrifice tonight.”

And I said to my friend, “They are offering food to gods tonight but there’s only one God.” And he said, “That’s not true.” And I said, “I can prove it to you.” He said, “How?” And I said, “Well, when they offer the food, let’s eat it and then see what happens.” And he said, “Well, what if we die?” And I said, “Life is bad enough the way it is.” And then he said, “But what if we get caught?” And I said, “Then tell them I convinced you to.”

So when they offered the food, we ate it. It was good. That night there was dancing. And my great aunt stood up and someone said to her, “Why are we so happy today?” And she said, “The gods are happy with us.” And the woman said, “How do we know?” And she said, “They ate all the food and there were no crumbs.” Wow. I turned to my friend and I said, “We must be gods then.” He didn’t want to have anything to do with me because he was afraid.

How I wish I knew Isaiah 40:25–26 at that time. How I wish I knew a text that speaks of the supremacy of God and that he alone is the God of the nations and idols are no gods. Given the missionary context, that is deeply theological. We must be deeply theological in our approach.

Explain the History of Redemption

The last point I want to make is this: we must emphasize redemptive history. This is so important. I never heard the word salvation history or redemptive history till I was almost done with college. How can anybody be a serious Christian with no knowledge of how God works through history to save his people? Growing up and going to church, when I heard Jews and Gentiles, Gentiles were the Africans and the Jews were every white person that came to our country. Now I know we are in the same boat. But the reason Christianity doesn’t make sense to people among other tribes is that it is a foreign concept. So we say it is the white man’s religion, and therefore it doesn’t take root in our lives.

But that does not have to be so because there is no other religion where, when God tells me I’m a sinner, he also says, “But God . . .” I want that kind of religion. So skepticism is not necessary if we teach about redemptive history, and there is no better place to go to than Genesis 12:1–3. I’m just going to read it to you:

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

I believe that includes my tribe. And I pray that we will tell them that from the very beginning, God had an eye on bringing people to himself from every family of the earth. And they will go, “You mean we may be included in that?” You say, “Yeah.” Therefore, Christianity ceases to be the white man’s religion. It ceases to be a foreign concept. We are people who like history and it is wonderful to see that in God’s plan he included people from all the tribes of the world so that when we come to the New Testament and call on people to believe in the Lord Jesus, we can say that gift of salvation is the fulfillment of the blessing promised to Abraham. So you become his descendant through faith in Jesus Christ.

We should be purposeful in how we present the gospel and help people understand it and see the history of it. Because redemptive history shows that God is working through history to accomplish his purposes and to bring people to himself from among every people group in the world. And that will move people to want to share it with other people who have not heard about him because they know that God has an eye on those tribes also.

Seek His Kingdom First

So there are four reasons why theological education is important in missions. The first is according to the statistics, the center of gravity of Christianity. The center of Christianity is going to change, and is going to be in the Third World setting. The second is the eroding theological emphasis on the mission field. We can do something about that. The third was the theological nature of the missionary context. Unless we help deal with your worldview theologically, the gospel will not make sense. And the fourth was the importance of redemptive history.

So what? When Jesus says in Matthew 24:14 “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come,” we are calling to do that and then the end will come. I do want the end to come. So I do want to go where the gospel has not been preached or prepare people to go where the gospel has not been preached. But we can only do that if we seek first God’s kingdom.

So my plea to you before you send anyone out is this: seek first the kingdom of God. Worship first, meet God in worship, and then you will have something significant to offer. Don’t take the word of God lightly. The doctrines you heard talked about yesterday, the doctrine of Scripture, the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of end things, and the doctrine of the church. We should take those things seriously so that when we go, we have something to offer. Otherwise, we will be as soldiers with no weapons. It is not enough to just obey the Great Commission, as important as that is. It is not enough to just go because people are lost without Christ. It is so much better to go because we have worshiped Almighty God.

Fight for the Wellbeing of Our Churches

The second thing I want to plead with you about is that for the sake of the nations, fight for the theological wellbeing of your own churches. Because as I said earlier, as the church goes here, so will the church on the mission field. I was teaching on doctrines of Christ in our seminary and a student objected to the deity of Christ, which made me really shocked because he’s a Baptist. After class I said, “What is going on?” And he said, “I have literature that denies that Jesus is God and it is from America.” And I said, “What literature?” And he brought it to me and it was Jehovah Witnesses literature. And they send it to them for free.

Do you know what we can send? We can send a lot of good stuff because whatever people get, they read with their whole heart. I want to be reading the right thing and establishing among them a firm foundation. So let’s fight for the wellbeing of our churches.

Export a Truly-Defined Gospel

The third point is, and I’m going to end with this, define the gospel that you are taking to the nations. No missionary should go out without a defined gospel. What are they going to say? To test this, pretend you are not a Christian when someone tries to witness to you on an airplane and hear what they say. The gospel to me was, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you’ll be saved. And if you don’t believe in him, you’ll go to hell.” That is true, but who is the Lord Jesus? We just assume that people know about Jesus. We just assume that people know about God. But the god of my tribe is not the God of the Bible. I believe we have to emphasize the gospel events that Jesus died, he was buried, and he rose again from the dead and conquered death to deliver us from the kingdom of darkness and to bring us into the kingdom of light. Oh, we need to emphasize that. We need to emphasize the Old Testament witness to the gospel.

He did not just die and was buried and rose again. It happened according to Scriptures. We need to take time and talk about what that means and establish what that means and send people up with that kind of belief because if you don’t show me from Scriptures why this is important, it’s just going to be your word. I can believe it or I can deny it. And if I really like you, I can believe it. Oh we need to define the gospel and take it to the nations.

So the gospel events, the Old Testament witness, we also need to be clear on what we are calling on people to affirm that Jesus is Christ, that Jesus is Lord. And then what about the promise of the gospel? What are you promised? You are not promised good health, necessarily. You’re promised the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. And then we can make the gospel demand, “Repent of your sins and believe in the Lord Jesus,” and that comes from many, many, many months of explanation of who Jesus is from the Old Testament perspective.

Let’s not take this lightly. It is not an easy task, and it is not for the weak. The devil is not asleep. He will do all he can to keep each one of us from taking the Scriptures seriously. Because if he succeeds in that, he will keep many people in the dark. So we need to fight that spiritual battle.

Oh that we would all pray that God would send forth workers (Matthew 9:37–38) — people who love him first. I plead with you to love God so much that you love the nations by caring about what they believe theologically. Then we will be laying firm foundations for the church to stand on. Then it will not be said that the leadership is corrupt because of lack of theological training. And there are many, many opportunities. If you look for them, you’ll find them. So let’s share what we have. Let’s be involved. Let’s trust God to accomplish many, many things through us.