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Missionary Spotlight-The Reformed Faith in Chile

January 2006 | by Kevin Houser

The Reformed faith has been propagated in Chile for nearly two centuries. This is reflected by the Protestant work ethic present in everyday life in Chile – especially in the capital, Santiago.

This doctrinal conviction was initially fed by 150 years of immigration from European countries including Germany. Over this time, the Presbyterian Church steadily grew, especially among the middle and upper middle classes.

Today Presbyterianism is represented in Chile by four separate denominations. Among these is the Presbyterian Church of America – which has recently been seeking to release Chilean pastors from having to complete years of formal theological training so they can do more ‘grass roots’ teaching and preaching.

Resurgence

 

The growth of the Anglican Church in Chile – also historically Reformed – has been rooted in the indigenous evangelism of the middle classes. Within its churches there has lately been some recovery of Reformed doctrine.

Good biblical training is being given to urban professionals and there is a resurgence of sound theological education and exegetical preaching. This has been achieved through fellowship with Reformed Anglicans in other parts of the world, including Moore College, Australia.

Within the Southern Baptist Conference there is a scattering of Chilean pastors influenced by the writings of people like Albert Mohler, but none are known to be openly Reformed in conviction or ministry.

However, in the past year Chile’s first Reformed Baptist church holding to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faithhas opened in Santiago, under the auspices of ARBCA (Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America).

While some missiologists put the proportion of evangelical Christians in Chile as high as 25%, the reality is less encouraging.

In Latin culture people are often led by their emotions, and many respond to an altar call or pray a ‘sinner’s prayer’ with no corresponding regeneration of the heart. This is due in part to latent Catholic thinking that makes a profession of ‘faith’ another ‘good work’ counting towards salvation.

 

False emphases

 

Over the last 80 years Catholicism coupled with an increasingly Arminian fundamentalism has created many problems for Evangelical churches. These problems have been compounded by missionaries (well intentioned but without deep-seated theological convictions) who have over-contextualised the gospel to fit Chilean culture.

Even in professedly Reformed circles there is often a false emphasis on salvation through personal holiness (what one watches, reads and does). While not explicitly denying salvation receivedby faith, preachers can still subtly imply that salvation is maintainedby works.

Most Evangelicals in Chile think that being ‘Reformed’ merely means being an heir to the sixteenth-century Reformation – in other words, being a Protestant. So many, in the same breath, call themselves Reformed and fundamentalist (meaning they emphasise the ‘fundamentals’ of the Christian faith).

They are unaware that today’s fundamentalism – usually premillenial dispensationalism – has a hermeneutic and practice very different from biblical Christianity.

This confusion is not confined to Chile but is found in many Western cultures too. There is a dearth of teaching that focuses on the united witness of Scripture to Christ, and on the doctrines of grace and the sovereignty of God.

While the Reformed denominations in Chile recognise their common faith, there is little involvement between them. Denominationalism impedes the development of a shared sense of fraternity and a united front for evangelism. This must change if the Reformed faith is to have a greater impact in Chile.

 

Opportunity

 

One of the greatest opportunities in Chile today is presented by a growing concern among some Charismatic churches to put down theological roots into the Word of God. Having been ridiculed and alienated for years by fundamentalist churches, many within the Pentecostal movement are now opening up to a Reformed understanding of Scripture.

This includes an interest in reading books by Puritans, and authors such as R. C. Sproul and D. M. Lloyd-Jones.

The Charismatic cry that ‘the letter kills but the Spirit gives life’ (based on a false interpretation of 2 Corinthians 3:6) still resounds in rural areas and denies the usefulness of studying the Scriptures.

But, especially in the larger cities, this attitude is slowly being replaced by a serious desire to study the Bible and hear teachers with Reformed convictions.

One of the great needs of both Reformed and dispensational churches in Chile is to be solidly grounded in biblical exegesis – to teach and preach both the text and context of Scripture.

Over the next few years interdenominational missions agency SIM (Serving in Missions – previously Sudan Interior Mission) will be distributing pastors’ book sets to 1,300 Chilean pastors in order to promote these ideals.

 

Book sets

 

Each book set comprises five titles: D. M. Lloyd-Jones on Preaching and preachersand Truth unchanged, unchanging; John MacArthur Jr on Rediscovering expository preaching; The Word of truthby Robert Sheehan; and Today’s gospelby Walter Chantry.

In parallel, a series of 13 major conferences are being planned where sound principles of biblical exegesis will be shared with participants from all theological persuasions. The whole enterprise is being funded by voluntary donations.

In the early nineteenth century, Juan Canut de Bon came to Chile from Spain as a Jesuit student and was saved under the ministry of a Presbyterian missionary. His often brash and abrasive preaching of the gospel could be heard for years on the streets of Santiago.

Although confrontational, his name is now proudly claimed by many Chilean Evangelicals, especially of the lower classes, as a badge of courage. To be ‘Canuto’ in its best sense is to be unashamed of the gospel, and to follow in the footsteps of men like George Whitefield who preached in the open air.

The Reformed faith in Chile needs once again to fully capture what it means to be ‘Canuto’ and preach unashamedly the whole counsel of God.

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