Seminary seeks help leading reformation in Latin America

Renowned professors teach for Gospel Through Colombia

by Peter Benyola
Dr. Noé S. Acosta, Founder and Executive Director of Gospel Through Colombia
Dr. Noé S. Acosta, Founder and Executive Director of Gospel Through Colombia (submitted photo)

Dr. Noé S. Acosta, founder of Gospel Through Colombia, invites Christians to pray, give and go, partnering with prominent Reformed teachers to promulgate the Doctrines of Grace throughout an entire continent.

Those who are led to give monetarily will enjoy a 2015 tax deduction on their gift if it is received and processed by Dec. 31.

Following the Lord’s blessing of 16 years of graduating classes so far, students from Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Panama, Ecuador and Chile are beginning classes in January. Some students who completed their degree program in 2015 sent a video message of gratitude to their professors and to supporters of GTC for providing their education and training.

I sat down with Noé for a few minutes one day after our weekly Bible study to learn more about the ministry and his interesting conversion story. He and his wife, Mimi, attend St. Andrew’s Chapel, a Reformed Congregation in Sanford, Florida.

BENYOLA: How did Gospel Through Colombia begin, as well as the seminary [Universidad Seminario Reformado Latinoamericano] in South America?

ACOSTA: When I completed studies for the Master of Divinity I entered the doctoral program and wrote my dissertation on a comparative study of the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Bible. The Roman Church responded to my dissertation with a book denouncing my position and I was invited for a debate in Bogotá with Roman Catholic priests and bishops. The Roman Catholic representatives did not show up, so it was me — and the audience — and I presented the plan of salvation in the Bible in contrast with the plan of salvation in Roman Catholicism. The majority of the large audience in the room became convinced that the Bible was right. We recommended that they find Christian churches. After a short time, we visited those Christian churches in Colombia and discovered that the pastors were not properly trained. They were not teaching the gospel. They were preaching the prosperity and other things that have nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We returned to Philadelphia very discouraged. Dr. James Montgomery Boice, from Tenth Presbyterian Church, and Pastor Richard Tyson, from Calvary Presbyterian Church, decided that it was important to go back to train and teach pastors in Colombia, and the ministry of Gospel Through Colombia was born.

Eighteen years ago, we opened a seminary with 10 students. We provided education for three years and discovered that it was too expensive for only 10 students. So we decided to begin seminary education through modules using different teaching organizations, theological conferences and informal meetings, until we concluded that, in order to maintain faithfulness to the Doctrines of Grace and high academic standards, we needed to start our own training centers. That is how the Reformed seminary, Universidad Seminario Reformado Latinoamericano [USRL], began in Medellín, Colombia.

The idea was to provide free theological education to interested pastors. The vision is to flood Latin America with well-trained native Reformed pastors. Many professors from the best theological seminaries in the United States have donated their time to teach at USRL. We have already graduated many pastors. In order to facilitate these programs, we recently purchased two buildings in downtown Medellín. They were put to use immediately, and are being used to capacity, thanks be to God!

BENYOLA: I saw the video of Dr. Don Galardi sharing his experience of teaching at USRL. Who are some of the professors who teach at the seminary?

ACOSTA: Some of those professors are Dr. Richard Pratt, the president of Third Millennium Ministries; Dr. Chris Bass, of Redeemer Fellowship of Boston Massachusetts; Dr. Samuel Waldron, the dean of Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky; Dr. Robert Gonzalez, the dean of Reformed Baptist Seminary in South Carolina; Dr. Bruce McDowell, a professor at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia; Dr. Joel Beeke, president of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Michigan; and many others.

These are very sophisticated men. When they go to USRL they teach 30 intensive hours per week. After classes each day, the students meet for two hours in table-talk groups and discuss what the professor taught during the day. At the end of the first week, the professor leaves and the students continue for another week with table-talk discussion groups, reading and analyzing everything the professor taught. Afterward, they take the test, and present a term paper on what they learned. Upon finishing 24 courses they earn a Theology Certificate of Completion and they return to their home.

To obtain a degree, they must continue to fulfill the number of required credits and readings, exams and research papers. As you can see, the academic standards are high. By the mercy of God, things are going very well!

About 700 people the recent inaugural Reformed Bolivian Convention. Eighty pastors and others registered to study at the new USRL Bolivian campus.
At the recent inaugural Reformed Bolivian Convention, about 700 attended. Eighty pastors and others registered to study at the new USRL Bolivian campus. (submitted photo)

BENYOLA: Will you summarize the current need for Gospel Through Colombia? What are the top one to three needs? How do you invite people to partner with the seminary?

ACOSTA: I don’t want people to think “GTC,” I want them to think about the Kingdom of God, the gospel of grace being presented to all Latin America. In North America, there are more than 100 Reformed seminaries. In Latin America, this is the only seminary of its kind. We offer the education for free. Students currently contribute toward a year of their food with a small fee of $1,000.00, but it costs GTC around $5,000.00 per student per year.

In 2016, we expect almost 100 students. So the first need is to find people who will sponsor a student with a one-year scholarship.

Another need is to pay off the $500,000 loan incurred when we purchased the two seminary buildings last year.

The third need is for contributions to support the expansion of GTC into other Latin American countries. Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela are open doors for us to teach and equip Christian leaders.

BENYOLA: Suppose you accomplish that right away. What will the ministry then be doing with donations?

GTC provides textbooks and study guides for pastors. (submitted photo)
GTC provides textbooks and study guides for students being trained to be pastors throughout South America. (submitted photo)

ACOSTA: Peter, we are daily dependent on God. He provided all these opportunities. If He will bless us with all the money needed now, it would free us to expand into other Latin American countries that are asking us to open similar seminaries in their countries. We would also like to be able to aid pastors as they struggle to reform their churches. To fulfill those needs, a great deal of funds will be required.

BENYOLA: How would you invite people to partner with you, if they can’t give large gifts?

ACOSTA: There are four ways people can partner with us.

First, we would like people to pray for us. Scripture reminds us that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.

Second, I would invite people to give whatever they can — $10, $15, $20. This might look like a meager amount, but if 1,000 people would commit to a monthly donation of this kind, then that would help provide the funds required. This is a small investment by worldly standards, but a tremendous investment in the Kingdom of God.

Third, we invite people to go and visit the seminary in Medellín. It is very inexpensive and the seminary is only about a three-hour flight from Orlando, Florida. We have a place for visitors to stay and they can see and experience what they are investing in. Right now we’re excited and getting ready for the Sixth Latin American Reformed Theological Convention that’s coming up in April, which will host Dr. Joel Beeke, Dr. Richard Pratt, and other speakers. Everyone is welcome to attend.

The fourth way to help is for qualified pastors or professors to donate one week to teach a course at the seminary. Also, there are opportunities for church groups and other Christian organizations to do mission work in the local churches.

If you think about it, Peter, when Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are actually praying for the expansion of God’s kingdom on earth. And the last thing Jesus commanded before He ascended into heaven was to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. That is the commandment that God has given us. The ones who cannot go — can send.

BENYOLA: What motivated you to start these missions and what is your educational background?

ACOSTA: Well, we must go to the very beginning. I grew up as a Roman Catholic in Colombia. I wanted to be a priest, like one of my brothers, so I also went to the Roman Catholic Seminary.

All my classmates were scheduled to go to Rome to finish studies there and be ordained. I, however, was asked to stay behind in Bogotá to take care of a Roman Catholic high school as an administrator for two years. I lost interest because I missed the camaraderie with my seminary classmates. I left the seminary and came to the United States and attended Temple University in Philadelphia. I studied School Business Administration and eventually became a school principal with the School District of Philadelphia.

I met Mimi, an English teacher who also became a school administrator, and I married her. Mimi and I were devout Roman Catholics, but Mimi could not sleep because she was afraid to die and go to purgatory, believing that she would spend many, many years there before going to heaven.

In order to help her, I decided for the first time to read the entire Bible, searching for purgatory. In the Roman Catholic seminary, neither I, nor my classmates, ever read the Bible. No one owned a Bible. In fact, the bible was not even a topic of conversation. Because of my love for Mimi I read the entire Bible, line by line, looking for purgatory. It took me almost two years. I did not find purgatory in the bible. Instead, God spoke to me through the Bible, allowing me to understand and trust in His magnificent plan of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone and only by His mercy. The assurance of salvation by imputation of Christ’s righteousness upon me, the fact that I was able to know my eternal destiny before I die, became the most joyful experience. It was as if the gates of heaven were opened wide for me.

When I shared this with my Mimi, she, who was more Catholic than the Pope, did not fully agree because, even if the Bible said that, it had to be authenticated by the “infallible authority” of the magisterium of the church.

I did not depart from Roman Catholicism, but the battle for the truth was heavy in my heart. To appease my conscience, I tried to force the Bible into the doctrines of Roman Catholicism and vice versa. But that syncretism did not work.

In 1994, under the signature of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican published the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a comprehensive compendium of the Roman Catholicism  doctrine. I read the entire catechism, this time underlining anything that did not agree with the Bible. I underlined almost two-thirds of that book.

Accepting the church’s claim that the bible, tradition and magisterium of the church are equal authorities, the confusion demanded the involvement of the authority of the church. There was an irreconcilable tension between the Bible and the catechism regarding purgatory. Mimi and I made an appointment with our pastor who was a monsignor. A monsignor is an official title for a priest, similar to a bishop. We arrived at the meeting with the expectation that he was able to prove to us that the Bible was wrong so that we could stay in the Roman Catholic Church. Monsignor received us in his living room and cordially asked, “Noé and Mimi, what can I do for you?” I looked at him, and my first thought was, I wonder if this man knows if he is going to heaven or not. So I said, “Monsignor, if you die tonight, where you will go?” He said, “I don’t know. The best I can hope for is purgatory.” I said, “Monsignor, that’s the reason we are here. Number one, my wife cannot sleep because she is afraid to die and go to purgatory for many years. I read the entire Bible looking for purgatory and I cannot find it in the Bible.” I also explained to him that the Lord Jesus was here for over 33 years and he spoke about heaven and hell. He did not say a single word about purgatory. I went further, sharing with him that the doctrine of purgatory denies Colossians 1:21-22.

The doctrine of purgatory affirms that when a person dies all sins are not fully paid by the blood of the Lord Jesus. Venial sins will have to be burned by purgatory flames to purge the individual in order to be presented blameless to the Father, because the Father cannot tolerate the presence of sin.

Colossians 1:21-22 says, “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.” The Bible here clearly demonstrates the sufficiency of the blood of Christ to pay in full for the sins of the believer to present him blameless to the Father. To deny the sufficiency of the blood of Christ is to deny the sufficiency of Christ, and if Christ is not sufficient then we do not have a redeemer.

Monsignor surprised us with this answer, “The truth, Noé and Mimi, is that purgatory does not exist.” I could not close my mouth; however, Mimi was cured of her insomnia.

BENYOLA: He said that being persuaded of your argument, or because that was what he knew as a priest?

ACOSTA: I do not know, but probably he became convinced at that moment. I asked him, “Monsignor, if purgatory does not exist, why do you teach it and why do you ask your priests to teach this if it is not true?” He said, “Noé, the reason why we teach purgatory is out of mercy. We want to give hope to those people who are at a funeral. That way, they will not get desperate by thinking that their dear ones are in hell.” I asked, “Monsignor, why don’t you teach the truth so those dear ones will not end up in hell?” Monsignor changed the conversation and opened the opportunity to discuss several doctrinal issues. When we left, he embraced us and said, “I don’t think you can continue to be Roman Catholic because God touched you in a very special way.”

We left that meeting and within a short time I enrolled in a Presbyterian seminary.

BENYOLA: Okay. Noé, what do you want to be when you grow up?

ACOSTA: I would like to be a seminary professor and a Latin American church reformer.

BENYOLA: You can do that now, can’t you?

ACOSTA: Yeah, by God’s grace, I’m doing that. (Noé smiles.)

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