'Spurgeon of Africa' exhorts preaching of Christ crucified

by Russell D. Moore, posted Thursday, July 30, 1998 (20 years ago)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)--References to 19th-century English Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon are as commonplace as hallway theological discussions at the annual Southern Baptist Founders Conference. But conversations about the famed "Prince of Preachers" may have been especially prominent at this year's meeting due to the presence of Zambian preacher Conrad Mbewe, known across his homeland as the "Spurgeon of Africa," whose thundering voice stirred up for many allusions to Victorian London's Metropolitan Tabernacle.

Mbewe, pastor of Kabawata Baptist Church in Zambia, served as keynote speaker, preaching messages from 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 each day of the July 21-24 meeting on the campus of Samford University, Birmingham, Ala.

Contending "no church can rise any higher than its pulpit," Mbewe argued the primary content of all Christian preaching should be the cross of Christ. Such preaching will inevitably spawn the question, "What has this person done that he should be the center" of our preaching? Mbewe said, prompting the answer: "He died for us." With a divided Corinthian church including those who claimed allegiance respectively to Paul, Apollos, Peter and Jesus, Mbewe said that Paul emphasized it was Christ and him alone who had been crucified.

Mbewe argued the biblical centrality of the cross can be seen in how the gospel writers slow the narrative as the crucifixion approaches. Similarly, evangelical preaching must display a similar all-encompassing emphasis on the redemptive accomplishment of Christ for sinners.

"This is becoming less and less an emphasis in the ministries of so many people who still consider themselves to be preachers of the gospel," Mbewe said. "Where are we hearing that certain note, unmistakable note, that when we stepped back to the end of these messages we can say for sure that Christ has been portrayed before us as on a big billboard as one crucified for our sins?

"If we have abandoned the primacy of the preaching of the cross, we need to get back to that," he said.

Mbewe noted Paul's hearers would have known about Jesus' crucifixion as a historical fact. Paul's understanding of this event as the never-repeatable substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of God's people as prefigured by the Old Testament sacrifices is what scandalized both Jews and Gentiles.

"It is crucial that Paul's understanding of the cross should be our understanding of the cross as well," Mbewe said. "Paul's proclamation should be our proclamation. Otherwise, we may be saying the same words in terms of preaching the cross, but we are not doing so in the eyes of God. We can all say, 'I am a preacher of the cross,' but what exactly are we saying about it?"

Samford's Reid Chapel stilled and many conference attendees wiped away tears as Mbewe recounted the biblical account of the crucified Jesus bearing "the full brunt of the wrath of God" at Golgotha in their place.

"Has that gripped you?" he asked. "To a point where you are fully satisfied to spend the rest of your days with that emphasis, playing upon that one-string banjo, Christ and him crucified?"

Because Paul realized Jesus did not die "for some nameless mass of humanity," but died specifically and particularly in his place, Mbewe said that the apostle was spurred to sacrifice as a "feeble expression of the great love portrayed by the Son of God himself who went from the infinitely high station of Godhood to take upon himself the humiliation of humanity to suffer the wrath of God for me."

Why should Christian preachers in a rapidly changing age continue to harp on Christ crucified, the same message which has been repeated by the church for 2,000 years? Mbewe argued the answer lies in the fact human beings must give an account to an infinitely holy God before whom "we dare not overlook the cross."

Mbewe asked the assembled preachers to consider if their congregations would testify that they are heralds of the cross.

"Does it pulsate in you?" he asked. "To graduate from that experiential knowledge of the cross is to hand our resignation from the pulpit. We become useless after that. Let those who have no souls to save consider the preaching of the cross to be foolishness, as being irrelevant, as being outdated."

Such an understanding of the content of Christian preaching as the person and work of the Lord Jesus should spur all preachers to evangelism as the first task of preaching, Mbewe said.

Noting Paul said to the Corinthians "when I came to you," Mbewe indicted those preachers who are content to believe their evangelistic responsibilities are fulfilled by building church buildings and posting the service times on the sign outside. Preachers who do so limit the message of the gospel to the four walls of the churches, he said, out of fear that they have no right to disturb the lives of unbelievers with the message of the gospel. Paul sought not to build some denominational or personal interest, Mbewe said, but felt the weight of a responsibility to make Christ known among all peoples.

"The day you as an individual felt God's call to the ministry, one of the things that weighed heavily upon your conscience must have been a perishing world," he said. "Brethren, if you testify that God has called you, you are no longer a volunteer."

Mbewe charged much Christian sluggishness in evangelism is the result of a paralyzing fear of being rejected and ridiculed by unbelievers who don't mind having a pastor at their sickbeds offering prayers, but "who don't want to hear your Jesus."

"We make a great mistake when we adjust to that and content ourselves to some kind of false priestly duty," he said. "God has called us to go and speak the words of God, to go and proclaim Christ, because it is God's appointed way."

Mbewe asked, "That a man hanging upon the cross in weakness and shame should be humanity's only hope -- can anything be more daft than that?"

If preachers are honest with themselves, Mbewe said, they will be forced to admit that their sticking point in personal evangelism is precisely because of its perception as "foolishness" to unbelieving minds. Ministers who are used to exalting themselves with titles before and degrees after their names chafe at the idea of being laughingstocks before a world they so desperately want to respect them.

"The last thing we want to endure is people laughing at us," he charged. "Not even speaking of them persecuting us or pushing us into jails or to early graves. We are speaking about being fools in the eyes of the world."

Having established that believers are compelled to evangelism by the direct command of God, Mbewe asserted the doctrine of effectual calling -- the belief that God changes the hearts of his elect so that they willingly respond to him in repentance and faith -- ensures the success of the evangelistic endeavor.

He explained a zeal for success has lead many ministers to abandon God's appointed means of preaching and prayer for "underhanded methods" which are utilized "at the expense of many souls." These methods have resulted in many professing Christians waking up on the other side of the grave in the terrors of eternal hell, he argued, and ensures pastors find themselves "shepherding goats."

Outlining the apostle Paul's numerous descriptions of unregenerate people as "blind " and "dead," Mbewe said success in evangelism comes not through the practiced technique of an evangelist wooing decisions from a crowd, but through the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit.

"What use are the many man-made methods of getting people from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light in the light of these stupendous facts?" he asked. "Can an organ playing in the background raise the dead? Can it? And yet, how many decisions are wrung out of people's hearts by the atmosphere, getting the right atmosphere? We are up against death, spiritual death."

Despite this less-than-optimistic view of the state of fallen man, Mbewe said Christians have reason for abounding hope because of the invincible efficacy of the Holy Spirit to convert sinners to faith in Christ.

"In our work of preaching, we are not alone," he proclaimed. "What we may be saying might be sounding as foolishness in the ears of the world, but oh that we had faith to believe that there is Another with a capital A working alongside us and, if it pleases him, no one can resist. No one, however hostile they might be.

"Oh, for more faith in the Holy Spirit in our pulpits!" he said.

In his final message, Mbewe said the preacher must view the fruits of conversion which result from his preaching as entirely of the grace of God. Christ-centered preaching recognizes repentance as faith as simultaneously God's command and God's gracious gift.

"Those who are genuinely converted should attribute this to God and to God alone," he said. "And the way we go about our ministerial duties should speak eloquently about that fact. People should be able to sit down and see that their repentance must be of God, that their faith must be of God, that there is nothing of man's ingenuity ... which can be the explanation of what they are today."

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