Christianity and theology

My Review of Conrad Mbewe’s Pastoral Preaching

I wrote this review a year ago and was posted on another site which currently is not active. I am posting it here for those who will find it helpful but cannot access it on the other site.  

Reviewing Dr. Conrad Mbewe’s Pastoral preaching: Building a People for God is a very huge task for me mainly for two reasons: first, Mbewe is not only a friend but also a seasoned and gifted preacher who has been faithfully preaching the gospel for over 30 years while I am a fledging preacher. Second, I am a Presbyterian and Conrad is a Baptist and as they say, “Baptists are good preachers while Presbyterian are good scholars” (please take that with a grain of salt).

However, I have decided to undertake this exercise because I believe that Pastoral Preaching is one of the great books that pastors, more especially in Africa, need to read and apply the helpful insights and principles therein to their pastoral ministries. As far as I know, this isprobably the first published book on preaching written by an African Reformed preacher apart from Dr. O. Palmer Robertson’s Preaching Made Practical.  I always consider Robertson as an African owing to many years he has spent in Africa training preachers and Christian leaders and also because he wrote Preaching Made Practical with a true African touch.

Pastoral Preaching was released at the beginning of 2017 by Langham Preaching Resources. In the book, Mbewe begins by highlighting why he decided to write. He had noticed that more often than not the preaching in Africa is not producing believers who are spiritually mature because more pulpits are occupied by motivational speakers rather than preachers. The important role of preaching has also been replaced by exorcism services and entertaining “worship” in many churches. Although the problem is not unique to Africa, the continent scores highly on the chart.

Mbewe has also strove to make the book more relevant and easily understood by an African readership. He is totally aware that the essence of effective communication is good understanding of your audience. For instance, Mbewe substitutes the expression, “the tip of an iceberg,” with an illustration of thatching a house (p. 1). Then he goes on to note, “As your read this book you will soon discover that my primary audience is pastors serving in Africa. This is deliberate. Pastors in the Western world have so many Bible colleges and seminaries and so many books on pastoral ministry that to write for them would be like adding a drop to an ocean” (p.4). He then adds, “I appreciate the principles being taught (by Western authors) but I often find the authors shooting over the heads of those who live in my own neighborhood, who have not been exposed to the thought patterns and idioms of the Western world…So, what I have done in this book is basically to take the same principles and clothe them in the African attire” (p.4).

Mbewe also makes it clear at the beginning of the book that Pastoral Preaching is not a homiletics book. (Homiletics can basically be defined as the art of preparing and delivering sermons). Rather, his book is concerned with how preaching should be done in a pastoral context. “In this book I am addressing a number of key areas related to preaching in a pastoral context” (p. 2). This means that if one is looking for a book that guides you through the stages of sermon preparation, this book is not ideal for that undertaking. Yet, despite not concentrating on preparing and delivering sermons, in chapters 13-15, Mbewe takes time to briefly guide the preacher on how he can develop sermons from narratives (stories), didactic passages (passages that contain instructions), and poetic and prophetic passages of the Bible. In chapter 11, he also tackles how a preacher can craft an introduction, body and conclusion. Mbewe, further, discusses the effective use of illustrations and applications. He concludes the chapter by writing on how a preacher can modulate his voice and gestures and maintain a good eye contact.

Pastoral Preaching reveals the pastoral heart of Mbewe. As you read the book, you realize that he is not a hireling but an undershepherd of Christ who fully understands and cares for the challenges that pastors and Christians in Africa face. He endeavors to propose some measures that might alleviate these problems.  For instance, for the lack of formal training for many pastors in Africa, he encourages the old but trusted approach of having men trained under a more mature and godly minister. Obviously, he does not argue that formal training is irrelevant; however, in cases where it is impossible to attain such training, this approach will suffice.

Mbewe also points out the need for congregations to fulfill their biblical mandate to take care and support those who labour among them faithfully despite that many African Christians live with limited resources. In chapters 17-18, he discusses the importance of godliness in the lives of ministers. He gives an ever-timely admonition: “It is vital to remember that as a pastor you are first of all a Christian. You are a sheep before you are a shepherd. Therefore, all the pleas in Scripture for a Christian to live a godly life apply to you as well…You live in a fallen world and struggle with the remains of your own fallen nature, and so you must pursue holiness in the same way that every Christian is urged to do so” (p. 163).

One area, which I wish Mbewe, could have given more thought is the distinction he makes between evangelistic and pastoral preaching. “Evangelistic preaching is needed to bring sinners into the kingdom” and pastoral preaching is “to help those who have come to Christ to grow spiritually” (p.9). I found this distinction to be somewhat confusing in the sense that it seems to imply that evangelistic preaching is not pastoral. Mbewe somehow realizes that and points out, “Although I have made a clear distinction between evangelistic and pastoral preaching, I am not suggesting that pastors need to choose one over the other. Pastors are called to do both…So, the two types of preaching are not necessarily mutually exclusive” (p. 14). He further discusses the difference in chapter 2 as he uses the illustration of a pastor as a shepherd (p. 18-19).

Despite the effort to convince the reader of this difference in chapters 1 and 2, I still think that Mbewe’s distinction is “artificial” as he rightly observes in chapter 1 (p.9) because both evangelistic and teaching aspects should be understood as being part and parcel of pastoral preaching. Evangelistic preaching is pastoral preaching. Perhaps a better distinction could have been evangelistic and doctrinal or instructional preaching (“doctrinal” meaning “teaching” from the Greek word “didache”) as Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones rightly distinguishes in his masterpiece on preaching, Preaching and Preachers.  “It is important that we should recognize these two main sections in the message of the Bible. The first is what you may call the message of salvation, the kerygma, that is what determines evangelistic preaching. The second is the teaching aspect, the didache, that which builds up those who have already believed – the edification of the saints”  (© 1971 by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Zondervan Publishers, p. 62).

But this is a small detail compared to the rich gold that my fellow African preachers would mine from the book. I can’t agree more with John  MacArthur who observes that  the book embodies all the qualities of the preaching ministry of Mbewe, which are clarity, accuracy, thoroughness, courage, insight, and uncompromising faithfulness to the text of Scripture. That is undeniably true of Pastoral Preaching: Building a People for God.

 

 

 

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Uncategorized

My Review of Spurgeon on the Christian Life by Michael Reeves*

It is my humble estimation that Charles Haddon Spurgeon is one of the most gifted preachers of the post Reformation era. His sermons still come alive when read today. It is little wonder then that many have labeled him the prince of preachers and deservedly so. But who was this man? Apart from his preaching what else can a Christian learn from his life and ministry? What did he teach and believe about the Christian life in this fallen world?

These are some of the key questions that Michael Reeves answers in his book Spurgeon on the Christian Life published by Crossway in 2018. Reeves himself captures the essence of his book in the introduction by observing, “This book is about Spurgeon’s theology of the Christian life…Spurgeon was unreservedly Christ-centered and Christ-shaped in his theology; and he was equally insistent on the vital necessity of the new birth. The Christian life is the new life in Christ, given by the Spirit and won by the blood of Christ shed on the cross” (p. 16).

In the first part of the book, Reeves focuses more on the life of Spurgeon. He shows how Spurgeon was a tender, affection, and generous man of deep affection for people. Spurgeon’s sense of humor could also hardly be concealed even when he was on the pulpit. In the second part, Reeves dwells more on Spurgeon’s love for Christ and his word and how this love shaped Spurgeon’s life and ministry. He also shows how John Calvin, the Puritans, and the Reformed theology significantly impacted Spurgeon’s preaching. The third and fourth parts of the book center on Spurgeon’s beliefs and teaching regarding new birth, baptism, sanctification, prayer, Christian’s suffering, and final glory.

Though not a full biography of Spurgeon I would highly recommend this book as an introduction to the life and ministry of Spurgeon, especially, for those who hardly know this man or have read little about him. Many primary sources have been cited in the book, which also act as excellent materials for further study or exploration. These primary sources also allow Spurgeon to speak for himself what he believed about the Christian life. The other strength of the book is that it is very engaging and is easier to read. Many sections of the third and fourth chapter are also good devotional materials.

As the title suggests, my initial expectation was to see more of what Spurgeon believed about many aspects of the Christian life.  However, you don’t get to that until you reach the third and fourth parts of the book. This, in my view, is one of the weak areas of the book. In addition to that my fellow Presbyterian and Reformed friends would find the section on Spurgeon’s beliefs about infant baptism, I prefer to call it covenantal baptism, to be the gloomiest part of the book (pp. 89-91). Reeves focuses more on what Spurgeon believed were the errors associated with paedobaptism without making a fair presentation of what actually the Reformed faith teaches about covenantal baptism.  May be that was beyond the objectives of the book; nonetheless, I wish Reeves would have at least briefly provided some biblical grounds why Presbyterians and Reformed believers baptize their children as well as highlight that covenantal baptism is not a baptismal regeneration as Spurgeon incorrectly argued.

All in all, Spurgeon on the Christian Life is a good book. It is well researched and provides a good starting point to get acquainted with the man who many fondly remember as the prince of preachers. Spurgeon on the Christian Lifewill definitely leave your mind informed and your hart warmed.

*Crossway has provided me with a complimentary copy of this book.

 

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Christianity and Society

The Church and Politics in Malawi

In less than a year from now, Malawians will go to polls to elect their president, members of parliament, and local government leaders (councilors). As always, some of the questions that Christians have now include should Christians join politics and what role should the church play in regard to politics? In this post, I am wrestling with such questions and endeavoring to give answers that I believe are biblical.

We will do well to begin by reminding ourselves that Christ is the King over all the earth (Col. 3:16, 17). He is the one who removes kings and sets up kings (Dan. 2:21). As one Dutch Reformed theologian once observed, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

Therefore, Christians can and should join politics if the Lord calls them. They should not be afraid to accept the calling believing that politics is a dirty game as it is often said. For sure, politics like any other human institution can be full of sin at times, but Christianity is not Gnosticism, which believes that the matter or the world is evil. Christianity does not minimize the consequences of the fall on human race yet at the same time it is always hopeful of the power of the gospel and the knowledge that Christ is redeeming his creation including the fallen political systems of our world.

The Westminster Confession of Faith best captures the Bible’s teaching about a Christian’s involvement in politics: “It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate (government official or politician), when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the new testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion” (Chapter 31.5). Please notice the emphasis here is that Christians who are called into politics are to maintain piety, justice and peace of their country.

But while Christians could be called to serve as politicians, the calling of the church is different. The church is never called into politics. She is called to pray for magistrates and give them godly counsel when needed to but she should never turn the pulpit into a political podium.  (There is a great nuance here since when Christians join politics it could also be said in one sense that the church is in politics. But I believe that you get what I am trying to put across. The separation of the church and state is never absolute because we will always have members of the church who are also members of the state).

Again, the Westminster Confession of Faith is helpful here: “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate” (Chapter 31.5)

It is important to notice that the confession does not completely prohibit the church from petitioning or advising the government. When the civil magistrates have asked the church for advice, the church should do so gladly and dutifully. “The Church and State may co-operate in the advancement of objects common to both; but each of them must be careful to act within its own proper sphere- the one never intermeddling with the affairs which properly belong to the province of the other.”[1] Nonetheless,  the cooperation of the State and the Church must never mean blurring the line that clearly separates the two.

That said, the next question I anticipate is: doesn’t the church ought to have a prophetic voice in society? Certainly, the church has a prophetic voice in any society; but it does not mean that she as an institution should become directly involved in the politics because that is not why Christ established his church. Christ often demonstrated that his mission was to be differentiated from that of the state. For example, Jesus refused a request of a certain man who asked him to mediate between him and his brother regarding their inheritance and specified that he was not a judge of a civil court (Luke 12:13:14). Another example is when Jesus was before Pontius Pilate. Christ refused to associate the Church with the kingdoms of this world when he clearly told Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence,” (John 18:36).

What if the government oppresses its citizenry?  Isn’t the church supposed to defend the poor and vulnerable and even be willing to pick up arms to fight against a wicked state? The Bible calls Christians to obey only the lawful commands of the magistrates. Therefore if the magistrates command what is unlawful, the church ought to stand up and declare as the early church that she will obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). Nevertheless, it’s never the calling of the church to be in forefront picking up arms against the state.

The Reformers, more especially, John Calvin ably discusses how the Church should respond to “wicked and intolerable” governments. He notes that the Church which in this case means members of the visible church (whom Calvin also refers to as private citizens) should never directly pick up arms against the state but rather support other magistrates who after observing the wickedness of their government/leadership have mounted resistance. This teaching is sometimes called the Doctrine of Lesser Magistrates. Calvin writes,

For if there are now any magistrates of the people appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings…I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with the duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance.[2]

The Church is not a lesser magistrate (an opposition party). The lesser magistrates, especially those who are Christians, have a responsibility to restrain the evil of unjust kings over their subjects. In cases where the greater magistrates (governing authorities) are oppressing their citizens, Christians should come behind the lesser magistrates and support, pray, and encourage them in their efforts to curb the evil or injustices from the greater magistrates. All this is to be done within the bounds of the just laws.

[1]Robert Shaw, The Reformed faith: exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith(Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2008), 398.

[2]Calvin,Institutes of the Christian religion.IV.XX.31

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