It’s All About The Finished Work of Christ: A Tribute To Pastor M.R. Popoola
When I heard about the death of Pastor M.R. Popoola, the knowledge of the remarkable life he had lived was more intense for me than the sense of loss. Knowing that the death of God’s saints is precious in his eyes (Psalms 116:15), that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6), and that when Christ comes again, glorified bodies will be united with glorified spirits (John 5:28-29) also tempered the sense of loss.
Consequently, instead of just mourning him, I wish to let my audience know who Pastor Popoola was and the legacy that he left after decades of ministerial work, headquartered in Ilorin, Kwara State. Since this is a personal tribute, it will focus on my acquaintance with his ministry and its impacts.
The dearth of expository preaching and a surprising exception
Let me start by recounting how I came to be personally acquainted with the New Testament Christion Mission (NTCM) and the ministry of Pastor M.R. Popoola.
Growing up in Ilorin, I had heard him preach on NTA (Nigeria Television Authority), Ilorin countless times. But this was the period in my life when I was a church boy with religious sensibilities rather than a Christian. So, his preaching did not have any particular influence. He was just one of the many televangelists that showed up on our TV.
However, many years after, I was a Christian at this time, I was having a discussion with two friends and explaining the reason why I favoured foreign preachers and was reluctant to listen to the sermons of many local preachers ( I am using the word “local” to refer to Nigeria-based preachers).
My point was that the foreign preachers I listened to showed a deeper commitment to understanding the bible (better grasp of theology) and preaching it in an expository manner (systematically).
On the other hand, many of the local preachers I was acquainted with focused too much on themes of prosperity, empowerment, and self-improvement rather than the hard work of unearthing the bible’s theological dynamics. Moreso, they seemed to me as too lazy to preach the bible systematically and preferred 5-10 mins soundbites.
One of my friends disagreed, insisting that the General Overseer (GO) of his church meet the description of the foreign preachers I had outlined (as above). So, he sent me a series he (the GO of his church) did on the book of Romans, preaching through Paul’s letter in a systematic fashion (verse-by-verse), from the first chapter to the last.
I was wowed.
That local preacher that wowed me was Pastor M.R. Popoola. I was dumbfounded at the commitment to the text and its theology, the seriousness of preaching it systematically, and the centrality of the cross to every message.
Even though I didn’t finish the series, I listened to enough messages to decide to attend New Testament Christian Mission (NTCM)’s headquarters at Stadium Road, Ilorin.
The Queen of Sheba experience
When the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon, she had to confess that what she saw of Solomon’s splendour and glory was more than what she heard (1 Kings 10:7). That was the same experience I had when I attended NTCM for some months after NYSC (I still attend the church anytime I am in Ilorin).
Every message from the church’s pulpit – whoever was on it – had one focus and centre: declaring and celebrating the finished work of Christ and calling people to repentance and faith in Christ and his work. Anyone who has attended the church will agree that the above is not an exaggeration. It doesn’t matter whether it is Christmas, New Year, Choir concert, or Youth retreat; everything was centred on Christ and his finished work.
Pastor Popoola took Paul seriously when he said he resolved to know nothing among the Corinthians except Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). And if you thought such a repeated centralising of every message on the cross would become boring, then you don’t take Jesus seriously enough when he said that Moses and the Prophets all spoke concerning him (Luke 24:27). He showed us over and over again how to find Christ prophesied in the OT’s stories, ceremonies, theological images, and saints.
The work is finished
That man of God lived all his life affirming and reaffirming that Jesus came to die to set us free from sin, the curse of the law, death, and Satan. And because his work was finished on the cross, there is nothing we can add to its efficacy. All we need to do is repent of our sins and put our faith in that finished work.
He taught us that for those who believe in Christ, his life and righteousness are now ours and that life and righteousness are eternal. Together with his wife and other ministers, he laboured to deliver us from works righteousness and self-effort – every effort to earn God’s favour by our good works. He reminded us that the price has been paid and that we are already seated with Christ in the heavenly place.
The totalising application of the cross
Pastor Popoola never resorted to self-help or motivational preaching on any subject. Do you want to know how to enjoy your marriage, live a healthy life, and have good relationships with people? What about how to prosper, excel in your career/business, and be a responsible citizen? Well, the answer is the same: look to the finished work of Christ.
He didn’t try to give us seven steps or ten steps to so and so. There was only one step: Christ, the ladder that connects heaven and earth (John 1:51, alluding to Genesis 28:12).
For him, it is only when we are trusting in the reality of our justification that we can live sanctified lives. And sanctification is not all about human exertion but the Spirit of God conforming justified believers to Christ, their crucified and resurrected Lord. Also, only an identity that is secured in Christ can deal with both success (avoid pride) and failure (avoid despair) in any area of life.
Loving the gospel
Pastor Popoola didn’t just preach the gospel, he fell in love with it. And he laboured fervently that we in the congregation will love it as he did. He didn’t preach like an academic who has only studied theology at a deeper level; he was filled with excitement and passion as he declared that finished work. His was no mere head knowledge, it was a love affair.
There was the smile, the laughter, the deep breath (when he has said something deep), and yet the solemnity of it all as he pleaded with us to repent and believe in Christ. I have never seen anyone who loves the gospel as he did. His wife frequently gave us hints that this love was even more intensely manifested in his private life.
A gospel community
The life of the church reflected this centralisation of the finished work of Christ. NTCM was the first church I attended where they announce every Sunday that you should not give offerings if you have not first given yourself to Christ by trusting in his finished work. While making that announcement, they will show they are serious with it by telling you to be attentive during the sermon as there will be an opportunity to give your life to Christ during the altar call (there are altar calls every Sunday).
Another area where the central focus on the finished work of Christ manifests is in the music. You cannot pass through that repeated training in the gospel and write or sing substandard songs. The songs (both the hymnals and the choir rendition) are gospel-saturated. There was a time I had to start recording every choir rendition. “In Christ Alone” is our “theme” song; we sang it almost every Sunday. Mrs. Popoola especially loves that song.
But what wowed me most about NTCM headquarters is the gospel-birthed humility. This is a community where all distinctions along the line of social, economic, and intellectual class surrendered to a common desire to serve others and exemplify the humility of Christ. It will be very hard for you to know that there are some very successful people (as the world measures success – a successful career, business) in that congregation. Everything paled into insignificance in comparison to the glorious grace of Christ that saves rich and poor, ignorant and knowledgeable, upper class and lower class. It was the paradigmatic antithesis of James 2:1-7.
And the commitment to members’ welfare as well as to almsgiving outside the community is commendable.
The church also enacts a commendable balance between evangelism and discipleship. Every year, they organise discipleship programs for every recognisable group in the church – women, men, ministers, youth, teenagers, and children. And yet, they never stop to organise crusades to reach unbelievers in Ilorin (they also had one in Ibadan, where I have been living since 2019). Beyond crusades, the church also has evangelists in the field who are labouring to proclaim the gospel and organise churches in the villages and towns.
Despite the fact that most churches have forgotten the centrality of Christ, his person, and his work, Pastor Popoola never fostered a sectarianism that forbade interactions with other believers. He was willing to collaborate with other pastors on various gospel-centred projects. His only concern was to warn his members from joining churches where legalistic work righteousness has replaced gospel preaching.
He must increase
Yet, like John the Baptist, his overarching motive was that Christ would increase while he decreased (John 3:30). He always told us that we should focus on Christ not him; for him, his greatest delight is when we actually get the message of the finished work and embrace it in all its aspects.
NTCM was never about him but the message; this is why whether it was his sons, wife, or any of the other NTCM ministers who preached, the focus of the message was always the same.
He always prepared us for this moment – his death – to encourage us not to idolise him or see him as the reason for attending the church. It is not Pastor Popoola or NTCM that saves anyone; it is Christ and him crucified.
Like Paul, he saw himself as an earthen vessel holding eternal treasure – the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:7). And like Paul, he was never slack on his duty post – from Wednesday bible studies to Sunday sermons, to discipleship programs, to crusades, etc., he laboured for his Lord. I attend the church anytime I am in Ilorin and I still saw him expound John 15:1-4 on the first Sunday of 2022 (the last time I will ever hear or see him preach). It was as Christ-centred as they always were. Not even old age could stop him.
Running the race, fighting the fight
In a world where many pulpits have lost the focus on the centrality of Christ and his work and replaced it with self-help, motivational preaching, and various money-making schemes, Pastor Popoola laboured to disciple congregations that will savour Christ and image him in their lives.
While we mourn his death, we must remember all he taught and embrace his mission. We should keep savouring Christ, imaging him, and loving and proclaiming his gospel. The best memorial and tribute to him is for us to grow deeper in the knowledge and experience of Christ (his person and his work), become more and more conformed to his image (2 Corinthians 3:18), and passionately (and joyfully) call all and sundry to repent from their sins and put their faith in him.
As the post announcing his death concluded, “We will not stop, we will not relent, we will not be divided, we will pursue the vision our Beloved Father left in our hands, we will seek to know nothing else than Christ and Him Crucified. Rest on, Pastor M.R. Popoola.”
Let’s keep running the race and fighting the good fight until God calls us to our own rest or comes again to consummate the kingdom that he inaugurated.
(You can access his sermons and books here)
In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song
This cornerstone, this solid ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm
What heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My comforter, my all in all
Here in the love of Christ I stand
In Christ alone who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless babe
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones He came to save
Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live
There in the ground His body lay
Light of the world by darkness slain
Then bursting forth in glorious day
Up from the grave He rose again
And as He stands in victory
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me
For I am His and He is mine
Bought with the precious blood of Christ
No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand
Till He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand