The Characteristics of Christian Zeal
March 4, 2016
In our continuing series on the Puritan vision for Christian zeal (part 1, part 2), we now take up how they described its characteristics.
First, they described authentic zeal over against false zeal. Oliver Bowles (d. 1674) exhorted to be diligent that zeal has the right stamp since, “as every [other] grace, so zeal may and often does have its counterfeit” (Zeal for God’s House Quickened, London, 1643, p. 27). John Flavel (1628–1691) warned that an abundance of souls perish in the way because of false zeal (“Pneumatologia: A Treatise of the Soul of Man,” in The Works of John Flavel, repr. 1997, vol. 3:214). False zeal is such a grievous error threatening the church that its danger cannot be underestimated. Jesus teaches us that we can know the nature of a tree by its fruit (Matt. 7:20). So let us consider some of the signs of false zeal.
- It is the hypocritical zeal of Jehu who, in 2 Kings 10:16, boasts about seeing the glory of the Lord, but really has his eye on his own gain in the kingdom. It is Demetrius who cries out in praise of Diana but really cares only for her silver idols from which he makes money (Acts 19:23–28). Counterfeit zeal pretends to be pursuing God’s glory while it is really pursuing a selfish end. Just as in these cases we see only the image of faith, so we merely see the show of zeal without its true essence (2 Tim. 3:5).
- It is turbulent zeal, which is really bitter envy or jealousy (James 3:14). This zeal is a wildfire that transports men beyond all bounds. It is no longer a good servant but rules as an ill master (Samuel Ward, Sermons, p. 76). Richard Sibbes (1577–1635) wrote, “There is no true zeal to God’s glory but it is joined with true love to men; therefore let men that are violent, injurious, and insolent, never talk of glorifying God so long as they despise poor men.” (The Works of Richard Sibbes, repr. 1984, vol. 7:187).
The heavenly fire of Christian zeal is so different from the strange fires of false zeal that Ward said, “The true zealot, whose fervency is in the spirit, not in show; in substance, not in circumstance; for God, not himself; guided by the word, not with humors [emotions]; tempered with charity, not with bitterness: such a man’s worth cannot be set forth with the tongues of men and of angels” (Sermons, p. 77). True zeal is the divine grace that inclines all affections for God. There are many branches upon which this root bears fruit and many marks that indicate its true nature:
- God-centered zeal. Because the author and object of zeal is the living God, the zealous Christian has a fervent love for God and craves His presence. He grieves when God’s name suffers injury and is angry when His honor and cause are obstructed. Titus 2:14 says that Christ “gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” William Fenner commented, “Thou cannot possibly be one of God’s people, if thou be not zealous for God” (A Treatise of the Affections, p. 124). Zeal is inseparable from love for God because God is so glorious. Richard Baxter (1615–1691) wrote, “To love God without zeal, is not to love him, because it is not a loving him as God” (“A Christian Directory,” in The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, repr. 1990, vol. 1:383)
- Biblical zeal. In contrast to the false zeal that Paul refers to in Romans 10:2, sacred zeal is according to knowledge, meaning it is confined by the rules of Scripture. Thomas Brooks (1608–1680) wrote, “Zeal is like a fire: in the chimney it is one of the best servants, but out of the chimney it is one of the worst masters. Zeal kept by knowledge and wisdom, in its proper place, is a choice servant to Christ and saints” (“The Unsearchable Riches of Christ,” in The Works of Thomas Brooks, repr. 2001, vol. 3:54–55).
- Self-reforming zeal. Brooks said zeal “spends itself and its greatest heat principally upon those things that concern a man’s self” (Works, vol. 3:55). Richard Greenham (c. 1542–1594) said, “For never can that man be zealous to others, which never knew to be zealous to himself” (“Of Zeale,” a sermon on Rev. 3:19, in The Works of that Reverend and Faithful Servant of Jesus Christ M. Richard Greenham, repr. 1973, p. 118).
- Active zeal. Having knowledge of God, whom we love, we are zealous in devoting ourselves to the duties required of us in the gospel. We are busy and active, continually involved in holy exploits and executions. Sin deadens the heart to religious operations, for as the apostle says, “when I would do good, evil is present with me” (Rom. 7:21). But, as Brooks notes, “the zealous soul is continually saying to himself, What shall I render to the Lord?” (Works, vol. 3:58–59) The zealous Christian is ready to perform whatever duty God places upon him (William Ames, Conscience With the Power and Cases Thereof, 3.6), whereupon he trusts in the Lord to bring strength out of his weakness. “Christian zeal is not to be confined at home, to our own personal goodness; but has a still wider scope,” John Evans said (“Christian Zeal,” in Practical Discourses, vol. 2:330).
- Consistent zeal. The bodies of cold-blooded animals take on the temperature of their environment. Warm-blooded animals have bodies which strive to maintain a steady temperature. The zealous Christian is a warm-blooded creature, resisting both the lethargy of cold-heartedness and the fever of fanaticism. Unlike that blind fury that caused Nebuchadnezzar to heat a furnace seven times hotter than normal, the zealous believer is not to be hot by fits, nor start out hot only to end up cold (Gal. 3:3), but must keep a continual temperature from beginning to end (Heb. 3:14). (Ames, Conscience, 3.6; Greenham, p. 116). John Reynolds quipped, “It may meet with storms, and stones, and stumbling blocks in its way; but its design and temper is to hold on, and march through all to the end” (Zeal a Virtue, p. 67)
- Sweet and gentle zeal. Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) said that we must learn what it means to be a bold warrior for God from the Captain of all God’s armies: Jesus Christ. Christ boldly spoke against sin, hypocrisy, and false teaching. Yet, Edwards reminded us, when Christ was surrounded by enemies like “roaring lions,” He showed his strength “not in the exercise of any fiery passions; not in fierce and violence speeches,” but in “patience, meekness, love, and forgiveness.” (Edwards, Works, vol. 2:351)
These are the ways to discern between false zeal and the holy zeal that the Holy Spirit ignites in our hearts for the things of God. We must be on guard to notice the difference. What makes counterfeit money dangerous is its close likeness to real money; only a trained eye can distinguish the authentic from a superior counterfeit. Likewise, counterfeit zeal closely resembles true spiritual zeal. We must have a discerning eye to determine what is false from what is real.