The Means of Christian Zeal
March 18, 2016
In our continuing series on the Puritan vision for Christian zeal (part 1, part 2, part 3), we now take up its means.
When you look around and see few people who are zealous for the Lord, you may be tempted to dismiss the call to be zealous. Such a response would be grievous because the church is already filled with countless saints who are crawling when they could be flying and because lukewarmness (Gal. 2:11–13) is as contagious as sacred zeal (2 Cor. 9:2). Real zeal, though, is not beyond the reach of any saint who sincerely asks the Lord for it and diligently gives himself to the faithful use of the means appointed by God to sustain it. It is our calling and the reason why Christ redeemed us, and it alone holds forth hope for the future of Christ’s church (Rev. 2:4–5; 3:2–3, 15–20).
When we speak of the "means" of Christian zeal, we mean those things we must do so that, by God’s blessing, all our affections may be set ablaze against all things sinful and toward all things holy. However, we can do none of this in our natural self, for the flesh strives against the Spirit. True Christian zeal is opposed by the flesh, sin, and the Devil. As we consider what means we may use to stir up this grace of zeal, we must be aware of our enemies, but also what zeal does to them: "You are now demolishing the strongholds of Satan, to enlarge the kingdom of Christ. And therefore you can expect no other but the gates of Hell will exert the utmost of their power, and employ all the agents they can get upon earth, to obstruct and hinder it. But that should not slacken your zeal, but make it rather the more flagrant” (John Reynolds, Zeal a Virtue: Or, a Discourse Concerning Sacred Zeal, London, 1716, p. 459).
The first means to attain Christian zeal is prayer. As a grace of God, zeal cannot be earned; it must be given (James 1:17). As a grace of God, it must be asked for by prayer humbly offered in the name of Christ (John 16:23). Jesus promises that the Father will give the Holy Spirit, and therefore all His graces, to those who ask (Luke 11:13). John Preston (1587–1628) wrote, “The love of God is peculiarly the work of the Holy Ghost…. Therefore the way to get it is earnestly to pray…. We are no more able to love the Lord than cold water is able to heat itself… so the Holy Ghost must breed that fire of love in us, it must be kindled from heaven, or else we shall never have it” (Preston, The Breastplate of Faith and Love, Banner of Truth Trust, 2:50).
The only thing that stands in the way of our receiving this grace is our failure to ask (Jas. 4:2). And what stands in the way of our asking is unbelief, the great enemy of zeal. If we sincerely wish to be inflamed with zeal for God, we must humble ourselves before Him, believe His Word to be truth, acknowledge our need and His bounty, confess our sin and His mercy and our unworthiness and His grace, and ask Him, for the sake of the Lord Jesus, to give us this grace to enliven us and inflame all our affections by His Holy Spirit who indwells us, that we might pursue His glory all our life.
The second means by which we maintain zeal is the Word of God. Preaching the Word is a powerful means to blow on the coals of zeal and keep them aflame because God Himself speaks in preaching. Likewise, the faithful reading of Scripture feeds our zeal by pouring fuel on the holy fire in our bosom. The hearing and reading of the Word must be applied through “frequent meditation” in order to arouse zeal for it is while we muse that the fire is kindled within us (Ps. 39:3). Meditate especially on the gospel to fuel the burning of your zeal for God. Sibbes said, “Whence comes a zeal to good works, but when we look to the grace that hath brought salvation and redemption from our sins, and to the glorious coming of Christ?” (“Salvation Applied,” Works, 5:398)
The third means to maintain our zeal for God is faithful attendance and fellowship in God’s house (Heb. 10:24–25). William Fenner wrote, “The coals that lie together in the hearth, you see how they glow and are fired, while the little coals that are fallen off, and lie by, separate from their company, are black without fire. If ever thou desirest to be zealous, make much of the fellowship of the saints.” (A Treatise of the Affections, London, 1650, p. 162) Richard Baxter advised, “Live among warm and serious Christians; especially as to your intimate familiarity. There is a very great power in the zeal of one to kindle zeal in others; as there is in fire to kindle fire. Serious, hearty, diligent Christians, are excellent helps to make us serious and diligent. He that travelleth with speedy travelers, will be willing to keep pace with them.” (“A Christian Directory,” Works, 1:386) How detrimental, then, it is to neglect these means of grace!
Fighting Against Sin
The fourth means to stir up our zeal for God is repentance and resistance against sin: “Be zealous therefore, and repent” (Rev. 3:19). Our zeal for God is dampened if we refuse to let go of some cherished sin despite the Spirit speaking to our conscience. A hardened heart is a heart cold toward God. If you find yourself growing cold to God, His Word, and His people, then ask yourself whether there is some disobedience in your life that you are tolerating despite the warnings of your conscience. Paul spoke of the renewal of zeal by repentance when he wrote, “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation...What carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal" (2 Cor. 7:10–11). Fenner said that in order to inflame and maintain our zeal we must “shun the occasions of sin” and “eschew [flee] the beginnings of sin.” (A Treatise of the Affections, 162–63)
Both the means to attain Christian zeal and keep it aflame in the soul may seem impossible when considered from our perspective. Indeed, the promise that such means will give way to so great a grace and so glorifying a life seems to be nothing more than an idle tale. Such thinking is familiar in the story of Naaman the leper (2 Kings 5). When Naaman came to Elisha to be healed of leprosy, he expected the prophet to call upon the name of the Lord with some great incantation (v. 11). When Elisha’s response was to send a messenger to Naaman telling him he would be cured if he washed in the Jordan River seven times, Naaman went away in a rage. What was the Jordan River compared to the Abana and Pharpar rivers of Damascus! (v. 12) Naaman’s faith for a cure was not in the prophet or in his God; it was wrongly placed in the means he expected the prophet to use. Once his servant pointed out the foolishness of his unwillingness to follow the prophet’s simple instructions, Naaman came to himself (v. 14). Thomas Manton (1620–1677) wisely said, “Though the means seem to have no connection with the end [or goal], yet, if God hath enjoined them for that end, we must use them. As in the instance of Naaman; God was resolved to cure him, but Naaman must take his [God’s] prescribed way, though against his own fancy and conceit.” (“Eighteen Sermons on the Second Chapter of the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians,” Works, 3:124)
The application is that if we consider the means to Christian zeal in light of our own wisdom and judge them by our own standards, we will respond no less foolishly than Naaman. But if we consider them in the light of God’s wisdom, everything changes. To Him, a stone is not too small to slay a giant (1 Sam. 17:40), a few loaves and fish not too few to feed thousands (Mark 6:38), and an army of three hundred not too small to slay an army of tens of thousands (Judg. 8:10). We must remember that seemingly insignificant means are at times God’s appointed means and not the ideas and notions of men. And as God’s ways and thoughts are far above ours (Isa. 55:8–9), so God’s means to Christian zeal will in the end prove to be far above ours, both in simplicity and efficacy.