What Is Zeal?
February 19, 2016
We all have some idea of what zeal is, for to a certain degree we are all zealots. The question is not whether we are zealous but what we are zealous for. Zeal runs in our veins for what we love and against what we hate. We so passionately love some things, such as family, careers, and houses, that we are willing to make considerable sacrifices for them. Conversely, we hate oppression, a bad political decision, or gross injustice. Zeal is a two-way street.
But the Christian isn’t simply called to generic zeal. What is missing today in churches is godly or sacred zeal. William Fenner (1600–1640) wrote, “Zeal is the fire of the soul…Every man and woman in the world is set on fire of hell or of heaven…Zeal is the running of the soul. If thou be not zealous for God, thou runnest away after the things of this world.” (A Treatise of the Affections [London: A. M. for J. Rothwell, 1650], 132–133). John Reynolds defined this zeal as “an earnest desire and concern for all things pertaining to the glory of God and the kingdom of the Lord Jesus among men.” (Zeal a Virtue: Or, A Discourse Concerning Sacred Zeal [London: John Clark, 1716], 18) You see, zeal is not just one characteristic or attribute. Rather, as Samuel Ward (1577–1640) said, zeal is like varnish, which does not add color but gives gloss and luster to whatever it is applied to. (Sermons and Treatises [1636; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996], 72.) Fenner wrote, “Zeal is a high strain of all the affections, whereby the heart puts forth all its affections with might.” (A Treatise of the Affections, 118). Ward wrote, “In plain English, zeal is nothing but heat…. It is a spiritual heat wrought in the heart of man by the Holy Ghost, improving the good affections of love, joy, hope, etc., for the best service and furtherance of God’s glory.” (Sermons, 72). Think of zeal as a flame that brings a pot to a boil—it brings our affections for God’s cause to a boil. It enlivens and compels, stirs and empowers, directs and governs us as it sets our affections ablaze for the glory of God and the good of His church. Think of zeal as something that involves every duty and affection in the Christian life.
This is the type of zeal that is lacking in our churches and hearts today. We may occasionally be zealous, but far too many men, women, and children do not have hearts ablaze for the glory of God. Given the lukewarm temperature of the church today, we could safely assume that most Christians have decided that holy zeal is not necessary. Friends, are you as zealous about God’s glory as you are about your reputation? Are you as zealous about church as you are about playing or watching sports? Are you as zealous about communing with the Holy Trinity as you are about talking to your friends? Are you as zealous about spiritual fitness as you are about physical fitness? Are you as zealous about reading and meditating on sacred Scripture as you are about watching a two-hour movie? Christopher Love (1618–1651) said many people “pant after the dust of the earth” (Amos 2:7): they are so eager in their pursuit of the world that they almost run out of breath (Ps. 59:6). By contrast, our attitude toward the things of eternity is more like Stoics without passion. We are “as hot as fire for earth and as cold as any ice for heaven,” Love said. “Oh, how many pant after the earth who have no breathing after heaven!” We are zealous about many things but not for the things of God.