Zeal is not cool in our culture. Most people picture a wild-eyed fanatic when they think about religious zeal. In a world that pursues the shallow and values self-satisfied composure, zeal is odd. The world is at best cool towards it. When being pragmatic and popular are of greatest value, the Church too is less comfortable with zeal. Of course, there is a false religious zeal: being zealous in the wrong way or about the wrong things. The Bible speaks about that, yet most often it emphasises that zeal is vital.
Zeal is essential in spiritual things. It is being single-minded towards the glory of God – to see God glorified in every possible way. It is a burning desire to please God and that His will may be done on earth as it is in heaven. Had Luther and the other Reformers lacked zeal, they would not have pursued Reformation. Christ Himself had an all-consuming zeal (John 2:17) and we often read of the zeal of the Lord in Scripture. Do we have the spirit of the Reformers today?
There is an especially helpful treatment of reforming zeal in a sermon by Oliver Bowles (d.1674) preached during the time of the Second Reformation. Bowles was a member of the Westminster Assembly and preached the sermon before both Houses of Parliaments on a day of fasting. It is called “Zeal for God’s House Quickened” and particularly focuses on the eminent zeal required in Church reformers. It is also useful for understanding the nature of zeal more generally in spiritual things. He expounds the example of the Lord Jesus Christ’s consuming and reforming zeal in John 2:17. There are updated extracts in what follows.
Bowles explains why he has focused on zeal: (a) it is the direct opposite of lukewarmness “the most dangerous and yet the epidemic disease of our time”; (b) no one grace promotes the work of reformation more than zeal; and (c) nothing commends a reformer more in the eyes of God and man.
This is both the most excellent and the most difficult work, therefore Church-reformation calls for the utmost zeal. Our love to promote that work must be such as many waters cannot quench. Our desires must be enlarged, as those which break through all impediments and accept no denial. Our hope must be more longing, our endeavours full of activity, our hatred of the opposite more perfect and our anger in removing the hindrances more violent. A reformer without zeal is like a body without a soul, a bee without a sting, or salt without flavour.
Bowles was a scholar before becoming a minister in Bedfordshire. He was the author of an important volume of pastoral theology. He died around the age of ninety. His last words to Timothy Cruso were: “Only remember to keep a good conscience, and walk closely with God.” He repeated them twice with considerable emphasis in order to make a deeper impression.
What is Zeal?
It is a holy ardour kindled by the Holy Spirit of God in the affections, making a man better to the utmost for God’s glory and the Church’s good. Zeal is not so much a single affection as the intended degree of all. Affections are the motions of the will in doing good or avoiding evil. They are the outgoings of the soul.
What is True Zeal?
We must make sure our zeal is of the right stamp. As with every other grace, zeal may be (and often is) counterfeited.
1. It has a true light
False lights can mislead men over dangerous places. We are greatly inclined to be misled when prejudiced by individuals in their reputation, learning and holiness. We must not necessarily accept something merely because it is ancient nor reject it simply because it is new [and vice versa]. Sometimes we engage our judgments hastily before we are able to judge and are then unwilling to retract when we have judged unduly. We must seek to be sure that things are lawful rather than be carried away by the self-conceitedness of our own opinions whether they are lawful or not. The eye-salve of the Spirit by the Word alone must guide us: “to the law and to the testimony” (Isaiah 8:20).
2. It is ordered by wisdom
Wisdom includes using the right means to the right end. There is a kind of impetuosity by which he who is hasty in his matters sins (Isaiah 28:16). On the other hand, there is a spirit of deliberation and counsel. Consider, consult, then give your opinion and then act. A good cause often miscarries by imprudent handling. Ignorance of the right means tires men out pointlessly in their endeavours (Ecclesiastes 10:15).
3. It is not quarrelsome
Love is and ought to be the orderer of zeal. Love is long-suffering, bears all things and endures all things. Love knows that a little rupture will quickly be a great one. It prevents them or seeks to make them up speedily. It does not allow the waters of strife any passage, not even a little. Zeal for God is tenderly respectful of other people. Wildfire that is not zeal casts fire-brands, arrows and deadly words and then says, “I mean no harm” (see Proverbs 26:18-19).
4. It will not diminish what God commands.
Zeal will not diminish even a hoof of what is required. False zeal cries “Let it not belong to either of us but rather be divided between us”. It makes nothing of small matters. True zeal drives on the work of reformation so that it does not leave the least remnants of Baal. It removes all the high places. It recognises that great persecutions have arisen out of small matters. It sees that conscience is a tender thing like the eye and the least mote troubles it.
5. It is not a mere flash.
Many begin well; they are hot and eager while in particular company. When carried along by such support and hopes and not assaulted by trials they are eager and hot in the work of reformation. But when things change outwardly they change inwardly, even to the extent of completely extinguishing their zeal.
6. It is not worn down by opposition.
True zeal, having the cause of God in view, is not worn down by length of time, numerous discouragements, deserters of the cause and the strength of opposition. Zeal makes men resolute; difficulties only sharpen their fortitude. It steels men’s spirits with undaunted bravery.
What Regulates Zeal?
Zeal is dangerous when not directed by a well-informed understanding. Like a fire, zeal must have light as well as heat. It is only hell where there is heat and no light but utter darkness. Neither the mind nor zeal can be good without knowledge: The Jews had a zeal that was defective in being not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2).
Zeal must not be conjectural, based on that which only seems probable having been received from others without examination. Scripture texts can be quoted frequently and in great numbers but what matters is whether careful examination has proved that they support the claim. Do not take all that glitters for gold.
Zeal must be wary as well as warm. Fire is good, but in a wise man’s hands who will not put it into the thatch. Fire is good in the chimney, but if it catch the rafters of the house it sets it all on fire. Wisdom will not have a reformer to reform in such a way that only succeeds in enraging vice more. Men that mean well are subject to many mischiefs even in their good endeavours, but wisdom is profitable to direct. But beware here also of that over wary discretion that destroys zeal.
Zeal can be harsh but love lines the yoke and makes it easy to bear. Love takes away all bitterness towards others. Love allows us to be warm, sharp and direct in our reproofs, but not scalding hot. The stomach will not receive that which burns the lips and neither will the ear accept the reproof that is abusive. Love calls us to be zealous for the truth. It calls us to work to endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).
What is Reforming Zeal?
1. Zeal will and must do its work thoroughly.
It is God’s work and men must not divide it in half. Corruptions will grow again unless they are pulled up by the roots. Experience shows how partial reformations made way for sad persecutions. Such imperfect proceedings give enemies the hope that we will come round to them again.
2. Zeal must and will summon all the powers of soul and body and everything else possible to further the work.
God delights in active men. What should we be earnest for, if not for God and His cause? Will you be earnest for your friends, profit and pleasures and yet cold for your God?
3. Zeal (once it is convinced that the cause is just) overlooks all dangers however great.
When Caleb heard of the difficulties he resolved, “Let us go up at once”. Esther said, “If I perish, I perish”. Paul said, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart?” It treads under foot all temptations and all hope of great things.
4. Zeal helps when contending alone.
Zeal is supported by noticing Joshua’s resolution: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”. Elijah’s complaint was that he was left alone and Paul says “At my first answering no man assisted me”. Zeal takes notice that numbers begin with one, and that if there had not been one first, there would never have been two.
5. Zeal requires perseverance in the work.
Many begin in the Spirit, but end in the flesh. How many brave worthies promised fair and promised great things, yet have been shipwrecked on the rock of an unsound heart. They have withered away, if not in the end proved false to God. It is only the overcomer that receives the crown. When a reformer has heat from heaven rather than from mere outward causes, zeal will persevere.
Reformation is an urgent necessity in our personal lives and our families as well as in the Church and nation. We will get nowhere without zeal. And as Bowles concludes “what remains but that I commend you to God, and the Word of His grace who alone must enable you for it, and without whom all that is done will come to nothing”. “If you go on to do the Lord’s work with wisdom and courage, God will certainly go along with you”. “The God of heaven…raise and keep up your spirits, clothe you with zeal, fit you for all encounters and make way for you through all difficulties”.