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Zeal and the Puritans

Category Articles
Date September 19, 2014

Tim Challies interviews Dr. Joel Beeke

1. When the Puritans spoke of zeal, what were they referring to?

By zeal they meant the fruit of the Spirit, especially love, exercised to a high level in the soul and activity of life. Thomas Manton said that godly zeal is ‘a higher degree of love,’ indeed the burning of divine love. He wrote, ‘Zeal will readily set us a-work to do all we do willingly, freely, and cheerfully’ (2 Cor. 9:2). It is distinguished from ‘carnal zeal’ by its lack of hatred and bitter envy (James 3:14), its direction by a true knowledge of God’s Word (Rom. 10:2), and its focus on piety of the heart instead of superstitious externals (Matt. 23:23; Rom. 14:17). Yet zealous love does include a holy ‘indignation’ because when we love something strongly then we hate all that is against it. The strength of zealous love moves Christians to deny themselves and press on despite resistance, and it fills them with ‘holy grief and anger’ whenever God’s truth, God’s worship, or God’s servants are violated. For example, David wrote, ‘My zeal hath consumed me, because mine enemies have forgotten thy words. Thy word is very pure: therefore thy servant loveth it. I am small and despised: yet do not I forget thy precepts’ (Psa. 1l9:139-141).

2. Zeal seems to have been an important concept and an important component of Christian character to the Puritans. What has happened to zeal? Have we simply replaced the word with another, or have we lost the whole concept and emphasis?

Zeal can never completely disappear from true Christianity, for it is, as Manton said, ‘a fruit of Christ’s death’ (Titus 2:14), partly because the marvellous display of Christ’s love inflames his people to love him, and partly because Christ purchased the gift of the Spirit to make us zealous to serve him (Titus 3:5-6).

People may use different words for zeal. I hear some Evangelicals use the word passion in a way similar to how the older writers spoke of zeal. The Bible does not use this word in this manner (‘passion’ in Scripture refers to either suffering or out-of-control desires), but they aim to communicate a similar idea. The older generation would talk of being on fire for the Lord, which is really the meaning of the biblical word ‘fervent’ (Acts 18:25; Rom. 12:11). So the concept is still there.

The danger we face today is that the courage, strength, activism, and resolve of zeal offend our culture of feminized men and tyrannical tolerance.

3. If the Puritans were to take a pulse on Reformed Evangelicalism today, how might they challenge us in regards to zeal?

The Puritans might challenge us to consider more soberly the danger of false zeal. In an age when the love of so many has grown cold, we may get excited whenever we encounter someone who is ‘fired up’ for God. Stephen Charnock said, ‘Nothing is so great an enemy to true Christianity as ignorant zeal.’ Zeal must come with the wisdom from above which is pure, humble, and compassionate, or it will end in bitterness, disorder, and sin (James 3:13-18). Zeal is only as good as the doctrine and godliness which inspire it.

The Puritans might also call us to implement a more extensive zeal that covers all of life. We may be tempted to confuse zeal with excitement, especially in large meetings with music and emotions raised to fever pitch. Christians tend to associate zeal with specific activities such as singing and evangelism. The Puritans emphasized the Reformation doctrine of vocations: everyone serves God in his or her own calling at work, school, or in the home. John Preston wrote,

If you will show that you love the Lord Jesus, do the works that belong to your particular place; for every calling hath a particular work in it: if you love the Lord, be diligent in that way, in that calling which Christ hath given you do to him service in: and herein you shall show your love.

The Puritans would perhaps remind us that zeal is not about excitement so much as it is about perseverance in doing good out of a steady love for God. Manton said, ‘To be zealous of good works is to be constant to the end . . . Zeal is not like fire in straw.’

4. How can we increase the zeal in our lives and in our churches?

First, look to Christ to increase your faith and love. Christ alone can give us life, and cause us to grow. Preston said,

We know nothing but what we are taught by him as a Prophet; whatsoever we do is lost labour, except it be made acceptable through him as a Priest; we are able to overcome no lust, to do no duty but through the power we have from him as a King.

Second, use the means of grace diligently, especially prayer, the Word, and the sacraments. Christ is the fountain and the means are the ‘conduit-pipes,’ as Preston said, and therefore we must not break the pipes off the fountain, nor expect to receive grace except by drinking at the pipes.

Third, examine yourself to see if your heart is divided. No woman will grow in her love for her present husband if her heart clings to her former husband. Preston wrote, ‘We must labour to be divorced from all other husbands . . . weaned from all earthly things, to which [our hearts] are too much wedded.’

Fourth, exercise whatever zeal you have by obeying God’s Word with all boldness. As Preston said, we must not let the grace God has given us sleep within, ‘but we must draw it forth to action, bring it out to practice, and that upon all occasions.’ This is especially the case when obedience involves some ‘hazard’ of potential ‘losses and crosses.’

Fifth, do not be ashamed when people think you are strange and deluded. Manton reminds us that people who are serious about godliness, deny themselves for Christ, and are zealous for a good cause are commonly counted as afflicted with ‘folly and madness’ (Jer. 29:26-27; Acts 26:24; 2 Cor. 5:13). They said Christ was strange and deluded, too (Mark 3:27; John 10:20)!

5. Would the Puritans say it is a pastor’s responsibility to fan the flames of zeal in his church? How would he do this?

The pastor must do what he can as God has commanded him. He is instrumental in bringing the public means of grace to the people. He also must seek to be zealous in his Christian life (and not just in his ministerial life). Pastors may find more about this in the book I co-authored with Terry Slachter, Encouragement for Today’s Pastors: Help from the Puritans.

At the end of the day however, each of us is responsible before God for his own life. Never blame your pastor for your lack of zeal. William Fenner said, ‘The minister may be lively, and yet the people dead. The Lord tells us that Ezekiel had a stiff-hearted people (Ezek. 2:4), yet he was not to be blamed, themselves were in all the fault.’

Joel Beeke is president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He will be speaking on the topics of Puritans and the Priority of Preaching and Puritan Preaching: A Paradigm? at this year’s US Ministers’ Conference (May 30 – June 01).

Taken with permission from The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, September 2014.

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