What Is Zeal?
By Joel Beeke on Feb 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.
Dr. Joel Beeke, President and Professor at Puritan Reformed Seminary in Grand Rapids.