J. C. Ryle, 1878 (an excerpt on the subject of Christian zeal)
“It is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing” (Galatians 4:18).
Zeal is a subject, like many others in religion, most sadly misunderstood. Many would be ashamed to be thought as “zealous” Christians. Many are ready to say of zealous people what Festus said of Paul: “They are beside themselves — they are mad!” (See Acts 26:24).
But Christian zeal is a subject that no reader of the Bible has any right to pass over. If we make the Bible our rule of faith and practice, we cannot turn away from it. We must look it in the face. What says the Apostle Paul to Titus? “[Christ] gave himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14). What says the Lord Jesus to the Laodicean Church? “Be zealous therefore, and repent” (Rev. 3:19).
My object in this paper is to plead the cause of zeal in religion. I believe we ought not to be afraid of it — but rather to love and admire it. I want to strike a blow at the lazy, easy, sleepy Christianity of these latter days, which can see no beauty in zeal and only uses the word “zealot” as a word of reproach. I want to remind Christians that “Zealot” was a name given to one of our Lord Jesus Christ’s apostles and to persuade them to be zealous men.
Zeal in religion is a burning desire to please God, to do His will, and to advance His glory in the world in every possible way. It is a desire that no man feels by nature — which the Spirit puts in the heart of every believer when he is converted. This desire is so strong, when it really reigns in a man, that it impels him to make any sacrifice, to go through any trouble, to deny himself to any amount, to suffer, to work, to labor, to toil, to spend himself and be spent, and even to die, if only he can please God and honor Christ.
Whether he lives or whether he dies; whether he has health or whether he has sickness; whether he is rich or whether he is poor; whether he pleases man or whether he gives offence; whether he is thought wise or whether he is thought foolish; whether he gets blame or whether he gets praise; whether he gets honor, or whether he gets shame — for all this the zealous man cares nothing at all. He burns for one thing — and that one thing is to please God and to advance God’s glory. If he is consumed in the very burning — he is content. He feels that, like a lamp, he is made to burn, and if consumed in burning — he has but done the work for which God appointed him. Such a one will always find a sphere for his zeal. If he cannot preach and work and give money, he will cry and sigh and pray. Yes, if he is only a pauper on a perpetual bed of sickness — he will make the wheels of sin around him drive heavily by continually interceding against it. If he cannot fight in the valley with Joshua — then he will do the prayer-work of Moses, Aaron, and Hur, on the hill. (See Exod. 17:9-13.) This is what I mean when I speak of “zeal” in religion.
Let every one who professes to be a Christian beware of checking Christian zeal. Seek it. Cultivate it. Try to blow up the fire in your own heart and the hearts of others — but never, never check it. Beware of throwing cold water on zealous souls whenever you meet with them. Beware of nipping in the bud this precious grace when first it shoots. If you are a parent, beware of checking it in your children. If you are a husband, beware of checking it in your wife. If you are a brother, beware of checking it in your sisters, and if you are a minister, beware of checking it in the members of your congregation. It is a shoot of Heaven’s own planting. Beware of crushing it.
Zeal may make mistakes. Zeal may need directing. Christian Zeal may need guiding, controlling, and advising. But zeal does not need damping in a wretched, cold, corrupt, miserable world like this!
(As published in the CLP Newsletter: September October 2017)