And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit,
seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.
—1 Tim. 3.16.

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CHRISTIAN ZEAL.

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TrueCovenanter.com Editor's Introduction.

The following article is taken from the June and September issues of the first volume of The Reformed Presbyterian magazine.  It is excellent, and little more needs to be said.  Cold, Hot, or Lukewarm, whatever kind of Christian you are, and wherever you are in your walk with the Lord, the observations below will be helpful and motivating.  The Lord calls us all, continually, to progress in sanctification and the life of faith; and there is no one reading these lines who is done making progress, advancing from what is old, to what is new. (Col. 3.9-10; Eph. 4.22-24, etc.)

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The temperament of the public mind, in this country and age, is feverish and inflammable.  Many run to and fro,—society, in all its departments, is in a state of continual fermentation.  Progress slow and sure, does not satisfy.  The most rapid advance hardly keeps pace with excited desire.  The spirit of the age demands the destruction or the reform of every thing old, and endeavors to satiate the lust of excitement by the production of endless novelties.  Laws, sciences, and manners, are in a state of revolution.  It would be matter of astonishment were the religious world to remain uninfluenced while all is moving and whirling around it.  It has been affected.  New doctrines and novel practices have arisen, startling to the conscientious Christian.  These have generated by a natural reaction, a tendency to fanatical, unscriptural affections.  From its very nature this spirit is characterized by alternations of high-wrought excitement, and deep depression.  At present, it has sunk below the level, but the same principles and causes are at work, and unless counteracting influence be brought to bear, we may anticipate a speedy return to the alternate condition in its rise as much above the just medium.

The child of God who desires to maintain a consistent character, and to exhibit in his life the genuine fruits of faith {107} may be, in two ways, evily affected by the circumstances above alluded to.  He is in danger of coming too much under their influence, and of being drawn into the vortex; or he may be driven to the opposite extreme, and settle down into a cold, inactive, lethargic tone and temper of mind.  To keep the safe medium between extremes, he finds difficult.  To avoid, on the one hand, the unnatural heat of enthusiasm, and on the other, to suffer no diminution of that zeal which is an eminent Christian grace.

The Bible enjoins upon us a course of conduct characterized by the due mixture of sobriety and fervency.  “Be sober.” 1 Pet. 1.13.  “Let your moderation be known to all men.” Phil. 4.5.  “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” Eccl. 9.10.  “Be fervent in spirit.” Rom. 12.11.  These precepts are not opposed to each other.  They discourage the wildness of unrestrained zeal, while they command the active, energetic, and unceasing employment of every power of mind and body in the discharge of duty to God and man.  The latter of these is required of every true believer.  An inspired Apostle teaches us that “it is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing.” [Gal. 4.18.]  Elijah, the prophet, says of himself, “I was very jealous for the Lord God of Hosts.”  And “the disciples remembered that it was written of Christ, the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.” [1 Kings 19.10; John 2.17.]  The paramount importance of eternal things, as they relate to the glory of God and the welfare of man, urges the true believer to unwearied, unremitting exertion in running the race set before him.  Compared with the plan of redemption, all other subjects to which the attention of mankind can be directed, are trifling and insignificant.  The doctrines that reveal and unfold it afford ample scope for the exercise of the most enlightened understanding; the blessings which it confers are numberless and excellent; the anticipations which it opens up are inconceivably glorious.  The warmest affections of the pious heart are kindled and invigorated by that faith which has for its object such doctrines and promises.  “The angels desire to look into these things.” [1 Pet. 1.12]  The spirits of just men made perfect, will eternally delight in their increasing knowledge of them.  As much as eternity exceeds the brief hour of human existence, do the spiritual interests of man surpass any, even the noblest objects belonging to this world only.  The philosopher, the statesman, the man of business, pursue with avidity and engrossing interest, their various enterprizes.  Should the Christian be less earnest with regard to that in which he professes to have the greatest concern?  Should he not be as diligent to {108} acquire and diffuse the knowledge of God—to promote the interest of Christ’s kingdom—to obtain, an incorruptible crown and unfading inheritance, as they are to secure that “knowledge which passeth away”—to add to the extent and glory of earthly empires, or to amass riches which make to themselves wings and fly away toward heaven?  Let us meditate for a little on Christian zeal, directing our attention to such characteristics as may be profitably used in our attempts to discriminate between this grace, and its counterfeits.

I. Zeal is a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s saving operations.  Stephen, the first martyr after the resurrection of Christ, was a man “full of the Holy Ghost.”  “Be fervent in spirit,” is a precept implying that fervency is a spiritual gift whose author is the Holy Spirit.  Zeal is the lively and vigorous exercise of the system of graces which constitute and adorn the believer who is “born of the Spirit.”  Strong faith is one of its constituents.  The beauty, the surpassing excellency, the heavenly glory of divine things, apprehended by faith, arouse the whole man to put forth his strength in their attainment.  Love to God and man awakens ardent desires to glorify Him from whom these good gifts come, and to bring others to participate in the substantial blessings communicated by them.  A “good hope through grace” of immortality, which the gospel alone brings to light, animates its possessor to seek for the “pearl of great price,” [Matth. 13.46,] though it cost him all the “goodly pearls” of this life, and amply repays, as it awakens him to the importance of making every effort to free his fellow men from their sins and miseries.  Each of these graces is a fruit of the Spirit.  The same almighty agent can alone call forth, by his presence and saving energy, their lively exercises.  Fanaticism, and fiery and distempered enthusiasm, are mere animal excitements.  They are the results of fancy, feeling, a restless temperament, or active sensibilities, wrought upon by erroneous views or wrong impressions of divine truth.  Zeal is spiritual; they are carnal.  The fire of the genuine grace is kindled at the altar, and fed by pure aliment; its counterfeits are of earthly origin, and subsist upon fleshly nutriment.  Gospel doctrine which increases the activity of the one, extinguishes the others.

II. Zeal is directed by intelligence.  Paul bears record of Israel, that they “had a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.” Rom. 10.2.  He was himself, previously to his conversion, exceedingly zealous.  “Concerning zeal, persecuting the church.” He persecuted “ignorantly and in unbelief.”  Knowledge is the first element of the Christian character. {109} “They that know thy name will put their trust in thee.” Psalm 9.10.  Ignorance is the mother, not of true devotion, but of superstition, bigotry, and furious, unhallowed passions.  Ecclesiastical history furnishes ample and deplorable evidence of the truth of this remark.  It is inscribed in deep and indelible characters upon every stone of the great building of Papal idolatry and tyranny.  It has been written in the blood of martyred millions.  We can read it in the dark and gloomy spirit of Pagan devotion, ancient and modern.  The ignorant zealot rushes on in darkness, or he is misled by false lights.  He knows not how nor whither he goes.  But “wisdom is profitable to direct.”  Wisdom points out the object, provides the means of attaining the desired end, and teaches the best modes and most suitable time to use them.  Zeal is guided by that saving acquaintance with the true nature and design of the gospel which is derived from the scriptures, and imparted by the Holy Ghost.  It is truth and not error that God blesses for the production of any good end.  Error, as well as sin, may be and is overruled by the great Moral Governor of all things to promote his wise and gracious designs; but it is not blessed.  “Sanctify them by thy truth—thy word is truth.” John 17.17.  It is possible to be a bigot even in a good cause, through ignorance.  Where a cause is embraced and maintained, merely from habit, education, or the force of circumstances, without a proper acquaintance with its nature, and without such evidence as shews its accordance with the divine will, attachment to it, however warm, is deficient in an essential element of true zeal.  The grace of which we treat is never found separate from correct knowledge of its object, and an intelligent comprehension of sufficient grounds for its exercise in the promotion of a known object

III. Zeal aims at the promotion of the glory of God.  It is “a zeal of God.”  The jealousy of Elijah was “for the Lord God of Hosts.”  “Fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.”  The true Christian seeks in all things to glorify God.  His are not mere selfish efforts.  He cherishes no merely selfish and personal objects.  He “shews forth the praises of God who hath called him out of darkness into his marvellous light.” [1 Pet. 2.9.]  He “glorifies God in his body and spirit which are God’s.” [1 Cor. 6.20.]  Remaining imperfection may excite some flames of unholy passion; and party interest will sometimes intermingle with holier influence.  But these are not the prevalent causes impelling him to action.  To promote the glory of God in his own personal sanctification, and preparation for heaven and in the coming of the Redeemer’s Kingdom, he considers his chief {110} end.  For this he labors—spends and is spent.  We would not by these remarks even seem to favour the absurd notion of perfect disinterestedness which some who “err from the faith” have taught as constituting the very essence of true piety.  The intelligent child of God prefers the Scriptural view of this subject, and seeks the enjoyment of God as the means of glorifying him.  Zeal has an eye to that which an able divine denominates “God’s public glory.”  The glory of God as the great moral Governor of the universe, regulating and ordering by the precepts of the moral law, in the hand of Christ, the affairs of nations as well as of individuals.  We have an example of this grace directed to this object in the case of Elijah.  Great exertions to promote the interests of individuals, without any regard to the condition of the public interest of Christ’s Kingdom, argues very imperfect views of Christian duty.

IV. The zealous Christian opposes error and sin.  The Lord’s prophets were animated by the true spirit of Christian heroism in their zeal against the iniquities of Israel and the abominable sins of the surrounding nations.  Elijah was “jealous for God” when he denounced the wrath of Jehovah against the tyranical Ahab, the ungodly Jezabel, and the apostate, idolatrous tribes of Israel.  He was moved by the same spirit in that most remarkable transaction of his eventful life, of which we have the record in the 18th chapter of 1st Kings—the execution of the divine law upon the false prophets of Baal.  To this event he seems to allude particularly in the words that we have more than once quoted. 

“The zeal of the Lord’s house consumed” our blessed Redeemer in his rebukes uttered with authority, against the Scribes and Pharisees. [John 2.17.]  He expelled those who defiled the temple, driving them out ignominiously with “a whip of small cords.”

How nobly has this grace in its nature and power, been illustrated in the lives, faithful contendings, and triumphant deaths of the martyrs of Jesus.  They hazarded all, even life itself, in opposing Pagan, Papal, and prelatical usurpations and vices.  We have a “great cloud of witnesses” to direct our footsteps. [Heb. 12.1.]  Christ Jesus himself has in this gone before us.

The false sentiment, that it is inconsistent with the due exercise of Christian charity, faithfully and impartially to rebuke every departure from “the law and the testimony,” should not for a moment be entertained.  Is it charitable to be silent when “damnable heresies” are spreading over the land? to suffer without interruption, soul-destroying delusions to slay their {111} tens of thousands?  Does it evince a Christian spirit to permit the truth and law of God to be trodden under foot without an effort to rescue it?  Not so did our great exemplars.  Not so will the enlightened child of God act.  He adopts as his maxim the scripture proverb, “He that rebuketh a man, afterwards shall find more favor than he that flattereth with the tongue,” Prov. 28.23: and as his rule the command of God to Isaiah the evangelical prophet, “cry aloud, spare not; lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgressions, and the house of Jacob their sins.” Isa. 58.1.

V. Zeal has no affinity with passionate violence of temper or conduct.  “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.” Eph. 4.31.  “The servant of the Lord must be gentle.” “Cease from anger and forsake wrath; fret not thyself in any way to do evil.” [2 Tim. 2.24; Psalm 37.8.]  Violent passions are unfriendly to growth in grace.  And when they break forth in the conduct they bring reproach upon a cause, however good.  In confirmation of our position, we can again refer to the perfect example of the Redeemer.  To his zeal we have more than once made allusion.  His tenderness and meekness were not less remarkable.  Frequently were they manifested in the most touching manner.  But a few days before his crucifixion, and in full view of that event, we find him uttering the following pathetic lamentation over that unhappy city which was about to be guilty of his blood: “Oh! Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children together even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not.” Matt. 23.37.  Who more bold, and fearless and uncompromising than Jeremiah the weeping prophet.  Yet with the awful denunciations of the divine indignation which he was commissioned to bear to his sinful countrymen, he mingled his tears.  “Oh! that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people.” Jer. 9.1.  Harsh, passionate, invective, is removed to the farthest possible distance from open, firm, manly, Christian rebuke.

VI. The Christian actuated by true zeal has a lively regard for all known truth and duty.  The language of his heart will be that of David, the man after God’s own heart: “My soul breaketh for the longing that it hath unto thy judgments at all times.”  “The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver.”  “My zeal hath consumed me, because mine enemies have forgotten thy words.” Psalm 119. 20, 72, 139.  “Judgments, laws, and words,” are used throughout this psalm in their most extensive signification.  They designate, with other equally expressive titles, the whole revealed will of God—the Holy Scriptures as the rule of faith and duty.  “Judgments and laws” are names expressive of the character of the system of truth taught in the Bible, as it is given to direct the conduct—“words” signify the same revelation, particularly as it is given to be believed.  Now, the inspired Psalmist makes no exception.  He clearly designs to embrace all divine truth.  He does not say, ‘I long for such of thy judgments as are, in my opinion, essential;’ nor, ‘I prize much the most important statutes embodied in thy law;’ nor, ‘I am zealous for so many of thy words as contain fundamental doctrines.’  No: he includes in his vehement expression of strong affection and fervent zeal the whole law as a whole.  In another place he employs language that puts the matter beyond doubt.  “Then shall I not be ashamed when I have respect to all thy commandments,” verse 6.  They shall be ashamed, “who break one of these least commandments and teach men so.” Matt. 5.19. {194}

In the above quotations, David speaks the common sentiments of all enlightened believers.  They love all the gracious words that proceed from the mouth of God; and their earnest desire is, that others should love and regard them.  “Rivers of waters run down their eyes, when they see how wicked men—keep not God’s law.” [Psalm 119.136.]  They dare not cast reproach upon the Divine wisdom, by rejecting as useless, or by refusing to contend for, any principle that the Redeemer, as the great Prophet, has made known to men.  Moreover, every wise man is aware that the value of a system of doctrines and its efficacy depend not only on the worth of the leading doctrines which compose the system, but upon their order, consistency, and unity also.  The pins and rivets of an engine are small matters out of their proper places; but they are essential parts of the machinery, without which the disjointed and unconnected bars and beams could not act to produce the desired effects, or answer their intended ends.  Some truths may be the pins and rivets of the great system; yet are they not, on that account, less essential.  The intelligent Christian is equally zealous for these, in their proper place and order, as for those which ignorance or indifference considers as the only important doctrines.  Worldly men and worldly-minded professors may call this bigotry and fanaticism, and other abusive names; but it is none of these; it is wisdom.

Spurious or ill-directed zeal frequently seizes upon a single point of doctrine or of duty, detaches it practically, if not in theory, from the system of which it is but a part, and wastes its energies in vain efforts to elevate this solitary item to the disparagement of all others with which it is connected.  This defect, in whatever system of self-improvement or general reformation it may be found, is a radical one.  Nor does this at all militate against a very important practical rule observed by every wise and faithful follower of the Lamb; namely, that the greatest effort must be made in the most favourable quarter and under the best attainable circumstances.  The skilful general discovers the weak point of his adversary, and there makes his attack: or he finds opportunity of pushing his own defences in a particular direction, or of acting to advantage in a particular quarter, and proceeds accordingly.  It would, however, be consummate folly to look no further than to the mastery of “the weak point,” or to cease the advance when one column has marched, without bringing forward the main body to occupy the ground gained.  There are “present truths.” [2 Pet. 1.12.]  Circumstances {195} may render the times more favorable to the promulgation of some principles than of others; or the concentration of human depravity in particular channels of error or vice, may require the soldier of Christ to give a certain direction to his opposition; while in either case, the whole truth is maintained and its claims enforced—and every erroneous scheme of doctrine and all immorality are faithfully denounced.  So to vary and proportion the presentation of truth, as most directly and effectually to promote its interests and overturn sin, is a nice and difficult point in the work of the faithful, conscientious witness.

This characteristic of true zeal has another aspect.  It is not satisfied with present attainments, but presses forward to a better acquaintance with God’s will.  Like Paul, he who possesses it says: “not as though I had already apprehended, or were already perfect.” Phil. 3.12.  David, even in advanced life, prayed that God would “teach him his statutes;” “open his eyes” &c. Psalm 119 throughout.  The more a man loves the truth and delights in duty, the more earnest will be his desires to have his views enlarged and purified.  Zealous Christians are, without exception, enquiring Christians.

VII. Zeal is practical in its nature.  Principles are useless if not reduced to practice.  “All scripture is profitable for doctrine &c.—that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” 2 Tim. 3.16,17.  The use of doctrine is here put first in order, but the perfection of the man of God in good works is the end which all that precedes is designed to accomplish.  The truly zealous believer begins with himself.  He attacks his own sins—his indwelling corruption; he seeks to promote his own spiritual improvement.  Paul says, “For behold this self-same thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort—what zeal it wrought in you.” 2 Cor. 7.11.  The context shews clearly, that this zeal was directed against their own sins.  They began by plucking the beam out of their own eye.  But they did not end there.  They went on to purify the Church by excluding him, who had polluted it.  A readiness to apply, for purposes of either private or public reformation, his professed principles, is a good test of the sincerity of a man’s zeal for them—perhaps we may say safely—of the reality of his belief in them.  Particularly does this hold good with regard to religious principles.  He who rightly believes them, knowing that God is their author and salvation their end, will assuredly apply them.  If an individual has such belief in the {196} doctrine, that Jesus Christ, in his mediatorial character, has dominion over all men in all their varied relations—public and private, as constitutes the faith of the Christian, will he rest satisfied without endeavouring to obtain a universal recognition of the doctrine in its true application.

Plain, and even self-evident, as these truths are, it is still a lamentable fact that men are not always willing to apply the doctrines which they profess to believe.  Some are more inclined to muster up objections against their practical application, or to find apologies for its neglect, than to take the direct rule of duty as their guide.  Thousands in the Northern States, who admit that slave-holding is sinful, refuse to carry out the doctrine in urging its immediate abandonment.  Many assent to the doctrine that the revealed will of God, contained in the Bible, should be the supreme law of the land; but start back from the consequences of the admission in its practical bearings.  Why is this?  The reply lies upon the very face of their conduct.  To assent to a truth “in the abstract” is an easy matter: to apply it requires self-denial.  Truth carried out in practice, brings a man into direct conflict with an unholy world, and with sinful propensities.  To use endeavours to spread truth and advance the influence of its application, requires sacrifice of worldly ease, earthly property, and reputation among men.  The entangling cares of the world, the snares which it spreads, and the deep corruption of the human heart, sufficiently account for this painful fact.  The zealous disciple takes up his cross and follows Christ, whether it be through good or bad report.  Like Paul and other martyrs, he “counts not even his life dear” for the sake of the cause which he has, from the heart, espoused.

VIII. Zeal is permanent and increasing.  David “longed for the judgments of God at all times.” [Psalm 119.20.]  “The path of the just man is as the shining light, which shineth more and more unto the perfect day.” Prov. 3.18.  Paul “pressed forward.”  For many years with unabated, growing zeal, this diligent servant of Christ proclaimed the doctrines of the cross and urged the duties which they inculcate.  The opposition of enemies, the apostacy of professed friends, the threats and actual violence of furious persecutors, the advance of age, the toil of labor, diminished not his ardor.  We find him, near the end of his life, and when a prisoner in Rome, laboring with unwearied constancy and zeal in preaching the Gospel, to the spread of which he had devoted the vigor of his days.  It is a mistaken notion, that ardent, fervent efforts in maintaining and promoting any cause cannot {197} be long continued.  If such efforts have their origin in mere animal feelings, or if these mingle with them in considerable degree, they will undoubtedly decrease as the excitement of passion abates.  The temporary exhilaration caused by the intoxicating draught soon subsides, and the inebriate sinks into a state of unnatural depression.  This seems to be an unavoidable law of the animal economy.  Mere excitement where there is nothing more, cannot very long be kept up to the greatest height.  This is equally true of those excitements in which the mind bears the chief share, as of those which influence chiefly the corporeal system.  The history of many religious excitements—called by their authors and advocates, “revivals of religion”—got up in past years by men of erroneous sentiments, through the instrumentality of a system of means devised and adapted to work powerfully upon the passions, without enlightening the understanding or informing the judgment, abundantly confirms the truth of this observation as applied to professed zeal for religion.  The subjects of these “revivals” were for a time all-alive to religious matters, in many instances abandoning their ordinary business and pleasures to attend “protracted meetings” and extra devotional exercises.  But the fire in a few weeks or months burned out; and they have now left in their room a state of spiritual apathy and deadness—equally to be deplored with the distempered frenzy and temporary zeal which have occasioned it.  While all this is true, it is equally true that zeal, however great, which is “according to knowledge,”—intelligent in its origin and controlled by correct principles and sound wisdom, will wax brighter and brighter.  As faith grows, love will burn with a more vehement flame.  The nearer the believer draws to the great fountain of light and warmth—“the Sun of Righteousness,”—he discerns more of the ample extent of truth and duty; he understands them better, and appreciates them more fully.  His efforts to arrive at perfection are more vigorous and unremitting.  His desire for the general diffusion of a knowledge of the truth and for its adoption becomes stronger and stronger.  His desires urge to greater exertions.  Grace expands, and purifies, and warms, and elevates them.  Thus zeal kindled at the altar will burn with constant and increasing fervour here on earth and hereafter in heaven, the place of holy, intense, and unceasing devotion of the whole man to God and to his service.