Over the past few weeks Dr. Joel Beeke and I have been teaming up to work our way through a portion of his massive new work A Puritan Theology. We have not been reading the whole book, but just the final eight chapters which deal with practical theology, the “so what?” of systematic theology.
This week we read chapter 58 which discusses the Puritans and zeal. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and this word that seems to have fallen into disuse today.
TC: When the Puritans spoke of zeal, what were they referring to?
JB: 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. Manton 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 keeping 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. 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” (Ps. 119:139–141).
TC: 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?
JB: 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 marvelous 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 it seems to me that 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.