How To Distinguish True Zeal from False Zeal

I fear there is a plague of complacency among Christians today. Whatever happened to zeal? Whatever happened to Christians who are on fire to know and obey God, who have (in the words of John Reynolds) “an earnest desire and concern for all things pertaining to the glory of God and the kingdom of the Lord Jesus among men?” Yet while zeal is a noble trait, it must be properly directed, for not all zeal is good. Here are some pointers on distinguishing true from false zeal.

Become a Patron

False zeal is blind. Paul accused some religious enthusiasts of his day of having “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2). The fire that consumed them was not the fire of the Holy Spirit but an out-of-control wildfire. The Athenians, likewise, were zealous for religion, but lost as to the identity of the true and living God.

False zeal is self-seeking. It is hypocritical, using religion as a means of gain. It seeks the good of self rather than the glory of God. This is the zeal of those who make a great pretense of godliness, but whose foremost concern is actually personal enrichment.

False zeal is misguided. It pursues minor doctrines and disputable matters while putting aside the weightier matters of God’s law. It is obsessed with traditions and institutions rather than obedience. The Pharisees were far more concerned with the washing of cups than the cleansing of souls.

False zeal is impulsive. It is inspired by impulsive reaction rather than thoughtful conviction. James and John said they would call for fire to come down from heaven, but were rebuked by Jesus for their impetuousness. Their zeal was false, unhelpful, ungodly.

These are all marks of false zeal. True zeal is marked by very different characteristics.

True zeal is Godward. It cannot bear to see God’s reputation harmed or his honor stolen. This was the zeal of the church of Ephesus of whom Jesus said, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false” (Revelation 2:2). This zeal is concerned with defending the glory and honor of God.

True zeal is fearless. It is strengthened by opposition and resistant to discouragement. Zeal will cause a Christian to face dangers that seem insurmountable or enemies that seem impossible to defeat. It is a fire that burns even stronger when fanned by hostility.

True zeal is knowledgeable. It is not based on impulsiveness or ignorance, but a deep understanding of truth. It begins with knowledge of God and ends in conformity to God. Wisdom blazes the trail of zeal and holiness brings up the rear.

True zeal is passionate. It will stand for truth even when that truth is despised or opposed. “It is time for the LORD to act,” says David, “for your law has been broken” (Psalm 119:126). The more unbelievers reject the truth and despise those who believe it, the more courageous Christians become in the face of their opposition.

True zeal generates obedience. It makes us hear God’s Word with reverence, to pray with persistence, to love others with brotherly affection. It is the height of hypocrisy for a believer to be outwardly zealous while inwardly committed to sin. A godly heart boils over with holy affection for God and man.

True zeal is persistent. It cannot be quenched, no matter what winds blow against it or what water is poured over it. Just as the body’s heat remains as long as their is physical life, the heat of zeal lasts as long as there is spiritual life. Zeal that does not persist reveals that it was only ever a mirage.

Reading Classics

This article was drawn from The Godly Man’s Picture which I’m reading with a whole crowd of people as part of my ongoing Reading Classics Together effort.

Next Week

For those who are reading with me, please continue reading Chapter IV, “Showing the Characters of a Godly Man,” sections 17-19. Again, that’s a pretty sizable chunk of reading, so don’t procrastinate. Then check back a week from today and I’ll have an article drawn from it.