I often regret making broad statements, but I think most Christians in North America and the rest of the developed world will probably agree with a statement like this one: There is too much complacency in our lives and in our churches. I recently received a question from a group of pastors who had been discussing this topic: “How do you deal with complacency in your own life and in the life of your church?” They had various answers for the first part of the question, but found themselves stuck on the second half. I thought I might take a shot at it.
But first, we do not want to be Christians who are un-complacent. The Christian life is not avoiding negative qualities as much as it is pursuing positive qualities. Therefore, we want to be Christians who are zealous, for zeal is the opposite of complacency. “Zeal” is a word that was once an important part of the Christian vocabulary, but has since diminished.
Sometimes the best approach to a question like this is to find people in history who have modeled what we are missing and to see what they had that we lack. To find zeal as an emphasis and to find zeal on display, we can travel back a few hundred years to the Puritans. Joel Beeke and Mark Jones dedicate a whole chapter of A Puritan Theology to the Puritan emphasis on zeal. I want to trace just a little bit of what they learned.
None of us is without zeal—we are all zealous about something. We are zealous for this sports team or that one, we are zealous for this brand of cell phone or that one. “Zeal runs in our veins for what we love and against what we hate.” What we want as Christians is zeal that is properly motivated and properly directed—a truly godly zeal. John Reynolds defined Christian 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.” If we assume this desire and concern is not merely feelings but action, it describes the very opposite of complacency. Zeal is like a flame that brings a pot to a boil—it causes our affections for God to come to a boil so that we pursue what delights him and fight against what dishonors him. Zeal is spiritual heat, spiritual energy that flows out through the godly characteristics of love, joy, hope, peace, and so on. It is not a grace on its own as much as it is a quality that affects every part of the Christian life, making us zealous in the way we love, zealous in the way we express hope, zealous in every area and every characteristic and every fruit of the Spirit.
The Puritans identified four means through which God stirs up the Christian's zeal. These means are equally applicable to individuals and churches. What may surprise you is how unsurprising they are. There is no great trick to zeal; rather, it is simply taking advantage of God's ordinary means.
Prayer. “As a grace of God, zeal cannot be earned or bargained for, but must be given; as a grace of God, it must be asked for by prayer humbly offered in the name of Christ.” The basic reason we are not more zealous is that we have not asked the Lord for a greater measure of zeal, perhaps because we do not believe that he can or will give it to us.
The Word. As God works through prayer to stir up our zeal, so he works through his Word, the Bible. This must be the Word read individually in personal worship, it must be the Word preached in the church. “The Word feeds our passion and love for God which He graciously placed in our hearts. If we would have our zeal aroused, we must not neglect to fuel it.” Reading the Bible and hearing it preached is not enough, though. The Word must also pondered and meditated upon.
Church Attendance. A third means to zeal is faithfully attending and participating in public worship and fellowship. Hebrews 10 makes it clear that meeting together is a means through we provoke one another to love and good works. Fenner illustrates: “The coals that lie together in the hearth, you see how they glow and are fired, while the little coals that are fallen off, and lie by, separate from their company, are black without fire. If ever thou desirest to be zealous, make much of the fellowship of the saints.” The coals that glow hottest are the coals that lie close together.
Repentance and Resistance Against Sin. The final means the Puritans drew out is repenting for sin committed and growing in the desire and ability to resist future sin. A heart that has grown hard in sin is a heart that has grown cold toward the Lord. As sin increases, zeal necessarily diminishes.
What the Puritans saw is that God stirs up our zeal through his ordinary means of grace. Zeal is not a quality available only to those who have identified a secret means of grace or who have been given zeal as a spiritual gift. Zeal is available to all who will simply take advantage of the means God gives us.
We may not always approve of the means God determines; sometimes we can be like Naaman who refused to take advantage of the very ordinary means of his deliverance and who refused to believe the connection between the means and the end (see 2 Kings 5). But Thomas Manton warns, “Though the means seem to have no connection with the end [or goal], yet, if God hath enjoined them for that end, we must use them. As in the instance of Naaman; God was resolved to cure him, but Naaman must take his [God's] prescribed way, though against his own fancy and conceit.”
It seems to me that zeal, like so much else in the Christian life, has a contagious quality to it. The pastor who wants his church to be zealous, must be zealous himself. He must throw off complacency and seek zeal through the means of grace the Lord has given him. And then perhaps instead of trying to instill similar zeal in everyone else, he should target a few people, invest in them, model it to them, and allow them to catch the fire. When we light a fire we light a small part and allow the heat to spread. Perhaps that is an apt metaphor for the local church as well. Do not underestimate the value of a few zealous Christians. Do not underestimate their power to stir up a great fire.