Zeal – The Thoughts of J.C. Ryle

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Too often we forget that missionaries and theologians of old have dealt with the exact same issues we deal with today. Sin and Righteousness have not changed. The Word of God has not changed. The insights of these great men need to be read and heeded by all of us today as we approach missions.

The following are excellent excerpts from “Zeal” by J.C. Ryle [1816-1900] from his book Practical Religion: Being Plain Papers on the Daily Duties, Experience, Dangers, and Privileges of Professing Christians. (London: William Hunt and Company, 1883)

“It is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing.” – Galatians 4:18

…. (p. 184) 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 which is not natural to man.  It is a desire which the Spirit puts in the heart of every believer when he is converted, however, a desire which some believers feel so much more strongly than others that they alone deserve to be called “zealous” men.

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.

A zealous man in religion is preeminently a man of one thing.  It is not enough to say that he is earnest, strong, uncompromising, meticulous, wholehearted, fervent in spirit.  He only sees one thing, he cares for one (p. 185) thing, he lives for one thing, he is swallowed up in one thing; and that one thing is to please God.  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 offense–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 Gods glory.  If he is consumed in the very burning, he does not care–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 has appointed him.

Such an 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 activity of sin around him slow to a standstill, by continually interceding against it.  If he cannot fight in the valley with Joshua, he will do the work of Moses, Aaron, and Hur, on the hill. (Exodus 17:9-13)  If he is cut off from working himself, he will give the Lord no rest till help is raised up from another quarter, and the work is done. This is what I mean when I speak of zeal in religion.

We all know the habit of mind that makes men great in this world, – that makes such men as Alexander the Great, or Julius Caesar…or Napoleon… We know that, with all their faults, they were all men of one thing. They threw themselves into one grand pursuit. They cared for nothing else. They put every thing else aside. They counted every thing else as second-rate, and of subordinate importance, compared to the one thing that they put before their eyes every day they lived. I say (p. 186) that the same habit of mind applied to the service of the Lord Jesus Christ becomes religious zeal.

Now this habit of mind, – this zeal was the characteristic of all the Apostles. See for example the Apostle Paul. Hear him when he speaks to the Ephesian elders for the last time: “None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry that I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the Gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24)

Hear him again, when he writes to the Philippians: “This one thing I do; I press towards the  (p. 187)mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:13, 14.) See him from the day of his conversion, giving up his brilliant prospects, – forsaking all for Christ’s sake, – and going forth to preach that very Jesus whom he had once despised. See him going to and fro throughout the world from that time, – through persecution, – through oppression, – through opposition, – through prisons, – through bonds, – through afflictions, – through things next to death itself, up to the very day when he sealed his faith with his blood, and died at Rome, a martyr for that Gospel which he had so long proclaimed. This was true religious zeal.

… (p. 188) This again has been the characteristic of all the greatest Missionaries. You see it in Dr. Judson, in Carey, in Morrison, in Schwartz, in Williams, in Brainerd, in Elliott. You see it in none more brightly than in Henry Martyn. Here was a man who had reached the highest academical honours that Cambridge could bestow. Whatever profession he chose to follow, he had the most dazzling prospects of success. He turned his back upon it all. He chose to preach the Gospel to poor benighted heathen. He went forth to an early grave, in a foreign land. He said when he got there and saw the condition of the people, “I could bear to be torn in pieces, if I could but hear the sobs of penitence, – if I could but see the eyes of faith directed to the Redeemer ! ” This was zeal. If zeal be true, it will be zeal according to knowledge. It must not be a blind, ignorant zeal. It must be a calm, reasonable, intelligent principle, which can show the warrant of Scripture for every step it takes. The unconverted Jews had zeal. Paul says, “I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10: 2). Saul had zeal when he was a persecuting Pharisee. He says himself, in one of his addresses to the Jews, “I was zealous toward God as ye all are this day” (Acts 22: 3). ……James and John had zeal when they would have called down fire on a Samaritan village.  (p. 191) But our Lord rebuked them. – Peter had zeal when he drew his sword and cut off the ear of Malchus. But he was quite wrong. –But their zeal was not such zeal as God approves, – it was not a “zeal according to knowledge.”

… (p. 196). Zeal according to knowledge, – zeal from true motives, – zeal warranted by Scriptural examples, – zeal tempered with charity, – zeal accompanied by deep humility, – this is true genuine zeal, – this is the kind of zeal which God approves. Of such zeal you and I never need fear having too much.

… (p. 199). Zeal is in truth that grace which God seems to delight to honour. Look through the list of Christians who have been eminent for usefulness. Who are the men that have left the deepest and most indelible marks on the Church of their day? Who are the men that God has generally honoured to build up the walls of His Zion, and turn the (p. 200) battle from the gate? Not so much men of learning and literary talents, as men of zeal.

Bishop Latimer was not such a deeply-read scholar as Cranmer or Ridley. He could not quote Fathers from memory, as they did. He refused to be drawn into arguments about antiquity. He stuck to his Bible. Yet it is not too much to say that no English reformer made such a lasting impression on the nation as old Latimer did. And what was the reason ? His simple zeal.

… (p. 209) Fear not the reproach of men. Faint not because you are sometimes abused. Heed it not if you are sometimes called bigot, enthusiast, fanatic, madman, and fool. There is nothing disgraceful in these titles. They have often been given to the best and wisest of men. If you are only to be zealous when you are praised for it, – if the wheels of your zeal must be oiled by the world’s commendation, your zeal will be but short-lived. Care not for the praise or frown of man. There is but one thing worth caring for, and that is the praise of God. There is but one question worth asking about our actions: “How will they look in the day of judgment?”

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  1. These excerpts remind me of a story I heard about Alexander the Great who was defeated in a battle. As he was resting under a tree he watched an ant making its way to the top of a trunk carrying a large grain of wheat. The ant kept falling and trying again and again until it finally made it through a difficult path. He rose to his feet, gave a fiery speech to his discouraged troops and they marched back to the front lines and won the battle. We cannot win a war against the powers of darkness with a mentality of defeat.

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