Zeal for God

Deadly or Indispensable?

Kenwood Baptist Church | Cincinnati


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

Look at Romans 10:1–2 with me: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.” They’re not saved. “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God.” Stop right there. The most stunning thing about this passage is that you can have a zeal for God and not be saved. That’s the most amazing thing.

I just want that to sink in and to think with you about it. So, let’s look at it again just so that you can see it: “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them” — he’s talking about his Jewish kinsmen, where he was once upon a time — “is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God” (Romans 10:1–2).

Zeal Does Not Save Us

So, you can have a zeal for God and not be saved. Pastors can have a zeal for God and not be saved. Churchgoers can have a zeal for God and not be saved. Laypeople can have a zeal for God and not be saved. Theological seminary faculty can have a zeal for God and not be saved.

There is a kind of zeal that is not saving, and it’s not connected with those who are saved. You can have a zeal for justice and not be saved. A zeal for social action and not be saved. I mean, if you can have a zeal for God, who is the most precious reality in the universe, how much more could you have a zeal for lesser things and not be saved?

“God is not into moderate. He’s not into middle-of-the-road devotion to Jesus. Zeal is important.”

I personally feel this is a very powerful warning. Here’s one of the reasons. The mission statement of my life and the mission statement of our church is: We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things, for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. So, I live my life to spread zeal. Then Paul says to me, “You can have that and not be saved, you know.”

It makes you wonder if you’re devoting your life to the right thing. I mean, you should pause at least and ask, “Well, well, am I up to the right thing? Am I spending my life pursuing what I ought to be pursuing?” You can pour your energies into a lot of things and can feel very passionate about them. Very godly things, like theological education, and not be saved.

Is It Right to Pursue Passion?

It might be good before I go on just to give you a little sense of where I’m coming from. I knew, when I planned to come here, that we were coming for a banquet last night and to introduce people to a school and to talk about theological education, pastoral training. I thought about that in relation to this message and your pastor David and you and your position in Cincinnati, and that’s partly what drew me to this text and partly what drew me to what I’m going to say, by way of application of it.

I represent and advocate a real passionate pursuit of training young men in particular for the pastoral ministry. I want to see thousands of young men ignited with a passion for the word and a passion for God and a passion for the law and a passion for the nations. I want to see that happen all over the country and all over the world.

Then I look at Cincinnati. I went online this morning to see how big you are. I don’t know how many people live here, but it said 300,000 people: 295,000 people in the city limits and about two million in the greater metro area. That’s almost identical to Minneapolis. In Minneapolis, we have seminaries coming out of our ears. And I ask, What are the options here? And there aren’t as many, I think, to put it mildly.

So, if I were David, and I were here, I would probably, over the length of my life, be praying about that. I would be wondering, What are we to do about that as a church? Should everybody just have to drive two or three hours to get a seminary education, to be trained in all phases of church ministry, or ought there to be church-based kinds of training all throughout Cincinnati? So, that’s some of the background of what made me think about this text.

I might respond here, as a leader in our theological education school, by saying, “Well, I suppose we may as well devote ourselves to something besides zeal and passion because you can go to hell and have zeal and passion.” That’s what Paul says here, so why would you want to give yourself to spreading a passion for the supremacy of God when you can have that and be lost? “So, let’s not do that,” we might say. “Let’s not do that. Let’s spread something else.”

Now, here’s the problem with inferring that from what Paul says. The New Testament not only says that you can have a zeal and not be saved, but it also says that you cannot be saved without a zeal for God. Let me give you a few texts so that you can see what you think.

We Need Zeal to Be Saved

In Revelation 3:16, Jesus said to the church in Laodicea, “Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” God is not into moderate. He’s not into middle-of-the-road devotion to Jesus. Zeal is important. Caring deeply about God, not moderately caring about God, is important.

Romans 12:11: “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” Instead of the word fervent, some translations say that you should be aglow. It means that you should boil. We get the word fervent from fervens in Latin, which means boil. So, if you’re a fervent person, your spirit is alive. It’s quickened, it’s boiling for something, and God ought to be the big boil in your life.

In 1 Corinthians 16:22, the last thing Paul says to the church in Corinth is that “if anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.” It doesn’t say, “If anyone does not believe the Lord, let him be cursed,” though that would be true. It doesn’t say, “If anyone has not received the Lord, let him be cursed,” though that would be true. It doesn’t say, “If anyone has not made a decision for the Lord,” though that would be true. You have to decide for Jesus. It says, “Anyone who doesn’t love him be damned.” Those are strong words to talk about love. I get the impression zeal might matter.

Jesus seemed to always be reaching for language that provoked zeal for him and his Father. For example, “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). Or, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:11–12).

So, you have people beating up on you, slandering and lying about you — be happy. I mean, that’s weird, wonderfully weird. The kind of people the world desperately needs in Cincinnati are weird people who rejoice in God when people are against them. There’s got to be something going on inside for that to happen, that’s really real.

Or, Matthew 5:29 says that it’s better to gouge out your eye and go to heaven then to keep your eye for lust and go to hell. It not only says in Romans you can have a zeal for God and be lost. It also says that you can’t be saved. You can’t be a follower of Jesus and be an indifferent person toward him. You’ve got to have zeal. It really matters. It’s not optional. It’s not an elective in the curriculum.

How Saving Zeal Takes Shape

What are we to make of Romans 10:1–2? “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved [meaning, they’re not saved]. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God.” Let’s just finish the verse now: “They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” It’s not in accordance with knowledge.

So, there’s a zeal that is not a saving zeal. There’s a zeal that is part of being saved. The one is not according to knowledge, and the other is according to knowledge, which bumps up knowledge through the heavens for me.

Knowledge at the Crux

If my beloved kinsmen, that I want so badly to be saved, are not saved because their zeal doesn’t accord with knowledge, then knowledge is massively important, which is huge. Their zeal doesn’t accord with knowledge. That’s their problem.

“The Reformation was an entrance into the paradise of justification by faith.”

This is really, really important. If you care about raising kids, you’re going to bring your kids up to have that knowledge or not. If you’re a pastor, it matters. If you’re a Sunday school teacher, it matters. If you’re a small group leader, it matters. If you’re a seminary teacher, it matters.

There is a zeal that doesn’t accord with knowledge. Oh, they get all kinds of knowledge, and it’s leading them straight to hell. They don’t have the knowledge that would evidently turn their zeal into a zeal of the saved and not a zeal of the lost. Something’s missing, so this knowledge really, really matters.

Elements of Ignorance

And now he explains to us what it is in Romans 10:3: “They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”

There are three parts to the explanation of their ignorance. Not knowing — that’s their ignorance. Then here’s what they don’t know: the righteousness of God. And the two ways that they’re responding to it, that indicate their ignorance, is that they’re not submitting to it.

Do you see that at the end of Romans 10:3? They don’t subject themselves to that righteousness that they don’t know. They’re in rebellion against it. They don’t submit to it. The other piece is that they’re trying therefore to establish their own. So, if you don’t understand and don’t have knowledge of God’s righteousness, you devote your life to getting righteousness.

Clawing at Law-Keeping

Now, at this point, I think his Pharisee, unsaved friends would say, “Paul, you have us all wrong. You do this all wrong here. Of course, we are submitted to God’s righteousness, and that’s why we try to be righteous. I mean, we know the law, and that’s an expression of God’s righteousness, and we’re devoting ourselves to being righteous. Yes, of course, we’re trying to establish our righteousness. Whose righteous should we try to establish? Yours? I mean, yes, we’re trying to be righteous. We’re keeping the law.”

I mean, Paul knew these people. He was one: “Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5–6). Paul knew what it was to keep the law. He knew what righteousness was: keep the law. He knew what it was to build up your righteousness by working hard to keep the law.

And what he’s saying here is, people who live like that are in rebellion against God. I mean, it’s just staggering. It’s relevant for legalistic Christians, it’s relevant for Jews, it’s relevant for Muslims, it’s relevant for Buddhists and Hindus.

Everybody all over the world today has a zeal for God, and they’re all lost, because this is how they’re relating to it: “We know what is righteousness. Allah is righteous and the god of the Old Testament is righteous and your god that you grew up with is righteous, and he has told you some things to do. You’re going to do those things, and that’s how you’re going to relate to him.”

Paul says, “If you try, your zeal will not accord with knowledge, and it will be in rebellion against his righteousness. And it will lead you straight to destruction.” I think that’s what they would have said there, these adversaries.

Resting in Christ’s Righteousness

What’s the problem? The problem is that God’s righteousness is his gift. It’s a free gift to be received by faith. There are different translations for Romans 10:4. Here’s mine: “For the goal of the law is Christ for righteousness for those who believe.” The goal — or the end or the culmination or the aim — of the law is Christ for righteousness for those who believe.

“If we neglect the languages and the literature in which they’re written, we will eventually lose the gospel.”

When Jesus came into the world, he came to offer a righteousness that is different from the establishment of your own. “Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9).

Or, back up to Romans 9:30–32, where it shows why they didn’t attain righteousness. They pursued it as though it were by works. They stumble over the stone, and the stone is Jesus for righteousness. So, the answer for why their zeal was not a saving zeal, why they were lost and needed saving even though they had a zeal for God, is that God’s righteousness, of which they were ignorant, is a gift for faith, not an achievement of your moral effort of law-keeping. That’s what they missed. It’s a deadly zeal if you don’t know that righteousness is a gift.

Linger in the Scriptures

Let’s apply zeal to theological education, and in particular to the careful study of Scripture. Let’s read Martin Luther to do it. Luther, the early Luther, was the person Paul was praying for in this text: “My prayer to God is that Luther would be saved.”

Luther wasn’t alive yet. Had Paul been alive, he would’ve been saying, “My prayer to God is that Martin Luther, who is in rebellion against the righteousness of God as a very devout Catholic, would be saved.”

Paradise Upon Reform

And here’s what Luther wrote on a single word in Romans 1:17:

“In it the righteousness of God is revealed” had stood in my way. I hated that word righteousness of God, which I had been taught to understand philosophically, regarding the formal or active righteousness as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes unrighteous sinners. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul, upon Romans, at that place, Romans 1:17. I beat on that place most ardently, desiring to know what Saint Paul wanted.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night. I gave heed to the context of the words. There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by the gift of God, namely by faith. He who through faith is righteous shall live. Here I felt I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.

The Reformation was an entrance into the paradise of justification by faith. Of people who had been beating themselves up all their lives, trying to measure up to a standard of righteousness that they were in rebellion against, and they didn’t know it. Their zeal was not according to knowledge.

And so they beat and beat and beat on the Bible until the Bible yielded life. “I’m a gift!” said Christ’s righteousness, and he walked into paradise. I hope you’re in paradise instead of the miserable prison of legal bondage to law-keeping as a way of standing with God. I hope you live in paradise.

I want pastors who preach that. I want pastors who get that, live that, exalt in that glory — in the paradise of being justified by faith alone, apart from works of the law. That’s the kind of pastors I want to be a part of breeding.

Grasp the Languages or Lose the Gospel

Should they know Greek and Hebrew? Let’s just keep going with Luther first. Know that when he says without the languages, he means Greek and Hebrew. The Bible had been so bound up in tradition for so long they had to plow through that, and they did it with Greek and they did it with Hebrew. They plowed back to the original meaning, and 1,500 years of falsehood fell away by means of those languages. And so Luther said,

Without the languages we could not have received the gospel. The languages are the scabbard that contains the sword of the Spirit. They are the box which contains the priceless jewels of antique thought. They are the vessel that holds the wine. If the languages had not made me positive as to the true meaning of the word, I might have still remained a chained monk engaged in quietly preaching Romish errors in obscurity of a cloister. No sooner did men cease to cultivate the languages than Christendom declined. But no sooner was the torch relighted than this papal owl fled with a shriek. If we neglect the literature, we shall eventually lose the gospel. It is certain that unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish.

That’s why I care about this. If we neglect the languages and the literature in which they’re written, we will eventually lose the gospel. If you go to liberal seminaries today, you don’t have to study any languages. It is certain that unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish.

So, my one, first, simple, little application is for you to believe in this, whether you lean on Asbury or Southern or whatever, wherever. That’s fine. But oh, that this church might passionately believe that’s true. Love this book and get as much out of it as you can. God doesn’t mean for everybody to study Greek and Hebrew, but oh, what a gift to have a pastor who’s into the languages as much as yours is. And perhaps that is a pointer to a calling on this church for some kind of nurturing of young people on their way into ministry.

Root All Pleasure in God

The second one is much more immediate for everybody. Not only is there the knowledge that accords with zeal, that implies a serious study of the Bible, there is a knowledge that accords with zeal that keeps a pastor or you out of bed with the secretary, that keeps him from stealing money from the church or you from your work.

“God is like a massive supernova in my sky. He’s infinitely worthy. He’s infinitely satisfying.”

In other words, there are moral powers in this zeal that is according to knowledge and there is a powerless zeal that can’t keep you out of bed with another person’s wife, though you may look very religious. Why do I say that? Read this text from 1 Thessalonians 4:3–5: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”

Paul says that the reason those Gentiles have given themselves up to such licentiousness and such libertine sexual misbehavior is because they don’t know God, which means there is a zeal that does know God, that is according to knowledge, that will have tremendous moral power sexually in your life.

I’m sixty-seven, and I thank God for a zeal for God that is relevant to my sexual desires. I have been faithful to Noël. I didn’t bring reproach upon my church. Why? God is like a massive supernova in my sky. He’s infinitely worthy. He’s infinitely satisfying. He’s everywhere, all the time, satisfying my soul.

You must out-zeal the zeal of your sexual desires. Your sexual desires have zeal, and they will take you captive unless you counter them with another zeal that accords with the knowledge of a great gift of righteousness from a great, generous God who is infinitely worthy of your allegiance — down to your bedsheets. That’s my second application: there is a zeal for God that accords with knowledge according to 1 Thessalonians 4:4 that will manage your lusts wholly.

Minister Up, Minister Out

Lastly, there is a way to minister when you have a zeal that accords with the knowledge of a gracious God, who freely gives righteousness, that you don’t work for but receive by faith. There is a way to minister, and Paul illustrates it in Romans 10:1–2.

“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1). So, Paul is praying. I’ve only tasted a little bit David, but it seems to me that he believes in prayer. That’s a very good thing, to have a pastor who believes in prayer. I was prayed over downstairs in the prayer room. He said, “This room is the engine that drives this church,” and I love to hear that.

So here’s Paul, illustrating what you do if you have a God who is a gracious giver of righteousness: you go to him all the time and ask for things. Then he says in Romans 10:2: “For I bear them witness.” You not only talk to God about the men, but you talk to the men about God. Do you see that? I’m praying for them, and I’m witnessing to them.

Up, out — that’s ministry. That’s pastoral. That’s everybody’s ministry. I go to God for you, and I go to you on his behalf. That’s what you should do when you leave here. Do it with your kids, do it with your spouse, do it with your neighbors. You go to God for people. God help them, help them, help them. Whatever they need, I want you to help them. And please use me because here I go. Then you go with a witness.

Doesn’t it say in Acts 6:4 that we will devote ourselves to two things: to the ministry of the word and to prayer? Where does that come from? It comes from a zeal that accords with the knowledge that you have a God who has given.

He is a giver: “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7). You’re going to pray to a God who’s a giver of free righteousness and now, being justified before that God, having a complete, happy, accepted, peaceful, justified standing before that God, you’re going to tell the world about this. You’re going to be a representative of that gift to the world.

A zeal that accords with knowledge will drive you to really serious dealing with the Scriptures, so fully that you want to get some young people just burning for this, who go into the ministry and multiply pastors and teachers all over the city and the world. There’s a zeal that accords with knowledge that has tremendous moral power to keep you pure. There’s a zeal that accords with knowledge that will make a minister out of you vertically, in prayer for people, and horizontally, in witness to people.