Sermon preached on Romans 10:1-13 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/20/2013 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“A Zeal for God”
An English preacher in the 1600s said, “Zeal is fit only for wise men, but is found mostly in fools” (Thomas Fuller). There’s a truth there. Zeal for the right thing is a good thing. Zeal for the wrong thing is not. Far too often we find misplaced zeal. Zeal unwisely lived out for the wrong goals. I would speculate that this is why it seems that another common thought about zeal is that a little is good, but too much is bad. But I don’t agree with that. Zeal is a good thing. But it needs to be zeal according to wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge will inform after what your zeal should strive. Wisdom will dictate how you express your zeal. With knowledge and wisdom governing your zeal, it is an altogether good and godly thing. And this passage draws this to our attention. It shows us that we can have a proper zeal and an improper one. It’s my hope today that we can both inform and cultivate our zeal for God and his righteousness today.
And so, we’ll think about zeal today, but as we study this passage. And stepping back, we see that this passage continues to deal with Paul’s heart for the lost among Israel. And it continues to contrast Israel’s rejection of Christ with the Gentile’s faith in Christ. So many unsaved Israelites, lost without Christ. So many Gentiles saved, through Christ. Well, let’s begin then first today by considering Paul’s concern for Israel’s salvation. Last chapter started out with Paul telling us of his heartache over how many ethnic Israelites were not saved. How they had rejected Christ and the gospel. He revives that language again in verse 1.
Verse 1, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.” This is not put in the language of zeal, but it’s certainly something close. Paul longs for Israel’s salvation. This desire is a good one. Think of how Jesus wept over unbelieving Jerusalem, Luke 19. Or think of how God uses similar language in the book of Ezekiel for the lost. Ezekiel 18:32, “For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,” says the Lord GOD. “Therefore turn and live!” Paul desires the lost to turn, particularly his fellow countrymen. God has such a desire. We should too. But Paul not only has this desire, but he also prays for his fellow Israelites, per verse 1. And of course, we know from elsewhere the Paul didn’t just pray for them, but he also preached the gospel to them.
And so this is some of Paul’s zeal. He longs to see people saved. So he preaches the gospel. So he prays for the lost. This is especially the case toward his Israelite kinsman according to the flesh. This what we saw in chapter 9, but Paul then went on to give a long discussion of predestination and election. He explained that even though the Jewish people had such a rich spiritual heritage, that not all Israelites had been chosen by God. As a side note here, by the way, this chapter and the previous one shows that the truth of predestination doesn’t stop us from caring for the lost. Nor should it stop us from evangelizing everyone or praying for anyone to be saved. Paul cares for the lost, even though he knows that many of them might not be God’s elect. But whether or not someone is chosen by God is something for God to know and operate from, not for us. We instead should follow Paul’s example here. We all have unsaved loved ones in our life. Last chapter we said it was right for us to be concerned for their salvation. Especially our wayward covenant children. The temptation is for us to lose heart with regard to them. To feel like we’ve said all that we can say. If anyone could have thought that, you’d think the Apostle Paul could have thought that. But Paul didn’t give up hope. That’s why he prays. As Paul says in next chapter, he even says that he hopes his ministry to the Gentiles will even be used to save some of these unbelieving Jews, by them being sparked into jealousy. But even when our preaching to the unsaved love ones falls on deaf ears, we can still do what Paul did. Pray. Let us be praying for the lost. In general. But especially for those closest to us. And particularly for those who’ve gone out from us.
And so Paul’s unsaved loved ones broke his heart and spurred on his evangelism and especially his prayer life. But what especially seems to break Paul’s heart here is how these Israelite kinsmen of his had such zeal for God. Verses 2 through 3 bring this out. He acknowledges their zeal. They had a real zeal for God. That might sound great at first glance. But it’s not. Paul tells us why in verse 2. Their zeal was not according to knowledge. This was the problem we mentioned at first today. You can have zeal, but zeal for the wrong thing. That kind of zeal is not a good thing. Verse 3 explains this further for us; it tells us what knowledge they were missing. It says they were ignorant of the righteousness of God. They looked to establish their own instead. Don’t miss that in verse 3. They looked to establish their own righteousness. In other words, they tried to mae a way to be right before God that wasn’t how God would have them to be made right before him.
Well, by doing this, they might have thought were being obedient to God, but verse 3 says they weren’t. They didn’t submit to God’s righteousness. Remember last week’s passage. And frankly remember all of the book of Romans. This is reminding us of how the Jews thought they could measure up to God’s righteous standards through their own merit. Through their own works. This is what they were zealous after. And so think of the Pharisees, for example. They thought themselves so able to do this that they made up man-made rules to try to keep themselves ever getting too close to breaking the letter of God’s commands. Jesus, of course, criticized the Pharisees as not having a good enough righteousness. In Matthew 5:20, for example, Jesus said that our righteousness needed to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees of that day. Of course, as we’ll see again today, the problem was their approach to righteousness. Their zeal was for a righteousness by works. But God’s path for man’s righteousness is a righteousness that comes by faith.
And so such zeal was deadly for the Jews. Zeal is a great vice if it’s in such ignorance. The sadness here is that the Jews thought this was their way to get right before God. They thought this was their way to be saved. There was a genuine passion for these religious actions. But they weren’t based on truth. Their religious fervor was a false one. They actually heaped up further guilt through their sin of self-righteousness. This zeal was well-intentioned. It had the appearance of godliness. But it was still wrong.
There is a great lesson to learn here. There is much application to be found today from this truth. This certainly would speak to those outside the church today. It would speak to for example, all the cults and heretics that have separated themselves from the church of Jesus Christ. Such cults and heretics often have lots of zeal. Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses for examples are some of the most zealous people I know. Many a heretic will passionately argue their false teachings with much energy and enthusiasm, and they won’t tire of it. This genuine zeal sometimes makes Christians even sympathetic to their causes. But that doesn’t mean their zeal is for truth. That doesn’t mean that their zeal is good.
Or take the zeal that many other religions in general show. Some Buddhists, for example, are very zealous and heartfelt about their religion. They can consciously look to live out their religious notions all the time, every day. I’m sure any Buddhist monk has to be pretty zealous about his religion in order to become a monk. Or take a Muslim suicide bomber. You have to be pretty zealous about your faith to do that. But again, that doesn’t make it right.
This is an interesting notion because sometimes you get the impression from the non-Christian world that any heart-felt religious zeal is okay, legitimate, and good. In other words, regardless of your faith, if you hold it genuinely and look to practice it faithfully, they act like that is good. On the other hand, the non-Christian world tends to also say that too much zeal could be bad. They would tend to use the Muslim suicide bomber as an example of this. But they might also use certain passionate, but peaceful, Christians, calling them Jesus Freaks, as another example. The sense you get is that the world thinks a good bit of zeal in religious ideas are fine, as long as you largely keep them to yourself. But too much religious zeal, especially if you try to impose those religious views on others, is bad.
Well, the problem here is that we have to be careful not to put too much stock in the thinking of the world. The world in its unbelief and relativistic sense of truth naturally wants a place where a little zeal for anything is good, just not too much. That’s because it’s in line with their man-made religious notions. Just like Israel had the problem of trying to invent their own way of righteousness. This is the same problem the world has. Post-modernism wants to say that any well-intentioned religious idea is fine as long as it doesn’t hurt others or impose itself on others. That kind of zeal is okay to the world. But, the Bible speaks against this. The Bible says there is a good kind of zeal. And it’s a zeal according to truth. And you can’t have too much of this zeal, as long as it’s a zeal according to truth, knowledge, and wisdom.
You see, zeal is a lot like any strong emotion. Think of things like anger, fear, and even jealousy. All can be good. So often they are bad. You can theoretically have righteous anger, but so often such theory remains theoretical in practice. We need good fear, it can keeps us safe from real dangers, for example. But in the wrong way it can be a hindering paranoia. Jealousy, in the Bible sense, can be seen rightly in God who is jealous for his worship, but we know that human jealousy is rarely right, and usually involves people demanding more of what is not theirs to demand. Well, the same is true with zeal. Humans should see the power of zeal. It can be used by man to accomplish amazing things. But if not according to truth, it is holds the potential for great destruction.
Well, then, at this point I’d like to turn to focus on the sort of zeal we should have. Zeal with regard to faith. This is what Israel did not posses. They had a zeal for God, but they looked to know God in the wrong way, as we said. The difference is between faith and works as we’ve said. Faith is what they and we need. Israel was missing this faith. They put their trust in the law as a way to be righteous. Paul says that Moses even acknowledged that the law can be used in that sense. Verse 5, the righteousness of the law says essentially, “Do this and live.” Keep the commandments and you will live. That’s the mentality many Jews have. The idea is present even in the Old Testament.
But Paul says the other alternative is a righteousness by faith, and that this is what we must find. This is what we should put our zeal into. Look at how Paul talks about this righteousness that comes by faith here. Verse 5, alluding in part to do Deuteronomy 30, says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down from above) or, ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” This seems to be the believing mindset challenging the works-righteousness mindset. You see, the works-based righteousness might want to challenge the incarnation of Christ and think he has to go himself to find Christ in heaven. Or the works-based righteousness mentality, might not believe in Christ’s resurrection and think he has to go down to the grave to find Christ now. But Christ has come to earth, to secure a righteousness by faith. And Christ’s message and claims have been vindicated by his resurrection. The believer recognizes this. The believer sees the righteousness of Christ to be true because he believes in both the incarnation and the resurrection. The works-based mentality thinks “do this and live.” The faith based mentality says I believe Christ did it. That Christ came and died and rose again for my righteousness.
You see, the believer realizes the point of verse 4. That Christ has brought the end to the law for righteousness. Don’t miss the point there. Christ has not done away completely with the law as if morality is no longer an obligation for us. The point is that the law is over as a way for righteousness. Yes, theoretically that’s what the law is. But no human should hope to keep it as a way of righteousness. And so Christ puts an end to that idea.
And so what does the righteousness of faith say then? Verse 8. “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach).” Interestingly that’s a quote from Deuteronomy 30 that in Deuteronomy seems to suggest that Israel should see that they could keep the laws. At first glance some might think it’s contradicting Paul’s point. But Deuteronomy 30 is the same chapter that before this talks about how Israel would fail to keep the law and need God to change their hearts. And so Paul takes the idea of Deuteronomy 30 and says we need to see it from the faith perspective. That the only way this will happen, is if Christ is your Lord. If it’s his righteousness that has become your righteousness. That’s how we’ll be righteous. That seems Paul’s overarching point. There were two ways you could take the Old Testament law. You could read its strict demands and think self-righteously that you could keep them. That could be what you set your zeal on. Or, you could see the strictness of the laws and realize you need grace. That you need a different way. A righteousness by faith. A righteousness from a savior. That is what God has offered all along. And it’s become even more clear now with the coming of Christ.
So then, faith is the answer. Our zeal for God must be expressed in faith. Faith that finds its excitement in what Christ has done for us. And then how is that zeal of faith expressed? By calling on the name of the Lord. This is verses 9-13. “That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Verse 13, “For whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.”
Here we see the importance of speaking out our faith. We confess Christ. We confess him before others. And we confess him in our worship of him. But this we must do from the heart. We need to really believe this from the heart. Then in turn we truly confess him with our lips. That’s a zeal that’s expressed in our lives because it’s based on truth, and it’s the true confession of our heart. Such confession otherwise is hypocrisy and deception and a fraud.
But, I love the access we have to this righteousness by faith. The nearness of this gospel word tells us that this righteousness is not a journey or a pilgrimage. Not for being justified. Yes, our spiritual faith starts us on a grand journey. But the part of actually being declared righteous is instantaneous. At the moment of initial faith, we are saved. We then embark on a road of growth, growth that even involves righteous living. But our standing before God as right in his sight is solidified right at the start of that heartfelt confession of Christ. That’s how near it is.
Genesis 4 talks about how at the beginning a people of God formed among humans. It says that they began to call upon the name of the Lord. That same language here is connected with this confession of Christ. In other words, it’s what we find here in verse 12. There’s no distinction between Jew and Gentile in all of this. It’s not like there are different ways to be saved. No, it’s always been the same since the fall of Adam. We’re all sinners since then. We all can’t find righteousness by our works. So we have to call upon the name of the Lord. We have to call for forgiveness and grace and atonement. We have to call for redemption and reconciliation. And then we call upon him in worship and praise as well, in response. That’s always been the case. And back then and still today the reason God hears such calling is because of Christ. Christ has made all those calls to God effective. This is where our zeal must be. Find your zeal in your faith. In your righteousness through faith. Have zeal to always call upon the name of the Lord. Have zeal in confessing him before the world. Have zeal in worshipping him in grace and through faith.
And so may our zeal exalt Christ who had the zeal to save us. We read in the Scriptures that God the Father asked God the Son to come and redeem us. Yes, this was a tremendous task. But it was Jesus’ zeal to come and do this. This passage tells us that we don’t need to go up to heaven or down to the abyss to find Christ. No, Christ has already come from heaven, went down to the grave, and back up to heaven again, for us. His zeal to save us fueled him forward even in the face of the cross and the wrath of his father. Wrath we deserved but he endured in our place. As Hebrews 12:2 says, Jesus endured the cross and despised the shame of the cross. Why? For the joy set before him. This is Christ’s zeal. His zeal for our salvation led to the cross. It made it all possible. That the gospel word of justification would be so near to us. That we could hear the gospel, and turn and believe and be saved. In all of this, you have to love verse 12. The result is that Christ is rich toward us! Saved by grace through faith, and yet he still is so very rich to his people. We are rewarded for his work! Exalted by his debasement. And all this received not by some noble quest that only a few can endure. No, all this received by the freeness of faith. Praise be to God.
Saints, it’s my hope today we’ve seen the beauty of a right zeal. We’ve seen the error of a zeal not according to truth. We know the dangers that all of us can get into if we have zeal that’s not according to biblical truth. But let’s not throw out something good because a great power could be used for wrong. God has given us the ability to have zeal. God wants us to have zeal for truth. Jesus showed us zeal for God is a good thing. Not only in saving us, but I think as well when his zeal for God had him to cleanse the temple. Paul expresses his zeal for the lost in his words here about his unsaved kinsman. Zeal for God, a right zeal for God, can spur you on to do great things for the Lord. Unbelievers might claim that Christians can have too much zeal. But I think if anything, the Christian church today needs more zeal. Zeal that will fuel us to stand up for truth. Zeal that will lead us to make sacrifices for Christ. Zeal that will be willing to suffer for Christ’s sake. Zeal that knows it’s blessed to be persecuted for Christ. We need more zeal, not less.
But let’s not think zeal is something of works either. Let’s look to the author of our faith who is also the one who grows us. Let us then pray for zeal. And seek such zeal and courage and boldness for Christ. And as we trust God to answer that prayer, let’s look to live in such a way that believes God will give us such zeal. Live as those with zeal for Christ and his kingdom. This zeal from God can encourage us all. Let’s pray for that zeal now. Amen.
Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.