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[Preached Nov. 5, 1682.]
THE DANGER OF ZEAL WITHOUT KNOWLEDGE.
I bear them record, that they have a zeal of God; but not according to knowledge.—Rom. x. 2.
THERE is nothing more commonly cried up than zeal in religion: and yet there is nothing in which men do more frequently and fatally mistake and miscarry, and in the expressions and effects whereof men ought to govern themselves with more care and caution. To speak the truth, zeal is as all other passions are, in its own nature indifferent, and of itself neither good nor bad, but according to the object and degree of it; for zeal is nothing else, but an earnest concernment for, or against, something, and a violent pursuit and prosecution of it. For if it be applied to a right object, so as we be earnestly concerned for things that are unquestionably good; and against things that are unquestionably evil, and in a due degree; that is, if the expression of it be proportionable to the less or greater good or evil of things; then it is a commendable quality or virtue: but if it be wrong placed, and we be earnestly concerned for that which is evil, and against that which is good, or about things which are of an indifferent or doubtful nature, as to the good and evil of them; or if we notoriously exceed in the degree of it, being more zealously concerned about things than they deserve, 499and zealously concerned about lesser things, to the prejudice of greater; in any of these cases, it is so far from being a virtue, that it is a vice, of a most pernicious and mischievous consequence, and many times hath as bad effects as can proceed from the worst principle or disposition of mind.
It is sometimes used in a good sense; but it is, when it is applied to the best things in which the honour of God and the salvation of men is concerned, to the great and unquestionable duties of religion. As zeal for the honour of God, and the place of his public worship, in opposition to profaneness: (John ii. 17.) “The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up:” for an earnest desire of those gifts, whereby we are to edify the church: (1 Cor. xii. 31.) “But covet earnestly the best gifts,” so we render the words; “be zealous of the best gifts;” so it is in the Greek: for a forwardness and readiness to relieve the necessities of the saints: (2 Cor. ix. 2.) “I know the forwardness of your minds, and your zeal hath provoked very many.” And to the same purpose is that expression, (Tit. ii. 14.) “zealous of good works.” And then for a zeal for the salvation of men’s souls: (2 Cor. xi. 2.) “I am zealous of you with a godly zeal.”
But the word is much more frequently in Scripture used in a bad sense, for a malicious and furious rage, against the professors of Christianity: (Acts v. 17, 18.) “Then the high-priest, and they that were with him, were filled with indignation (the word is zeal) and laid their hands on the apostles, and put them in prison.” And, (chap. xiii. 45.) it is said, “the Jews were filled with zeal, and spake against those which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming.” And, (chap. xvii. 5.) “The Jews, 500which believed not, moved with zeal, gathered a company, and set all the city in an uproar.”
It is frequently reckoned amongst the works of the flesh, and mentioned in the company of the greatest vices and crimes: wrath, contention, division, sedition, murders, tumults, confusions: (Rom. xiii. 13.) “Let us walk honestly, as in the day, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and zeal.” (1 Cor. iii. 3.) “Whereas there is among you zeal, and strife, and divisions; are ye not carnal?” (2 Cor xii. 20.) “Lest there be debates, zeal, wrath, strife.” (Gal. v. 19, 20, 21.) “The works of the flesh are manifest;” among which the apostle reckons “hatred, variance, zeal, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders.” St. James calls it a “bitter zeal:” (James iii. 14, 15, 10.) “But if ye have bitter zeal and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above; but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where zeal and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.” By which it appears, that zeal most frequently goes under a bad name and character in Scripture; zeal, I mean, in matters of religion; for of that most of the texts I have mentioned speak; and this is that which St. Paul means here in the text, by a “zeal of God;” that is, a zeal about religion and Divine things. “I bear them record, that they have a zeal of God; but not according to knowledge.”
In which words the apostle being desirous to say the best he could of his countrymen, the Jews, he commends the good meaning of their zeal, and blames the ill conduct of it. “I bear them record, μαρτυρῶ αὐτοὶς, I give this testimony on their behalf, that they have a zeal of God;” that is, that by all this 501fierceness against the Christian religion, they intend the honour of God, and think they do him service: but yet this zeal is greatly to he condemned; because it is a mistaken and misguided zeal not at all directed as it should be: “they have a zeal of God; but not according to knowledge.”
From which words I shall take into consideration these three things:
I. What are the qualifications and properties of a zeal “according to knowledge.”
II. By what marks and characters we may know that zeal, which here, and elsewhere in Scripture, is condemned, as not being “according to knowledge.”
III. How far the doing of any thing, out of a zeal for God, doth mitigate and extenuate the evil of it. For when the apostle here testifies concerning the Jews, that they had “a zeal of God;” he speaks this in favour of them, and by way of mitigation of their faults. When I have handled these three particulars, I shall apply my discourse to the present occasion of this day.
I. What are the qualifications and properties of a zeal “according to knowledge.” I shall mention these three:
1. That our zeal be right, in respect of its object.
2. That the measure and degree of it be proportioned to the good or evil of things, about which it is conversant.
3. That we pursue it by lawful ways and means.
1. That our zeal be right, in respect of its object; F mean, that those things which we are zealous for, be certainly and considerably good; and that those things which we are zealous against, be certainly and considerably evil. A mistake in any of these quite mars our zeal, and spoils the virtue of it: and 502though it be never so much intended for God, it is not at all pleasing and acceptable to him; because it is a blind, and ignorant, and mistaken zeal: and the hotter the worse; it is not a heavenly fire, that comes down from above; but it is like the fire of hell, heat without light. If we mistake good and evil, and be zealously concerned against that which is good, or for that which is evil; the greater our zeal is, the greater is our fault; and instead of doing God and religion service and credit, we do the greatest mischief and dishonour we can to them both: or if the thing, about which our zeal is conversant, be of a doubtful and uncertain nature, this is not properly an object of zeal. Men should never be earnest for or against any thing, but upon clear and certain grounds, that what we contend so earnestly for, is undoubtedly good; and that which we are so violent against, is undoubtedly evil: if it be not, we are zealous for we know not what, and that I am sure is a zeal “not according to knowledge.”
And if the thing be certainly good or evil, which we are so concerned about, it must also be consider ably so; otherwise it will not warrant our being zealous about it. All truth is good, and all error bad; but there are many truths so inconsiderable, and which have so small an influence upon practice, that they do not deserve our zeal and earnest contention about them; and so likewise are there many errors and mistakes of so slight and inconsiderable a nature, that it were better men should be let alone in them, than provoked to quarrel and contend about them.
Thus that great heat that was in the Christian church, about the time of observing Easter, was, in my opinion, a zeal “not according to knowledge.” 503They were on both sides agreed in the main, which was to celebrate the memory of our Saviour’s resurrection: but there were different customs about the time, which was a matter of no such consideration, as to deserve so much heat and zeal about it, especially considering the uncharitable and mischievous consequences of that difference.
2. That our zeal may be “according to knowledge,” the measure and degree of it must be proportioned to the good or evil of things, about which it is conversant. That is an ignorant zeal which is conversant about lesser things, and unconcerned for greater. Such was the zeal of the scribes and pharisees, who were mightily concerned about external and lesser matters; but took little or no care of in ward purity, and real and substantial goodness: they were very careful, not to eat with unwashed hands, and to make clean the outside of the cup and platter; but then they were full of extortion, and all unrighteousness: they paid tithe of mint, and anise, and cummin; but omitted the weightier things, judgment, mercy, and fidelity; or, as St. Luke expresseth it, they past over “judgment and the love of God.”
A zealous strictness about external rites and matters of difference, where there is a visible neglect of the substantial duties of religion, and the great virtues of a good life, is either a gross ignorance of the true nature of religion, or a fulsome hypocrisy. And so likewise is a loud and zealous outcry against rites and ceremonies, and the imposition of indifferent things in religion, when men can release themselves from the obligation of natural and moral duties, and pass over mercy, and justice, and charity.
3. A zeal that is “according to knowledge,” must be pursued and prosecuted by lawful and warrantable 504means. No zeal for God and his glory, for his true church and religion, will justify the doing of that which is morally and in itself evil. “Will ye speak wickedly for God, and talk deceitfully for him?” We do not know what belongs to the honour of God and religion, if we think to promote his glory by means so dishonourable and offensive to him. The apostle pronounceth it a damnable sin, for any to charge this doctrine upon Christianity, that evil may be done for a good end, and to promote the glory of God: (Rom. iii. 8.) “As we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say, Let us do evil that good may come: whose damnation is just.”
And yet nothing is more frequent, than for men, out of a zeal for God and religion, to overlook the evil and unlawfulness of the means they use, for the advancing so good an end. This is that which hath sanctified those refined arts of lying and perjury, by equivocation and mental reservation; those seditious ways of disturbing the peace of kingdoms, by treason and rebellion, by the excommunicating and deposing of princes, upon pretence of heresy; of extirpating those whom they please to call here tics, by inquisitions, and croisados, and massacres; and this, not only in the opinion of private persons, but in the judgment of popes, and of general councils. I proceed, in the
Second place, To shew by what marks and characters we may know the contrary zeal, that which is u not according to knowledge, which is condemned here in the text, and very frequently in other places of Scripture: and though this may be sufficiently known b y the contrary marks and properties (which I shall but briefly mention), yet to discover it more 505fully, I shall add one or two more very gross and sensible signs and instances of it.
1. It is a zeal without knowledge, that is mistaken in the proper object of it; that calls good evil, and evil good; a zeal for gross errors and superstitions, plainly contrary either to the revelation of God’s word, or the light of reason, or to common sense; any or all of these cannot be a zeal “according to knowledge.” A zeal for the worship of images, for praying to saints and angels, contrary to the plain law and word of God; a zeal for the sacrilegious depriving of the people of half the sacrament, contrary to our Saviour’s plain institution, and the acknowledged practice of the catholic church, for a thousand years; a zeal for that most absurd of all doctrines that ever was taught in any religion, I mean the doctrine of transubstantiation, not only without any sufficient authority from Scripture (as is acknowledged by several of the most learned of the Roman church), but contrary to reason, and in defiance of the sense of all mankind; a zeal for these, and many more like gross errors and practices, can not possibly be a zeal “according to knowledge.”
2. That is a zeal without knowledge, the degree whereof is manifestly disproportioned to the good or evil of things about which it is conversant; when there is in men a greater and fiercer zeal for the externals of religion, than for the vital and essential parts of it; for the traditions of men, than for the commandments of God; for bodily severities, than for the mortification of our lusts; for the means of religion, than for the end of it: a greater zeal against the omission and neglect of some senseless and superstitious practices, than against the practice of the grossest immoralities; and against the deniers of 506the doctrines of transubstantiation, and of the pope’s infallibility, an equal, if not a greater zeal (I am sure a more severe prosecution) than against those who deny our Saviour to be the true Messias, and the Son of God: this certainly is not a zeal “ac cording to knowledge.” Nor,
3. That which is prosecuted by unlawful and unwarrantable means. That cannot be “a zeal of God, according to knowledge,” which warrants the doing of evil, that good may come; the violating of truth and faith, and of the peace of human society, for the cause of the catholic church; and breaking the eternal and immutable laws of God, for the advancing of his glory. Nor,
4. An uncharitable zeal, which is an enemy to peace and order, and thinks itself sufficiently war ranted to separate from the communion of Christians, and to break the peace of, the church upon every scruple, and upon every fancy and conceit of unlawful impositions, though in the most indifferent things; nay, upon this single point, because a thing which they acknowledge lawful, and indifferent in itself, is in the worship of God enjoined by authority; the most unreasonable principle that I think ever was avowed among Christians; not to do a thing which otherwise they might do, only because it is enjoined; and to fancy that an indifferent thing be comes presently unlawful, because it is commanded by lawful authority; and that it is a sin to do any thing, in the worship of God, which is not left to their liberty, whether they will do it or not. This is not only a zeal without knowledge, but contrary to common sense. Nor,
5. A furious and cruel zeal, which St. James calls a bitter or a wrathful zeal, and which tends to “confusion 507and every evil work,” which is blind with its own rage, and makes men, as St. Paul says of himself, when he persecuted the Christians, “exceedingly mad” against all that differ from them, and stand in the way of their fierce and outrageous zeal.
6. And, lastly, A zeal for ignorance is most certainly not a zeal “according to knowledge;” and this is a zeal peculiar to the church of Home, by such strict laws to forbid people the use of the Holy Scriptures in a known tongue; nay, not so much as to allow them to understand what they do in the service of God; to require them to be present at their public prayers, and to join with them in them, without letting them know the meaning of them; to pretend to teach them, by reading lessons to them in an unknown tongue; and all this under pretence of increasing their devotion: as if the less men understand of the service of God, the more they would be affected with it, and edified by it.
And yet there is nothing in which the church of Rome hath been more zealously concerned, than to keep the people in ignorance: nothing they have opposed with more obstinacy, against the repeated application of princes and people, at the beginning of the Reformation, than to allow the people the use of the Scriptures, and their public prayers, in a known tongue. And their obstinacy in this point was not without reason; nothing being more certain, than that if the people were once brought to understand the Scriptures, they would soon quit their religion, which in so many things is so directly contrary to the word of God. The
Third and last thing remains to be spoken to; viz. How far the doing of things, out of a zeal for God, doth mitigate and extenuate the evil of 508them. For when the apostle here testifies concerning the Jews, that they had a zeal of God, lie speaks this in favour of them, and by-way of mitigation of their fault. “I bear them record;” I, who was once acted by this ignorant and furious zeal, which now possesseth them, and persecuted the Christians in the same outrageous manner, as they still continue to do, and all this with a very good conscience, as 1 thought, and out of a zeal for God and the true religion. So he tells us, (Acts xxvi. 9.) “I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” So that his zeal was sincere, and with a real intention to do service to God and religion; and yet for all that was very faulty and sinful, and, if he had persisted in it, damnable; so that his confidence, that he was in the right, and the sincerity of his zeal in acting according to the persuasion of his conscience, did not alter the nature of the actions he did out of this zeal, and make them less wicked in themselves; though it was some mitigation of the fault of the person, and rendered him more capable of the mercy of God by repentance, than if he had done contrary to his conscience, and the clear convictions of his own mind.
And therefore, the best way to understand the great evil and wickedness of this furious and blind zeal, will be, to consider the account which St. Paul, after his conversion, gives of his own doings, and what a load he lays upon himself, notwithstanding the sincerity of his zeal, and that he acted according to his conscience. Acts viii. and ix. you have the history at large of his outrageous doings, how “he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women to prison;” 509how he breathed “out threatening and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.” (Acts xxii. 4.) “I persecuted (says he) this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.” (And chap. xxvi. 10, 11.) “Many of the saints did I shut up in prison, and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them; and 1 punished them often in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and, being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even to strange cities.” (Gal. i. 13, 14.) “Ye have heard (says he) of my conversation in times past, in the Jews religion; how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it, being exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers.” (1 Tim. i. 13.) “Who was before a blasphemer, a persecutor, and injurious.” So that he chargeth himself with the guilt of blasphemy and murder, and a most furious and outrageous persecution of good men; for which elsewhere he pronounceth himself” the chief of sinners.” From whence it evidently appears, that men may do the most wicked and damnable sins out of a zeal for God.
And this was the case of many of the Jews, as our Saviour foretold, that the time should come, when they should kill them, thinking they did God good service. But yet for all this, the apostles of our Lord make no scruple to charge them with down right murder: (Acts ii. 23.) speaking of their putting our Saviour to death, “whom ye by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” (And, Acts vii. 52.) “The just One, of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers.”
Yet notwithstanding their sin was of this high nature in itself, it was some mitigation of the fault of 510the persons, that they did these things out of an ignorant zeal, and rendered them more capable of the mercy of God, upon their repentance. And upon this account our Saviour interceded with God for mercy for them: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” St. Peter also pleads the same in mitigation of their fault: (Acts iii. 17.) “And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers.” And St. Paul tells us, that he found mercy, upon his repentance, on this account: (1 Tim. i. 13.) “But I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly, and in unbelief.” But still, for all this, wicked things done out of conscience and zeal for God are damnable, and will prove so, without repentance.
I shall now draw some inferences from this discourse, by way of application.
1. If it be so necessary that our zeal be directed by knowledge, this shews us how dangerous a thing zeal is in the weak and ignorant sort of people. Zeal is an edge-tool, which children in understanding should not meddle withal; and yet it most frequently possesseth the weakest minds; and commonly by how much the less knowing people are, by so much the more zealous they are: and in the church of Rome, where knowledge is professedly discouraged, and suppressed in the common people, zeal is mightily countenanced and cherished. And they make great use of it; for this blind and furious zeal, is that which inspires them to do such cruel and barbarous things, as were hardly ever acted among the heathen. Zeal is only fit for wise men; but it is chiefly in fashion among fools.
Nay it is dangerous in the hands of wise men, and to be governed and kept in with a strict rein; otherwise 511it will transport them to the doing of undue and irregular things. Moses, one of the wisest and best of men, and most likely to govern and manage his zeal as he ought, and to keep aloof from all excess and extravagance, being the meekest man upon earth; yet he was so surprised, upon a sudden occasion, that in a fit of zeal he let fall the two tables of the law, which he had but just received from God, and dashed them in pieces. A true emblem of an ungoverned zeal, in the transport whereof even good men are apt to forget the laws of God, and let them fall out of their hands, and to break all the obligations of natural and moral duties.
2. From hence we plainly see, that men may do the worst and wickedest things out of a zeal for God and religion. Thus it was among the Jews, who engrossed salvation to themselves, and denied the possibility of it to all the world besides; and the church of Rome have taken copy by them, as in an arrogant conceit of themselves, so in the blindness, and fury, and uncharitableness of their zeal towards all, who refuse to submit to their authority and directions.
And as the teachers and rulers of the Jewish church did of old, so doth the church of Rome now: “they take away the key of knowledge from the people, and will neither enter into the kingdom of heaven themselves, nor suffer those that would to enter in.” They brand for heretics those who make the Holy Scriptures the rule of their faith and worship; as St. Paul tells us the Jews did in his time. (Acts xxiv. 14.) “After the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and the prophets.” They establish the merit of their own righteousness, “not submitting to the righteousness 512of God,” by the faith of Jesus Christ. So St. Paul tells us the Jews did, in the verse immediately after the text; “for they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God.” And as the Jews anathematized and excommunicated the first Christians, and persecuted them to the death, as our Saviour foretold, that the time would come, when they should put them out of their synagogues, yea, and kill them, thinking they did God good service; so the church of Rome hath, for many ages, used the sincere professors of the same religion, persecuting them, first with excommunication, and then with fire and faggot: and with all the violence and fury in the world endeavouring the utter extirpation and ruin of them, by bloody croisados and a barbarous inquisition, by treacherous massacres, and all sorts of hellish plots and machinations: witness the monstrous design of this day, never to be remembered or mentioned without horror, to have destroyed at one blow, and have swallowed up in common ruin, our king, and prince, and nobles, and the representative body of the whole nation! witness the bloody massacre of Ireland, and all their wicked designs and practices continued to this very day!
3. And lastly, That zeal for God and religion does not alter the nature of actions done upon that account. Persecution and murder of the sincere professors of religion, are damnable sins, and no zeal for God and religion can excuse them, or take away the guilt of them: zeal for God will justify no action that we do, unless there be discretion to justify our zeal.513
There is nothing oftener misleads men than a misguided zeal; it is an ignis fatuus, a false fire, which often leads men into bogs and precipices; it appears in the night, in dark and ignorant and weak minds, and offers itself a guide to those who have lost their way; it is one of the most ungovernable passions of human nature, and therefore requires great knowledge and judgment to manage it, and keep it within bounds. It is like fire, a good servant, but a bad master; if it once get head, it consumes and devours all before it, and the great danger and mischief of it is, that it is most commonly found where it should not be, and possesses those most who are least fit to govern it, and most frequently employed about what it should not be; and ten to one but it is either mistaken in the object, or in the measure and degree of it; and even when it is a virtue, it is a nice and dangerous one: for the wisest men are apt to mingle their own passions and interests with their zeal for God and religion. So that it is not enough that men are acted by a zeal for God, and do sincerely follow the dictates of their consciences; but they must be careful to inform their consciences, and not suffer themselves to be violently transported and hurried on by their own passions and prejudice, and by a blind and furious zeal without knowledge.
But what then? Would we have men not follow their own consciences, or act contrary to them? No, by no means; for though conscience be not our rule, yet it is our immediate guide; and he does ill who does act against his conscience. But men must be careful how they settle their practical judgment of things, and conclude things to be lawful or unlawful duties or sins, without reason and good ground.514
God hath given us understandings to try and examine things, and the light of his word to direct us in this trial; and if we will judge rashly, and suffer ourselves to be hurried by prejudice or passion, the errors of our judgment become faults of our lives; for God expects from us that we should weigh and consider what we do; and when he hath afforded us light enough to discern between good and evil, that we should carefully follow the direction of it; that we should be suspicious of ourselves, when our zeal carries us to do things that are furious and cruel, false and treacherous, and have a horrid appearance even to the light of nature; we should question that zeal which is so contrary to Christian goodness and meekness, to peace and charity, and which tends to confusion and every evil work.
I will conclude all with that excellent passage of St. James, which will shew us how little regard is to be had to many men’s pretences of zeal for religion: (James iii. 13.) “Who is a wise man, and endued with knowledge amongst you? Let him shew out of a good conversation his works, with meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter zeal and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above; but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where zeal and strife is, there is confusion, and every evil work. But the wisdom which is from above, is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated; full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy: and the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.”515
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