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A Thought Concerning The Unconverted Religious Zealot - by Dr. C. Mathew McMahon

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A short meditation on what zealousness really means.

If the outward performance of the religious zealot stems from the inward change wrought by the Holy Spirit then such action is heartily commendable. The motioning of the Spirit of God upon one of the elect saints aimed at the glorification of Christ through godly piety is encouraged and praised. Every true church should be filled to the uttermost with regenerate Christians who are taking heaven by storm, violently seizing the Kingdom of God by force, and pressing into the Kingdom with all their might.

Though there are those who glorify Christ in their religious zeal through obedience to the revealed word, there are also those who perform external religious acts though they remain unconverted. Those who are living under the eminent means of grace but possess a superficial affection to the things of God often harm the church most of all. They introduce a form of godliness but deny the power of God. (2 Tim. 3:5, “having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof; from such turn away.”)

It is easy for the church to recognize ungodly wicked men who desire to destroy the church. Saul of Tarsus, before he was converted, persecuted the church without measure and the church recognized this without any problem whatsoever. It is recorded in Acts 9:26 that Paul was rejected by the disciples due to his former lifestyle even though he was converted and desired to join them in the work of the ministry. “And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple.” (This ought to inform Christian churches something about the manner in which they form their membership values.) There was no problem perceiving his unjust and cruel tactics against the church while he remained unconverted. And the disciples were careful in their inclusion of individuals in the church. It is easy for wickedness in such forms to be clearly distinguished and noticed, especially when it comes from outside the church as in this case with Saul, or in the case of the Pharisees against the preaching of the disciples. But what shall be said of religious zeal which looks, walks, talks and acts as a Christian, but in reality, is not Christian?

When religious zeal is clouded in ignorance, though it is coupled in good intentions, the well-being of the church will be compromised. Good intentions do not breed regenerated Christians. The affect of unregenerate and ignorant religious zealots has a profoundly negative affect on the church whether it is from inside the church or without. Certainly those who persecute the church from without are much more easily distinguishable, as stated above in the case of Paul, than those in the church. Speaking about himself, Paul states in Philippians 3:6 that he was thoroughly zealous in persecuting the church while unconverted, “Concerning zeal, persecuting the church…” Paul also remarks in Romans 10:2 that the Jews were exceedingly religious in their zeal for God though they remained unconverted. They were without saving knowledge though they believe they were serving God, “For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.” This teaches us that people can be religious, and zealous for that religion, though have no conception of what constitutes true religion. Men are able to know certain aspects about the Creator. They have a knowledge of Him which may be derived from nature, though they suppress that truth and they ultimately distort that truth (cf. Psalm 19:1ff; Romans 1:18ff). They know that the creature should serve the Creator. They are obliged to serve Him for the simple fact that He is God – the Creator of the Universe. The invisible attributes of His divine power and eternal qualities are clearly seen from what He has created. The creature, when considering all that has been made, should bow down before God. But since the creature is wicked and fallen (cf. Genesis 6:5; Rom. 1:10ff) he does not worship nor serve the Creator. Rather, he serves himself in self-love in whatever form that may take.

In surveying the congregation of a local church, who may be lawfully singled out as an unregenerate religious zealot? This is not a difficult question to answer, though it may be difficult to point them out in a crowd. To answer generally, the unregenerate religious zealot may be almost anyone in the church. This statement is qualified by the definition of “unregenerate religious zealot.” It must be noted that these people are religiously zealous. That means they have a form of godliness about them in the external works they perform in the church, in their home, and at their work. They are taken up in a religious fanaticism which may easily pass itself off as true Christianity. They are perceived as real Christians. Thus, the religious zealot may be the one of the pastors of the church, a deacon, a board member, a husband, a wife, or any of the children. The plague of false religious zeal does not infect one particular class or age of people in the church. It is not restricted to dark-haired males ages 30-35. False religious zeal may infect anyone who does not possess the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit resting in the bosom of their soul. Nevertheless, religious fanaticism is much more common among new proselytes and the unlearned.

In the parable of the sower, Jesus teaches us that any seed which is sown, and springs up quickly, does not usually last. As a matter of fact, it withers away and dies because it has no root. In Matthew 13:5-6 he explains the planting and growth of this kind of seed, “Some fell upon stony places where they had not much earth; and forthwith they sprung up, because they had not deepness of earth: and when the sun was up they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.” This is deemed “spurious faith.” Spurious faith comes from newly planted seeds. These are new converts. It may be characterized by a faith which springs up and desires to change the world for Jesus Christ with great ardor. This is the trademark of the religious zealot. But this type of spurious faith does not last. It springs up, grows for a time, then the sun scorches it and it ultimately dies. It is fervent about working for the Kingdom for a time (however long or short that may be) but then ultimately will be hard pressed by the world and its temptations and sin, and finally drawn away.

Spurious faith is no faith at all. It is a faith which is man-made, based on the excitement of the moment, or the apprehension of some doctrine which stirs the empty soul for a time. The religious vacuum inside every heart longs for something expressly religious to fill it up. It is always in danger of spurious faith. If such a faith is possessed by a pastor, it may be continually cultivated for a time, even a period of years, being fed with new ideas from the Word of God as the unconverted pastor studies each week. Though he has something new to say, though he may be quite sincere in his profession of faith, and though he may be an apt theologian and teacher, such a faith will ultimately wither and dry up. Here is where Christians may view saints which appear to be like pillars to the church crumble and fall into “apostasy”.

When spurious faith or religious zeal is observed in the average attendee of the church it is likely that such a faith will die rather quickly. This spurious faith fades away since it is not deeply planted, and is not deeply cultivated, and thus dies shortly thereafter. Then, spurious faith metamorphosizes into an intellectual assent which eases the conscience when it needs sympathy and comfort. People then become religious hermits who say they follow Christ and believe in him, but have nothing to do with “organized” religion. Their religious zeal disappears, and their lives become disinterested in God, unless of course, they need something from Him. They may, then, take Christ off the shelf for a time and then neatly place Him back on it when they receive enough religious consolation for the moment.

What, then, is the affect of the unregenerate religious zealot upon the church? The fervor of these people, though commendable in their resolve, will eventually impair the church in one fashion or another. They demonstrate a false impression of conversion, which deceives other unconverted men. Their spurious faith may even deter some from entering into eternal life who are struggling to come to faith, as in the case of the Pharisees and the people of Jerusalem. Here were the elders of Israel, lost as they were, hindering others from entering into to that eternal life which God invited them. They were religiously zealous, but not savingly concerned about the souls of men. They were worried about the religious zeal of other men, but not their eternal welfare in any real sense. They would have been satisfied to be seen on the street corner as a pious prayer warrior, when all along they were encumbering men with religiosity instead of any real saving faith in God. Such men do not enter the Kingdom of Heaven and prevent others from entering as well.

Unconverted religious zealots may influence weaker Christians, and cause them to stumble. In their zeal for religious ideas, these unconverted men may dissuade weaker Christian who do not believe themselves to be as heavenly minded as these people seem to be. Thus, these weaker brethren for whom Christ died become discouraged, downtrodden and destroyed by the false assurance of outwardly religious professors. They crush the hope weaker brethren have in Christ by their false outward appearances. Those who are newly converted will find these kinds of people a great hindrance to their faith though they appear outwardly as godly saints.

The unconverted religious zealot compromises the stability of the church. The regenerate church completely relies on Christ to survive. He is Author and Finisher of their faith, and the Foundation of the very being. However, God does use His elect saints in the church (like teachers and preachers) as mature pillars for others to look to for spiritual sustenance. They are under-shepherds used by God to effectuate spiritual maturity in the entire congregation. When the religious zealot takes a position of power in the church (like a pastor, deacon or Sunday School teacher) the stability of the local body becomes compromised. Not only is there an unconverted person in the pulpit, or behind the podium, but this person is under the direct influence of the devil, and lives in darkness. He is an enemy of Christ and is presuming to teach the saints of God the things of Christ!

Christ never promises that specific local bodies of people will always have a building to worship in and a name plate on a sign to distinguish them from the rest of Christendom. Churches must have distinguishing traits which mark them as a church Christ is building. If these marks do not exist because unregenerate members are controlling the life and health of the church, Christ will withdraw Himself from that church and their spiritual well being. Churches can and do fold. Simply because a church has many members, or is a mega-church, does not mean Christ is blessing it. Spiritual growth built upon sound doctrine, with a practical life application of those doctrines is a sure sign of a growing congregation under Christ. What they believe will determine how they live.

Unconverted religious zealots may teach false doctrine and cripple the church. It takes only a moment for heresy to enter the church. What damage could an unregenerate religious zealot (a tool of the devil) do to the people of God if one were to take the position of Pastor in a local body? Unfortunately there are many congregations in such a dilemma. Truly converted, but ignorant Christians, those poorly trained, but justified by the blood of Christ, may certainly empower an unregenerate man to be their spiritual leader. This is a tragedy and does occur more frequently than one may guess. Crippling affects result from this. How is it that an unregenerate man could adequately counsel the saints of God? How much damage could be done in such a setting? The church should be keenly aware of those who profess faith quickly, and have a subsequent life characterized as a religious zealot. The church must not lose its ability to discern light from darkness, and false conversion from true conversion. This is why Paul admonished Timothy not to lay hands on anyone quickly. And he also instructed the church that elders ought to be tried and tested before they ever take the pulpit (cf. 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1).

A word of caution must be given. Some people who are converted, those delivered from oppressing sins and deviant lifestyles, or blatant wickedness, may in fact experience a conversion which is radically different and opposite to their former lifestyle. Darkness is transformed into light. They become new creations in Christ Jesus. In witnessing the grace of God applied to such a soul (an example could be the apostle Paul) a murderous wretch could then be transformed into a godly saint (Colossians 1:13). This transformation, though, will be grounded on the truth of the Word, and will show itself to endure through the trials and persecution of the world, the flesh and the devil. It will not be faith which is spurious, one which sprouts for a time and then withers away.

However, though false professors sometimes abide in the church, and may do considerable damage to its life and health, the contemplation and meditation of their disposition may actually be a help to the saint (consider Psalm 73 and Asaph’s contemplation of the wicked). For instance, reading this article may have introduced a person to the idea that sincere religious zealots may appear godly but actually be lost. However, this ought to prompt them to become more godly themselves. For instance, let us imagine that Joe is a religious zealot. He prays everyday, reads his Bible, and gives an offering every week when the basket is passed. He is involved in the life of the church and never misses a meeting unless he is providentially hindered. Now you, the reader, may watch Joe over a period of time and believe him to be a very godly fellow. In comparison to your walk, he is much more religiously involved – especially the part of having his devotions daily. But there is a difference. You are regenerate, he is not. You are truly converted, and he is a religious hypocrite. This should prompt the question – “If Joe is a religious zealot, but unconverted, and can do so much in the church and with his own private devotions, what is my excuse for doing so little, or being so luke-warm?” This should motion us to self-examination. We ought to ponder why we as Christians are so drab and dreary, and the religious zealot so hearty and active. Why does the Mormon, or Jehovah Witness seem to do more religious works than the average Christian? It is because the Christian has settled for being average. This obviously may be applied in a variety of ways and circumstances, but even the unconverted religious zealot may be a help to the thinking Christian.

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