Being Zealous without Legalism or License

Be not slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Romans 12:1

[Jesus Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Titus 2:14

…be zealous, and repent. Revelation 3.19

When I was a younger believer, we called them Holy Rollers. Bible Thumpers. Jesus Freaks. Holier-than-Thou. They were the Christians who were just a little too serious about the whole faith thing, and expected way too much from other believers. They were radical. Pharisaical. Legalistic. Zealous.

 The problem with this way of thinking is that though there are errors to be made regarding zeal (when used as political philosophy as in Luke 6:15, or when fervor is uninformed as in Romans 10:2), the basic teaching of Scripture is that those who follow Jesus will be fervent and zealous, not lukewarm.


 But isn’t zeal the same thing as legalism? No. But we sometimes attempt to neutralize it by putting them in the same category. “Legalism” is primarily the idea that one can earn salvation by adhering to the law of God (Rom 3:20). Among Christians, though, this is not the most prominent manifestation of legalism. Instead, what we most often encounter as legalism is when someone adds rules to legitimate biblical commands and approves themselves (and condemns others) based on those rules. Evaluating others based on extra-biblical standards is usually what we are reacting to when we think of “legalism.”

Actually, the one who is lukewarm can be just as legalistic as the one who is zealous. For instance, you might have thought to yourself “A real believer wouldn’t ____” or “A true believer must ___,” filling in those blanks with any number of things related to style of clothing, preference of music, voting habits, use of money, tattoos, childrearing. And think about how passionate you can get about them! You might be, well, zealous.

But if those things aren’t clearly set forth in Scripture, it might be legalistic to insist upon them. We should be careful about being zealous regarding things that aren’t clear in Scripture, especially while we are lukewarm regarding things that are.


 We love grace, as well we should. But sometimes we confuse grace with mercy, especially when we start thinking about those holy rollers. For instance, if another believer is particularly zealous about personal holiness in a way that makes us feel inadequate about our own, we might be tempted to say that the other believer is not showing much grace.

What we mean, though, is that we think the other believer is not being merciful. Grace is receiving something good that we don’t deserve (salvation, for example), while mercy is not receiving something bad that we do deserve (judgment, for example). If we feel judged by another believer, we’re thinking in terms of mercy, not grace. When we think this way, we’re wrong on two counts.

First, we have not necessarily been denied either mercy or grace when another believer – directly or indirectly – exposes our sin or lack of zeal. It might actually be both merciful and gracious for someone to open our eyes to our true condition (Heb 3:13).

Second, we have an insufficient concept of grace, and have perhaps confused it with forgiveness or weakened it with licentiousness. The Bible tells us that “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12), and this grace comes through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to gather for himself people who are “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). Notice the ideas that are approvingly joined together here: grace; renouncing ungodliness; self-control; upright and godly lives; zeal; good works.

So we see that grace neither removes standards of behavior nor excuses the breach of them. Far from it. Instead, grace is, first, the gift of reconciliation to God based on Jesus’ perfect Law-keeping behavior, not our own. Further, grace liberates us from the bondage of sin, instructs us in being bound to righteousness, and empowers us to please God with our (graciously redeemed) lives (Eph 2:8-10; 2Co 12:9).

Biblical Zeal

 What are some of the things, then, that would characterize (but not yet be perfected in) “zealous” Christians?

  • A voracious appetite for the Word of God, the Bible
  • Fervency in prayer
  • Speech filled with the gospel, for both believers and unbelievers
  • Hatred of sin (particularly his own) and pursuit of holiness
  • Passionate love toward God, and concrete concern for neighbors’ physical and spiritual well-being (including their pursuit of holiness)

Legalism is a danger that we should certainly avoid, but it is not exclusive to the zealous. A zealous believer can be legalistic, but so can one who is lukewarm.

The Lord calls all believers to informed zeal. So, the Christian should have gracious zeal (dependent on Christ alone for salvation, and fervent for God’s standards in sanctification). This graciously zealous Christian should, to those who aren’t quite zealous enough, show mercy (sincere concern for spiritual health, without condemnation), while challenging them to greater zeal.

May the Lord increase our zeal for His righteous standards.


Facebook Comments

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *