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Romans (Series 2)

Zeal and Intolerance

Romans 10:1-15

Lesson audio

This is an incredibly modern passage – when you look at it through the eyes of eternity.

The Perils of Zeal

Romans 10:1-4 NIV Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. (2) For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. (3) Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. (4) Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

Zeal for its own sake

Consider, for a moment, that artifact of American civilization, the Wisconsin Cheese head:


Source: http://www.thriftyfun.com/tf90738424.tip.html

As seen here, it goes nicely with the basic black cocktail dress. It is also the quintessential headgear for the Green Bay Packers fan. May I suggest that it serves two primary purposes:

  • It defines “us” and “them.” No Minnesota Vikings fan would be caught dead in one.
  • It also demonstrates what the Bible calls zeal – that enthusiasm that means you are so caught up in what you are doing that you take no thought for how ridiculous it looks.

This does not mean that zeal is an evil thing. On the contrary; it is necessary for human progress in practically anything. As Solomon tells us,

Ecclesiastes 9:10 NIV Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, [3] where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

It’s necessary – but often misguided.

Zeal must be based on knowledge

Let’s be clear: zeal is often mistaken for knowing what you’re talking about. It shouldn’t be. Zeal is no guarantee that you do know what you’re talking about. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are prime religious examples; you might be able to summon up some political variants on this too.

Of course, knowledge without zeal is worse than useless. One former priest, asked why he left the priesthood, said that it started in seminary, where “they laid God out on the dissecting table, and by the time I left he was dead.” C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape noted that of all people academics are the least effective for God – they want to study, not act.

It is zeal with knowledge that is effective; the two feed on each other. It’s just that it’s not fashionable in our world today.

Zeal based on righteousness

What happens when zeal is based on righteousness?

  • If it is based on “my righteousness” we have a serious problem. It comes down to “I’m right, you’re wrong – and I’m going to do something about it.” Our liberal opponents know this. It’s why kindergarten students in California are studying lesbianism, gay rights, bisexuality and transsexual lifestyles. Kindergarten students.
  • But if it’s based on Christ’s righteousness, we cannot claim the right to ram it down anyone’s throat. If it’s Christ’s righteousness, we must use Christ’s methods. We are at his command – and he woos his people with love, not force.

Christ is the end of the law – and by implication any method depending upon my righteousness, not his.

Law and Faith

We have an interlude of familiar theology:

Romans 10:5-10 NIV Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: "The man who does these things will live by them."[1] (6) But the righteousness that is by faith says: "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'[2]" (that is, to bring Christ down) (7) "or 'Who will descend into the deep?'[3]" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). (8) But what does it say? "The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,"[4] that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: (9) That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (10) For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.

The NIV oozes footnotes here. That’s because Paul has gone to the “string of pearls” method of argument – one in which he strings together references to the Scripture and lets the reader fill in the steps of the argument.

Argument: Christianity is radically new

Implicit in Paul’s logic is an argument he does not state. It says that Christianity must be false because it is such a radical change from Judaism. If Judaism is God-given, Christianity cannot be.

The center of this argument is in the supposed contradiction of Old Testament and New Testament. In the Old Testament, the argument goes, everything depends upon strict obedience, to the letter, of the Mosaic Law. The New Testament presents the radically new idea of justification by faith. Thus one of the two must be false. As Christianity claims that Judaism was God-given, it follows that Judaism is OK; Christianity must be false. Got the argument?

Counterargument: Old Testament speaks of faith

The obvious counter is to point out that the division – faith versus legal obedience – is not nearly as clear cut as that. How do we do that? Look into the Old Testament and see those places where faith is obviously shown. Paul did this earlier with Abraham.

His argument here is similar: at the giving of the Law there is no sense that rote obedience is the key; rather, it is the belief in the heart giving rise to obedience which is required.

We must be careful. This is not an argument for “no obedience, but feel-good emotion towards God.” Paul – nor anyone else in the New Testament – advocates this. On the contrary, James tells us that faith without works is dead. The idea of an “intellectual only” faith is what gave us the dissected God.

Starting then with the faith which is one of commitment, not just intellectual assent, we have Paul’s simple steps which shows us just how this fits together. If you believe (faith), then you put your mouth where your heart is: you confess that faith publicly. Belief permits the justification by Christ to apply to you; confession and commitment thus yield salvation.

One interesting detail given is this: just what set of facts are we supposed to believe? Only one is mentioned: the resurrection of Christ. All else follows from this.


Romans 10:11-15 NIV As the Scripture says, "Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame."[5] (12) For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile--the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, (13) for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."[6] (14) How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (15) And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"[7]

Dorothy Sayers gives us the imagined history of St. Lukewarm the Tolerator:

St. Lukewarm was a magistrate in the city of Laodicea under Claudius (Emp. A.D. 41-54). He was so broadminded as to offer asylum and patronage to every kind of religious cult, however unorthodox or repulsive, saying in answer to all remonstrances: “There is always some truth in everything.” This liberality earned for him the surname of “The Tolerator.” At length he fell into the hands of a sect of the Anthropophagi[1] (for whom he had erected a sacred kitchen and cooking stove at public expense), and was duly set on to stew with the appropriate ceremonies. By miraculous intervention, however, the water continually went off the boil; and when he was finally served up, his flesh was found to be so tough and tasteless that the Chief Anthropophagus spat out the unpalatable morsel, exclaiming, “Tolerator non tolerandus!”[2] (A garbled Christian version of this legend is preserved in Revelation 3:16).

St. Lukewarm is the patron saint of railway caterers, and is usually depicted holding a cooking pot.[3]


OK, it’s rather silly. But it brings to mind for us two questions:

  • Just why do we feel that we have to be “broad minded” in matters where there should be no doubt about right and wrong? Cannibalism seems to be a fairly obvious example.
  • Why is it that those who are most “tolerant” in our world are so completely intolerant of those who don’t agree with them?

We should note here the difference between tolerance and love. Tolerance forms no judgment as to right and wrong (and the tolerant are proud of that fact). Love knows the difference – and seeks the redemption of the sinners. We may now examine the intolerance of the tolerant in that light.

Root of hatred

Timothy Keller[4] gives us an insight here. In explaining that when someone’s self-worth and identity depend upon their political cause (or race, or whatever else),

We must despise and demonize the opposition. If we get our identity from our ethnicity or socioeconomic status, then we have to feel superior to those of other classes and races. If you are profoundly proud[5] of being an open-minded, tolerant soul, you will be extremely indignant toward people you think are bigots.


Simply put, if I am better than you because (I’m white, I’m rich, or I’m not filthy rich, or I’m enlightened in my politics, or … any number of other reasons) then I have to either sacrifice my pride or look down on you. Pride, our society teaches, is a virtue. So of course if you are proud of your tolerance, you must look down on those who don’t agree with you.

But how can a real Christian do this? That’s pride, the deadliest of sins. It is forbidden to us.

Not righteousness, forgiveness

The problem of the ancient Jew was precisely that: he was proud that he was Jewish, and he despised the Gentile as fit only for fodder for the fires of hell. But what of the modern Christian? Is it not the case that our “claim to fame” is not in ourselves, but in the righteousness of Christ, the hope of the resurrection and the practice of the Gospel?

The struggle is between pride and love; being intolerant of the tolerant is not the answer. We have it here that there is no difference – all of us are one in Christ Jesus. So that means there are two kinds of people out there:

  • Those who are our fellow Christians, whom we see here cannot be looked down on.
  • Those whom Christ wants us to bring.

Our objective is to make “them” into “us.” How then can we look down on them? Christ died for us – and for them too.

[1] Cannibals.

[2] “The Tolerator is intolerable.”

[3] Christian Letters to a Post Christian World, R. Jellema, editor, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1969, p.5

[4] Touchstone Magazine, September/October 2009, as quoted in the book review titled Manhattan Gospel (page 44).

[5] My emphasis, not Keller’s.

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