THOSE who have no life nor energy may easily ruin themselves, but they are not likely to harm others; whereas a mistaken zealot is like a madman with a firebrand in his hand. Persons who are zealous, and are under a mistake, may do such a deal of mischief! What did those Scribes and Pharisees in Christ’s day? They were very zealous, and under the pressure of their zeal they crucified the Lord of glory. What did Saul do in his time? He was very zealous, and under the influence of his zeal he dragged men and women to prison, and compelled them to blaspheme, and when they were put to death he gave his voice against them. I do not doubt that many who burned the martyrs were quite as sincere in their faith as those whom they burned. In fact, it must have taken an awful amount of sincerity in the case of some to have been able to believe that the cruelties which they practiced were really pleasing to God. We cannot doubt that they had such sincerity. Did not our Lord himself say, “Yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service?” Documents, written by men who stained their hands with the blood of Protestants, prove that some of them had a right heart towards God. In their mistaken zeal for God, and truth, and church unity, they believed that they were crushing out a very deadly error, and that the persons whom they sent to prison and to death were criminals that ought to be exterminated, because they were destroyers of the souls of men.
Take heed that none of you fall into a persecuting spirit through your zeal for the gospel. A good woman may be intensely zealous, and for that reason she may say, “I will not have a servant in my house who does not go to my place of worship.” I have known landlords, wonderfully zealous for the faith, who have therefore turned every Dissenter out of their cottages, and have refused to let one of their farms to a Nonconformist. I do not wonder at their conduct; if they are zealous, and at the same time blind, they will naturally take to exterminating the children of God. Of course, in their zeal they feel as if they must root out error and schism.
They will not have Nonconformity near them, and so they get to work, and in their zeal they hack right and left. They say strong things and bitter things, and then proceed to do cruel things — very cruel things — verily believing that, in all that they do, they are doing God service, not thinking that they are violating the crown rights of God, who alone is Lord of the consciences of men. They would not oppose the will of God if they knew it; and yet they are doing so. They would not willingly grieve the hearts of those whom God loves, and yet they do so when they are browbeating; the humble cottager for his faith. They look upon the poor people who differ a little from them as being atrociously wrong, and they consider it to be their duty to set their faces against them, and so, under the influence of the zeal that moves them, which, in itself, is a good thing, they are led to do that which is sinful and unjust. Hence the apostle, after he had felt the weight of the stones from the hands of the Jews, prayed that they might be saved; for if they were not saved, their zeal for God would continue to make murderers of them.
Another reason why we long to see the zealous converted is this — because they would be so useful. The man that is desperately earnest in a wrong way, if you can but show him his wrong, and teach him what is right, will be just as earnest in the right way. Oh, what splendid Christians some would make who are now such devotees of superstition! Despite their superstition, I look upon many High Churchmen with admiration. Up in the morning early, or at night late, ready to practice all kinds of mortifications, to give their very bodies to be burned, and all their substance in alms, ready to offer prayers without number, and to be obedient to rites without end — what more could external religion demand of mortal men? Oh, if we could get these to sit at Jesus’ feet, and leave the phylacteries and the broad-bordered garments, and worship God in spirit, and have no confidence in the flesh, what grand people they would make!
See what Paul himself was, when, counting all he had valued so dear to be but dung, he quitted it, and began to preach salvation by grace alone. While he flew over the world like a lightning flash, and preached the gospel as with a peal of thunder, he loved, he lived, he died for the Nazarene, whom once in his zeal he had counted to be an impostor. People should pray with all their might for zealous but mistaken persons, who have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.
Once more, we are bound to make these people, the subject of specially earnest prayer because it is so difficult to convert them. It requires the power of God to convert anybody really; but there seems to be a double manifestation of power in the conversion of a downright bigot when his bigotry is associated with dense ignorance and gross error. “Oh,” says he, “I do that which is right. I am strict in my religion. My righteousness will save me.” You cannot get him out of that. It is easier to get a sinner out of his sin than a self-righteous man out of his self-righteousness. Conceit of our own righteousness sticks to us as the skin to the flesh. Sooner may the leopard lose his spots than the proud man his self-righteousness. Oh, that righteousness of ours! We are so fond of it. Our pride hugs it. We do so like to think that we are good, that we are upright, that we are true, that we are right in the sight of God by nature; and though we be beaten out of it with many stripes, yet our tendency is always to return to it. Selfrighteousness is bound up in the heart of a man as folly in the heart of a child. Though thou bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet will not his self-righteous folly depart from him. He will stick to it that, after all, he is a good fellow, and deserves to be saved. We must, therefore, in a very special manner pray for such, seeing that self-righteousness is a deep ditch, and it is hard to draw him out who has once fallen into it.
Prejudice, of all other opponents, is one of the worst to overcome. The door is locked. You may knock as long as you like; but the man will not open it. He cannot. It is locked, and he has thrown away the key. You may tell him, “You are wrong, good friend;” but he is so comfortably assured that he is right, that all your telling will only make him the more angry at you for attempting to disturb his peace. O God! who but thou canst draw a man out of this miry clay of self-righteousness? Therefore do we cry to thee, of thy great grace, to do it. For these and many other reasons those who have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge, must have a chief place in our importunate prayers.