Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. (Romans 12:11)
We don’t use the words ‘slothful’ or ‘zeal’ often, but their meaning is clear. To be “slothful in zeal” is to be lethargic, low energy, jaded, run down, weary, apathetic, dull, sluggish, lacking enthusiasm, half-hearted, lazy. It is to be lifeless, listless, lacking in purpose, no longer really to care. I think the best way to say this is, “Don’t be in a funk!”
To be “fervent in spirit” is the opposite. The word ‘fervent’ literally means “on the boil.” Heat is involved here. To be fervent is to be passionate, engaged, committed, active, energetic, motivated. So, “Don’t be in a funk, but keep yourself on the boil, serving the Lord.”
Why does Paul bring this in here?
Why is this in verse 11? Surely the point is that when days get darker, the great temptation for us is to become a half-hearted Christians, to follow Christ at a distance. Things are getting tougher out there, so you are tempted to keep your head down, keep your faith private, and keep your engagement at arm’s length.
It is hard to run fast when the wind is in your face. It is hard to make progress when you are swimming against the tide. So when evil is on the rise, it is easy to become jaded. You begin to wonder, What’s the point? It is easy to feel that being all in and sold out for Jesus Christ just isn’t worth it.
This battle with lethargy is something that every one of us will experience. Let me describe this with four cameos that I hope will bring it closer to home for you.
- You are a young mother at home with your children and you feel increasingly overwhelmed by your task. You are constantly trying to bring order out of chaos. Your work never ends and you feel that you are fighting a losing battle. Over time you become discouraged, you lose energy, you lose motivation, and you lose heart.
- You are a Christian teacher in a public school and you feel the pressure of trying to navigate a world of political correctness. Some of the people around you are hyper-sensitive. You feel that you are walking on eggshells – never quite sure of what you can and cannot say. Every year your job seems harder and less rewarding than it was the year before.
- You are a high school student who loves the Lord and you have plenty of zeal. The problem is that your zeal is not focused. You are constantly distracted – moving from one thing to another. You get really pumped up at camp, but it doesn’t last. You are like a balloon that keeps losing air. So now you are thinking, I can make a new start, but what would be the point? I know it won’t last.
- You are a ministry leader and you’ve been serving the Lord many years. You’ve been faithful. You still are. But sometimes you have the feeling of being on a treadmill. You are under pressure at work, you have commitments at church, and there are some heavy demands placed on you at home as well. Besides, you have been around long enough to know that you don’t serve the Lord for a lifetime without taking a few knocks. You’ve had your fair share of those, and they’ve taken their toll.
You could add to the list of these cameos, and some of you might like to do that in the LIFE groups this week. What I want us to see today is that when God speaks about losing your zeal, going off the boil, running cool, losing your passion, losing your commitment, he speaks to an issue that all of us experience. We all know what this is like. You can remember better days when you were on fire for the Lord, but now a kind of lethargy has crept over your soul and you no longer feel as you once felt.
What are you going to do about it?
Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit. (Rom. 12:11)
The word fervent raises the issue of spiritual temperature.
- Our Lord Jesus said that in the last days lawlessness will increase and “the love of many will grow cold” (Mat. 24:12).
- In the book of Revelation Christ says to the church in Ephesus, “For all that’s going on among you that’s good, I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev. 2:4).
- Then to the church at Laodicea, Christ says, “You are neither cold nor hot! Because you are lukewarm… I will spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16).
God says, “Don’t be like that. Be fervent in spirit” (Rom. 12:11). But unless heat is applied, the natural tendency of things is that they grow cold. If your meal sits too long on the table, you put it in the microwave because it has grown cold. How do you apply heat to your life?
A man called Octavius Winslow wrote a book with a rather untrendy title: Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul. It is about how easily we can slide into a spiritual decline (personal declension) and then what can be done to get us back on the boil again (revival of religion in the soul).
Here is what Winslow says at the beginning of the book: “If there is one consideration more humbling than another to a spiritually-minded believer, it is that, after all God has done for him… there should still exist in the heart a principle, the tendency of which is to secret, perpetual, and alarming departure from God.” 
This growing coldness, this jadedness, this reluctance to draw near to God that can spring up in a Christian believer…
- It is secret: It creeps up on you in a way that at first you may not even notice.
- It is perpetual: This means we never get beyond the tendency to grow cold. The need to apply heat to our spiritual lives is always with us.
- It is alarming: If you love the Lord, you will know what it is to be surprised by how cold, how careless, how unfeeling your own redeemed heart can become.
So all of this leads to the obvious question: How are we to apply heat to our Christian lives? How can you overcome this slothfulness that so easily creeps into your soul and become fervent in spirit, serving the Lord? That’s the question that we have to answer today.
This is a command
Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. (Rom. 12:11)
When you feel jaded, flat, lethargic, lacking in enthusiasm, when you see that you are growing cold, you have to take responsibility for your own spiritual condition. You are in Christ. The Holy Spirit lives within you. That means you are not helpless. You can act. You must take yourself in hand and you must rouse yourself.
But, how do you do that? There are certain truths that, when you apply them rightly to your condition, will restore you and renew your spirit within you. They will rouse your soul when you are in a funk! They will restore your spiritual fervor. They will help you to get yourself back on the boil when you see that you have been growing cold.
Here are three great truths that, properly applied to your condition, will renew your spiritual passion – the 3 R’s of renewing your spiritual fervor: Christ Redeems, Christ Restores, and Christ Reigns.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God… (Rom. 12:1)
Never forget that every verse in Romans 12 is written under this banner. Everything that we are called to do is in the light of God’s mercy, that is all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ, as laid out in Romans chapters 1 through 11.
So when God says, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (12:11), we are to pursue this “by the mercies of God.” When you are run down and your soul is sluggish, the place to begin in renewing your fervor is to take in a good dose of what God has done for you in Christ.
I want to try and earth this today by sharing a personal testimony of how this happened in my own life not so long ago. I was in a place where I was tired. I had experienced various discouragements and I was feeling sorry for myself. Self-pity is a dragon that needs to be slayed. I had lost energy and motivation. The best way to say it was that I was in a funk!
I remember thinking to myself, This is no good. How am I going to shake myself out of this? It is often helpful at times like these to ask: “How does the Bible speak to what I am experiencing right now?” My mind went to a phrase in Galatians 6:9, where Paul speaks about being “weary of doing good” or “weary in well doing” (KJV).
I knew that Martyn Lloyd Jones had preached a sermon on that verse and I thought it might help me to listen to it, so I googled “Martyn Lloyd Jones” and “weary in well doing,” and I found a YouTube™ video that God used to shake me out of the funk I was in.
Then Pastor Colin played an excerpt of the Martyn Lloyd Jones sermon, recorded in the 1950s, with the kind permission of The Martyn Lloyd Jones Recording Trust. He introduced it with the following comments: God used this in my life because Lloyd Jones describes exactly what I was feeling at the time, and then answers it by pointing to the cross.
AUDIO TEXT FROM MARTYN LLOYD JONES MESSAGE:
“The danger at this point is to say something like this to yourself: Well, I’ve lost that something which I had, and obviously I’ll never have that back again. So I’ll just go on. I’ll go on formally. I’ll go on out of habit and custom. I’ll go on as a sheer matter of duty. I’ve lost the thrill; I’ve lost the joy; I’ve lost the abandon: That’s gone and it’s undoubtedly gone forever.
What can I do? Well I’ve just got to put up with it. I’ll resign myself to my fate. I’ll stick it. I won’t be a quitter; I won’t turn my back; I won’t resign; I won’t go out. I will go on, but I will go on feeling rather hopeless about it all.
My dear friend, if you and I have come to regard any aspect of this Christian life as a task and as a duty, and that we have to clench and set our teeth in order to get through with it, I say we are insulting God, and we’ve forgotten the very essence of Christianity.
What do I mean? I mean this: The Christian life is not a task: The Christian life alone is worthy of the name ‘Life.’ This alone is righteous and holy and pure and good. It’s the kind of life that the Son of God Himself lived. It’s like God himself in His own holiness.
You have no right to look at your life like that, nor anything you are doing like that, and if you think of your Christian living in any shape or form with this sense of grudge or of task or of duty, or of weariness… go back to the beginning for a moment.
How did you ever come in to this Christian life? Here you are on this narrow way about which you are grumbling so much. Well, how did you come from that broad way on which you were once walking? What’s made the difference?
There’s only one answer: I’ve come from that to this because the only begotten Son of God left heaven and came down to earth having divested Himself of the insignia of His eternal glory, and humbled Himself and was born as a babe and put in a manger, and endured the life of this world for thirty three years, and was spat upon and reviled and had a crown of thorns thrust onto His head, and was nailed upon a cross and bore the punishment of my sins.
That’s how I’ve come from that to this, and if I ever find myself, even for a fraction of a second, doubting the greatness and the glory and the wonder and the nobility of this walk in which I am engaged, well then I’m spitting upon Him. 
That was like a splash of cold water on my face to waken my up from the state I was in. Spitting on Christ! How could I do that? He has brought me into a redeemed life in which I am forgiven for all my sin, lovingly adopted into the family of God, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and destined for a life of everlasting joy. Why am I feeling sorry for myself? Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want… He restores my soul(Psa. 23:1, 3).
The Lord restores my soul! God commands us not to be slothful in zeal, and to be fervent in spirit. But we don’t have what it takes, in and of ourselves, to obey his commands. That’s why when Augustine looked at the commands of God he said, “Command what you will, only give what you command!” All of God’s commands call us to action, but we depend on him in any action that we take.
David says, “God restores my soul!” This is something that he does. Christ died to save his people and he lives to keep his people. And because we grow cold, keeping us means often restoring our souls.
Aren’t you glad that God does this? And you can trust him to do this! He may do it through a sermon in which you know that he is speaking to you. He made do it through the visit and kindness of a friend. He can even do it through a YouTube™ video that hits you between the eyes! But whatever the means, it is the Lord who restores your soul.
This is what he does! So when you are jaded, run down, lethargic, when you have lost your motivation and you are in a funk, you can come to God and ask him to restore your soul. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (Jas. 4:8).
He is your Shepherd. He leads you. He feeds you, and when you are lacking in zeal, he is able to restore your soul. So come to him and ask him to give you what you do not have! Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit (Psa. 51:12)!
Now here is something really important and really practical: Come to Christ as you are. This is how a Christian prays. You can’t come to him any other way, can you? Octavius Winslow makes this point in the book I referred to earlier.  Always remember that Satan wants to keep you in a funk. He wants to keep you jaded, discouraged, lethargic, so he will do anything in his power to keep you from drawing near to God.
So Satan will make this argument to you and put it into your mind: Your heart is cold. You are not in a good place to come to God. You can’t come to God in a state like this! Come to him when you feel better. This is the enemy’s great argument. He uses it time and again to keep jaded Christians away from the one place where they will find help and relief. So when this line of thought flashes across your mind, you need to be ready with an answer.
And here it is… Come to Christ as you are. Come, not because you have a warm heart, but in order to get a warm heart. That’s the whole point of coming! Satan know that and that’s why he tries to keep you away. You can’t restore yourself any more than you can save yourself. This is something that God does. He restores my soul!
Go to the Lord in your worst frame of mind! Don’t wait until you are better! Satan’s grand argument is that you can’t go to God with a cold heart. Why not? If you cannot come as you are, how will you ever come?
Christ does not say, “Get yourself ‘back on the boil’ and then come to me.” He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mat. 11:28).
Come you weary, heavy laden,
Bruised and ruined by the fall
If you wait until you’re better
you will never come at all. 
Here is an old hymn I used to sing growing up in Scotland:
I heard the voice of Jesus say, ‘Come unto me and rest:
Lay down, O weary one, lay down your head upon my breast.’
I came to Jesus as I was, weary and worn and sad
I found in Him a resting place and He has made me glad.
I heard the voice of Jesus say, ‘Behold I freely give:
The living water, thirsty one, stoop down and drink and live!
I came to Jesus and I drank of that life-giving stream
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived, and now I live in Him. 
Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. (Rom. 12:11)
There is a verse over my study at home: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men (Col. 3:23, NIV). Your work may be as a mother or a mechanic. It may be as a student or as a surgeon. It may be as a plumber or a pastor – it doesn’t make a bit of difference. When you see that your work is for the Lord, it will give new meaning to whatever you do.
God has called you to this work, whatever it is, however difficult it may be, and in doing it you are serving him. Other people may (or may not) appreciate what you do. They may (or may not) reward you for what you do. But if you keep in mind that you are serving him, it will help you not to be slothful or lacking in zeal, but to be fervent in Spirit because you are serving the Lord.
It is “the Lord” that we are serving. Why is that particular title used here in Romans 12:11? Because Jesus Christ is the risen Lord. He is the sovereign Lord. And it is in remembering the Lord that we are encouraged in this dark world.
It is really hard for soldiers to follow a general if they feel in their hearts that his campaign will end in failure. The good news for jaded followers of Jesus is that we know he wins! The grave was not the end for Jesus and it will not be the end for us. Evil did not overcome him, and by his grace, evil will not overcome us.
The end of the world will not be marked by the condemnation of being over-run by evil. The end of this world will be the transformation of a new earth that will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. This new earth will be populated with a new humanity drawn from people of every tribe and nation redeemed in Jesus Christ, and a new resurrected life in which sin will be no more, and God himself will wipe all tears from our eyes.
Christ redeems, Christ restores, and Christ reigns. Therefore, brothers and sisters in Christ, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). So do not be slothful in zeal, but be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord (Rom. 12:11).
 Octavius Winslow, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, p. 9, Banner of Truth, 1960.
 Octavius Winslow, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, p. 109-110, Banner of Truth, 1960.
 Joseph Hart (1712-1768), from the hymn, Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy, 1759.
 Horatius Bonar (1808-1889), from the hymn, I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say, 1846.
© Colin S. Smith
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