Question: "What does it mean to be fervent in spirit (Romans 12:11)?"
Answer: The apostle Paul encourages believers to love and serve one another not only sacrificially but also enthusiastically: “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Romans 12:11, ESV).
The command do not be slothful in zeal literally means “don’t be lazy.” Translations vary from “never be lacking in zeal” (NIV), “never be lazy” (NLT), and “do not lack diligence” (HCSB). In the original Greek, the verb for “be fervent” refers to being emotionally inflamed, enthusiastic, or excited. The concept is of a pot full of bubbling water over a flame. When Paul tells Christians to “be fervent in spirit,” he means that that they should let their lives demonstrate the vibrant presence of the Holy Spirit like water boiling on a fire. A pot of boiling water is active, roiling, giving off steam and heat. It’s not stagnant, idle, or apathetic.
Paul wants believers to use all their spiritual energy, excitement, and devotion in ministering to others as they serve the Lord. Even in the face of severe opposition, Paul urges the Corinthians, “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless” (1 Corinthians 15:58, NLT). Our calling to holiness demands that we be passionate about purity, love with sincerity, and serve God with our whole hearts (1 Peter 1:13–22).
The expression fervent in spirit is used one other place in the New Testament to describe the ministry of Apollos: “He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25, ESV). This passage provides valuable insight into what it means to be “fervent in spirit.” Apollos was both zealous and knowledgeable. After some guidance from Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos became an even greater asset to the church.
Spiritual fervor should not be confused with emotionalism. Godly zeal must be tempered with a solid foundation in biblical truth, discernment, and spiritual perception (Romans 10:1–4). Without knowledge, spiritual enthusiasm can become seriously misguided (Philippians 3:6; Galatians 1:13–14; 4:17–18).
Paul mentions Titus and many other believers who were fervent in spirit with hearts eager to do good and serve God with enthusiasm (2 Corinthians 8:16–17; 9:2; Galatians 2:10). The apostle Peter describes those who are fervent in spirit as having an eagerness to “turn from evil and do good” and “seek peace and pursue it” (1 Peter 3:10–13).
Peter urges fellow ministers to “care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God” (1 Peter 5:2, NLT). In 2 Peter 1:10, the apostle advises, “Be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble” (NKJV). Again Peter presses, “Be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Peter 3:14, ESV).
Only by God’s grace and His Spirit working in us can we develop spiritual zeal that enables us to “say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:11–14).
As followers of Christ, perhaps the most excellent way to be fervent in spirit is to nurture the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the fruits of the Spirit, both personally and in the church (1 Corinthians 12:1—13:13; Galatians 5:22–26). We are not to be motivated by selfish ambition but instead strive to build up the church in love (Romans 12:3–8; 1 Corinthians 14:12). Being fervent in spirit also means being diligent in prayer (Ephesians 6:18; James 5:16) and studying God’s Word (Acts 17:11; Romans 12:12; 2 Timothy 2:15; James 5:16; Colossians 4:2).