Self – Interest
by Glenn Conjurske

The Bible consistently and continually sets before us one grand reason or motive for what we do—-namely, our own good. Every “commandment with promise” (Eph. 6:2) is a proof of this, and so is every commandment with a threat. The Bible is full of both, from “in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:17), to “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life” (Rev. 22:14). These and a thousand things between them appeal to every man’s self good as the primary motive for doing as he ought to do.

But what need is there to assert a thing so obvious? Who would dream of denying it? Unfortunately, there are many who teach hyperspiritual notions on this subject which utterly subvert the simple doctrine of the Scriptures. It is taught that it is sin to act with a view to my own good—-that it is selfishness, which is the root and essence of sin—-that if I repent in order that my soul might be saved, my repentance is sin, and I remain lost and deceived—-that if I pray in order to receive blessings for myself, my prayer is sin, and will not be heard. These hyperspiritual notions overthrow the truth on both the nature of man and the goodness of God, and thus undermine the warp and the woof of the very fabric of the Bible as a whole.

The root of all of these notions is New England theology. The father of it all (though not exactly the fountainhead, as I shall point out shortly) is Jonathan Edwards. From him and his immediate disciples it was passed down (with some modifications and accretions) from generation to generation, even as far as Charles G. Finney and his disciples, and it is my suspicion that the resurgence of such doctrines in our day is due largely to a renewed interest in the writings of Charles G. Finney.

To begin at the beginning, at a young age Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was greatly influenced by the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). Frank Hugh Foster says, “…at fourteen he was reading Locke’s Essay upon Human Understanding and enjoying a far higher pleasure in the perusal of its pages `than the most greedy miser finds when gathering up handfuls of silver and gold from some newly discovered treasure.’ With the sensational philosophy of this great thinker he became entirely familiar.” “That early reading,” the same writer says elsewhere, “seems to have made the strongest impression upon his mind.” One of Edwards’ biographers adds, “The impression it left upon his mind was a deep and in some respects an abiding one.” Foster, who studied the entire subject with the greatest thoroughness, speaks elsewhere of “Edwards’ entire dependence upon Locke for both doctrine and arguments.” The result of all of this is that in many particulars what Edwards produced was in reality a system of philosophy rather than of theology. The particular doctrine which I am opposing in the present article was developed in Edwards’ Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue. It is a surprising fact that this dissertation, which covers over 60 pages in my edition of Edwards’ works, contains in the whole of it scarcely even an oblique allusion to Scripture. The Bible is ignored, and we read page after page after page of reasoning. Thus the very method employed is apt to lead us far astray, and in fact it does so. Turn almost anywhere we will in the Bible, and we find Edwards’ whole fabric overturned by a simple quotation of what the Bible says. To that I shall come shortly, but first a further glance at New England theology:

Jonathan Edwards writes, “True virtue most essentially consists in BENEVOLENCE TO BEING IN GENERAL.” This is the foundation of the whole philosophical system, and this doctrine, and even the very terms in which it is stated, continued to be the standard teaching of New England divines down to the days of Finney, and beyond. And here we see at once, in the very terms employed, the cold intellectualism of philosophy. Even if we could embrace the doctrine involved in it (that all holiness consists of love), how vastly would we prefer the simple phrase so often in the mouth of John Wesley, of “love to God and man”! But be that as it may, this “disinterested benevolence” to “being in general”—-to “the universality of existence”—-to “general existence”—-to “the whole existence”—-to “the universal system” (to use a few of Edwards’ phrases)—-was conceived to stand in opposition to self love, which these philosophers speak of contemptuously as selfishness. Edwards’ own statements on this are not clear and explicit, but he always treats self love as clashing with disinterested benevolence, and so as opposite in its nature from true virtue. He devotes a lengthy chapter to illustrating and proving this. He held that self love could be virtuous only as a subordinate part of love to “being in general”—-only, that is, insofar as self was viewed as an infinitesimal part of “being, simply considered.”

Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803) was a disciple of Edwards, who studied theology under him for a time, and taught the same philosophical system. He writes, “It being thus evident that the love required in the divine law, in which holiness consists, is disinterested benevolence, which is primary and most essential in all virtuous love; and in which all is included; it appears from what has been observed, that sin consists in that affection and those exercises, which are directly opposed to disinterested benevolence to being in general, and all those affections and exercises which are implied in true benevolence or good will to others. And this must be self love, or selfish affection and exercises; for this, and this only is, or can be opposed to disinterested regard and good will to other beings; and to all those exercises which are implied in true benevolence. …every degree of self love, be there more or less, is in its own nature opposed to the love required in the divine law: And therefore is in its nature, and in every degree of it, sin, being contrary to true holiness. And if a person be not wholly selfish, but exercises some degree of disinterested regard and good will to other beings; yet every degree of self love which he exercises is as opposite to disinterested affection, as if he had no benevolence; and therefore as sinful. … Still every exertion of self love is as really sin, as if it were exercised in a higher degree, and were not counteracted by opposite, disinterested love. …

“Hence it is evident, that sin consists in self love, and those affections and exercises which are implied in this, and naturally flow from it as their root. This is in its own nature opposite to all virtuous, holy affection, to all truth and reason; and is of a criminal nature, in every degree of it, wherever it is found.” This is more clear and explicit than any of Edwards’ statements, but the doctrine is essentially that of Edwards. Hopkins carried it to its logical conclusion, and held that a man must be willing to be damned (in case that should chance to be “for the public good”) in order to be saved.

Generations later Charles G. Finney inherited the same system, and powerfully preached it. Some will doubtless be surprised, not to say shocked, to see the systems of Edwards and Finney thus identified. But I need only say, Read them both, and you will plainly see not only the same philosophical method and much of the same philosophical system, but even the same terminology. As early as the beginning of 1826 Finney was reading Edwards’ works at the house of Samuel Aiken in Utica, New York, and (says Mr. Aiken) “often spoke with rapture” of them. Finney apparently soon after this bought his own set of Edwards’ works, for the set which he owned was published in 1829—-a ten volume set which has been in my possession for years, every volume of it containing Finney’s autograph signature. I actually suppose, however that Finney was as much influenced by the theology of his day, which had descended from Edwards, as he was by reading Edwards himself. But however that may be, or wherever he may have gotten it, there is no doubt that Finney’s doctrine on this subject came originally from Edwards. Read the following and judge: “We have seen in former lectures, that disinterested benevolence is all that the spirit of moral law requires, that is, that the love which it requires to God and our neighbour is good-willing, willing the highest good, or well-being of God, and of being in general, as an end, or for its own sake.”

In a sermon on “True and False Conversion” Finney says:

“To glorify God; the true saint because he loves to see God glorified, and the deceived person because he knows that is the way to be saved. The true convert has his heart set on the glory of God, as his great end, and he desires to glorify God as an end, for its own sake. The other desires it as a means to HIS great end, the benefit of himself.

“To repent. The true convert abhors sin on account of its hateful nature, because it dishonours God, and therefore he desires to repent of it. The other desires to repent, because he knows that unless he does repent he will be damned.

“To believe in Jesus Christ. The true saint desires it to glorify God, and because he loves the truth for its own sake. The other desires to believe, that he may have a stronger hope of going to heaven.

“To obey God. The true saint that he may increase in holiness; the false professor because he desires the rewards of obedience.”

In another sermon he says, “It is astonishing that many, within a few years, have maintained that it is right for man to aim directly at his own salvation, and make his own happiness the great object of his pursuit. But it is plain that God’s law is different from this, and requires every one to prize God’s interest supremely.”

Where, I ask, does God’s law require this? Not even the law in all of its rigor required such a thing—-nay, not even the commandment given to sinless man in the Garden of Eden. Much less does the gospel.

To sinless man in the paradise of Eden it was said, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Gen. 2:17). This plainly sets before the man his own good as the proper motive for his obedience. Never a word was said to him about the glory of God, much less the good of the universe. His own good was the only motive mentioned to him.

To sinful man under the law it was said, “Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgements: which if a man do, he shall live in them.” (Lev. 18:5).

To sinful man under the gospel it is said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” (Acts 16:31). “Repent ye, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out.” (Acts 3:19). There is not the slightest hint in any of this about the glory of God or regard for “the public good,” and God never anywhere requires a man to repent except with a view to securing his own good. This is the one motive which God continually and consistently holds out to the sinner from one end of the Bible to the other.

Indeed, as I contemplate this theme, the scriptures which illustrate and prove it flood so thick and fast into my mind, from all parts of the Bible, that I scarcely know where to begin—-much less where to end.

To Cain God said, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?”

(Gen. 4:7). Self-interest, pure and simple.

To Israel God says, “Observe and hear all these words which I command thee, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee for ever, when thou doest that which is good and right in the sight of the Lord thy God.” (Deut. 12:28). Ten times this motive is held out to Israel in the book of Deuteronomy, and one of those instances is quoted in Ephesians 6:3 as the first “commandment with promise.” There is no question that this so-often-repeated expression, “that it may go well with thee,” plainly teaches man to obey and serve God for his own good. Those who affirm that it is sinful to act upon that motive have in effect made God the great tempter of the race of men, who from one end of the Bible to the other continually incites the whole human race—-saints and sinners alike—-to that which is in itself the very essence of sin.

“Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way. (Psalm 2:12).

“Hear instruction, and be wise, and refuse it not. Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors. For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the Lord. But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death.” (Prov. 8:33-36).

“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Is. 55:7).

“Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions: so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions whereby ye have transgressed, and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 18:30-31).

“Break off thy sins by righteousness, and thine iniquities by shewing mercy to the poor, if it may be a lengthening of thy tranquility.” (Dan. 4:27).

To this sampling of Old Testament texts we may add the whole of Deuteronomy 28, the lengthy chapter which so graphically and powerfully sets forth the blessings and cursings consequent upon Israel’s obedience or disobedience. I cite only the beginning of each section. “And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the Lord thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth: and all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God.” (1 & 2). “But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day, that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee.” (Verse 15). It is scarcely possible to imagine a more powerful appeal than this to their own interest as the grand motive of their life, backed up as it is by a dozen verses of blessings for obedience, and more than fifty verses of curses for disobedience. And are we to believe that it is sinful for them thus to regard their own interests?

Turning to the New Testament, we find the same thing everywhere. Our own profit, our own advantage, our own benefit, our own salvation, self regard, self good, self-interest—-self love, if you please—-is the one motive constantly, consistently, and continually appealed to.

“And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” (Matt. 5:29).

“But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” (Matt. 6:6).

“Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” (Matt. 6:20).

“Judge not, that ye be not judged.” (Matt. 7:1).

“For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36).

“Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.” (Luke 6:38).

“For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?” (Luke 9:25).

“Provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth.” (Luke 12:33).

“Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:3).

“Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, that when ye fail they may receive you into everlasting habitations.” (Luke 16:9).

“So run, that ye may obtain. … Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible.”
(I Cor. 9:24-25).

“Godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.” (I Tim. 4:8). Such language unquestionably teaches us to embrace godliness with a view to our own interest.

“How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?” (Heb 2:3).

“Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.” (Heb. 11:35).

“Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward.” (II Jn. 8).

“To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life.” (Rev. 2:7).

“Hold fast that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.” (Rev. 3:11).

Now it is perfectly obvious that self-interest is the one compelling motive in every one of these scriptures. No other motive is so much as mentioned in any of them. But where does Scripture ever require us to repent or serve God purely for the glory of God? Where does it ever require us to act as we do solely for the good of “universal being”? For philosophical theologians to come in here with reasonings, and assert that it is selfish, sinful, and unavailing for a man to repent and to serve God with a view to his own benefit, is simply to set aside with one stroke the testimony of the whole Bible. The doctrine that all self-seeking is sin turns the gospel into a law more rigorous than any that God ever gave to man. And it is a doctrine which greatly troubles sincere and righteous souls. They find by experience that self love and a regard for their own well-being belongs to the very fabric of their being, and they are unable to rid themselves of it, try as they might. Thus are they led to fear that they are but hypocrites, having no true godliness at all.

And alas, that very fear is a manifestation of regard for self, and so must be regarded as only so much more of sin. But what saith the Scripture? “Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it.” (Heb. 4:1). But fear as a motive does not set very well with the hyperspiritual doctrines which we here oppose. Finney says,

“With sinners the question of religion is one of loss and gain. But with Christians, it is only a question of right and duty towards God. This makes truth to him all important, and duty imperative. But the sinner only asks, What shall I gain? or What shall I lose? It is wholly a question of danger. Indeed, so true is this, that ministers often assume that the only availing motive with a sinner must be an appeal to his hopes and fears. They have mostly dropped out the consideration of right as between the sinner and God. They seem to have forgotten that so far forth as they stop short of the idea of right, and appeal only to the sinner’s selfishness, their influence tends to make spurious converts. For if men enter upon the Christian life only for gain in the line of their hopes and fears, you must keep up the influence of these consideratons, and must expect to work upon these only; that is, you must expect to have selfish Christians and a selfish church.”

Some of what Finney says here only clouds the issue. Why must it be a question of either doing right or looking after my own interest? Why may I not do both? Why may I not do my duty for my own good? I may, and God himself continually incites me thereto. But this Finney will not allow, and regards it as a great evil if fear must be used as a motive to keep men in the path of duty. But again, what saith the Scripture? “A wise man feareth, and departeth from evil.” (Prov. 14:16). “Happy is the man that feareth alway.” (Prov. 28:14). “Let not thine heart envy sinners, but be thou in the fear of the Lord all the day long, for surely there is an end, and thine expectation shall not be cut off.” (Prov. 23:17-18).

The New Testament tells the same story. “And if ye call upon the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear.” (I Pet. 1:17). Fear (which always implies self-interest—-a careful regard for my own welfare) is here presented as the constant, life-long motive of all who call upon the Father.

So again, “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” (II Cor. 7:1). The pursuit of holiness which proceeds upon regard to promises, and motivated by fear, is obviously and indisputably based upon a regard for my own benefit.

“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil. 2:12). This is self regard, pure and simple.

“By faith Noah, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house.” (Heb. 11:7).

Yet in the face of all of this Scripture some will tell us that fear is no proper motive. We must be moved by love—-or “benevolence”—-which acts not for its own welfare, but for the glory of God or the good of “the universal existence.” Thus infatuation with a philosophical system sets aside scores of plain scriptures. No man—-nor God himself, either—-is or ought to be governed solely by love. But if he were, I am bold to affirm that not even love is without self-interest. True, love “seeketh not its own” (I Cor. 13:5). Love will give, and sacrifice, and deny its own interests to seek the welfare of another—-yes, even “spend and be spent for you, though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved.” (II Cor. 12:15). But we cannot conclude from this that true love has no self-interest, when both the Bible and the common experience of mankind teach us that it does. Love, when driven to it by necessity, will lay down all of its own interest, and live and die for its beloved, even though the more it love the less it be loved. But this is not the ordinary way of love. Love ordinarily acts in its own interest, as well as in the interest of its object.

We must understand that there are varying degrees of love. Paul speaks, in the verse just quoted, of “more” and “less” of love, and so does Christ in Luke 7:47. And Christ teaches that the love which lays aside its own interests, and acts solely for the benefit of its objects, is the highest degree of love, for he says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13). But it is folly to affirm that there is no virtue in any love less than this. It is evident also that even the greatest and purest and deepest love does not prefer to give its life for its friends, but rather to live in love with them. When driven by necessity, love will sacrifice itself for its beloved, but under all ordinary circumstances love certainly has an interest of its own, and acts so as to promote it. “He that loveth his wife loveth himself” (Eph. 5:28)—-that is, by promoting her happiness he promotes his own.

“And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her.” (Gen. 29:20). Who would be so foolish as to affirm that his love was without any motives of personal gain? Who so fond as to contend that his great love moved him to work seven years solely for her benefit? Who so absurd as to contend that he labored seven years solely for the glory of God—-or “the good of the universe”?! Here we reach the realm of the ridiculous. It is certain that it was love which moved him, and equally certain that that love acted in its own interest.

It is HYPERSPIRITUALITY which overturns all of this, endeavoring to press all love into the mould of the extraordinary extremity of the highest degree of love. And to maintain such doctrine men must deny the facts of life and the common experience of their own nature. It is the very nature of love to desire to possess, as well as to bless, its object. If Jacob loved Rachel, then he desired to possess her to be his wife. If I love a friend, then I desire to possess that person as a friend—-and not solely for his benefit. In all of its ordinary workings, love certainly does not act “without motives of personal gain,” but always seeks a reciprocation of love. The cold “charity” of the world may be content without this, and so may the cold “benevolence” of mistaken theology, but love cannot be—-and it is not worthy the name of love if it can.

So in the verse immediately preceding the one in which Paul speaks of loving the more the less he be loved, he writes, “I seek not yours, but you” (II Cor. 12:14). I seek “you”—-your hearts, your love and affection. This is love’s ordinary, natural, and proper endeavor. And so far from being “selfish” or sinful, it is the way of God himself. Paul writes also, “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.” (I Cor. 13:3). Love, then, profits me—-and to what end does Paul mention this, except as a compelling motive to love?

And as this hyperspiritual doctrine overthrows the true nature of love, so it overthrows the true nature of faith also. “BY FAITH Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, MOVED WITH FEAR, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is BY FAITH.” (Heb. 11:7). Now fear, as remarked before, always implies self-interest, and this is perfectly obvious in Noah’s case.

Moses, the Bible tells us, exchanged the treasures of Egypt and the pleasures of sin for the reproach of Christ and the afflictions of his people, “for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward.” (Heb 11:26). In plain English, he acted for his own good. True, he gave up his temporal interests, but he did this in order to secure his eternal interests. And this he did “by faith.”

Now what is faith? “Faith is the substance of things hoped for.” (Heb. 11:1). The things which faith thus hopes for are the things which are for its own eternal benefit. This is implied in the very meaning of the word “hope,” and thus it becomes plain that it is of the very essence of faith to serve God for my own good—-for the “recompense of the reward”—-for the “better country,” the “better resurrection,” the “better thing” upon which the faith of the saints of all ages has been fixed.

Faith is confidence in the love of God. It rests upon the “great and precious promises of God.” It counts upon the goodness of God. It acts in the confidence that God will do me good if I submit to him on his own terms. “The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.” (Rom. 2:4). Now the plain fact is, the man who does not thus serve God does not serve him by faith. And “Without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Heb. 11:6). It is of the essence of faith to come to God as to a rewarder. He that cometh to God must come to him thus. This puts God in his proper place, as the great lover and giver, and puts man in his proper place, as the humble and grateful receiver. To speak as Finney does (along with the whole New England school, from Edwards down) of acting solely for “the well-being of God, and of being in general,” actually puts man in the place of God. Nay, it actually puts man above God, for not even God acts so, without regard to his own interests.

But all of this being said, we will yet allow that a man may rise entirely above self-interest, and act solely for the glory of God, or the good of others. Moses certainly did so when he prayed, “Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin—-; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of the book which thou hast written.” (Ex. 32:32). And Paul rose above all self regard when he wrote, “For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” (Rom. 9:3). These men spoke out of the highest degree of love; yet in so doing they did not abandon their faith. Moses served God for “the recompense of the reward.” Paul ran the race to “obtain” the crown (I Cor. 9:24-27), and treats it as an absurdity to do otherwise, saying, “And why stand we in jeopardy every hour? … If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (I Cor. 15:30, 32). “Why” do we serve God through so much pain and trouble, if there is nothing to be gained by it? In plain English, if there is no “recompense of reward,”—-“if the dead rise not”—-“if in this life only we have hope in Christ”—-let us give up the service of God, and become Epicureans. So thought Paul.

And that the truth may be known, and hyperspiritual sentimentality abandoned, we must go deeper yet, and affirm that even when Christ went to the cross, it was not without self-interest. “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for THE JOY THAT WAS SET BEFORE HIM endured the cross.” (Heb. 12:2). He went to the cross in faith, which is “the substance of things hoped for,” the same faith which has dwelt in the saints of all ages, the faith by which they have suffered with Christ, “that we may be also glorified together.” (Rom. 8:17).

This is that faith which looks ever to its own eternal benefit, the recompense of the reward, the city whose builder and maker is God, the eternal weight of glory, the inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, the pleasures for evermore at God’s right hand—-and so runs that it may obtain.

Glenn Conjurske