I think the following comments from Grudem’s Systematic Theology are very insightful—and needful for preachers. It’s easy to preach so hard against selfishness that one erases part of the image of God!
Other definitions of the essential character of sin have been suggested. Probably the most common definition is to say that the essence of sin is selfishness.1 However, such a definition is unsatisfactory because
- Scripture itself does not define sin this way.
- Much self-interest is good and approved by Scripture, as when Jesus commands us to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:20), or when we seek to grow in sanctification and Christian maturity (1 Thess. 4:3), or even when we come to God through Christ for salvation. God certainly appeals to the self-interest of sinful people when he says, “Turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11). To define the essential character of sin as selfishness will lead many people to think that they should abandon all desire for their own personal benefit, which is certainly contrary to Scripture.
- Much sin is not selfishness in the ordinary sense of the term—people can show selfless devotion to a false religion or to secular and humanistic educational or political goals that are contrary to Scripture, yet these would not be due to “selfishness” in any ordinary sense of the word. Moreover, hatred of God, idolatry, and unbelief are not generally due to selfishness, but they are very serious sins.
- Such a definition could suggest that there was wrongdoing or sinfulness even on God’s part, since God’s highest goal is to seek his own glory (Isa. 42:8; 43:7, 21; Eph. 1:12).
Likewise, Jonathan Edwards asked, “[Why] make any promises of happiness, or denounce any threatenings of misery, to him who neither loved his own happiness nor hated his own misery?” (Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey, vol. 8 in WJE (New Haven: Yale, 1989), 254–255.) In the same work, Charity and Its Fruits, Edwards lists multiple passages of Scripture in both testaments which motivate good deeds with offers of reward:
“What is bestowed in doing good to others is not lost, as if a man throws what he had into the sea. But see what Solomon says, Ecclesiastes 11:1, ‘Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it….’ What is so given is lent and committed … to the Lord, who no doubt will pay. Proverbs 19:17, ‘He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord; and that which he hath given will he pay him again.’ He will not only pay, but with great increase. Luke 6:38, ‘Give, and it shall be given unto you.’” Ibid., 216.
We who care about our own and others’ sanctification have to draw the line between selfishness and a biblically oriented self-interest, a self-interest which points ultimately to God, the only one who can satisfy the desires He created in us.
Our hearts are restless, until they find rest in Thee.