What Saith the Scripture?


Phila delphia > Selfishness by Charles G. Finney from "The Oberlin Evangelist"

The Oberlin Evangelist

Lecture III

Charles G. Finney

Charles G. Finney

A Voice from the Philadelphian Church Age

  Wisdom is Justified

by Charles Grandison Finney

Public Domain Text
Reformatted by Katie Stewart

from "The Oberlin Evangelist"
February 1, 1843

Lecture III.

by the Rev. C. G. Finney

Texts.--Hos. 10:1: "Israel is an empty vine; he bringeth forth fruit unto himself."

In this passage the Lord complains of the selfishness of Israel; and it is my present design to show,

I. What selfishness is not.

II. What it is.

III. That it cannot co-exist with holiness in the same mind.

IV. Mention some evidences of selfishness.

V. That one form of it is as inconsistent with salvation as another.

I. What selfishness is not.

II. What selfishness is.

The way is now prepared to state directly what selfishness is.

III. Selfishness and holiness cannot co-exist in the same mind.

I may add that benevolence and selfishness regard and treat every perceived interest in the universe, in an order exactly the opposite of each other. Benevolence regards God's interests first, and aims at his glory as the supreme good; next the well being of the universe; then of this world; afterwards of its own nation; then of its own community; next of its own family; and lastly of itself. Now selfishness exactly reverses all this. The selfish man places self first, and regards his own interest as supreme; then he regards the interest of his family and special friends, but only so far as supreme devotion to himself on the whole prompts; next he regards his own community or city in opposition to all other communities and cities, whenever their interests clash; then he regards his own nation, and is what men call very patriotic, and would sacrifice the interests of all other nations, just as far as they interfere with his own; and so he progresses till finally, God and his interests find the last place in his regards. That this is so, is a simple matter of fact as every body knows, and how then is it possible that these two opposite choices should co-exist in the same mind? Believe it, who can.

IV. Several evidences of selfishness.

"Chains him and tasks him,

And exacts his sweat with stripes,

That mercy, with a bleeding heart,

Weeps when she sees inflicted on a beast."

Who does not regard such a supposition, when fairly stated, as downright blasphemy, and who would not reject the Bible as a gross imposition, if it really did thus contradict itself and belie its pretended author.

V. One form of selfishness is as inconsistent with salvation as another.

Remember that selfishness consists in obeying the propensities, appetites, passions, and desires.--This devotion to self gratification developes itself in a great variety of ways without changing its character. With one, one propensity predominates, with another, another. One for example is an epicure. His desire for pleasant dishes predominates over everything else, and he does not value money only as it contributes to his gratification. Another is a miser, and is entirely too much devoted to the desire of wealth to be an epicure. Indeed, he thinks his ruling passion contemptible. One is fond of dress, and values money only as it contributes to the gratification of this desire. This is his form of selfishness. He thinks of it all the year round, and labors with his eye on self gratification in this form. Right over against this, another is fond of power or influence to such an extent as to wonder that any can be fond of such a trifling gratification as dress affords. But he is as much enslaved by his desire of power as the other by his devotion to dress, and is equally selfish. Again, some are so fond of reputation, as to do anything that public sentiment requires, rather than to fail of popularity. This is their form of selfishness.--Their reputation is preferred to the well-being of the universe. But others have such a large development of some appetite or passion as to sacrifice reputation for it. For example: the drunkard.--He regards his appetite for intoxicating drinks above everything else, and his character weighs not a straw when brought into competition with this. Now each of these different forms of selfishness is a violation of the law of God. One just as much so as the other. They all lord it over the will.--And yet those devoted to one form take great credit to themselves because they are not devoted to all the others. The truth is in all cases the sin lies in the indulgence of any appetite, desire or propensity whatever, in opposition to the law of love.


1. It matters not which of the propensities prevail over the will in order to constitute selfishness. None of them has moral character in itself. To prefer the indulgence of anyone of them to higher interests is what constitutes sin. It is minding the flesh. It is enmity against God.

2. If we are asked why we have these propensities if they are not to be gratified? I answer, (1.) Those which are natural are given to serve and not to rule us. For example, the appetite for food. Without an appetite for food we should never take it, but it is essential to our existence, and therefore the appetite serves to secure life. So the desire for knowledge. Were there not a constitutional desire for knowledge, who would ever seek it. But knowledge is essential to our highest good. The desire for it therefore, serves to secure this essential to our well being. (2.) Farther, these propensities are not only given to serve us, but to afford us gratification. The benevolence of God gave us these constitutional propensities, so that we might find pleasure in that which is for our well being. Were we destitute of appetites, desires, passions, and susceptibilities we should be as incapable of pleasure or pain, gratification or happiness as a marble statue. Had the human race remained innocent the gratification of these susceptibilities would doubtless have afforded them exquisite pleasure. That we possess them, therefore, must be regarded as a proof of the divine benevolence towards us, not withstanding the fact that they render us liable to various and strong temptations. (3.) Many of the propensities that are most despotic, God never gave. They are wholly artificial, and are produced by a voluntary perversion of those which are natural.--For example, the use of intoxicating drinks, or tobacco, and various narcotics.

3. Indulgence in any form of selfishness is utterly inconsistent with salvation. It is sin, and the Bible declares that "without holiness no man shall see the Lord."

4. A man who is selfish in his business can no more go to heaven than a pirate can. How should he? They are both living for the same end, self-gratification, under different forms, and are both therefore directly opposed to the will of God.

5. A vain man or a vain woman, can no more be saved, than a licentious man or a licentious woman. They prefer the gratification of their vanity, to the end of life which the law of God requires, while a licentious man or woman prefers the self gratification afforded them, in this grosser form, to the same end.

6. There is so little discrimination, as to the nature of sin, that endless delusions prevail. For example: while it is known that drunkenness, licentiousness, theft, robbery, murder &c. are utterly inconsistent with salvation, various other forms of sin are regarded as consistent with a profession of religion. But the truth is, as I have said before, a man who is selfish in his business, or who practices selfishness in any other form, however slight it may seem, can no more be saved than a drunkard can. Why cannot a drunkard be saved? or the licentious man, or the thief? Because he is selfish. So it must be with any other man who is selfish, whatever may be the type which his selfishness has put on. If a man were drunk but once a week he would be excommunicated as hopelessly lost, but he may be habitually avaricious, vain, or an epicure, and yet be regarded as a good Christian in the estimation of the church. If any church should continue the drunkard in its communion, it would bring upon itself the frown of Christians universally, and yet persons indulging various forms of selfishness are to be found in almost every church, and regarded as true Christians. Scarcely any one suspects that they will not be saved. Now this must be delusion. But why is this mistake? It is because there is so little discrimination respecting the nature of sin. The truth is, if any appetite, desire, or propensity whatever, rules over the will, it matters not what it is, the man is in the way to death.

7. To suppose religion to consist in obeying any feeling whatever, merely as feeling, is a most ruinous error. And yet multitudes know no other religion than this. They suppose happy feelings to be religion, and generally do just as they feel, irrespective of the demands of their reason. Now these persons have never yet apprehended the true idea of religion, namely that it consists in the entire consecration of the will to the law of God, as it is regarded and imposed by their reason. Feeling is not that to which the will should bow, for it is blind; but reason, as it perceives the law of God with its intuitive eye, should be heeded in its faintest whisper respecting the application of that law.

8. Selfishness was the first sin of man; that is, his first sin consisted in preferring his own gratification to the will of God. Now see whether I have given the right definition of sin. The first pair were placed in the garden in which were many trees bearing an abundance to supply their wants, but in the midst was one upon which God laid a prohibition. It is an important question why God laid this restraint[?] It is a question which is often asked, and it is important that it should receive a right answer. The design undoubtedly was to teach them that they must control their sensibility--that they must keep their appetites, desires, and passions in subjection to the law of reason. This lesson it was of vast importance they should learn, and learn too as soon as possible, before their sensibility had such a development, that is, before their appetites, desires, and passions, should acquire such strength, during their ignorance of the tendency of gratifying them, as to render it certain that they never would deny themselves of their gratification when they came to see its tendency. For this reason God prohibits their eating the fruit of one particular tree. Now here Satan steps in, and being well aware of the relation of the Sensibility to the Will, and of both to the Reason, he suggested to our mother Eve, that God was selfish in laying restraint upon the constitutional propensities, and then presents such considerations before her mind as awakens two of the strongest of them, the appetite for food, and the desire of knowledge. This placed the demands of her reason which echoed the prohibition of God, and the demand of her constitutional desires in opposition. Between these her will was compelled to choose. And in that evil hour she preferred the gratification of these appetites to the will of God, and thus

"Brought death into the world, and all our woe."

This was the first sin. Observe now, these constitutional appetites were perfectly innocent in themselves, but the sin consisted in her consenting to their gratification in opposition to the requirement of God.

9. Selfishness is the first sin of every human being. Children come into the world in perfect ignorance both of the law of God and of the tendency of their sensibility. Now what is the process by which they sin. See the little child. At first it can scarcely turn its head or open its eyes. It is hardly conscious of any thing. Soon its sensibility begins to be developed, and foremost its appetite for food. As soon as you give it any thing, no matter what, it puts it right into the mouth. Gradually other appetites are awakened, equally constitutional, and therefore without moral character. At what age their reason begins to be developed we cannot know. But it is doubtless very early. But as soon as it is developed and affirms obligation then its very next is a moral act. Hence the appetites, desires, and propensities of its sensibility which have previously been developed, and its perception of obligation are both placed before its will, and it prefers the former to the latter. This is its first sin, and this is the first sin of every human being. But why does it always choose wrong? Because previously to the development of its reason, its will has constantly been under the control of its appetites, and it has acquired a habit of consenting to them. On the contrary the first affirmations of its reason are necessarily feeble. He therefore chooses self-gratification in opposition to it.

10. Selfishness constitutes sin in every instance. It is easy to show that this must be so.

11. We can see what regeneration is. It is turning from selfishness to benevolence. It is the act of the will preferring the well being of the universe to self-gratification to which it has always previously consented.

12. It is easy to see the necessity of regeneration. Who does not know that unregenerate men are universally selfish? And who does not know that selfish men thrown together could never be happy? I have often wondered what those persons mean who deny the necessity of regeneration. The truth in it is self-evident.

13. We can see why men are commanded to regenerate themselves. If regeneration is an act of the will, nothing can be more rational than this requirement. It is of necessity their own act.

14. See why the Spirit of God is needed in regeneration. Men have been so habituated to gratify themselves, and their attention is so absorbed with this that the Spirit of God is needed to develop their reason, and to throw the light of heaven upon its eye, that it may see at once the nature and beauty of religion in contrast with the nature and deformity of sin. This is conviction. Then the sinner needs to be charmed away from his selfishness by correct apprehensions of the character of God, and the love of Christ. This it is the Spirit's office to effect.

15. Finally we can see what is meant by the Apostle, when he speaks so often of being led by the flesh and by the Spirit. An individual is led by the flesh when his will is in subjection to the Sensibility. This is the carnal mind. On the contrary, an individual is led by the Spirit, when his will is in subjection to the law of his reason, which is developed and applied by the Spirit of God. And now, beloved, where are you? Are you led by the flesh, or by the Spirit? Are you selfish, or are you benevolent? What would you say if you were called to appear before God to-night? Could you say, I know that I am led by the Spirit of God and therefore am a child of God? O! beloved, search yourselves, lest you be deceived!


of easily misunderstood terms as defined by Mr. Finney himself.
Compiled by Katie Stewart

  1. Complacency, or Esteem: "Complacency, as a state of will or heart, is only benevolence modified by the consideration or relation of right character in the object of it. God, prophets, apostles, martyrs, and saints, in all ages, are as virtuous in their self-denying and untiring labours to save the wicked, as they are in their complacent love to the saints." Systematic Theology (LECTURE VII). Also, "approbation of the character of its object. Complacency is due only to the good and holy." Lectures to Professing Christians (LECTURE XII).

  2. Disinterested Benevolence: "By disinterested benevolence I do not mean, that a person who is disinterested feels no interest in his object of pursuit, but that he seeks the happiness of others for its own sake, and not for the sake of its reaction on himself, in promoting his own happiness. He chooses to do good because he rejoices in the happiness of others, and desires their happiness for its own sake. God is purely and disinterestedly benevolent. He does not make His creatures happy for the sake of thereby promoting His own happiness, but because He loves their happiness and chooses it for its own sake. Not that He does not feel happy in promoting the happiness of His creatures, but that He does not do it for the sake of His own gratification." Lectures to Professing Christians (LECTURE I).

  3. Divine Sovereignty: "The sovereignty of God consists in the independence of his will, in consulting his own intelligence and discretion, in the selection of his end, and the means of accomplishing it. In other words, the sovereignty of God is nothing else than infinite benevolence directed by infinite knowledge." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LXXVI).

  4. Election: "That all of Adam's race, who are or ever will be saved, were from eternity chosen by God to eternal salvation, through the sanctification of their hearts by faith in Christ. In other words, they are chosen to salvation by means of sanctification. Their salvation is the end- their sanctification is a means. Both the end and the means are elected, appointed, chosen; the means as really as the end, and for the sake of the end." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LXXIV).

  5. Entire Sanctification: "Sanctification may be entire in two senses: (1.) In the sense of present, full obedience, or entire consecration to God; and, (2.) In the sense of continued, abiding consecration or obedience to God. Entire sanctification, when the terms are used in this sense, consists in being established, confirmed, preserved, continued in a state of sanctification or of entire consecration to God." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LVIII).

  6. Moral Agency: "Moral agency is universally a condition of moral obligation. The attributes of moral agency are intellect, sensibility, and free will." Systematic Theology (LECTURE III).

  7. Moral Depravity: "Moral depravity is the depravity of free-will, not of the faculty itself, but of its free action. It consists in a violation of moral law. Depravity of the will, as a faculty, is, or would be, physical, and not moral depravity. It would be depravity of substance, and not of free, responsible choice. Moral depravity is depravity of choice. It is a choice at variance with moral law, moral right. It is synonymous with sin or sinfulness. It is moral depravity, because it consists in a violation of moral law, and because it has moral character." Systematic Theology (LECTURE XXXVIII).

  8. Human Reason: "the intuitive faculty or function of the intellect... it is the faculty that intuits moral relations and affirms moral obligation to act in conformity with perceived moral relations." Systematic Theology (LECTURE III).

  9. Retributive Justice: "Retributive justice consists in treating every subject of government according to his character. It respects the intrinsic merit or demerit of each individual, and deals with him accordingly." Systematic Theology (LECTURE XXXIV).

  10. Total Depravity: "Moral depravity of the unregenerate is without any mixture of moral goodness or virtue, that while they remain unregenerate, they never in any instance, nor in any degree, exercise true love to God and to man." Systematic Theology (LECTURE XXXVIII).

  11. Unbelief: "the soul's withholding confidence from truth and the God of truth. The heart's rejection of evidence, and refusal to be influenced by it. The will in the attitude of opposition to truth perceived, or evidence presented." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LV).


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