Should Preachers Appeal to Self-Interest?

“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

I think Blaise Pascal is correct. Every person is born with a self-interest which pursues personal happiness. But I’ve got a question. Is this self-interest part of creation or the fall? And what does the answer to this mean for ministry?

When I say self-interest I do not mean self-centeredness. I simply mean a concern for ones own well-being. I don’t mean concern with self to the expense of others. Self-absorption is clearly a result of the fall. What I’m trying to ask is, “Could Blaise Pascal be quoted in the Garden of Eden?”

I’m asking this because it has huge implications for how we share the gospel and what we do with our sermons. Let me explain.

In 1 John 2:17 we read, “and the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever”. If I’m preaching to a group of disinterested people I’m going to likely try to generate interest by appealing to their self-concern. I know that everyone in that room wants to live forever—and to do so with eternal joy. Their problem, though, is that they are trying to find joy in the world.

What I’ll end up doing in a sermon like this is begin by painting a picture that I know they are going to want. I’ll try to blow their minds with eternity and the mind-blowing joy given to us through the gospel. The formula is kind of this: You want X, Jesus gives you X.

If you know me, you know that what I just said makes me a little uncomfortable. I’m not a big fan of a type of preaching that appeals to fallen sensibilities and then says, “Jesus gives you that, so come to Jesus and you’ll get the stuff you want”. I’m in firm agreement with Piper:

Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. And people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. It’s a way of overcoming every obstacle to everlasting joy in God. If we don’t want God above all things, we have not been converted by the gospel. (Piper, God is the Gospel)

So, maybe it’s wrong to appeal to somebody’s self-interest when presenting the gospel.

The only problem with that theory is that Jesus himself did exactly that. I cannot make any sense of Mark 8:35-36 apart from this. Jesus is saying, “if you want to save your life, then it will come through giving it to me. You want x, I give x.” He does this repeatedly in his encounters with people.

But he also rebuked the crowd in John 6 who started following him because they found in him a guy who could make a quick sandwich and fill up their bellies. Their faith wasn’t legit. He seems like he rebukes them with “You wanted x, I gave you x, but that’s the only reason you are following me”.

This is why I’m saying it is important for us to consider whether this self-interest is something from creation that we can appeal to or it’s a remnant from the fall that must die with the rest of our sin.

Here is my answer. I believe this self-interest is part of creation but it’s gotten all twisted up because of the fall. There is a reason why in Genesis 2:9 God caused “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” to spring up from the ground. It’s because Pascal was correct. Therefore, we can appeal to this type of self-interest when sharing the gospel. But for the truly converted it doesn’t stay there.

Earlier I said that “the formula is kind of this: You want X, Jesus gives you X.” I think it’s more accurate to say “you want X, Jesus gives you X because He is the epitome of X and he gives you himself.” The truly converted are able to as Lewis said, “run back up the sunbeam to the sun”. We realize that the greatest gift of the gospel is Christ. Our weary souls thought He provided rest, but we come to learn that He IS rest.

So appeal to their God-given self-interest but do so in such a way that self is crucified in the radiant glory of Christ.