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TEXT: Exodus 20:17

SUBJECT: Baxter on Selfishness #1

Tonight, with the Lord's help, we'll take up a new Puritan study called Richard Baxter on Selfishness. Baxter was an English pastor and writer who lived from 1615 to 1691. He was not a theologian and had he stayed clear of the doctrinal disputes of his day, he would have been the better off for it. He was a pastor who loved the Lord's people and knew how to help them live for Christ.

His book, A Christian Directory, is a masterpiece of practical advice. The size and print will intimidate you, but what's in the book will not. What's the book about? In a word, everything. I cannot recommend it too highly-as long as you don't sit down to read it cover-to-cover. Just find something in it that interests you-and start there. That's what I've done over the years and have rarely been disappointed.

That's enough advertising! Now, let's get to the topic at hand: Selfishness.


The first thing I want to comment on is the text of Scripture he uses. If I prepared a sermon on selfishness, I would look somewhere else in the Bible, maybe in Philippians 2,

"Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind, let each esteem others better than himself."

"Let each of you look out, not only for his own interests, but for the interests of others."

"But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, that I also may be encouraged when I know your state. For I have no one like-minded who will sincerely care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are of Christ Jesus."

But Baxter does not go to the more obvious verses. He equates selfishness with coveting what your neighbors have-and what you want! He explains why:

"The Tenth Commandment is variously conjectured at by various expositors: some say it speaks against inward lust and the sinful thoughts of the heart; but so do all the rest in the true meaning of them, and must not be supposed to forbid the outward act only, nor to be in any way defective. Some say it forbids coveting and commands contentment. There is some truth in both of these, but the plain truth is, that the sin forbidden is selfishness, as opposite to the love of others."

In one word, what would you call a man who wants his neighbor's wife, his house, his livestock, his income, his big screen TV, and his flashy car? You'd call that man.selfish!

But what would you call him if he was happy that's his neighbor's wife was prettier than his, that his house was bigger, that his livestock were sleeker, that his income was higher, that his TV was bigger and that his car was flashier? You call that man.unselfish.

The Tenth Commandment, therefore, forbids selfishness in all its forms: envy, covetousness, discontentment, unthankfulness, and so on.

Not every Law of Israel carries over to the people of the New Covenant, but this one surely does, for the Lord and His Apostles often attacked covetousness and urged its opposite, that is, living for others rather than yourself.

Having said all this, Baxter spends most of his time helping us overcome the evil. He offers five Directives for living an unselfish life. In the first place:


"The first help against selfishness is to understand well the nature and malignity of the sin. For want of this, it commonly prevails, with little suspicious, regret, and opposition".

He wants us to know two things about selfishness: first, it's nature or what it is, and second, it's malignity or how bad it is. Some sins are worse than others. Selfishness is at the top of the list. Baxter says why:

"It is the radical sin of the soul containing all the rest".

Radical means "at the root". From this root-he says-all sins grow! Both doing bad things and leaving good things undone. Why do I resent criticism, even when it is just and spoken with mildness? It's because I want compliments! But why don't I want them? Because I'm selfish. And, why do I neglect my kids? Its because I want to do something else-not a wicked thing, but my own thing. Why would I prefer doing what I want more than what they want (or need) me to do? Because I'm selfish.

Think about it: can you name a sin-at least an intentional one-that is not rooted in selfishness? Idolatry, fornication, lying, love of money-every one of them comes from loving yourself more than loving God or others!

Selfishness is a terrible sin because it gives birth to all other sins!


If selfishness is the cause of all sins, it must also be the cause of all suffering. For God did not make us to suffer and die, but to live and to enjoy Him and all He created. Baxter says,

"It is only selfishness that causes the cursed wars of the earth.the murders.the fightings.the splitting of churches.the quarrelling of pastors.the tumults of family and corporations."

The list is pretty long, isn't it? It's hard to imagine a war without selfishness. Now, not everyone who fights in a war is equally selfish-some, if fact-are honorable men and fighting for justice, not plunder. But, leaving them aside for the moment, how would a war start unless someone was selfish? Unless one man wanted another man's.land or people or money or oil or something else?

The same is true with the crimes of murder and assault and rape and the other crimes of violence. How could they occur unless one person wanted to impose his will on another?

The selfishness of churches and pastors cause the same kind of ills. People fall out with others in the church and, instead of resolving it (or even living with it unresolved) split the church. Pastors, not content with being shepherds over God's People want to be lords and masters. Or, instead of being co-elders in Christ's Church, want to be archbishops, cardinals, and popes over other pastors. What is all this but selfishness at work?

Because it is relatively private, the home is often the worst arena of selfishness: domineering husbands, wives with withering comments, parents who are too demanding, and kids who contest everything their parents say. I know the Bible is quoted to support all this, but it doesn't. If the Lord is unselfish, you can be sure His word doesn't command or support our selfish ways.

He mentions businesses torn by selfish bosses and workers, striving-not to produce a good product-but to exploit the others.

On this point, Baxter is echoing James 4:1,

"Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires?"

Of course they do! What desires? Selfish ones!


"Selfishness is the corruption of all the faculties of the soul. It is the sin of the mind, the sin of the will, and of the passions".

Your selfishness not only hurts others; it hurts you too! In fact, it hurts you more than it does other people. It is better to be sinned against than to sin yourself. The greatest criminal of World War II was also its greatest victim: Adolf Hitler! If he created a hell for other people in this world, he created a worse hell in the other world for himself.

Look what selfishness does to the mind. A man says he believes the Bible, but does not think that Jesus Christ is God. A loving friend opens John 1 and other chapters to him. The first man feels the truth of them, but he cannot admit that he has been wrong all these years. He rejects the truth the Bible plainly teaches, and is damned for it. But why couldn't he see the truth of John 1? It's not because he is stupid, but because he doesn't want to see it. And why not? Because it involves the three words he fears most: I was wrong.

Look what it does to the emotions. A husband forgets his wife's birthday. She calls him on it and he apologizes, takes her out to dinner and comes home the next day with a lovely present. But that's not good enough for her! She resents his thoughtlessness and can't even enjoy the dinner or the gift.

Look how it affects the will. Because I want to do only what I want to do, I have to mistreat others, leave good things undone, and more.

Some sins are localized in their effect. They're bad and hurtful, but they only affect one part of your life. But selfishness is like bamboo-it takes over everything!


"Selfishness is the commonest sin in the world. Every man is born with it and has it more or less; and therefore, every man should fear it".

Everyone is sinful, but not everyone is sinful in the same way. The man who craves money, for example, may have never had a homosexual urge in his life. This means the man doesn't have to worry about that sin-he doesn't have to watch against it; doesn't have to spend time praying about it and so on. But selfishness affects everyone without exception. This means it affects you-whether you know it or not-it's your problem.

This also means it cannot be bred or trained out of you. Some people never use foul language-not because they're so holy, but because they were taught better and never fell into the habit. But no upbringing can free you from the sin of selfishness! Parents can curb it a bit, but only a bit. It's too strong for any parents, except for our Father in Heaven.

Let me add one thought of my own here: because selfishness is so common, it's hard to recognize-unless it's extreme! Fish don't feel wet because they have never been out of the water. In the same way, we have never had a moment of pure unselfishness or ever met anyone who is free from the vice. Because it is so common, it is hard to notice.

Invisible sins are more dangerous than the ones we can see. Because they can grow and grow without check or confession.


"Selfishness is the hardest sin in the world to overcome. In the unregenerate, it is the dominant sin. And in many thousands who seem humble and zealous it is also strong. The persons who seem most humble, if you but cross them in their self-interest or opinion or will or seem to slight them or to have a low esteem of them, what swellings, what heart-burnings, what proud impatience! Ah, how every Christian should abhor and watch against this sin!"

It goes without saying that the unsaved are selfish. But Baxter is honest enough to say that Christians are under its power too-not fully, of course, but still under it to a great extent!

Listen to a Calvinist sermon and hear the preacher go on and on about the depravity of man, the corruption of his understanding, the ruin of his will, and what a worm and vile garbage he is! But then offer a word of criticism and the preacher is highly offended! But if man is depraved and his understanding is corrupt and if he's a maggot, why would he be so fussy about maybe, just maybe, being wrong on some minor point?

Every one is subject to selfishness-including you and me! This means we have to watch against it more closely than the sins that don't affect us much.


Are you selfish? Of course you are; we all are. Not everyone is equally self-centered, but no one is free of it either. If we want to live for God and others, we must identify our selfish attitudes, and by grace, work and pray against them. We start by admitting how bad our selfishness is. God help us!

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