John Henry Newman on Sin and Forgiveness – a selection

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All teaching about duty and obedience, about attaining heaven, and about the office of Christ towards us, is hollow and unsub­stantial, which is not built here, in the doctrine of our original corruption and helplessness; and, in conse­quence, of original guilt and sin. Christ Him­self indeed is the foundation, but a broken, self-abased, self-renouncing heart is (as it were) the ground and soil in which the founda­tion must be laid; and it is but building on the sand to profess to believe in Christ, yet not to acknowledge that without Him we can do nothing.

PS[1] V, 134-135 (19.01.1840

  • Lastly, after they have thus divested the divine remedies of sin, and the treatment necessary for the sinner, of their solemnity and awe, having made the whole scheme of salvation of as intelligible and ordinary a character as the repair of any accident in the works of man, having robbed Faith of its mysteries, the Sacraments of their virtue, the Priesthood of its commission, no wonder that sin itself is soon considered a venial matter, moral evil as a mere imperfection, man as involved in no great peril or misery, his duties of no very arduous or anxious nature. In a word, religion, as such, is in the way to disappear from the mind altogether; and in its stead a mere cold worldly morality, a decent regard to the claims of society, a cultivation of the benevolent affections, and a gentleness and polish of external deportment, will be supposed to constitute the entire duties of that being, who is conceived in sin, and the child of wrath, is redeemed by the precious blood of the Son of God, is born again and sustained by the Spirit through the invisible strength of Sacraments, and called, through self-denial and sanctification of the inward man, to the Eternal Presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

PS II, 317-318 (14.12.1834)

  • Now (I repeat) unless we have some just idea of our hearts and of sin, we can have no right idea of a Moral Governor, a Saviour or a Sanctifier, that is, in professing to believe in Them, we shall be using words without attaching distinct meaning to them. Thus self-knowledge is at the root of all real religious knowledge; and it is in vain,-worse than vain,-it is a deceit and a mischief, to think to understand the Christian doctrines as a matter of course, merely by being taught by books, or by attending sermons, or by any outward means, however excellent, taken by themselves. For it is in proportion as we search our hearts and understand our own nature, that we understand what is meant by an Infinite Governor and Judge; in proportion as we comprehend the nature of disobedience and our actual sinfulness, that we feel what is the blessing of the removal of sin, redemption, pardon, sanctification, which otherwise are mere words. God speaks to us primarily in our hearts. Self-knowledge is the key to the precepts and doctrines of Scripture. The very utmost any outward notices of religion can do, is to startle us and make us turn inward and search our hearts; and then, when we have experienced what it is to read ourselves, we shall profit by the doctrines of the Church and the Bible.

PS I, 4 Secret Faults, 42-43 (12.6.1825)

  • Next I observe that a civilized age is more exposed to subtle sins than a rude age. Why? For this simple reason, because it is more fertile in excuses and evasions. It can defend error, and hence can blind the eyes of those who have not very careful consciences. It can make error plausible, it can make vice look like virtue. It dignifies sin by fine names; it calls avarice proper care of one’s family, or industry; it calls pride independence; it calls ambition greatness of mind; resentment it calls proper spirit and sense of honour, and so on.

Catholic Sermons 72-73 (1848)

  • … under the pretence of light and liberty, they [many upholders of the tenet of “faith only”] have brought into the Gospel the narrow, minute, technical, nay, I will say carnal and hollow system of the Pharisees. Let me explain what I mean. I would say this then: – that a system of doctrine has risen up during the last three centuries, in which faith or spiritual-mindedness is contemplated and rested on as the end of re­ligion instead of Christ.

Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification 324 (1838)

  • I do not mean to say that Christ is not mentioned as the Author of all good, but that stress is laid rather on the believing than on the Object of belief, on the comfort and persua­siveness of the doctrine rather than on the doctrine itself. And in this way religion is made to consist in contemplating ourselves in­stead of Christ; not simply in looking to Christ, but in ascertaining that we look to Christ, not in His Divinity and Atonement, but in our con­version and our faith in those truths.

Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification 324-325 (1838)

“Looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith.” Hebrews 12. 2.

  • Surely it is our duty ever to look off ourselves, and to look unto Jesus, that is, to shun the contemplation of our own feelings, emotions, frame and state of mind, as if that were the main business of religion, … Instead of looking off to Jesus, and thinking little of ourselves, it is at present thought necessary, among the mixed multitude of religionists, to examine the heart with a view of ascertaining whether it is in a spiritual state or no. A spiritual frame of mind is considered to be one in which the heinousness of sin is perceived, our utter worthlessness, the impossibility of our saving ourselves, the necessity of some Saviour, the sufficiency of our Lord Jesus Christ to be that Saviour, the unbounded riches of His love, the excellence and glory of His work of Atonement, the freeness and fulness of His grace, the high privilege of communion with Him in prayer, and the desirableness of walking with Him in all holy and loving obedience;

PS II, 15, Self-Contemplation 163-164 (January or February 1835)

  • Now what is our chief guide amid the evil and seducing customs of the world?-obviously, the Bible. “The world passeth away, but the word of the Lord endureth for ever.” [Isa 11. 8. 1 Pet. 1, 24, 25. 1 John 2, 17.] How much extended, then, and strengthened, necessarily must be this secret dominion of sin over us, when we consider how little we read Scripture! Our conscience gets corrupted,-true; but the words of truth, though effaced from our minds, remain in Scripture, bright in their eternal youth and purity. Yet, we do not study Scripture to stir up and refresh our minds. Ask yourselves, my brethren, what do you know of the Bible? Is there any one part of it you have read carefully, and as a whole? One of the Gospels, for instance? Do you know very much more of your Saviour’s works and words than you have heard read in church? Have you compared His precepts, or St. Paul’s, or any other Apostle’s, with your own daily conduct, and prayed and endeavoured to act upon them? If you have, so far is well; go on to do so. If you have not, it is plain you do not possess, for you have not sought to possess, an adequate notion of that perfect Christian character which it is your duty to aim at, nor an adequate notion of your actual sinful state; you are in the number of those who “come not to the light, lest their deeds should be reproved.” These remarks may serve to impress upon us the difficulty of knowing ourselves aright, and the consequent danger to which we are exposed, of speaking peace to our souls, when there is no peace.

PS I, 4 Secret Faults, 53-54 (12.6.1825)

  • Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a licence to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that, … to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them.

Certain Difficulties, felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, vol II 250 (27.12.1874)

  • The first point, then, is to press upon the conscience that we are playing with edged tools; if, instead of endeavouring perseveringly to ascertain what the truth is, we consider the subject carelessly, captiously, or with indiffer­ence. Now it will be found, I presume, even on a slight examination, that the generality of men have not made up their religious views in this sincere spirit … This is not the frame of mind in which they can hope for success in any worldly pursuit; why then in that most difficult one of religious truth?

The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, vol I, 170 (12.12.1823)

  • The rule and measure of duty is not utility, nor expedience, nor the happiness of the greatest number, nor State convenience, nor fitness, order, and the pulchrum. Conscience is not a longsighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His represen­tatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its information, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and even though the eternal priest­hood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.

Certain Difficulties, felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, vol. II 248-249 (27.12.1874)

  • I am using the word “conscience” – not as a fancy or an opinion, but as a dutiful obedience to what claims to be a divine voice, speaking within us.

Certain Difficulties, felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, vol. II 255 (27.12.1874)

  • … conscience is not a judgment upon any speculative truth, any abstract doctrine, but bears immediately on conduct, on something to be done or not done.

Certain Difficulties, felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, vol. II 256 (27.12.1874)

  • Conscience – there are two ways of regarding conscience; one as a mere sort of propriety, a taste teaching us to do this or that, the other as the echo of God’s voice. Now all depends on this distinction – the first way is not of faith, and the second is of faith.

Sermon Notes, 327 (29.5.1859)

  • But now, turning to the parable of the prodigal son, we find nothing of this kind in it. [Newman refers to the burnst-offerings and propitiatory sacrifices of the Old Testament.] … The truth is, that our Saviour has shown us in all things a more perfect way than was ever before shown to man. As He promises us a more exalted holiness, an exacter self-command, a more generous self-denial, and a fuller knowledge of truth, so He gives us a more true and noble repentance. The most noble repentance (if a fallen being can be noble in his fall), the most decorous conduct in a conscious sinner, is an unconditional surrender of himself to God-not a bargaining about terms, not a scheming (so to call it) to be received back again, but an instant surrender of himself in the first instance. Without knowing what will become of him, whether God will spare or not, merely with so much hope in his heart as not utterly to despair of pardon, still not looking merely to pardon as an end, but rather looking to the claims of the Benefactor whom he has offended, and smitten with shame, and the sense of his ingratitude, he must surrender himself to his lawful Sovereign. …God, indeed, meets us on our way with the tokens of His favour, and so He bears up human faith, which else would sink under the apprehension of meeting the Most High God; still, for our repentance to be Christian, there must be in it that generous temper of self-surrender, the acknowledgment that we are unworthy to be called any more His sons, the abstinence from all ambitious hopes of sitting on His right hand or His left, and the willingness to bear the heavy yoke of bond-servants, if He should put it upon us. ….This, I say, is Christian repentance. Will it be said, “It is too hard for a beginner?” true: but I have not been describing the case of a beginner. The parable teaches us what the character of the true penitent is, not how men actually at first come to God. The longer we live, the more we may hope to attain this higher kind of repentance, viz., in proportion as we advance in the other graces of the perfect Christian character. The truest kind of repentance as little comes at first, as perfect conformity to any other part of God’s Law. It is gained by long practice-it will come at length. The dying Christian will fulfil the part of the returning prodigal more exactly than he ever did in his former years.

PS, III, 7 Christian Repentance, 96-98 (20.11.1831)

  • In truth, our Merciful Saviour has done much more for us than reveal the wonderful doctrines of the Gospel; He has enabled us to apply them. … But how should we bring home His grace to ourselves? … How secure the comfortable assurance that He loves us personally, and will change our hearts, which we feel to be so earthly, and wash away our sins, which we confess to be so manifold, unless He had given us Sacraments-means and pledges of grace-keys which open the treasure-house of mercy.

PS, III, 20 Infant Baptism, 290.291 (24.5.1835)

  • How many are the souls, in distress, anxiety or loneliness, whose one need is to find a being to whom they can pour out their feelings unheard by the world? Tell them out they must; they cannot tell them out to those whom they see every hour. They want to tell them and not to tell them; and they want to tell them out, yet be as if they be not told; they wish to tell them to one who is strong enough to bear them, yet not too strong to despise them; they wish to tell them to one who can at once advise and can sympathize with them; they wish to relieve themselves of a load, to gain a solace, to receive the assurance that there is one who thinks of them, and one to whom in thought they can recur, to whom they can betake themselves, if necessary, from time to time, while they are in the world. How many a Protestant’s heart would leap at the news of such a benefit, putting aside all distinct ideas of a sacramental ordinance, or of a grant of pardon and the conveyance of grace! If there is a heavenly idea in the Catholic Church, looking at it simply as an idea, surely, next after the Blessed Sacrament, Confession is such. … Oh what piercing, heart-subduing tranquility, provoking tears of joy, is poured, almost substantially and physically upon the soul, the oil of gladness, as Scripture calls it, when the penitent at length rises, his God reconciled to him, his sins rolled away for ever!

Present Position of Catholics in England, 351-352, (1851)

[1] Parochial and Plain Sermons in eight volumes, Christian Classics, Westminster Md.