Monday, March 9, 2020

Newman on God's Commandments and Our Sin

As promised, Anna Mitchell and I will examine St. John Henry Newman's Parochial and Plain Sermon "God's Commandments Not Burdensome" on the Son Rise Morning Show at about 6:50 a.m. Central DAYLIGHT SAVINGS TIME / 7:50 a.m. Eastern DAYLIGHT SAVINGS TIME.

Please listen live here; the podcast will be archived here.

On Friday, I posted the excerpts in which Newman reconciled two statements from the Gospels, the first, that it is hard to get to Heaven and the second, that it is easy to obey God's commandments. The connection between these statements surely is that to get to Heaven after we die we need to obey God's commandments while we are alive.

In the conclusion to his sermon, Newman appeals to his congregation to repent of any time they have failed to obey the commandments and to resolve never to sin again:

And now to what do the remarks I have been making tend, but to this?—to humble every one of us. For, however faithfully we have obeyed God, and however early we began to do so, surely we might have begun sooner than we did, and might have served Him more heartily. We cannot but be conscious of this. Individuals among us may be more or less guilty, as the case may be; but the best and worst among us here assembled, may well unite themselves together so far as this, to confess they have "erred and strayed from God's ways like lost sheep," "have followed too much the devices and desires of their own hearts," have "no health" in themselves as being "miserable offenders." Some of us may be nearer Heaven, some further from it; some may have a good hope of salvation, and others, (God forbid! but it may be), others no present hope. Still let us unite now as one body in confessing (to the better part of us such confession will be the more welcome, and to the worst it is the more needful), in confessing ourselves sinners, deserving God's anger, and having no hope except "according to His promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord." He who first regenerated us and then gave His commandments, and then was so ungratefully deserted by us, He again it is that must pardon and quicken us after our accumulated guilt, if we are to be pardoned. Let us then trace back in memory (as far as we can) our early years; what we were when five years old, when ten, when fifteen, when twenty! what our state would have been as far as we can guess it, had God taken us to our account at any age before the present. I will not ask how it would go with us, were we now taken; we will suppose the best.

Let each of us (I say) reflect upon his own most gross and persevering neglect of God at various seasons of his past life. How considerate He has been to us! How did He shield us from temptation! how did He open His will gradually upon us, as we might be able to bear it! [cf. 1 Cor. x. 13] how has He done all things well, so that the spiritual work might go on calmly, safely, surely! How did He lead us on, duty by duty, as if step by step upwards, by the easy rounds of that ladder whose top reaches to Heaven? Yet how did we thrust ourselves into temptation! how did we refuse to come to Him that we might have life! how did we daringly sin against light! And what was the consequence? that our work grew beyond our strength; or rather that our strength grew less as our duties increased; till at length we gave up obedience in despair. And yet then He still tarried and was merciful unto us; He turned and looked upon us to bring us into repentance; and we for a while were moved. Yet, even then our wayward hearts could not keep up to their own resolves: letting go again the heat which Christ gave them, as if made of stone, and not of living flesh. What could have been done more to His vineyard, that He hath not done in it? [Isa. v. 4.] "O My people (He seems to say to us), what have I done unto thee? and wherein have I wearied thee? testify against Me. I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; ... what doth the Lord require of thee, but justice, mercy, and humbleness of mind?" [Micah vi. 3-8.] He hath showed us what is good. He has borne and carried us in His bosom, "lest at any time we should dash our foot against a stone." [Ps. xci. 12.] He shed His Holy Spirit upon us that we might love Him. And "this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments, and His commandments are not grievous." Why, then, have they been grievous to us? Why have we erred from His ways, and hardened our hearts from His fear? Why do we this day stand ashamed, yea, even confounded, because we bear the reproach of our youth?

You might notice that Newman mentions a confession of sins--he even outlines an examination of conscience, reviewing the years past--and he speaks of repentance and God's mercy toward us. If Newman had been preaching this sermon as a Catholic priest we would expect him here to advise the sinners among his congregation to avail themselves of the Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation: to make a good examination of conscience, to confess mortal and/or venial sins honestly and clearly; to make an act of contrition, receive absolution, and perform the penance given.

But the Anglican Newman could not advise his Oxford congregation to seek this Sacrament of forgiveness and grace because the Church of England did not recognize any such Sacrament! Nor could he advise them to avail themselves of the indulgences the Church offers for the remission of "the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven".

In one of his Discourses to Mixed Congregations, preached when he was an Oratorian, Father Newman did mention the Sacrament of Confession:

O my dear brethren, though your conscience witnesses against you, He can disburden it; whether you have sinned less or whether you have sinned more, He can make you as clean in His sight and as acceptable to Him as if you had never gone from Him. Gradually will He destroy your sinful habits, and at once will He restore you to His favour. Such is the power of the Sacrament of Penance, that, be your load of guilt heavier or be it lighter, it removes it, whatever it is. It is as easy to Him to wash out the many sins as the few. . . . No sinner, ever so odious, but may become a Saint; no Saint, ever so exalted, but has been, or might have been, a sinner.

Nevertheless, in "God's Commandments Not Burdensome", Newman exhorted his congregation (and himself) to set out immediately on the path to repentance and penance through prayer and obedience:

Let us then turn to the Lord, while yet we may. Difficult it will be in proportion to the distance we have departed from Him. Since every one might have done more than he has done, every one has suffered losses he never can make up. We have made His commands grievous to us: we must bear it; let us not attempt to explain them away because they are grievous. We never can wash out the stains of sin. God may forgive, but the sin has had its work, and its memento is set up in the soul. God sees it there. Earnest obedience and prayer will gradually remove it. Still, what miserable loss of time is it, in our brief life, to be merely undoing (as has become necessary) the evil which we have done, instead of going on to perfection! If by God's grace we shall be able in a measure to sanctify ourselves in spite of our former sins, yet how much more should we have attained, had we always been engaged in His service!

These are bitter and humbling thoughts, but they are good thoughts if they lead us to repentance. And this leads me to one more observation, with which I conclude.

If any one who hears me is at present moved by what I have said, and feels the remorse and shame of a bad conscience, and forms any sudden good resolution, let him take heed to follow it up at once by acting upon it. I earnestly beseech him so to do. For this reason;—because if he does not, he is beginning a habit of inattention and insensibility. God moves us in order to make the beginning of duty easy. If we do not attend, He ceases to move us. Any of you, my brethren, who will not take advantage of this considerate providence, if you will not turn to God now with a warm heart, you will hereafter be obliged to do so (if you do so at all) with a cold heart;—which is much harder. God keep you from this!

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