In His Own Words: Newman's Advice to Men

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By Isaac Withers

From 1828 to 1843, John Henry Newman was the Vicar at St. Mary’s University Church, Oxford, where he preached regularly between those years. The sermons he preached sparked the Oxford Movement and caused a sensation throughout the university and the nation. They remain some of the most influential sermons ever to be heard in the English-speaking world. Thankfully, the full texts of these sermons remain and we can continue to be guided by Newman’s advice on many of the key questions of morality and spirituality. All of the extracts in this article are taken from, ‘Sermon XXVI: Christian Manhood’.

Become an adopted child of the Holy Spirit

John Henry Newman begins his reflection on Christian Manhood with this well known Bible verse: ‘When I was a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ 1 Corinthians 13:11

For Newman, it is the Holy Spirit who brings us from being spiritually childlike, to becoming spiritually mature. He points out that when Jesus leaves His disciples he, ‘called His disciples orphans; children, as it were … who were still unable to direct themselves, and who were soon to lose their Protector.’

However, Jesus goes on to send them the Holy Spirit to be their protector. ‘He breathed into them a divine life, and gifted them with spiritual manhood … From that time forth, they put away childish things: they spake, they understood, they thought, as those who had been taught to govern themselves.’

So what difference does having the Holy Spirit make? Well, Newman points to the disciple’s behaviour before they receive the Spirit to show how it was the force that turned them into the missionaries we know after Pentecost, wise and purposeful. He writes:

‘ … before the Holy Ghost came down … they were as helpless and ignorant as children; had no clear notion what they ought to seek after, and how; and were carried astray by their accidental feelings and their long-cherished prejudices … What was it but to act the child, to ask how many times a fellow-Christian should offend against us, and we forgive him, as St. Peter did? or to ask to see the Father, with St. Philip? or to propose to build tabernacles on the mount, as if they were not to return to the troubles of the world? or to dispute who should be the greatest?’

Challenging the modern Christian, Newman points out that, ‘the Spirit has long since poured upon us, even from our earliest years; yet it is a serious question, whether multitudes of us … are even so far advanced in a knowledge of the Truth as the Apostles were before the day of Pentecost.’

Break from the World

Interestingly, when Newman talks about growing into spiritual maturity, he is not just talking about sin, he provokes us to think much broader about our attitudes towards pleasure, comfort and the world. First, he establishes that the pleasures in life are good.

’Let us consider our love of the pleasures of life. I am willing to allow there is an innocent love of the world, innocent in itself. God made the world … and has given us abundant pleasures in it; I do not say lasting pleasures, but still, while they are present, really pleasures. It is natural that the young should look with hope to the prospect before them.’

However, he is also quick to point to the things that are not innocent and that hold us back from flourishing spiritually. ‘Love of display is one of these; whether we are vain of our abilities, or our acquirements, or our wealth, or our personal appearance; whether we discover our weakness in talking much, or in love of managing, or again in love of dress.’

All of these seem to be attached to ego, and our sense of self importance, which he hopes Christians should be ‘outgrowing … as they grow in grace.’ They also seem to be things that come with a comfortable life, and Newman encourages us to set our sights higher than what the material world has to offer. ‘… our treasure is not here, but in heaven with Him who is ascended thither, and to own that we have a cross to bear after Him, who first suffered before He triumphed.’

It is when the material and comfortable takes first place in Christian life that Newman sees a problem.

‘I have not said a word against the moderate and thankful enjoyment of this life's goods, when they actually come in our way; but against the wishing earnestly for them, seeking them, and preferring them to God's righteousness, which is commonly done.’

Ultimately he says, after receiving the Holy Spirit, the mature Christian seeks, ‘to break with the world, and make religion our first concern’. But he does not want us to see breaking from the world as a negative act, but an act of taking an eternal perspective on life.

‘Christ bids you give up the world; but will not, at any rate, the world soon give up you? Can you keep it, by being its slave? … What does your Lord require of you, but to look at all things as they really are, to account them merely as His instruments, and to believe that good is good because He wills it’.

Don’t just live a Religion of Rules

In a section that is just as striking today, Newman goes on to say that mature faith cannot be found in just obeying what is easy in our religion, or to merely fulfil obligations but rather that our faith needs to be a passion that drives us.

‘It is very common for Christians to … place the very substance of religious obedience in a few meagre observances, or particular moral precepts which are easily complied with, and which they think fit to call giving up the world; and then … to congratulate themselves upon their success … to condemn others who do not happen to move exactly along the very same line of minute practices in detail which they have adopted.’

For Newman, mature faith could never just be checking off a list of public obligations. He points out that Jesus faces just this in the story of the rich young man. ‘He is said to have "loved him;" pitying (that is) and not harshly denouncing the anticipations which he had formed of happiness from wealth and power, yet withal not concealing from him the sacrifice of all these which he must make, "if he would be perfect," that is, a man, and not a mere child in the Gospel.’ The rich young man ticked the boxes of faith, but he could not leave behind his wealth to follow Jesus. Yet, Newman is quick to also say that, ‘Doubtless our Lord deals gently with us.’

No standing still!

An instruction that makes sense on our journey to sainthood – there can be no standing still!

‘Only there must be no standing still,—there cannot be; time goes slowly, yet surely, from birth to the age of manhood, and in like manner, our minds, though slowly formed to love Christ, must still be forming. It is when men are mature in years, and yet are "children in understanding," then they are intolerable, because they have exceeded their season, and are out of place. Then it is that ambitious thoughts, trifling pursuits and amusements, passionate wishes and keen hopes, and the love of display, are directly sinful, because they are by that time deliberate sins.’

Finally, Be Not Afraid!

‘Be not afraid,—it is but a pang now and then, and a struggle; a covenant with your eyes, and a fasting in the wilderness, some calm habitual watchfulness, and the hearty effort to obey, and all will be well. Be not afraid. He is most gracious, and will bring you on by little and little. He does not show you whither He is leading you; you might be frightened did you see the whole prospect at once. … Follow His plan; look not on anxiously; look down at your present footing "lest it be turned out of the way," but speculate not about the future. I can well believe that you have hopes now, which you cannot give up, and even which support you in your present course. Be it so; whether they will be fulfilled, or not, is in His hand.’

Isaac Withers