John Henry Newman.

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" O Lord, Thy Word endureth for ever in heaven !" but the exposi-
lions of men are written on the seashore, and are blotted out before the



LuKi XV. 18, 19.

Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be
called thy son ; make me as one of thy hired servants.

The very best that can be said of the fallen and redeemed race of
Adam is, that they confess their fall, and condemn themselves for it,
and try to recover themselves. And this state of mind, which is in fact
the only possible religion left to sinners, is represented to us in the parable
of the Prodigal Son, who is described as receiving, then abusing, and
then losing God's blessings, suffering from their loss, and brought to
himself by the experience of suffering. A poor service indeed to offer,
but the best we can offer, to make obedience our second choice when
the world deserts us, when that is dead and lost to us wherein we were

Let it not be supposed, because I say this, that I think that in the
life-time of each one of us there is some clearly marked date at which
he began to seek God, and from which he has served Him faithfully.
This may be so in the case of this person or that, but it is far from
being the rule. We may not so limit the mysterious work of the Holy
Ghost. He condescends to plead with us continually, and what He

» Matt. xvi. 27. 2 Cor. v. 10. Acts x. 42. James ii. 24. Rev. ixii. 14.


cannot gain from us at one time, He gains at another. Repentance is
a work carried on at divers times, and but gradually and with many-
reverses perfected. Or rather, and without any change in the meaning
of the word repentance, it is a work never complete, never entire, —
unfinished both in its inherent imperfection, and on account of the
fresh and fresh occasions which arise from exercising it. We are ever
sinning, we must ever be renewing our sorrow and our purpose of obedi-
ence, repeating our confessions and our prayers for pardon. No need
to look back to the first beginnings of our repentance, should we be
able to trace these, as something solitary and peculiar in our religious
course ; we are ever but beginning ; the most perfect Christian is to
himself but a beginner, a penitent prodigal, who has squandered God's
gifts, and comes to him to be tried over again, not as a son, but as a
hired servant.

In this parable, then, we must not understand the description of the
returning prodigal to imply that there is a state of disobedience and
subsequent state of conversion definitively marked in the life of Christians
generally. It describes the state of all Christians at all times, and is
fulfilled more or less, according to circumstances, in this case or that ;
fulfilled in one way and measure at the beginning of our Christian
course, and in another at the end. So I shall now consider it, viz. as
describing the nature of all true repentance.

1. First, observe, the prodigal son said, " I am no more worthy to be
called Thy son, make me as one of Thy hired servants." We know
that God's service is perfect freedom, not a servitude ; but this it is in
the case of those who have long served Him ; at first it is a kind of
servitude ; it is a task till our likings and tastes come to be in unison
with those which God has sanctioned. It is the happiness of Saints
and Angels in heaven to take pleasure in their duty, and nothing but
their duty ; for their mind goes that one Avay, and pours itself out in
obedience to God, spontaneously and without thought or deliberation,
just as man sins naturally. This is the state to which we are tending
if we give ourselves up to religion ; but in its commencement, religion
is necessarily almost a task and a formal service. When a man be-
gins to see his wickedness, and resolves on leading a new life, he asks,
What must 1 do ? he has a wide field before him, and he does not
know how to enter it. He must be bid do some particular plain acts
of obedience, to fix him. He must be told to go to Church regularly, to
say his prayers morning and evening, and statedly to read the Scrip-
tures. This will limit his efforts to a certain end, and relieve him of
the perplexity and indecision which the greatness of his work at first
causes. But who does not see that this going to Church, praying in


private, and reading Scripture, must in his case be, in great measure,
what is called a form and a task ? Having been used to do as he would,
and indulge himself, and having very little understanding or liking for
religion, he cannot take pleasure in these rehgious duties ; they will
necessarily be a weariness to him ; nay, he will not be able even to giv6
his attention to them. Nor will he see the use of them ; he will not be
able to find they make him better, though he repeat them again and again.
Thus his obedience at first is altogether that of a hired servant. " The ser-
vant knoweth not what his lord doeth."* This is Christ's account of him.
The servant is not in his Lord's confidence, does not understand what
he is aiming at, or why he commands this and forbids that. He exe-
cutes the commands given him, he goes hither and thither punctually,
but by the mere letter of the command. Such is the state of those
who begin religious obedience. They do not see any thing come of
their devotional or penitential services, nor do they take pleasure in
them ; they are obliged to defer to God's word simply because it is His
word ; to do which implies faith indeed, but also shows they are in that
condition of a servant which the prodigal felt himself to be in at best.

Now, I insist upon this, because the conscience of a repentant sinner
is often uneasy at finding religion a task to him. He thinks he
ought to rejoice in the Lord at once, and it is true he is often told to do
so ; he is often taught to begin by cultivating high affections. Per-
haps he is even warned against offering to God what is termed a formal
service. Now this is reversing the course of a Christian's life. The
prodigal son judged better, when he begged to be made one of his father's
servants, — he knew his place. We must begin religion with what looks
like a form. Our fault will be, not in beginning it as a form, but in
continuing it as a form. For it is our duty to be ever striving and
praying to enter into the real spirit of our services, and in proportion
as we understand them and love them, they will cease to be a form
and a task, and will be the real expression of our minds. Thus shall
we gradually be changed in heart from servants into sons of Almighty
God. And though from the very first, we must be taught to look to
Christ as the Saviour of sinners, still His very love will frighten, while
it encourages us, from the thought of our ingratitude. It will fill us
with remorse and dread of judgment, for we are not as the heathen, we
have received privileges, and have abused them.

2. So much then on the condition of the repentant sinner ; next, let
us consider the motives which actuate him in his endeavours to serve

* John XV. 15.


iGod. One of the most natural, and among the first that arise in the
mind, is that o^ propitiating Him. When we are conscious to ourselves
of having offended another, and wish to be forgiven, of course we look
about for some means of setting ourselves right with him. If it be a
slight offence, our overtures are in themselves enough, the mere ex-
pression that we wish our fault forgotten. But if we have committed
some serious injury, or behaved with any special ingratitude, we, for a
time, keep at a distance, from a doubt how we shall be received. If we
oan get a common friend to mediate in our behalf, our purpose is best
answered. But even in that case we are not satisfied with leaving our
interests to another ; we try to do something for ourselves ; and on
perceiving any signs of compassion or placability in the person offended,
we attempt to approach him with propositions of our own, either very
Jiumble confession, or some acceptable service. It was under this feel-
ing that Jacob attempted to conciliate the governor of Egypt (whom he
Jcnew not to be his son Joseph,) with a present of " the best fruits in the
land, a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, nuts and al-
monds." And this holds good when applied to the case of sinners de-
siring forgiveness from God. The marks of His mercy all around us
are strong enough to inspire us with some general hope. The very fact
that He still continues our life, and has not at once cast us into hell,
sho\vs that He is waiting awhile before the wrath comes upon us to the
uttermost. Under these circumstances it is natural that the conscience-
stricken sinner should look round him for some atonement with which
to meet his God. And this in fact has been the usual course of religion
in all ages. Whether " with burnt offerings and calves of a year old,
with thousands of rams, and ten thousands of rivers of oil, with the
offering of a man's first-born for his transgression, the fruit of his body
for the sin of his soul ;" or, in a higher way, " by doing justly, loving
mercy, and walking humbly with our God ;"* by some means or other,
repentant sinners have attempted to win God's attention and engage
His favour. And this mode has, before now, been graciously accepted
by God, though He generally chose the gift which He would accept.
Thus Jacob was instructed to sacrifice on the altar at Bethel, after his
return from Padan-aram. David, on the other hand, speaks of the more
spiritual sacrifice in the fifty-first Psalm : " The sacrifices of God are a
broken spirit ; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not
xlespise." Such are the services of the penitent, as suggested by nature,
^nd approved by God Himself in the Old Testament.

But now, turning to the parable of the prodigal son, we find nothing

* Micah vi. 6 — 8.


of this kind in it. There is no mention made here of any offering on
his part to his fatlier, any propitiatory work. This should be well ob-
served. 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 sin-
ner, 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, mere-
ly 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. He is a runaway offender ; he must come back, as
a very first step, before any thing can be determined about him bad or
good ; he is a rebel, and must lay down his arms. Self-devised offer-
ings might do in a less serious matter ; as an atonement for sin, they
imply a defective view of the evil and extent of sin in his own case.
Such is that perfect way which nature shrinks from, but which our Jiord
enjoins in the parable, — a surrender. The prodigal son waited not for
his father to show signs of placability. He did not merely approach a
space, and then stand as a coward, curiously inquiring, and dreading
how his father felt towards him. He made up his mind at once to de-
gradation at the best, perhaps to rejection. He arose and went straight
on towards his father, with a collected mind; and though his relenting
father saw him from a distance, and went out to meet him, still his pur-
pose was that of an instant frank submission. Such must be Christian
repentance : First we must put aside the idea of finding a remedy for
our sin ; then, though we feel the guilt of it, yet we must set out firmly
towards God, not knowing for certain that we shall be forgiven. He
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 acknow-
ledgment that we are unworthy to be called any more His sons, the ab-
stinence from all ambitious hopes of sitting on His right hand or 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 be-
ginner. The parable teaches us what the character of the true penitent
is, not how men actually at first come to God. The longer we livCy
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 per-
fect 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 for-
mer years.

When first we turn to God in the actual history of our lives, our
repentance is mixed with all kinds of imperfect views and feelings.
Doubtless there is in it something of the true temper of simple submis-
sion ; but the wish of appeasing God on the one hand, or a hard-hearted
insensibility about our sins on the other, mere selfish dread of punish-
ment, or the expectation of a sudden easy pardon, — these, and such like
principles, influence us, whatever we may say or may think we feel. It
is indeed easy enough to have good words put into our mouths, and our
feelings roused, and to profess the union of utter self-abandonment and
enlightened sense of sin ; but to claim is not really to possess these ex-
cellent tempers. Really to gain these is a work of time. It is when
the Christian has long fought the good fight of faith, and by experience
knows how few and how imperfect are his best services ; then it is that
he is able to acquiesce, and most gladly acquiesces in the statement, that
we are accepted by faith only in the merits of our Lord and Saviour.
When he surveys his life at the close of it, what is there he can trust
in ? what act of it will stand the scrutiny of the Holy God ? of course
no part of it, so much is plain without saying a word. But further, what
part of it even is a sufficient evidence to himself of his own sincerity
and faithfulness ? This is the point which I urge. How shall he know
that he is really forgiven after all his sins ? Doubtless he may have
some humble hope of his forgiveness. St. Paul speaks of the testimony
of his conscience as consoling him ; but after all, a man's conscience
will rather evidence to him some particular act of faith than that he has
lived by faith, and has the habit and temper of faith lodged deep in his
heart. Besides, his conscience also tells him of numberless actual sms,
and numberless omissions of duty ; and with the awful prospect of eter-
nity before him, and in the weakness of declining health, how shall he
collect himself to appear before God ? Thus he is, after all, in the very
condition of the returning prodigal, and cannot go beyond him, though
he has served God ever so long. He can but surrender \iimse\i to God,
as after all, a worse than unprofitable servant, resigned to God's will.


whatever it is, with more or less hope of pardon, as the case may be ;
doubting not that Christ is the sole meritorious Author of all grace, rest-
ing simply on Him who, "if He will, can make him clean," but not
venturing to take for granted his restoration to his Father's favour, be-
cause unable, as he well knows, to read his own heart in that clear unerr-
ing way in which God reads it. Under these circumstances, how vain
it is to tell him of his own good deeds, and to bid him look back on his
past consistent life ! This reflection will rarely comfort him ; and, when
it does, it will be the recollection of the instances of God's mercy to-
wards him in former years, which will be the chief ground of encour-
agement in it. No, his true stay is, that Christ came "to call sinners
to repentance," that " He died for the ungodly." He acknowledges and
adopts, as far as he can, St. Paul's words, and nothing beyond them,
*' This a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus
came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief."*

I shall but observe in addition to what has been said, that I have been
describing the nature of true repentance, and not speaking of the time
and manner in which God forgives us. The parable seems to imply,
that God in His mercy forgives as soon as a man truly repents. He
calls those men sons, and honours them with His most condescending
favour, who still call themselves servants. He makes them His friends,
according to His promise, and guides them on heavenward, while they
are still in fear and suspense, because they do not know that they are
accepted. Accept them, we trust, He does, but He does not simply tell
them while He does it. He hides His own mercy. He has not vouch-
safed a Sacrament after Baptism, like Baptism, to re-assure them of it.
He leaves them in suspense for their good. Still there is joy in heaven,
though no echo of it reaches earth. God accepts them, and the Angels
know it ; and whenever God takes them hence, they will know it too.

Who shall dare approach Christ at the dreadful day of judgment, who
has rejected the calhng of His Spirit here 1 Who shall then dare to
surrender himself to the great God, when hell is opened ready to receive
him 1 Alas ! it is only because sotne hope is left to us that we dare give
ourselves up to Him here ; despair ever keeps away. But then, when
He takes his seat as the severe Judge of sinners, who, among His sloth-
ful disobedient servants, will willingly present himself ? Surely the time
of submission will then be over ; resignation has no place among fallen
spirits ; they are swept away by the uncontrollable power of God.
" Bind him hand and foot and take him away ;"f such will be the dreadful
command. They would struggle if they could.

• Matt. ii. 13. Rom v. 6. 1 Tim. i. 15. t Matt. xxii. 13.


And in hell they will be still tormented, by the worm of proud rebel-
lious hatred of God ! Not even ages will reconcile them to a hard en-
durance of their fate, not even the dry apathy in which unbelievers on
earth take refuge, will be allowed them. There is no fatalism in the
place of torment. The devils see their doom was their own fault, yet
they are unable to be sorry for it. It is their will that is in direct energetic
variance with the will of God, and they know it.

Consider this my brethren, and lay it to heart. Doubtless you must
render yourselves to God's mercy here, or else be forced away before his
anger hereafter.

" To-day, while it is called to-day, harden not your hearts."*



Luke xv. 29.

Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy com-
mandment ; and yet thou never gavcst me a kid, that I might make merry with
my friends.

There is a general correspondence between this parable, and that in
St. Matthew's gospel, of the two sons whom their father bade go work
in his vineyard ; but they differ as regards the character of the pro-
fessedly obedient son : in St. Matthew he says, " I go. Sir, and went
not ;" in the parable before us he is of a far different class of Christians,
though not without his faults. There is nothing to show that he is in-
sincere in his profession, though in the text he complains in a very
unseemly and foolish way. He bears a considerable resemblance
to the labourers in the vineyard, who complained of their master ;
though they are treated with greater severity. The elder brother of the
prodigal complained of his father's kindness towards the penitent ; the la-
bourers of the vineyard murmured against the good-man of the house for
receiving and rewarding those who came late to his service as liberally
as themselves. They, however, spoke in selfishness and presumption ;

* Heb. iii. 7—13.


but he in perplexity, as it would appear, and distress of mind. Accord-
ingly he was comforted by his Father, who graciously informed him of
the reason of his acting as he had done. " Son, thou art ever with
me," he says, " and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we
should make merry and be glad ; for this thy brother was dead and is
alive again, and was lost and is found."

Now let us try to understand the feelings of the elder brother, and
to apply the picture to the circumstances in which we find ourselves at

First, then, in the conduct of the father, there seemed, at first sight,
an evident departure from the rules of fairness and justice. Here was
a reprobate son received into his favour on the first stirrings of repent-
ance. What was the use of serving him dutifully if there were no dif-
ference in the end between the righteous and the wicked ? This is
what we feel and act upon in life constantly. In doing good to the
poor, for instance, a chief object is to encourage industrious and provi-
dent habits ; and it is evident we should hurt and disappoint the better
sort, and defeat our object, if, after all, we did not take into account the
difference of their conduct, though we promised to do so, but gave
those who did not work nor save, all the benefits granted to those who
did. The elder brother's case, then, seemed a hard one ; and that, even
without supposing him to feel jealous, or to have unsuitable notions of
his own importance and usefulness. Apply this to the case of religion,
and it still holds good. At first sight, the reception of the penitent sin-
ner seems to interfere with the reward of the faithful servant of God.
Just as the promise of pardon is abused by bad men to encourage them-
selves in sinning on, that grace may abound, so on the other hand it is
misapprehended by the good, so as to dispirit them. For what is our
great stay and consolation amid the perturbations of this world ? This
truth and justice of God. This is our one light in the midst of dark-
ness. " He loveth righteousness, and hateth iniquity ;'' "just and right
is He." Where else shall we find rest for our foot all over the world?
Consider in how mysterious a state all things are placed ; the wicked are
uppermost in power and name, and the righteous are subjected to bodily
pain and mental suffering as if they did not serve God. What a temp-
tation is this to unbelief! The Psalmist felt it when he spoke of the
prosperity of the wicked. " Behold, these are the ungodly who prosper
in the world, they increase in riches. Verily, I have cleansed my heart
in vain, and washed my hands in innoccncy."* It is to meet this dif-
ficulty that Almighty God has vouchsafed again and again to declare

» Pa. lixiii. 12, 13.


the unswerving rule of His government, — favour to the obedient, punish-
ment to the sinner ; that there is " no respect of persons with Him ;"
that " the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the
wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him."* Recollect how often
this is declared in the book of Psalms. " The Lord knoweth the way
of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish." "The
jighteous Lord loveth righteousness ; His countenance doth behold the
upright." " With the merciful Thou wilt show Thyself merciful, with
an upright man Thou wilt show Thyself upright. With the pure Thou
wilt show Thyself pure, and with the froward Thou wilt show Thyself
froward. For thou wilt save the afflicted people, but wilt bring down
high looks." " Many sorrows shall be to the wicked, but he that trust-
eth in the Lord, mercy shall compass him about." " Do good, O Lord,
unto those that be good."f These declarations, and numberless others

Online LibraryJohn Henry NewmanParochial sermons (Volume 1) → online text (page 56 of 76)