John Henry Cardinal Newman on Faith and Obedience

Last night, my dad mentioned that he needed to read more of the Venerable John Henry Newman, because he had stumbled on a few quotes from him that he thought were very insightful (I think he stumbled on these in his Magnificat — a prayer aide I can’t encourage enough for anyone and everyone). This morning, my friend Neal e-mailed me a copy of this sermon by Newman, which is just a stunning coincidence, since how often does a dead 19th century British Catholic cardinal come up twice in a single 24-hour period?

Here’s the sermon, with a few thoughts of my own interjected. It is based upon a line from Matthew 19:17, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” Newman said:

{77} LET a plain man read the Gospels with a serious and humble mind, and as in God’s presence, and I suppose he would be in no perplexity at all about the meaning of these words. They are clear as the day at first reading, and the rest of our Saviour’s teaching does but corroborate their obvious meaning. I conceive that if such a man, after reading them and the other similar passages which occur in the Gospels, were told that he had not mastered the sense of them, and that in matter of fact to attempt to enter into life by keeping the commandments, to attempt to keep the commandments in order to enter into life, were suspicious and dangerous modes of expression, and that the use of them showed an ignorance of the real spirit of Christ’s doctrine, he would in despair say, “Then truly Scripture is not a book for the multitude, but for those only who have educated and refined understandings, so as to see things in a sense different from their obvious meaning.” {78}

In other words, it would be hard to imagine a plainer statement than Christ’s instruction in Matthew 19:17: if you want to go to Heaven, obey the commandments. And certainly, Christ should be understood in the context, but this is one of countless times where He says something similar: where those who go to Heaven are those who do the will of the Father, those who do good works, those who bear fruit, and so on and so forth.

This leaves two options. One, Christ taught that to go to Heaven, you had to keep the commandments. Two, even Christ’s plainest statements are impossible to understand without assistance from experts. It can’t be both true that Scripture is perspicuous, and that Christ didn’t mean what He, for all the world, seems to mean.

Or, again, supposing one, who disbelieved our Lord’s divinity, fell in with persons who did thus consider that to keep the commandments by way of entering into life, was a sign of spiritual blindness in a man, not to say of pride and reprobation; do you suppose there would be any possibility of their silencing him as regards his own particular heresy, with Scripture proofs of the sacred truth which he denied? For can the doctrine that Christ is God, be more clearly enunciated than the precept, that, to enter into life, we must keep the commandments? and is it not the way to make men think that Scripture has no definite meaning at all, and that each man may fairly put his own sense upon it, when they see our Lord’s plain directions thus explained away?

Here, Newman offers another possibility: that the non-Christian, coming upon Christians subverting the plain teaching of Christ, will come away with the impression that Christians don’t really care about what Christ taught.

Newman then addresses the basis for the subversion of Christ’s clear words: the doctrine of sola fide, based on the idea that what Paul really meant wasn’t what he was understood for 1500 years to have meant, but was in fact something quite at odds with what Christ seems to be teaching in Matthew 19:17,

The occasion of this unreal interpretation of Scripture, which, in fact, does exist among us to a great extent, is, that St. Paul, in some passages of his Epistles, teaches us that we are accepted and saved by faith; and it is argued that, since he wrote under the guidance of the promised Spirit, his is the true Gospel mode of Speech, and that the language of Christ, the Eternal Word of God, must be drawn aside, however violently, into that certain meaning which is assumed as the only true sense of St. Paul. How our Divine Master’s words are explained away, what ingenious refinements are used to deprive us of the plain and solemn sense which they bear on their very front, it profits not here to inquire; still no one, it may be presumed, can deny, that, whether rightly or wrongly, they are turned aside in a very unexpected {79} way, unless rather they are put out of sight altogether, and forgotten, as if superseded by the Apostolic Epistles. Doubtless those Epistles are inspired by the Holy Spirit: but He was sent from Christ to glorify and illuminate the words of Christ. The two heavenly witnesses cannot speak diversely; faith will listen to them both. Surely our duty is, neither to resist the One nor the Other; but humbly to consider whether there is not some one substantial doctrine which they teach in common; and that with God’s blessing I will now attempt to do.

In other words, it’s necessary to find a way to understand how both Matthew 19:17 and Romans 3:28 are true, since Paul came to proclaim Christ, not undermine or subvert Him. Newman then lays out the problem he’ll be addressing:

How are we sinners to be accepted by Almighty God? Doubtless the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is the meritorious cause of our justification, and His Church is the ordained instrument of conveying it to us. But our present question relates to another subject, to our own part in appropriating it; and here I say Scripture makes two answers, saying sometimes “Believe, and you shall be saved,” and sometimes “Keep the commandments, and you shall be saved.” Let us consider whether these two modes of speech are not reconcilable with each other.

This is the central question of justification which all Christians of good faith grapple with. There is a seeming tension between those two commandments, yet but must be understood. To understand them, Newman first asks the obvious, but overlooked, beginning questions: what do these terms “faith,” and “obedience” even mean?

What is meant by faith? it is to feel in good earnest that we are creatures of God; it is a practical perception of the unseen world; it is to understand that this world is not enough for our happiness, to look beyond it on towards God, to realize His presence, to wait upon Him, to endeavour to learn and to do His will, and to seek our good from Him. It is not a mere temporary strong act or impetuous feeling of the mind, an impression or a view coming upon it, but it is a {80} habit, a state of mind, lasting and consistent. To have faith in God is to surrender one’s-self to God, humbly to put one’s interests, or to wish to be allowed to put them into His hands who is the Sovereign Giver of all good.

Newman’s definition of faith here isn’t far from Luther’s own, actually.

Now, again, let me ask, what is obedience? it is the obvious mode, suggested by nature, of a creature’s conducting himself in God’s sight, who fears Him as his Maker, and knows that, as a sinner, he has especial cause for fearing him. Under such circumstances he “will do what he can” to please Him, as the woman whom our Lord commended. He will look every way to see how it is possible to approve himself to Him, and will rejoice to find any service which may stand as a sort of proof that He is in earnest. And he will find nothing better as an offering, or as an evidence, than obedience to that Holy Law, which conscience tells him has been given us by God Himself; that is, he will be diligent in doing all his duty as far as he knows it and can do it.—Thus, as is evident, the two states of mind are altogether one and the same: it is quite indifferent whether we say a man seeks God in faith, or say he seeks Him by obedience; and whereas Almighty God has graciously declared He will receive and bless all that seek Him, it is quite indifferent whether we say, He accepts those who believe, or those who obey. To believe is to look beyond this world to God, and to obey is to look beyond this world to God; to believe is of the heart, and to obey is of the heart; to believe is not a solitary act, but a consistent habit of trust; and to obey is not a solitary act, but a consistent habit of {81} doing our duty in all things. I do not say that faith and obedience do not stand for separate ideas in our minds, but they stand for nothing more; they are not divided one from the other in fact. They are but one thing viewed differently.

Note the progression Newman describes. We do good out of faith in God, and out of love of God. We obey God because He’s good, and we love and adore Him.

Instead of the confusing term “works,” Newman uses the term “obedience.” That’s helpful, I think. When people hear “works,” they imagine those people who say, “Sure, I commit x sin, but I’m basically a good person.” That’s not what Jesus is saying, when He calls us to follow the commandments (obviously, since the “basically-good person” is admitting that they don’t follow the commandments). He makes it very clear that “obedience” doesn’t mean just doing good things:

If it be said that a man may keep from sin and do good without thinking of God, and therefore without being religious or having faith; this is true, but nothing to the purpose. It is, alas! too true that men often do what is in itself right, not from the thought of God, but for some purpose of this world; and all of us have our best doings sullied by the intrusion of bad thoughts and motives. But all this, I say, is nothing to our present purpose; for if a man does right, not for religion’s sake but the world’s sake, though he happens to be doing right, that is, to perform outwardly good actions, this is in no sense obedience, which is of the heart. And it was obedience, not mere outward good conduct, which I said belonged to the same temper of mind as faith. And I repeat it, for by obedience is meant obedience, not to the world, but to God—and habitually to obey God, is to be constant in looking on to God—and to look on to Almighty God, is to have faith; so that to “live by faith,” or “walk by faith,” (according to the Scripture phrases), that is, to have a habit of faith, and to be obedient, are one and the same general character of mind;—viewed as sitting at Jesus’ feet, it is called faith; viewed as running to do His will, it is called obedience.

This point is simple. If you turn off the TV because you’re asked to, you’re obedient. If you turn off the TV because you’re done watching it, that’s not an act of obedience… even though the action is the same. Having clarified his position, Newman then rebuts a frequent charge:

If, again, it be said that a man may be obedient and yet proud of being so, that is, obedient, without having {82} faith, I would maintain, on the other hand, that in matter of fact a man is proud, or (what is sometimes called) self-righteous, not when obedient, but in proportion to his disobedience. To be proud is to rest on one’s-self, which they are most chargeable with who do least; but a really obedient mind is necessarily dissatisfied with itself, and looks out of itself for help, from understanding the greatness of its task; in other words, in proportion as a man obeys, is he driven to faith, in order to learn the remedy of the imperfections of his obedience.

It’s worth adding only that Christ commands us to be humble. So one cannot be simultaneously proud and obedient.

All this is clear and obvious to every thinking man; and this view of the subject was surely present to the minds of the inspired writers of Scripture—for this reason, because they use the two words, faith and obedience, indiscriminately, sometimes declaring we shall be accepted, saved, by believing, sometimes by doing our duty. And they so interchange these two conditions of God’s favour, so quickly pass to and fro from the one view to the other, as to show that in truth the two do not differ, except in idea. If these apparently two conditions were merely connected, not substantially one, surely the inspired writers would compare them one with the other—surely they would be consistent in appropriating distinct offices to each. But, in very truth, from the beginning to the end of Scripture, the one voice of inspiration consistently maintains, not an uniform contrast between faith and obedience, but this one doctrine, that the only way of salvation open to us is the surrender of ourselves to our Maker in all things—supreme devotion, resignation of our will, the turning {83} with all our heart to God; and this state of mind is ascribed in Scripture sometimes to the believing, sometimes to the obedient, according to the particular passage; and it is no matter to which it is ascribed.

So in a very real sense, faith and obedience are the exact same thing. In support of this Newman brings out a huge arsenal of Scriptural references:

Now, I will cite some passages from Scripture in proof of what I have said. The Psalmist says, “Lord, who shall abide in Thy tabernacle? who I shall dwell in Thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart.” “He that hath clean hands and a pure heart, who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity nor sworn deceitfully.” [Psalm 15:1-2; Psalm 24:4] Here obedience is described as securing a man’s salvation. But, in another Psalm, we read, “How great is Thy goodness which Thou hast laid up for them that fear Thee; which Thou hast wrought for them that trust in Thee!” [Psalm 31:19; Psalm 34:12-14, 18, 22.] Here, trust or faith is the condition of God’s favour. Again, in other Psalms, first, “What man is he that desireth life? Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile. Depart from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.” … Next, it is said, “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart, and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.” Lastly, “None of them that trust in Him shall be desolate.” Here, obedience, repentance, and faith, are successively mentioned as the means of obtaining God’s favour; and why all of them, but because they are all names for one and the same substantial character, only viewed on different sides of it, that one character of mind which is pleasing and acceptable to Almighty God? Again, the prophet Isaiah says, “Thou {84} wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusteth in Thee.” [Isaiah 26:2-3] Yet, in the preceding verse he had proclaimed, “Open ye the gates (of the heavenly city) that the righteous nation, which keepeth the Truth, may enter in.” In like manner Solomon says, “By mercy and truth iniquity is purged:” Daniel, that “mercy to the poor” is a “breaking off of sin,” and “an healing of error:” Nehemiah prays God to “remember him,” and “not wipe out his good deeds for the House of his God;” yet Habakkuk says, the “just shall live by his faith.” [Prov. 16:6; Dan. 4:27; Neh. 13:14; Hab. 2:4]

What honour our Saviour put on faith I need hardly remind you. He blessed Peter’s confession, and, in prospect, those who, though they saw Him not on earth, as Thomas, yet believe; and in His miracles of mercy, faith was the condition He exacted for the exertion of His powers of healing and restoration. On one occasion He says, “All things are possible to him that believeth.” [Mark 9:23] Yet, afterwards, in His solemn account of the last judgment, He tells us that it is obedience to His will which will then receive His blessing, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.” [Matt. 25:40.] Again, the Angel said to Cornelius, “Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God;” and Cornelius is described as “a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway.” [Acts 10:2.] Yet it is in the very same {85} Book of Acts that we read St. Paul’s words, “Believe, and thou shalt be saved.” [Acts 16:31.] The Epistles afford us still more striking instances of the intimate association existing in the Apostle’s thoughts between believing and obeying, as though exhibitions of one and the same spiritual character of mind. For instance, he says Abraham was accepted (not by ceremonial observances, but) by faith, yet St. James says he was accepted by works of obedience. The meaning is clear, that Abraham found favour in God’s sight, because he gave himself up to Him: this is faith or obedience, whichever we please to call it. No matter whether we say, Abraham was favoured because his faith embraced God’s promises, or because his obedience cherished God’s commands, for God’s commands are promises, and His promises commands to a heart devoted to Him; so that, as there is no substantial difference between command and promise, so there is likewise none between obedience and faith. Perhaps it is scarcely correct even to say that faith comes first and obedience follows as an inseparable second step, and that faith, as being the first step, is accepted. For not a single act of faith can be named but what has in it the nature of obedience, that is, implies the making an effort and a consequent victory. What is the faith which earns Baptism—the very faith which appropriates the free gift of grace—but an acquiescence of the reason in the Gospel Mysteries? Even the thief upon the Cross had (it would seem) to rule his reason, to struggle against sight, and to bring under pride and obstinacy, {86} when he turned to Him as his Saviour, who seemed to mortal eyes only his fellow-sufferer. A mere confession or prayer, which might not be really an act of obedience in us, might be such in him. On the other hand, faith does not cease with the first act, but continues. It works with obedience. In proportion as a man believes, so he obeys; they come together, and grow together, and last through life. Neither are perfect; both are on the same level of imperfection; they keep pace with each other; in proportion to the imperfection of one, so is the imperfection of the other; and, as the one advances, so does the other also.

Newman’s final quote is significant, and one anyone familiar with Luther would pick up on quickly, since it’s the passage that revolutionized Luther’s understanding of justification:

And now I have described the temper of mind which has, in every age, been acceptable to Almighty God, in its two aspects of faith and obedience. In every age “the righteous shall live by faith.” And it is remarkable that these words of the prophet Habakkuk, which St. Paul quotes three several times, to show the identity of true religion under all dispensations, do also represent it under these very two characteristics, Righteousness and Faith.

The righteous don’t just believe, they live by faith – they obey. Nevertheless, certain of Paul’s writings can make faith and works (if not obedience) seem quite opposed. Newman explains why:

Before closing the subject, however, it may be necessary, in a few words, to explain why it is that, in some parts of St. Paul’s Epistles, a certain stress is laid upon faith over and above the other parts of a religious character, in our justification. The reason seems to be as follows: the Gospel being pre-eminently a covenant of grace, faith is so far of more excellence than other virtues, because it confesses this beyond all others. Works of obedience witness to God’s just claims upon us, not to His mercy: but faith comes {87} empty-handed, hides even its own worth, and does but point at that precious scheme of redemption which God’s love has devised for sinners. Hence, it is the frame of mind especially suitable to us, and is said, in a special way, to justify us, because it glorifies God, witnessing that He accepts those and those only, who confess they are not worthy to be accepted.

On this account, faith has a certain prerogative of dignity under the Gospel. At the same time we must never forget that the more usual mode of doctrine both with Christ and His Apostles is to refer our acceptance to obedience to the commandments, not to faith; and this, as it would appear, from a merciful anxiety in their teaching, lest, in contemplating God’s grace, we should forget our own duties.

Finally, Newman closes with lamentations for those who would reduce obedience to God as a mere consequence of faith, as opposed to something constituting faith itself, and for those whose views on justification have lead them into the heresy of denying Christ’s judgment of the saved:

To conclude. If, after all, to believe and to obey be but different characteristics of one and the same state of mind, in what a most serious error are whole masses of men involved at this day, who are commonly considered religious! It is undeniable that there are multitudes who would avow with confidence and exultation that they put obedience only in the second place in their religious scheme, as if it were rather a necessary consequence of faith than requiring a direct attention for its own sake; a something subordinate to it, rather than connatural and contemporaneous with it. It is certain, however startling it is to reflect upon it, that numbers do not in any true sense believe that they shall be judged; they believe in a coming judgment as regards the wicked, but they do not believe that all men, that they themselves personally, will undergo it. {88} I wish from my heart that the persons in question could be persuaded to read Scripture with their own eyes, and take it in a plain and natural way, instead of perplexing themselves with their human systems, and measuring and arranging its inspired declarations by an artificial rule. Are they quite sure that in the next world they will be able to remember these strained interpretations in their greatest need? Then surely, while we wait for the judgment, the luminous sentences of Divine Truth will come over us, first one and then another, and we shall wonder how we ever misunderstood them! Then will they confront us in their simplicity and entireness, and we shall understand that nothing can be added to them, nothing taken away. Then at length, if not before, we shall comprehend our Lord’s assurance, that “He will reward every man according to his works;” St. Paul’s, that “we must all appear before the Judgment-seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad;” St. Peter’s, that “He is ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead;” St. James’s, that “a man is justified by works and not by faith only;” and St. John’s, that “they are blessed that do His commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.” [Matt. 16:27; 2 Cor. 5:10; Acts 10:42; James 2:24; Rev. 22:14] Whatever else may be true, these declarations, so solemnly, so repeatedly made, must hold good in their plain and obvious sense, and may not be infringed or superseded. {89} So many testimonies combined are “an anchor of the soul, sure and steadfast,” and if they mean something else than what they all say, what part of Scripture can we dare trust in future as a guide and consolation?

“O Lord, Thy Word endureth for ever in heaven!” but the expositions of men are written on the seashore, and are blotted out before the evening.


  1. Thanks Joe. I sent your blog to my friend. It was my answer to prayer. I am waiting for his answer. I also reread it and would love to commit it to memory. Please continue your work with Catholic apologetics.
    I believe you are gifted and needed as well.

  2. This is a wonderful specimen of Blessed Cardinal Newman’s nuanced exegesis, which wafts over one’s mind, like an invigorating breeze, amid the dizzying whirlwind of divergent interpretations! I’m grateful to have discovered this beautiful commentary.

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