Home      Back to Trinity Sunday




Sermon 16: The Christian Mysteries 
by John Henry Newman 
"How can these things be?" John iii. 9.

THERE is much instruction conveyed in the circumstance, that the Feast of the Holy Trinity immediately succeeds that of Whit Sunday. On the latter Festival we commemorate the coming of the Spirit of God, who is promised to us as the source of all spiritual knowledge and discernment. But lest we should forget the nature of that illumination which He imparts, Trinity Sunday follows, to tell us what it is not; not a light accorded to the reason, the gifts of the intellect; inasmuch as the Gospel has its mysteries, its difficulties, and secret things, which the Holy Spirit does not remove. 

The grace promised us is given, not that we may know more, but that we may do better. It is given to influence, guide, and strengthen us in performing our duty towards God and man; it is given to us as creatures, as sinners, as men, as immortal beings, not as mere reasoners, disputers, or philosophical inquirers. It teaches what we are, whither we are going, what we must do, how we must do it; it enables us to change our fallen nature from evil to good, "to make ourselves a new heart and a new spirit." But it tells us nothing for the sake of telling it; neither in His Holy Word, nor through our consciences, has the Blessed Spirit thought fit so to act. Not that the desire of knowing sacred things for the sake of knowing them is wrong. As knowledge about earth, sky, and sea, and the wonders they contain, is in itself valuable, and in its place desirable, so doubtless there is nothing sinful in gazing wistfully at the marvellous providences of God's moral governance, and wishing to understand them. But still God has not given us such knowledge in the Bible, and therefore to look into the Bible for such knowledge, or to expect it in any way from the inward teaching of the Holy Ghost, is a dangerous mistake, and (it may be) a sin. And since men are apt to prize knowledge above holiness, therefore it is most suitably provided, that Trinity Sunday should succeed Whit Sunday; to warn us that the enlightening vouchsafed to us is not an understanding of "all mysteries and all knowledge," but that love or charity which is "the fulfilling of the Law." 

And in matter of fact there have been very grievous mistakes respecting the nature of Christian knowledge. There have been at all times men so ignorant of the object of Christ's coming, as to consider mysteries inconsistent with the light of the Gospel. They have thought the darkness of Judaism, of which Scripture speaks, to be a state of intellectual ignorance; and Christianity to be, what they term, a "rational religion." And hence they have argued, that no doctrine which was mysterious, i. e. too deep for human reason, or inconsistent with their self-devised notions, could be contained in Scripture; as if it were honouring Christ to maintain that when He said a thing, He could not have meant what He said, because they would not have said it. Nicodemus, though a sincere inquirer, and (as the event shows) a true follower of Christ, yet at first was startled at the mysteries of the Gospel. He said to Christ, "How can these things be?" He felt the temptation, and overcame it. But there are others who are altogether offended and fall away on being exposed to it; as those mentioned in the sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel, who went back and walked no more with Him. 

The Feast of Trinity succeeds Pentecost; the light of the Gospel does not remove mysteries in religion. This is our subject. Let us enlarge upon it. 

1. Let us consider such difficulties of religion, as press upon us independently of the Scriptures. Now we shall find the Gospel has not removed these; they remain as great as before Christ came.—How excellent is this world! how very good and fair is the face of nature! how pleasant it is to walk into the green country, and "to meditate in the field at the eventide!" [Gen. xxiv. 63.] As we look around, we cannot but be persuaded that God is most good, and loves His creatures; yet amid all the splendour we see around us, and the happy beings, thousands and ten thousands, which live in the air and water, the question comes upon us, "But why is there pain in the world?" We see that the brutes prey on each other, inflicting violent, unnatural deaths. Some of them, too, are enemies of man, and harm us when they have an opportunity. And man tortures others unrelentingly, nay, condemns some of them to a life of suffering. Much more do pain and misery show themselves in the history of man;—the numberless diseases and casualties of human life, and our sorrows of mind;—then, further, the evils we inflict on each other, our sins and their awful consequences. Now why does God permit so much evil in His own world? This is a difficulty, I say, which we feel at once, before we open the Bible; and which we are quite unable to solve. We open the Bible; the fact is acknowledged there, but it is not explained at all. We are told that sin entered the world through the Devil, who tempted Adam to disobedience; so that God created the world good, though evil is in it. But why He thought fit to suffer this, we are not told. We know no more on the subject than we did before opening the Bible. It was a mystery before God gave His revelation, it is as great a mystery now; and doubtless for this reason, because knowledge about it would do us no good, it would merely satisfy curiosity. It is not practical knowledge. 

2. Nor, again, are the difficulties of Judaism removed by Christianity. The Jews were told, that if they put to death certain animals, they should be admitted by way of consequence into God's favour, which their continual transgressions were ever forfeiting. Now there was something mysterious here. How should the death of unoffending creatures make God gracious to the Jews? They could not tell, of course. All that could be said to the point was, that in the daily course of human affairs the unoffending constantly suffer instead of the offenders. One man is ever suffering for the fault of another. But this experience did not lighten the difficulty of so mysterious a provision. It was still a mystery that God's favour should depend on the death of brute animals. Does Christianity solve this difficulty? No; it continues it. The Jewish sacrifices indeed are done away, but still there remains One Great Sacrifice for sin, infinitely higher and more sacred than all other conceivable sacrifices. According to the Gospel message, Christ has voluntarily suffered, "the just for the unjust, to bring us to God." Here is the mystery continued. Why was this suffering necessary to procure for us the blessings which we were in ourselves unworthy of? We do not know. We should not be better men for knowing why God did not pardon us without Christ's death; so He has not told us. One suffers for another in the ordinary course of things; and under the Jewish Law, too; and in the Christian scheme; and why all this, is still a mystery. 

Another difficulty to a thoughtful Israelite would arise from considering the state of the heathen world. Why did not Almighty God bring all nations into His Church, and teach them, by direct revelation, the sin of idol-worship? He would not be able to answer. God had chosen one nation. It is true the same principle of preferring one to another is seen in the system of the whole world. God gives men unequal advantages, comforts, education, talents, health. Yet this does not satisfy us, why He has thought fit to do so at all. Here, again, the Gospel recognizes and confirms the mysterious fact. We are born in a Christian country, others are not; we are baptized; we are educated; others are not. We are favoured above others. But why? We cannot tell; no more than the Jews could tell why they were favoured;—and for this reason, because to know it is nothing to us; it would not make us better men to know it. It is intended that we should look to ourselves, and rather consider why we have privileges given us, than why others have not the same. Our Saviour repels such curious questions more than once. "Lord, and what shall this man do?" St. Peter asked about St. John. Christ replied, "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou Me." [John xxi. 21, 22] 

Thus the Gospel gives us no advantages in respect to mere barren knowledge, above the Jew, or above the unenlightened heathen. 

3. Nay, we may proceed to say, further than this, that it increases our difficulties. It is indeed a remarkable circumstance, that the very revelation that brings us practical and useful knowledge about our souls, in the very act of doing so, nay (as it would seem), in consequence of doing so, brings us mysteries. We gain spiritual light at the price of intellectual perplexity; a blessed exchange doubtless, (for which is better, to be well and happy within ourselves, or to know what is going on at the world's end?) still at the price of perplexity. For instance, how infinitely important and blessed is the news of eternal happiness? but we learn in connexion with this joyful truth, that there is a state of endless misery too. Now, how great a mystery is this! yet the difficulty goes hand in hand with the spiritual blessing. It is still more strikingly to the point to refer to the message of mercy itself. We are saved by the death of Christ; but who is Christ? Christ is the Very Son of God, Begotten of God and One with God from everlasting, God incarnate. This is our inexpressible comfort, and a most sanctifying truth if we receive it rightly; but how stupendous a mystery is the incarnation and sufferings of the Son of God! Here, not merely do the good tidings and the mystery go together, as in the revelation of eternal life and eternal death, but the very doctrine which is the mystery, brings to comfort also. Weak, ignorant, sinful, desponding, sorrowful man, gains the knowledge of an infinitely merciful Protector, a Giver of all good, most powerful, the Worker of all righteousness within him; at what price? at the price of a mystery. "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory;" and He laid down His life for the world. What rightly disposed mind but will gladly make the exchange, and exclaim, in the language of one whose words are almost sacred among us, "Let it be counted folly, or frenzy, or fury whatsoever; it is our comfort and our wisdom. We care for no knowledge in the world but this, that man hath sinned, and God hath suffered; that God hath made Himself the Son of Man, and that men are made the righteousness of God. " [Note] 

The same singular connexion between religious light and comfort, and intellectual darkness, is also seen in the doctrine of the Trinity. Frail man requires pardon and sanctification; can he do otherwise than gratefully devote himself to, and trust implicitly in, his Redeemer and his Sanctifier? But if our Redeemer were not God, and our Sanctifier were not God, how great would have been our danger of preferring creatures to the Creator! What a source of light, freedom, and comfort is it, to know we cannot love Them too much, or humble ourselves before Them too reverently, for both Son and Spirit are separately God! Such is the practical effect of the doctrine; but what a mystery also is therein involved! What a source of perplexity and darkness (I say) to the reason, is the doctrine which immediately results from it! for if Christ be by Himself God, and the Spirit be by Himself God, and yet there be but One God, here is plainly something altogether beyond our comprehension; and, though we might have antecedently supposed there were numberless truths relating to Almighty God which we could neither know nor understand, yet certain as this is, it does not make this mystery at all less overpowering when it is revealed. 

And it is important to observe, that this doctrine of the Trinity is not proposed in Scripture as a mystery. It seems then that, as we draw forth many remarkable facts concerning the natural world which do not lie on its surface, so by meditation we detect in Revelation this remarkable principle, which is not openly propounded, that religious light is intellectual darkness. As if our gracious Lord had said to us; "Scripture does not aim at making mysteries, but they are as shadows brought out by the Sun of Truth. When you knew nothing of revealed light, you knew not revealed darkness. Religious truth requires you should be told something, your own imperfect nature prevents your knowing all; and to know something, and not all,—partial knowledge,—must of course perplex; doctrines imperfectly revealed must be mysterious." 

4. Such being the necessary mysteriousness of Scripture doctrine, how can we best turn it to account in the contest which we are engaged in with our evil hearts? Now we are given to see how to do this in part, and, as far as we see, let us be thankful for the gift. It seems, then, that difficulties in revelation are especially given to prove the reality of our faith. What shall separate the insincere from the sincere follower of Christ? When the many own Christ with their lips, what shall try and discipline His true servant, and detect the self-deceiver? Difficulties in revelation mainly contribute to this end. They are stumbling-blocks to proud and unhumbled minds, and were intended to be such. Faith is unassuming, modest, thankful, obedient. It receives with reverence and love whatever God gives, when convinced it is His gift. But when men do not feel rightly their need of His redeeming mercy, their lost condition and their inward sinfulness, when, in fact, they do not seek Christ in good earnest, in order to gain something, and do something, but as a matter of curiosity, or speculation, or form, of course these difficulties will become great objections in the way of their receiving His word simply. And I say these difficulties were intended to be such by Him who "scattereth the proud in the imagination of their hearts." St. Peter assures us, that that same corner-stone which is unto them that believe "precious," is "unto them which be disobedient, a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence," "whereunto also (he adds) they were appointed." [1 Pet. ii. 7, 8.] And our Lord's conduct through His ministry is a continued example of this. He spoke in parables [Vide Mark iv. 11-25, &c.], that they might see and hear, yet not understand,—a righteous detection of insincerity; whereas the same difficulties and obscurities, which offended irreligious men, would but lead the humble and meek to seek for more light, for information as far as it was to be obtained, and for resignation and contentedness, where it was not given. When Jesus said, ... "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you ... Many of His disciples ... said, This is a hard saying: who can bear it? ... and from that time many ... went back, and walked no more with Him ... Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered Him, Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life." Here is the trial of faith, a difficulty. Those "that believe not" fall away: the true disciples remain firm, for they feel their eternal interests at stake, and ask the very plain and practical, as well as affectionate question, "To whom shall we go," [John vi. 53-68.] if we leave Christ? 

At another time our Lord says, "I thank Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent (those who trust reason rather than Scripture and conscience), and hast revealed them unto babes (those who humbly walk by faith). Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Thy sight." [Matt. xi. 25, 26.] 

5. Now what do we gain from thoughts such as these? Our Saviour gives us the conclusion, in the words which follow a passage I have just read. "Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto Me, except it were given him of My Father." Or, again, "No man can come to Me, except the Father, which hath sent Me, draw him." Therefore, if we feel the necessity of coming to Christ, yet the difficulty, let us recollect that the gift of coming is in God's hands, and that we must pray Him to give it to us. Christ does not merely tell us, that we cannot come of ourselves (though this He does tell us), but He tells us also with whom the power of coming is lodged, with His Father,—that we may seek it of Him. It is true, religion has an austere appearance to those who never have tried it; its doctrines full of mystery, its precepts of harshness; so that it is uninviting, offending different men in different ways, but in some way offending all. When then we feel within us the risings of this opposition to Christ, proud aversion to His Gospel, or a low-minded longing after this world, let us pray God to draw us; and though we cannot move a step without Him, at least let us try to move. He looks into our hearts and sees our strivings even before we strive, and He blesses and strengthens even our feebleness. Let us get rid of curious and presumptuous thoughts by going about our business, whatever it is; and let us mock and baffle the doubts which Satan whispers to us by acting against them. No matter whether we believe doubtingly or not, or know clearly or not, so that we act upon our belief. The rest will follow in time; part in this world, part in the next. Doubts may pain, but they cannot harm, unless we give way to them; and that we ought not to give way, our conscience tells us, so that our course is plain. And the more we are in earnest to "work out our salvation," the less shall we care to know how those things really are, which perplex us. At length, when our hearts are in our work, we shall be indisposed to take the trouble of listening to curious truths (if they are but curious), though we might have them explained to us. For what says the Holy Scripture? that of speculations "there is no end," and they are "a weariness to the flesh;" but that we must "fear God and keep His commandments; for this is the whole duty of man." [Eccles. xii. 12, 13.] 

Note :  Hooker on Justification 

Copyright © 2000 by Bob Elder. All rights reserved.  
Used with permission.  See the Newman website: