Given the experience of original sin, the “old man” described by St. Paul, should Christians feel hopeless? The answer is “no” because as John Henry Newman teaches, with baptism there is a new birth or regeneration of the soul which constitutes a “new man.”
He would agree with the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that, “Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.” (n. 405)
Newman continues with his reflection on original sin, explaining the effects of personal sins added to the consequences of original sin. Following Christian thought, he notes that the devil tempts us from without and our hearts from within. The devil tempts us through our nature and, although temptations are external, we often entertain them, making them our own.
When a person is baptized or regains the state of grace lost through mortal sin committed after baptism, the Christian has the grace to overcome temptations. Yet, Newman notes how past transgressions affect our thinking and acting.
Thus, through the sins of our youth, the power of the flesh is exerted against us, as a second creative principle of evil, aiding the malice of the Devil.
Through baptism we have what Newman calls a “principle of faith” by which we fight against bad habits and temptations. And despite the inclination to evil in our hearts we have a perfect Law – the grace of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us and granting us his continuous assistance.
The role of a minister of Christ is to lead people to a perfect obedience to God, to raise their minds to greater faith, hope and love, overcoming low human notions and superstition.
Newman, writing this sermon in 1832, did not yet know of the graces of sacramental confession, and thus his sermon expresses not only the greatness of the task before clergymen but also a certain helplessness.
Who is not displeased when a man attempts some great work which is above his powers? and is it an excuse for his miserable performance that the work is above him? Now this is our case; we are bound to serve God with a perfect heart; an exalted work, a work for which our sins disable us.
Understandably, without the sacrament of confession and reconciliation, he feels that the attempts of God’s ministers are very poor – miserable in the sight of the angels.
Thus our very calling, as creatures, and again as elect children of God, and freemen in the Gospel, is by our sinfulness made our shame; for it puts us upon duties, and again upon the use of privileges, which are above us.
Even so, as an Anglican clergyman, Newman realized that through daily prayer and repentance we can obtain God’s mercy. How much more should we understand this, we who as Catholics have the gift of God’s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation?