The Pharisee and the Tax Collector by Niels Hemmingsen

E. J. Hutchinson
Associate Professor of Classics
Hillsdale College

Translator’s Introduction

Niels Hemmingsen (1513-1600), an irenic Danish Lutheran theologian, philosopher, and humanist, is one of the sixteenth century’s best kept secrets. But, unlike the secret of a favorite restaurant you want to remain under the radar so that you never have to wait for a table, Hemmingsen’s obscurity is almost uniformly tragic. For Hemmingsen has much to teach Protestant Christendom in many different fields.

Hemmingsen, for a long time a professor at the University of Copenhagen, after having been trained by Philip Melanchthon and others at the University of Wittenberg, wrote voluminously. Among his works are biblical commentaries, systematic theology,[1] and works on method and natural law,[2] catechesis, Christology, and homiletics, among others.

It is from the last category, homiletics, that the following sermon comes. Hemmingsen’s Postilla[3] seu Enarratio Evangeliorum, quae in dominicis diebus, et in festis sanctorum, usitate in Ecclesiis Dei proponuntur, in gratiam piorum ministrorum Evangelii conscripta (Postil or Exposition of the the Gospel Texts That Are Customarily Prescribed on the Lord’s Days and Feasts of the Saints in the Churches of God, Written for the Sake of Godly Ministers of the Gospel) first appeared in 1562 and went through several printings. In it, one will find model sermons for all the Sundays and major feasts of the Christian year, sermons that were intended—as the title indicates—to aid other ministers of the Gospel in their preparation for preaching.

They can still do so now, almost 500 years later. The sermon below, appointed for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, provides a wonderful example of how they can do so. Taking Luke 18:9-14 as his text, Hemmingsen gives a concise and powerful lesson on how to draw out the essential truths of a pericople, explain them clearly and logically, and apply them to his hearers like a thunderbolt. Because Christ’s parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector deals with the chief article of justification, it is an appropriate place to begin in any ressourcement of early modern preaching.

A number of features stand out in this fine example of the genre. The chief one, perhaps, is the form. Hemmingsen’s sermons are not verse-by-verse expositions, but instead use the loci or topical method: after summarizing the passage, Hemmingsen states what the primary “topics” treated are, and proceeds to a discussion of them in order. In this way, application is interwoven seamlessly with explanation and elucidation. The needs of his hearers’ hearts are never far from his eye.

In this text, Hemmingsen finds three “topics,” as you will see below. As he expounds them, note the way he uses Scripture to interpret Scripture. Such an employment of the analogia Scripturae is particularly manifest in his use of Romans 7 in his explanation of the first topic, “[t]he righteousness of the law and pharisaical vanity.”

The themes of the passage in Luke and in the sermon itself are brilliantly epitomized in a short poem by the seventeenth century English poet Richard Crashaw, with which I close this introduction.

“Two went up into the Temple to pray”

Two went to pray? O rather say
One went to brag, th’ other to pray:

One stands up close and treads on high,
Where th’ other dares not send his eye.

One nearer to God’s altar trod,
The other to the altar’s God.[4]


Hemmingsen’s Postilla was rendered into English already in 1569 by the important translator Arthur Golding.[5] I have not consulted his version in making my own, the first in English (to my knowledge) since Golding’s day.

The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity[6]

The Gospel of Luke, Chapter 18

Jesus told the following parable to certain people who trusted in themselves as being righteous, and scorned others. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed the following to himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, thieves, the unrighteous, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice on the sabbath; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing far off, did not even want to lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying: ‘God, be propitious[7] to me, a sinner.’ I say to you, the latter man went down to his house justified rather than the former, because everyone who lifts himself up will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be lifted up.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Summary Exposition of the Text

The occasion of this gospel text was that Christ, after he had taught about the efficacy of prayer and the form to be used when we pray, also wished to put forward clear examples, in order to depict in them the nature both of efficacious prayer and of mere hypocritical show. For, although no one is able to pray the way he should unless he is first righteous by faith in Christ, it regularly happens that many think themselves to be righteous, and for that reason judge that they pray rightly. It was therefore necessary to distinguish between those who are truly righteous and those who have a show of righteousness. For those who wish to seem righteous, and nevertheless are not, call on God in vain. But those who, having acknowledged their sins, repent of them in earnest are made righteous by faith, and they alone are able to pray efficaciously and truly. For this reason, then, the Lord here puts forward two pictures for us. One of them is of hypocritical prayer; the other is of a true and godly invocation of God. The Pharisee, who thought himself to be godly and righteous, and was not, offers us a way of being able to recognize hypocritical prayer. The wretched tax collector, on the other hand, throwing himself to the ground before God and acknowledging his filthiness, and nevertheless fleeing to God’s mercy, offers by his example the form of true and saving prayer.

Three topics are treated in this passage:

  1. The righteousness of the law and pharisaical vanity.
  2. Christian righteousness and true repentance.
  3. Christ’s judgment about the Pharisee and the tax collector.

On the First Topic

“He said to some who trusted in themselves as being righteous,” etc. (Luke 18:9). Here it is necessary to speak about the righteousness[8] of the law: what it is, and what its use, end, and authoritative rigor[9] are. For from these considerations we will understand how far the Pharisees went astray from true righteousness.

What is the righteousness of the law? It is the perfect obedience of every aspect of ourselves, internal and external, to the law of God: the obedience of the heart, the affections, the will, the mouth—briefly, of all our capacities and strength of body and soul. This obedience should not be momentary, but perpetual; not empty, but perfect and complete; not defiled, but pure and chaste—the kind that Adam was able to perform before the Fall, and that the holy angels perform in heaven. Both Moses and Christ teach such righteousness of the law in the following words: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself” (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37; Luke 10:27). Next, because he himself is pure, holy, and chaste, nothing is able to please him unless it is pure, holy, and chaste. And only those who perform this righteousness have the promise of the law. For so says Moses: “The man who does these things will live by them” (Luke 18:45). No man except Christ alone has ever performed the kind of perfect and perpetual obedience that the law requires. All those, therefore, who think themselves righteous by the righteousness of the law are not only blind and arrogant, but are also blasphemers against the law of God, which they measure by their own small standard and not by the Word of God.

I have just said that no one is able to satisfy the law of God; and now I shall briefly call the same thing to mind for us again. First, our internal and external members, with which we ought to have carried out obedience to the law, are mutilated and marred by horrific disorder, so that they cannot carry out anything rightly. Next, the law of sin lays siege to our members like a most mighty giant, even when we have been born again, so that we are unable to perform what we will. For this reason, the divine Paul cries out, “O unhappy man, who will free me from the body subject to death?” (Rom. 7:24). Again, in another passage: “To will is indeed possible for me, but I find no way to bring it to completion” (Rom. 7:18). Again: “Not the good that I will do I do, but the evil that I do not will, this I do” (Rom. 7:19). Thus the regenerate do indeed have a ready will, but they are bereft of the strength of carrying out what they will, so deeply entrenched is our ruthless enemy; and this enemy drags us back from the good. What shall we say, then, about those whose will has not yet been changed, as is the case with all who have not yet been regenerated?

To this is added the fact that the law of God is spiritual, but we are fleshly. For so Paul said when he was already a believer: “The law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14). For this reason, it is easy to see that it is impossible for us to perform the obedience owed to the law. For how can the flesh perform spiritual righteousness?

I have just drawn your attention to a great variety of reasons that show that no one can perform perfect obedience to the law in this life. What will happen, then? Here, hear first the pronouncement of the law. What does it say? “Cursed is everyone who does not abide in all that has been written in the book of the law” (Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10). Here, you hear the law’s judgment. This pronouncement of the law should humble you before God and utterly throw you to the ground, so that you acknowledge both the hideousness of your sin and your just condemnation. Here, what is to be done?[10] Can we avoid this curse of the law? You cannot by your own strength. You must therefore either perish or seek a remedy against this condemnation of the law. And this assuredly is nothing other than Jesus Christ alone, who came into the world to take upon himself the curse of the law and to free all those who believe in him from the law’s authoritative rigor, that is, from the condemnation that the law threatens against those who transgress it. Consequently, this curse extends to all men who do not hear Christ and are not clothed with his righteousness so that, adorned with it, they may appear in the sight of God. “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). I have said these things about the righteousness of the law in order to show how vain those Pharisees were who trusted in themselves as righteous and scorned everyone else as profane and unrighteous.

But what was the reason that this Pharisee and his crowd trusted in themselves as righteous? The reason was blindness. For he was so blind that he did not see the intention of the law. Indeed, he saw only the law’s outer veil and did not look into the law’s inner sanctum,[11] as the text of this gospel passage indicates well enough. For the Pharisee says, “I thank you that I am not like other men, thieves, the unrighteous, adulterers—or like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). He therefore saw the letter of the law, not its spirit, that is, he clung only to the externals of the law and did not consider the spiritual meaning entailed in the requirements of the law.

But in order for these things to be placed more clearly before our eyes, let us look to the following train of thought: first, let us see what kind of works he did. Second, let us compare them with the law of God. Third, let us conclude from that comparison what he lacked. Fourth, let us realize how many sins shackled him as a guilty prisoner, although he boasted of himself as righteous before men.

The works of this Pharisee were without faith, proceeding from unadulterated unbelief and arrogance. Now, since Scripture plainly says that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6), who is so out of his mind that he would call this external mask “righteousness”?

Let us compare the works he boasts of with the law of God. The law requires pure obedience; this man heaps abuse on God and neighbor from a most impure heart. The law commands love of neighbor; this man accuses his neighbor, and does so before God’s tribunal. What need is there to say more? He had done nothing according to the prescription of God’s law.

But is it not a great thing not to be a thief? Not to be unrighteous? Not to be an adulterer? To fast and give tithes? To be sure, such things are not to be scorned. But this Pharisee defiled the good things that he had done with self-love and pride.

What did he lack, then? The source of good works: faith in Christ, which works by love. But where this is not present, no work, however beautiful it seems, is able to please God. Indeed, it is rather an abomination before God, especially because the self-satisfied opinion concerning one’s own righteousness[12] is added to it, as we see in the case of this Pharisee.

We have seen where the works of this Pharisee proceed from, how far they are from the righteousness of the law, and what he lacked; now let us see how gravely he sinned and how unrighteous he was.

First, he dared to approach God and to accost him without the fear of God, without faith, without repentance, and without Christ as Mediator, through whom alone the approach to the Father lies open. Is this not a grave act of wickedness? Indeed, he violates the entire first table of the law and tramples it, as it were, with his feet. Next, he dared—though he was dust and ashes (Gen. 18:27)—to boast before God, although it is written, “The innocent is not innocent before you.”[13] I ask you, how great an act of pride is this? Does he not pretend—although he despises both God and men—that he is righteous? Third, he abused the temple of God. This temple had been appointed for praying for mercy for public and private sins. But what does he make of it? A place of judgment in which he accuses others. Fourth, he attacks the entire second table of the law and violates it contrary to the nature of charity, which is accustomed either to caring for or covering up the sins of one’s neighbor. What does he do? “I am not,” he says, “like other men, thieves, the unrighteous, adulterers” (Luke 18:11). In fact, it seems that this was too little for him. And so, when he had gone forward in the temple, he looked behind him and saw the wretched tax collector praying, and as soon as he saw him he accused him before the tribunal of God. “Nor am I,” he says, “like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). If he had been truly godly, he would have joined his thanks for the tax collector with that of the angels of God, who rejoice in heaven over one sinner who repents. But when he accuses the one who is repentant, he shows well enough what spirit he spoke from. He ought to have remembered the statement of Jesus the son of Sirach: “Do not despise the man who turns away from sin” (Sirach 8:5). For we are all in a state of corruption, that is, we are all exposed to various failings. “Let the one who stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12), says the apostle.

About the fasting and tithing of this hypocrite I say only the following. Fasting, which tames the ferocity of the flesh , is not evil in itself. But if you fast in order to merit something from God, your fasting becomes an abomination. For God does not want to be worshiped by human traditions, but according to the rule of his own law. On the matter of tithing, I say that God ordered matters in his own commonwealth so that the priests (that is, the tribe of Levi) would have means to live on. And Christ says, “The hired man is worthy of his pay” (Luke 10:7); and “Do not muzzle the ox’s mouth when he is treading out the grain” (Deut. 25:4; 1 Tim. 5:18).

On the Second Topic

As we have seen in the Pharisee’s case what sort of a thing pharisaical righteousness is, and have shown its vanity from a comparison with the righteousness of the law, so now we proceed to the second doctrine, concerning Christian righteousness, which is represented for us in this tax collector as in a living picture. But because Scripture uses two ways to teach about the virtues–namely rule and example–I want to see first what Scripture teaches about Christian righteousness. Next, I shall show the same thing in the example of the tax collector, so that in this way the rule may be confirmed by the example.

As far as the rule of Christian righteousness is concerned, the following statements are clear. Paul says in Romans 3, “All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation through faith in his blood” (Rom. 3:23-25). Shortly afterwards in the same chapter, he says, “We judge that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” In 2 Corinthians 5, he says, “Him who knew no sin he made to be sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). In Romans 5, he says, “Just as by the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners, so, in turn, by the obedience of one the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). And concerning Abraham he says, “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness” (Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6; cf. Gen. 15:6). And David says, “Blessed are those whose iniquities have been forgiven and whose sins have been covered” (Psalm 32:1; Rom. 4:7). Scripture contains innumerable statements of this kind about Christian righteousness. But I have set out these few in order to deduce from them Scripture’s general teaching about Christian righteousness.

First, then, we conclude that Christian righteousness does not come from works, although once a person is justified he begins to do good works. The first thing that must be maintained, then, is the following: works are excluded so as not to be the causes of this righteousness, but rather its effects and fruits, as I shall speak about later. Second, we conclude from these statements that Christian righteousness is not obedience in them (that is, in Christians), but in Christ. Third, this obedience of Christ is given to man so that he may be righteous by it, and not by his own obedience. Fourth, whoever believes is made a partaker of this righteousness of Christ in such a way that it is imputed to him as his own. “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). Fifth, because we are sinners, we are reconciled to the Father through Christ, whom the Father put forward as our propitiator. Sixth, the blood of Christ was poured out for the sins of those who believe, in such a way that the righteousness of God or of the law was satisfied. Seventh, from all of these conclusions it is proved that this Christian righteousness consists of absolution from sin, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and admission to eternal life freely on account of Christ. This is the sum of the teaching of the church of Christ about Christian righteousness. From this, it is proven that Christian justification is absolution from sin, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and admission to eternal life freely on account of Christ.[14] But we must also maintain the following: the very faith by which we are justified is efficacious and produces fruits that are most pleasing to God through Jesus Christ. And where this fruit is not seen, scarcely any faith is found there. For when we believe, we are at the same time born again as new men, in order to perform new obedience to God.

Now let us see this teaching about Christian righteousness in the example of the tax collector. First, as the text says, “he stood far off” (Luke 18:13). For, terrified by his own unworthiness, he did not dare to go forward with the Pharisee into the sight of the divine majesty. So also Peter, falling at Christ’s knees, says, “Depart from me, because I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). In a similar way, the centurion says, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” (Matt. 8:8). This alarm in man’s conscience arises from the knowledge of the law. When a man examines his deeds according to its standard, he is compelled to cry out, “I am a sinful man.” Next, the tax collector does not dare to lift his eyes. Attention is drawn here to the tax collector’s shame on account of the ugliness of his sin. Third, he beats his breast, by which his struggle with lack of faith and despair is signified.[15] Fourth, when he says, “God,” etc., it is signified that one must flee to God alone for destroying sins. Thus far he has struggled with sin, with the condemnation of the law, and with lack of faith. By this struggle his true contrition is declared.[16] Now follows how he struggled his way out as if from hell. For when he says, “God, be propitious[17] to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13), he raises himself up by faith against despair. For here he recalls in his mind the promises about Christ, namely, that God wishes to be propitious to sinners who, repenting, flee to Christ with true trust. For he is the propitiation for our sins. When he raises himself up in such a way, he attributes sin to himself and mercy to God; he acknowledges that he is sick and that God is the physician; he opposes mercy to sin; and thus determining that God is propitious to him, he is justified by faith alone. Daniel acted in the same way: “To you, Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us the blushing of the face” (Dan. 9:7).

And thus the first thing we can learn from this tax collector is the way of true repentance and of Christian righteousness. For as true repentance is true grief on account of sin, so Christian righteousness is to be absolved of sin when we approach God with true trust, as I said above. Second, we can learn from him what true prayer ought to be like. For it ought to proceed from our inmost soul in the fear of God, and to rely on the propitiation that is in Christ Jesus. Third, we ought to learn from the tax collector to conduct ourselves in lowliness both before God and before men.

Should people, then, live like the tax collectors? Yes, they absolutely should, in so far as they repent like this tax collector in the parable did. For as that Pharisee was not scorned on account of the honorable external works that he did, but because he was trusting in his works, so this tax collector should not be praised on account of the sins he had committed, but on account of his repentance that followed. Indeed, we have something we can learn from each of them with profit. With each, we should go into the temple; with each, we should give thanks to God; with each, we should pray. From the Pharisee we should learn to do honorable external works; from the tax collector we should learn to add godliness of soul and true faith  to such works.

On the Third Topic

“I say to you, the one went down to his house justified, and the other did not” (Luke 18:14). Here we have the judgment of Christ about the Pharisee and the tax collector. The tax collector, he says, going down from the temple, returned to his house justified by faith. The Pharisee, however, did not return home righteous, but rather condemned. Christ confirms this by the general pronouncement, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). The Pharisee exalted himself as righteous by the works of the law, which he did not have. For that reason, he was humbled by the pronouncement of condemnation. The tax collector humbled himself by the confession of his sin, his humble invocation of God, and trust in God’s mercy through Christ. For that reason, he was exalted by the grace of absolution and the glory of beatitude.

By his example, may we, too, be made to be humbled by Christ, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be glory forever. Amen.

[1] “Systematic” in the sense of the loci or topical method of theological composition pioneered by his teacher, Melanchthon.

[2] The treatise on natural law is now available in English. See Niels Hemmingsen, On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method, trans. E.J. Hutchinson (Grand Rapids, MI: CLP Academic, 2018).

[3] The word postilla or “postil” comes from the Latin post illa verba textus, “after the words of the text,” and refers to the sermon or homily that follows the reading from Scripture. See Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “postil.”

[4] Richard Crashaw, “Two Went up into the Temple to Pray,” in The Complete Works of Richard Crashaw, ed. William B. Turnbull (London: John Russell Smith, 1858), 20.

[5] See A Postill, or Exposition of the Gospels that are usually red in the churches of God, upon the Sundayes and Feast dayes of Saincts, Written by Nicholas Heminge a Dane, a Preacher of the Gospell, in the Universitie of Hafnie, and translated into English by Arthur Golding (London: Henry Bynneman, 1569). Golding (1535/6-1606) is now best remembered for his translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which was an important source and model for writers such as Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare, among others; but that work is something of an exception in Golding’s translations. His other classical translations are prose works by the likes of Julius Caesar (the first complete English translation of the Gallic War), Seneca, and the geographer Pomponius Mela, and a huge proportion of his effort was dedicated the translating the works of Protestant theologians such as Hemmingsen, as mentioned above, as well as John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Heinrich Bullinger, Philippe Duplessis-Mornay, and David Chytraeus. See John Considine, “Golding, Arthur,” in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 22, ed. H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 657-59. Considine puts the volume of his prose translations at around 5.5 million words.

[6] Niels Hemmingsen, Postilla seu Enarratio Evangeliorum, quae in dominicis diebus, et in festis sanctorum, usitate in Ecclesiis Dei proponuntur, in gratiam piorum ministrorum Evangelii conscripta (Frankfurt am Main: Georgius Corvinus, 1580), 284-90.

[7] I.e., gracious or merciful; I use the less common word for reasons that are made clear in the notes to the sermon.

[8] iusticia, which I render throughout as “righteousness” rather than “justice.”

[9] ius.

[10] Though it is somewhat awkward in English (as in Latin), I have kept Hemmingsen’s thrice-repeated “here,” as if to say, “The sinner first must come to this place: the place of the law and the law’s judgment, here where he is confronted with his sin, here where he is confronted with the death he deserves, here where he undergoes the terrors of conscience. This he must do before he can go there, to where God’s grace is revealed.”

[11] Hemmingsen applies the language of the temple to the law.

[12] The phrase I render as “self-satisfied opinion concerning one’s own righteousness,” admittedly a mouthful, is opinio iustitiae, a phrase that Luther uses several times as a shorthand for the righteousness or the law, or works-righteousness, in his 1535 Galatians commentary.

[13] Hemmingsen gives the substance, though not the wording, of Ex. 34:7 in the Vulgate (and cf. Num. 14:18), a passage quoted in the same form Hemmingsen uses, or sometimes in one very close to it, by, e.g., Philip Melanchthon, Johann Brenz, Matthias Flacius Illyricus, David Chytraeus, and Johann Gerhard. A representative example can be found in Art. 3 of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession.

[14] The reason for Hemmingsen’s almost verbatim repetition of what he has just said is to emphasize that “Christian righteousness” simply is justification, and that “Christian justification” simply is Christ’s righteousness.

[15] Hemmingsen would later publish an entire treatise on despair, the Antidotum adversus pestem desperationis (Antidote against the Disease of Despair) (Zerbst: Bonaventure Faber, 1590). It has not, to my knowledge, been translated into English, but I hope to rectify that in the future.

[16] Again, the (perhaps awkward) threefold repetition is Hemmingsen’s, the very awkwardness and clunkiness of which mimics the often slow, arduous, and repetitive nature of the struggle against sin, condemnation, unbelief, and despair.

[17] I.e. “gracious.” I have used the less common word because Hemmingsen is connecting the tax collector’s plea (propicius esto) to his earlier comments, as well as those that immediately follow here, about Christ as the propitiation (propiciatorium) and the propitiator (propiciator) for sin.