Hemmingsen on Three Kinds of Justice


Niels Hemmingsen, artist unknown

By E.J. Hutchinson

Sixteenth-century Lutherans maintained a vibrant practice of writing “postils,” model sermons on the Gospel texts of the Sundays and principal Feast Days of the church calendar. (The word “postil” comes from the Latin post illa verba textus, “after the words of the text.”) One thinks of Martin Luther’s Church Postil and House Postil, for instance, as well as the collections of Philip Melanchthon and Martin Chemnitz. Niels Hemmingsen, too—the Danish Melanchthon, as it were—authored a set of postil homilies, published first in the early 1560s and frequently thereafter, which was soon translated into both English and German. His homily on the Gospel text for the recently-observed sixth Sunday after Trinity, has much to teach us about the theological meaning of the term “justice” or righteousness.

But first, a general word about Hemmingsen’s homilies, which all follow a set structure.

At the outset, Hemmingsen gives a brief enarratio, or summary exposition, of the text. At the conclusion of his exposition, he lists the loci, or topics, treated in or relevant to, the text. He then proceeds to discuss each locus in detail, bringing to light the text’s theological and moral themes in a lucid, orderly, and attractively accessible fashion.[1] Hemmingsen’s sermons are works of deep insight and practical piety that never stray far from the fundamentals of Christian belief and practice.

The text for the sixth Sunday after Trinity is Matthew 5:20-26. This division of the text is slightly different from what is found in most modern Bibles, which put a paragraph break before v. 21, the point at which Christ explains the real meaning of the Decalogue’s prohibition against murder. But without v. 20 as an introduction, Hemmingsen’s treatment would make much less sense. For v. 20 gives the leading or controlling principle for grasping Christ’s claim that not only actual murder, but even unrighteous anger with one’s brother, violates the commandment against taking someone’s life. When Christ teaches that “unless your justice exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you are not able to enter the kingdom of heaven,” he shows that mere external conformity to the Law is not enough for celestial citizenship.

Indeed, v. 20 in relation to vv. 21-26 is the impetus for Hemmingsen’s twofold division of topics. The second is, unsurprisingly, an explanation of the fifth commandment (according to the Augustinian division; it is the sixth commandment in the standard Reformed division). But the first—my focus here—is the three kinds of justice one finds treated in Scripture: pharisaical justice (or “the justice of the Pharisees), legal justice (or “justice according to the law”), and Christian justice (or “the justice of Christ”). The Christian should have nothing to do with the first but should live by the latter two.

Pharisaical justice, as Hemmingsen defines it, “consists in external morals, without the fear of God and without faith in God, since it expects to gain heaven as a reward for its own works.”[2] Because it is merely external, it is calculated to be seen by men: it desires the appearance of good, regardless of the putrid rot it conceals on the inside of a person. It is for that reason, as Hemmingsen notes, that Christ says that the Pharisees are like “whitewashed tombs.” Such “goodness” is no better than the goodness that an actor might portray on stage, and it has precisely the same moral value before God: none. As another Dane, the Prince of Denmark, puts it, “[T]hese indeed seem,/For they are actions that a man might play.”

Far different is legal justice, the second kind that Hemmingsen discusses. This is the justice required by the law of God, “perfect, pure, and perpetual.” It demands not only external obedience, but the obedience of the heart as well, the love of God and neighbor from which external obedience springs.

But can anyone be justified before God by such legal justice? Since the fall of Adam into sin, the answer is no, and so, like the Pharisees, we are still without hope or heaven.

That is not quite right. Hemmingsen notes that there was one, and one only, who has done it: Christ, “who by obedience to the law was justified before God.” While our own obedience is impure and temporary, Christ’s was “perfect, pure, and perpetual.”

This can help us to understand what “Christian justice” is, as well as how it differs from and is related to legal justice. Christian justice, as Hemmingsen defines it, is “the obedience of Christ imputed to the one who believes.” The one who is just “evangelically,” or “according to the gospel,” is the one whose sins are forgiven and to whom the justice of the Son has been imputed. Unlike justification according to legal justice, justification according to Christian justice does not require the works of the law; for it comes by faith. “Hence we conclude,” Hemmingsen writes, “that Christian justification is the absolution of the person who believes in Christ from sin, the imputation of the justice of Christ, and the acceptance of the person to eternal life by grace on account of Christ.”

Christian justice, then, differs from both legal justice and pharisaical justice.

It differs from legal justice in four ways: legal justice “comes from works,” whereas evangelical justice is granted “apart from works”; legal justice “belongs to the one who works,” whereas evangelical justice “belongs to the one who believes”; legal justice “is imputed not by grace,” but rather “comes from the merit of one’s own obedience,” whereas evangelical justice “is imputed apart from the merit of one’s own obedience”; and, finally, legal justice “is formal, since it is formed from a man’s just actions,”[3] whereas evangelical justice is “imputative, since the just actions of Christ are imputed to the one who believes.”

As the two “justices” differ, so too do their corresponding justifications. When one “is said to be justified legally,” he goes from “being unjust to being just on account of his own justice and fulfilling of the law.” But when one “is said to be justified evangelically,” he goes from “being guilty to being not guilty on account of the justice of Christ, which is apprehended by faith.”

Next, just as Christian justice differs from legal justice, so too does it differ from pharisaical justice, which it “exceeds” in four ways: cause, quality, effect, and end.

“The cause of Christian justice,” says Hemmingsen, “is God, the merit of Christ, and the faith that apprehends the kindness that God offers.” But “the cause of phrasaical justice is human human hypocrisy, ignorance of God’s justice, and the external observance of human traditions.”

‘The cause of Christian justice, says Hemmingsen, ‘is God, the merit of Christ, and the faith that apprehends the kindness that God offers.

What of quality? For Christian justice, it is “obedience and the fulfilling of the law in Christ.” For pharisaical justice, it is “only an external mask of pretended and dishonest sanctimony.”

And as their causes differ, so their effects differ. The effect of Christ’s justice is “newness of spirit,” as well as things such as dependence on God, humility, the beginning of obedience toward God, and “pleasure in the law of the Lord, after one knows that damnation has been taken away by the merit of Christ.” But the effect of pharisaical justice is “pride, boasting, superstition, and scorn of one’s neighbor.”

Finally, their ends: for Christian justice, peace with, access to, and glory to God as well as the obtaining of eternal life; for pharisaical justice, praise for oneself, robbery of God, boasting before men, and, finally, horrible punishment in the hereafter unless the pharisee is converted to the Lord.

It is obvious that pharisaical justice has no place in the Christian life. But what about legal justice? Hemmingsen’s gloss on the “effect” of Christian justice (that is, “newness of spirit”) helps us see that yes, in fact, legal justice still pertains to the justified Christian. 

This is most evident in a paragraph in Hemmingsen’s discussion of the three uses of the law. We see these most frequently referred to as the “first, second, and third uses of the law,” but Hemmingsen has a different nomenclature, “external, internal, and spiritual.” These correspond to Pauline dualisms of the “inner” and “outer” man and the “old” and “new” man.

The “external” use of the law has to do with the external or outward man, that is, man in his temporal, civic life, where it—along with civil and human laws—helps us to live honorably.

The “internal” use of the law relates to the old man, the Adam that dwells in us like the baby Xenomorph in Alien. In this sphere, the law shows us our sin and the wrath of God that it deserves.

The “spiritual” use of the law, on the other hand, relates to the new man, such that “by faith we begin to manifest obedience to God in accordance with his law as much as we can in this state of corruption.” And this obedience “is pleasing to God on account of faith in Christ.” That is, faith in Christ cleanses our obedience of its imperfections in God’s sight.

But, if we are honest, we know our weakness, our missteps, and the halting beginnings that we make in this life. Having recognized our inadequacies and iniquities, we are returned by Hemmingsen to the gospel at the conclusion of his section on the fifth commandment “You shall not murder”:

Since no one can satisfy what this commandment requires, let us repent, let us flee to Christ, and then let us try to obey God according to this commandment as much as we can by the help of Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.


Eric Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College, where he also directs the Collegiate Scholars Program. His research focuses on the intersection of Christianity and classical civilization in late antiquity and early modernity. He is the editor and translator of Neils Hemmingsen, On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method (CLP Academic, 2018).

[1] The locus or topical method, which has a long history as a rhetorical mode for the organization of knowledge, was used most famously in Melanchthon’s Loci communes, a work of Christian doctrine that takes its basic structure of topics from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

[2] All translations are my own.

[3] Compare Aristotle’s account of virtue, which Hemmingsen elsewhere employs as a good and proper way of talking about the development of character in the sphere of everyday human action in the temporal and civic sphere–but not as a way of being counted just before God in conformity with divine perfection. For an instance of this, see below on the “external” use of the law.