One Must be Certain. Here Hope is Not Enough.

From On Confession: Two Dialogues of a Father-Confessor with his Child-Confessor.

By Caspar Calvör, 1704.

pp. 3-5.

This is interesting reading for pastors wanting to do better at properly dividing law and gospel in their preaching.  It is also interesting to see how, at least in one part of Lutheran Germany, private confession and absolution was so common that even hardened, self-righteous sinners considered it so normal that they could say, “Yes, I’ve been to confession many times.” 

Especially interesting is the way the father-confessor deals with certainty of faith.  You must be able to say that your life has improved as a result of your previous confessions, and you must be able to be certain.  The certainty of faith is something that confessional Lutherans these days have trouble with teaching, probably in reaction to the confusion sown by evangelicals regarding the assurance of faith/salvation.

Finally, it leads one to think that where private confession and absolution was normal, it did not necessarily simply devolve into a formality, as though one was forgiven simply by the act of showing up at private confession and naming some sins.  It seems as though, perhaps, it was expected that impenitent sinners would be confronted with their impenitence.

Caspar Calvoer (1650-1725)  was superintendent (something like a bishop) of parts of the Lutheran Church in Lower Saxony.  He published numerous major works on theology, liturgy, history, archaeology, and the natural sciences, and was friends with the intelligentsia of his era, including the philosopher Gotthfried Wilhelm LeibnizWilhelm Loehe reprinted some of his devotional writing, and there are some excerpts from Calvoer in Doberstein’s Minister’s Prayer Book.  My guess is that Doberstein came into contact with Calvoer through Loehe, since he excerpts extensively from Loehe and other pastors and theologians who seem to have been connected with him.

First Dialogue

Preacher.  So, you want to go to confession?

Child-Confessor (Penitent): Yes, sir.


Pr.  Have you already confessed at other times before this?


C: Oh, yes!  Oftentimes.

Pr.  Are you also always increasing in piety?  Have you improved?

C.  That is what we want to hope, sir.

Pr.  No, you must know this.  Here, having a “good hope” is not enough.  A person has to be sure of this.

C.  But who can know that for certain?  We all think to live in such a way we will be able to give an account for it.

Pr.  You think well.  But sometimes our mere thoughts lack much.  If you actually lived as you think to live—that would suit the situation far better.

C.  Sir, we all hope to come to eternal blessedness.  That would not be good, if we should not go to heaven.

Pr.  Clearly, that would not be good.  But if what everyone hopes for will actually happen—they would like to find out.

C. But after all, we can’t condemn anyone.  “Judge not, that you also may not be judged.”

Pr.  This saying doesn’t apply here.  What God damns in His Word, one is not permitted to praise as blessed. 

C.  I for my part think that I will surely be saved.  If only all men were like me!  I do no man wrong.  My neighbor will have no reason to complain to God because of me! I go to church, do my work, and pray industriously.

Pr.  Now, that would really be a lot, if it were true. 

C.  Yes, my lord!  That’s what I do.  You may ask about me.  You won’t hear anything different.

Pr.  I gladly believe it.  But that still doesn’t settle it.  What is best may well be lacking. 

C.  I don’t doubt it.  What more can a human being do, if he goes to church, does his work, and does the best he can? Isn’t that enough?

Pr.  No, it’s not enough.  What is the condition of your heart?  That is the most important thing.

C.  Oh, it is well.  I always have God in my heart.  No, my heart is good.  That I am sure of.

Pr.  What’s this then?  Maybe you are imagining that things are better with you than they really are?

C.  No, God [alone] knows my heart.  No man can see what’s in my heart.  I know the condition of my heart better than anyone else.

Pr.  Next to God, that is true.  But it is such a tricky thing with our hearts.  One shouldn’t overrate himself.  Examine your heart.  Perhaps you will find that it is otherwise than you have told me—namely, that it is still altogether wicked and sinful.

C.  We are all poor sinners before God, and there is no man that has not sinned.

Pr.  Very true—but there is a distinction.  There is sinning and then there is sinning.

C.  I don’t understand that.  What do you mean?

Pr.  We are all indeed sinners.  But quite a lot of people sin out of malice, on purpose.  Others sin out of weakness and ignorance.

C.  Come on, who wants to sin out of malice?  Do you regard me as one so godless?  I am no drunkard, whoremonger, or thief.  I have honest parents.  No one can say anything evil about me.

Pr.  I didn’t say, “You.”  I said, “Quite a lot of people.”

C.  Yeah.  I can see very well what you’re driving at.

Pr.  If something I said strikes a nerve, you are responsible for that [and should think about why that is].

C.  I never sin on purpose.  But if at times I commit an indiscretion—well, we are all human, and fall short in many things.

Pr.  Oh, all too true, but sadly this is not good.  What then do you call “an indiscretion”?

C.  Well now, sometimes a word escapes one’s lips, or at a party one does a bit too much, as is often the case.

Pr.  Are those indiscretions or weaknesses?  So you don’t realize that those are sins?

C.  Admittedly, it’s not right.  But who can live so exactly?  Sometimes a person brings one to the point that afterward he is compelled to rage and curse.

Pr.  One should never do this to anybody.  “Be angry, and do not sin. Bless, and do not curse.”

C.  It is not always done with an evil intention.  It just comes out.  Afterwards a person is truly sorry.  But you can’t prevent it.

Pr.  Why not?  Don’t you have faith that one could put a stop to cursing and intemperate anger?

C.  One probably could, after all.  But I don’t take enough care to do so.  The dear Lord will surely forgive it.

Pr.  You think He forgives you?  You said that one could prevent it, and yet you do it anyway.  That’s not weakness.  That’s intentional, malicious sin.

C.  No, it just doesn’t always work that way.  You can’t always have peace even if you want to.

Pr. “Seek peace, and hunt for it.” 

Be kind and patient, help, befriend

And treat your foe as your friend.*

C.  As long as they don’t make it too rough.  Enemies are always stirring up new trouble and strife.

Pr.  “Do not return reviling for reviling.” Hold your peace and suffer it.

C.  Should a person then suffer everything, even to the point of people trampling him under their feet?

Pr.  Oh, that doesn’t ever happen!  And one can not suffer too much.

C.  Maybe that’s true.  But still one cannot willingly go toward suffering….[continued]

*  This seems to be from Martin Luther’s hymn on the Ten Commandments “Dies Sind die heilgen zehn Gebot”, known to English-speaking Lutherans as “That Man a Godly Life Might Live” or “These are the Holy Ten Commands”.



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