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Chapter 23: Of Lawful Oaths and Vows

What does the Bible say about oaths and vows? Doesn't the Bible mention them a lot? What about when Christ said that we should not swear? What is the difference between an oath and a vow?

This chapter should be viewed in the context of the Anabaptists who refused oaths based on their understanding of Matthew 5:33-37. The Anabaptist Network writes:

Many [Anabaptists] refused to swear oaths. Oaths were very important in sixteenth-century Europe, encouraging truth-telling in court and loyalty to the state. Anabaptists often rejected these, citing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 and arguing that they should always be truthful, not just under oath. Nor would they swear loyalty to any secular authority.[1]

Thus the Reformed confessions added a chapter addressing this issue. In paragraph three, a passage from the Westminster and Savoy was omitted in the 1689 which said: “Yet it is a sin to refuse an oath touching any thing that is good and just, being lawfully imposed by authority.” See the comparison here. Thus, this chapter was added in the Reformed confessions in time of controversy and in order to clarify their stance upon oaths and vows made in the government and the church.


§1 Lawful Oaths

  1. A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein the person swearing in truth, righteousness, and judgement, solemnly calleth God to witness what he sweareth, and to judge him according to the truth or falseness thereof. 1
    1. Deut. 10:20; Exod. 20:7; Lev. 19:12; 2 Chron. 6:22-23; 2 Cor. 1:23[2]

An oath is something honorable. It is something that is solemn. In an oath, a person swears by the name of God that they are telling the truth and nothing but the truth. This is what is often done in court when a person places their hand on the Bible and pledges that they are telling the truth and at the same time calls upon God to be a Witness that they are indeed telling the truth and only the truth. Therefore, when a liar and a deceiver takes an oath by the name of God, he is taking the Lord's Name in vain and he is bringing judgment upon himself (Ex. 20:7).

An oath is considered a part of worship because in an oath we are calling upon the God Whom we worship to witness to the things which we are saying. We are actually calling upon Him to examine us and judge us “according to the truth or falseness” of the oath and the words which we have spoken. Therefore, the Bible warns us to not be “rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God” (Eccl. 5:2). We should not be quick to swear an oath on every occasion, but only wherein we are necessarily called to do so and without violating our conscience. 


§2 The Name Of God Only Is That By Which Men Ought To Swear

  1. The name of God only is that by which men ought to swear; and therein it is to be used, with all holy fear and reverence; therefore to swear vainly or rashly by that glorious and dreadful name, or to swear at all by any other thing, is sinful, and to be abhorred; yet as in matter of weight and moment, for confirmation of truth, and ending all strife, an oath is warranted by the word of God; so a lawful oath being imposed by lawful authority in such matters, ought to be taken. 2
    1. Deut. 6:13; Exod. 20:7; Jer. 5:7
    2. Heb. 6:13-16; Gen. 24:3; 47:30-31; 50:25; 1 Kings 17:1; Neh. 13:25; 5:12; Ezra 10:5; Num. 5:19.21; 1 Kings 8:31; Exod. 22:11; Isa. 45:23; 65:16; Matt. 26:62-64; Rom. 1:9; 2 Cor. 1:23; Acts 18:18

The statement is pretty full and well written. God is the highest authority in the Universe and He is the only all-seeing and all-hearing Being, therefore, we call upon Him who knows all things to be a Witness and a Judge for us. The name of God is the only all-holy object by which men should swear an oath. But they should be very careful as they are calling God to witness and judge. If we are to take an oath for the government, for example, we should only do it if it doesn’t contradict anything the Bible says or we believe in. The fact that it is sin to swear by any other name is seen in what the Lord said to Israel:

Deut. 6:13 It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear.

Only in God's name may they swear as only Yahweh are they commanded to worship because calling upon Yahweh in an oath is a part of religious worship and not something merely secular. He is the highest authority, therefore, we should call upon Him. But even more importantly, because God Himself swears by His Name, so how much more should we? Hebrews 6:13 says:

For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself,

Therefore, we learn here that we swear by that which is greater than us. Since there is nothing greater than God, God swears by Himself. In the same way, we, His rational creatures, should do when called upon to swear. Since there is, in fact, something and Someone greater than us. Therefore, we should swear by His Name and call upon Him alone in our oaths. Our Lord Himself was put in a situation in which He swore an oath:

Matt. 26:62-64 And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” 64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 

The word adjure is defined by Webster as "To charge, bind, or command, solemnly, as if under oath, or under the penalty of a curse; to appeal to in the most solemn or impressive manner; to entreat earnestly.”[3] The Free Dictionary defines it as “To command or enjoin solemnly, as under oath”.[4] In short, Christ was called upon to make an oath before the authority of the Sanhedrin and He did not refuse because He knew that He was telling the truth. He was indeed the Son of God. Therefore, we see here that our Lord did not refuse to take an oath, but He did in fact take it because He knew what He said was the truth. Other instances of oaths could be looked at from the references provided on this paragraph.


§3 The Weightiness Of So Solemn An Act

  1. Whosoever taketh an oath warranted by the Word of God, ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he knoweth to be truth; for that by rash, false, and vain oaths, the Lord is provoked, and for them this land mourns. 1
    1. Exod. 20:7; Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2; Jer 4:2; 23:10

God is Holy and He loves His Name, therefore, He attaches a dreadful punishment for the one who takes His Name in vain, saying that "he will not hold him guiltless” (Ex. 20:7). God will not allow His Name to be taken in vain and blasphemed. His judgment may not appear visibly to us or it may not even appear in this world, but we can be certain of this: the Lord will not let His Name and His glory to be trampled without punishing those who did so. Therefore, we should all the more be careful in taking oaths. We should take oaths only when necessary and not rush to make oaths for every thing we're called to be speaking the truth on. We should live in a manner before people that they would not require of us an oath to know that we're speaking the truth. But, if the government calls upon us to take an oath which is not against any biblical principle or our conscience, it is unreasonable for us to refuse unless we know that we're not telling the truth.

Here we come to the discussion of the text in Matthew 5:33-37 wherein some people see that Jesus basically forbade swear oaths. But was this the case? Did Jesus simply abrogate all that was said in the Old Testament about oaths?

Matt. 5:33-37 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. 

Some, upon reading this passage, have concluded that Christians should not take oaths, otherwise they're disobeying what is said here by our Lord. Basically, if this interpretation is true then Jesus Himself disobeyed this principle in Matthew 26:62-64 where He submitted to an oath. The Apostle Paul likewise when he said, “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you” (Rom. 1:9). Or even more pointedly in 2 Corinthians 1:23, "But I call God to witness against me—it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth.” Therefore, unless we want to accept contradictions, or the Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul disobeying what God has now revealed, we must not take the words "Do not take an oath at all” absolutely. Rather, we should look more closely at the context of the passage and of the times.

The Lord Jesus here forbids a specific kind of swearing. The Jews tried to substitute titles for God's Name or things which are high and worthy and thereby to not swear by God's Name. The purpose? That their oaths may be broken. John Gill, who was versed in Jewish writings notes on v. 34:

neither by heaven; which is directly contrary to the Jewish canons {m}, which say,

"they that swear בשמים, "by heaven", and by earth, are free.''

Upon the words in So 2:7, "I adjure you", c. it is asked {n},

"by what does she adjure them? R. Eliezer says, by the heavens, and by the earth by the hosts, the host above, and the host below.''

So Philo the Jew says {o} that the most high and ancient cause need not to be immediately mentioned in swearing; but the "earth", the sun, the stars, ουρανον, "heaven", and the whole world. So R. Aben Ezra, and R. David Kimchi, explain Am 4:2. "The Lord God hath sworn by his holiness"; that is, say they, בשמים, "by heaven": which may be thought to justify them, in this form of swearing; though they did not look upon it as a binding oath, and therefore if broken they were not criminal {p}.

"He that swears בשמים by heaven, and by the earth, and by the sun, and the like; though his intention is nothing less than to him that created them, this is no oath.''[5]

Therefore, seeing the context of the times and theology against which Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount was speaking, we must take this in consideration lest we make the words of the Lord say things which He did not intend. Notice the things which He enumerates, "heaven...earth...Jerusalem...your head...” Isn't it interesting that there is no mention of taking an oath in the Name of God? If the Lord Jesus was doing away with all oaths, which were only to be taken in God's Name (Deut. 6:13), then it would have been easy for Him to say “Do not take an oath in God's Name” or “Do not swear at all by God's Name” and go on with the other things. But this was not the intent of our Savior. Therefore, Calvin notes on v. 34, "he immediately adds, neither by heaven, nor by the earth Who does not see that those kinds of swearing were added by way of exposition, to explain the former clause more fully by specifying a number of cases?”[6] As with the whole discourse, He addresses Jewish misunderstandings of the God's Law, so at this point also His discussion concerns the Third Commandment (Ex. 20:7; Lev. 19:12). The Jews, intentionally made oaths by that which is not the Name of God (in contradiction to Deut. 6:13), so as to make it easy for them to break their oaths. But that was not the intent of God. When a person takes an oath by God, they are to perform that which they promised. They are not to break their oaths lest they profane the glorious Name of God. The Jews made distinctions in the things which they took an oath by. This is evident in Matthew 23 where we read of our Lord's accusation of hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Scribes:

Matt. 23:16-22 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. 

This brings clarity to what the Lord Jesus was saying in His Sermon on the Mount. This is the context against which He said “Do not swear at all.” The Jews wanted to make vows which they could break without violating the Third Commandment. It is in this context and this kind of swearing which “comes from evil.” It is this kind of oaths and swearing which are forbidden by our Lord. In these cases we should not take any oaths if we do not intend to keep our oaths. In these cases we should simply say yes or no.

It is also helpful to note the comments of Albert Barnes on Matthew 5:33—

It appears, however, from this passage, as well as from the ancient writings of the Jewish rabbins, that while the Jews professedly adhered to the law, they had introduced a number of oaths in common conversation, and oaths which they by no means considered to be binding. For example, they would swear by the temple, by the head, by heaven, by the earth. So long as they kept from swearing by the name Yahweh, and so long as they observed the oaths publicly taken, they seemed to consider all others as allowable, and allowedly broken. This is the abuse which Christ wished to correct. “It was the practice of swearing in common conversation, and especially swearing by created things.” To do this, he said that they were mistaken in their views of the sacredness of such oaths. They were very closely connected with God; and to trifle with them was a species of trifling with God. Heaven is his throne; the earth his footstool; Jerusalem his special abode; the head was made by him, and was so much under his control that we could not make one hair white or black. To swear by these things, therefore, was to treat irreverently objects created by God, and could not be without guilt. It is remarkable that the sin here condemned by the Saviour prevails still in Palestine in the same form and manner referred to here. Dr. Thomson (The Land and the Book, vol. ii. p. 284) says, “The people now use the very same sort of oaths that are mentioned and condemned by our Lord. They swear by the head, by their life, by heaven, and by the temple, or what is in its place, the church. The forms of cursing and swearing, however, are almost infinite, and fall on the pained ear all day long.”

Our Saviour here evidently had no reference to judicial oaths, or oaths taken in a court of justice. It was merely the foolish and wicked habit of swearing in private conversation; of swearing on every occasion and by everything that he condemned. This he does condemn in a most unqualified manner. He himself, however, did not refuse to take an oath in a court of law, Mat 26:63-64. So Paul often called God to witness his sincerity, which is all that is meant by an oath. See Rom 1:9; Rom 9:1; Gal 1:20; Heb 6:16. Oaths were, moreover, prescribed in the law of Moses, and Christ did not come to repeal those laws. See Exo 22:11; Lev 5:1; Num 5:19; Deu 29:12, Deu 29:14.[7]

God is the Being by which we must swear. The Lord Jesus is not doing away with swearing and taking oaths, but He is doing away with Jewish hypocrisy and false teaching concerning the Third Commandment. The Jews “avoided use of God's personal name and instead used reverent substitutions, clever liars could take an oath that seemed to appeal to God without technically doing so (23:16-22).”[8] Therefore, we see here our Lord giving the clear understanding of the Third Commandment and exposing the hypocrisy of the Jews and the taking of God's Name in vain. Furthermore, swearing by other things than God “would indicate idolatry, or apostasy, which the passage from Jeremiah (mentioned above concerning lust [Jer 5:7-9]) also conveys.”[9] The Lord Jesus did not do away with oaths, but showed their real intent and exposed false and sinful use of oaths.


§4 The Plain And Common Sense Of The Words

  1. An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation or mental reservation. 1
    1. Ps. 24:4; Jer. 4:2

We should not say things which would imply different things than what we actually intend. We should not use verbiage which communicates something different to people in order that we may deceive in what we actually intend. Our words must be plain and to the point. “The language of the oath must be unequivocal and unambiguous so as to be clearly understood by all parties.”[10] If we are to use difficult verbiage we should be plain about our understanding and definitions of the word. Our intent is to honor the truth and the God of truth (Isa. 65:16), therefore, we make every effort to be truthful in our words and oaths.


§5 Vows

  1. A vow, which is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone, is to be made and performed with all religious care and faithfulness; but popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself. 3
    1. Num. 30:2-3; Ps. 76:11; Jer. 44:25-26
    2. Num. 30:2; Ps. 61:8; 66:13-14; Eccles 5:4-6; Isa. 19:21
    3. 1 Cor. 6:18 with 7:2, 9; 1 Tim. 4:3; Eph. 4:28; 1 Cor. 7:23; Matt. 19:11-12

While oaths are direct toward men, vows, on the other hand, are directed toward God. The most obvious example is a marriage vow, where the man and woman vow to each other, before God, that they would stay together until the end. David G. Hagopian notes the following on the difference between an oath and a vow:

While an oath is a covenant entered into between man and man, a vow is a covenant entered into between man and God whereby the one taking the oath explicitly or implicitly appeals to God to witness and sanction what he has promised and to judge and avenge His name if the one vowing breaches what he promised to do. Many promises can be both oaths and vows as pointed out in note two.[11]

In the example of a marriage vow given above, we have the man and the woman vowing and promising to each other before God to witness their promises to each other and hold them accountable. According to Wilhelmus a' Brakel a vow is 

commitment toward God.  It is a voluntary commitment either to perform a good deed or to refrain from something, either as an expression of gratitude or to promote our spiritual well-being.[12]

We promise God something which is in accordance with and not contradiction to His Word. Moreover, the Confession denounces "superstitious and sinful snares” which are not in accordance with God's Word and “which no Christian may entangle himself.” Sometimes it may be proper to take a vow of singleness and that the Confession does not forbid. But what it does forbid is specifically "popish monastical vows of perpetual single life”. These are vows taken in a false religion and of things which have no basis in God's Word. There is solemnity when one takes a vow before the Lord. The words of our Lord should likewise apply here that let our answer be “yes” and “no.” Let us not be rash to make vows to God which we cannot perform, lest we sin even more against Him. Therefore, let us fear and be careful in our oaths and vows by the Name of God. We should take vows and oaths only when necessary, the rest of the time, let our ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and our ‘no’ be ‘no.’

 

I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.

(Psalm 116:14)

 

Footnotes

  1. ^ The Anabaptist Network.  What did Anabaptists believe?
  2. ^ Many Scriptural references have been supplied by Samuel Waldron's Modern Exposition of 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith which was apparently supplied by the Westminster Confession of Faith 1646.
  3. ^ Webster 1913. Adjure.
  4. ^ The Free DictionaryAdjure.
  5. ^ John Gill. Exposition of the Entire Bible. Taken from the TheWord Bible Software. In loc.
  6. ^ John Calvin. Commentaries. Taken from the TheWord Bible Software. In loc.
  7. ^ Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible. Taken from the TheWord Bible Software. In loc.
  8. ^ HCSB Study Bible. Holman Christian Standard Bible. (Nashville, Tenn. 2010). pp. 1620-1621, notes on Matthew 5:33-37.
  9. ^ Philip S. Ross. From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law. (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2011). p. 230
  10. ^ David G. HagopianSo Help Me God: A Biblical View of Oaths.
  11. ^ Ibid. Footnote 1.
  12. ^ As cited in Of Lawful Vows. The Reformed Reader.


Edited:     Saturday 16th of September 2017 00:49 by Simon Wartanian
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