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.
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
- 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
- Deut. 10:20; Exod. 20:7; Lev. 19:12; 2 Chron. 6:22-23; 2 Cor. 1:23
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
- 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; 1 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
- Deut. 6:13; Exod. 20:7; Jer. 5:7
- 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.” The Free Dictionary defines it as “To command or enjoin solemnly, as under oath”. 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
- 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
- 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 a...