LAWFUL OATHS AND VOWS
(See Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 22)
In a court of law we might hear the words: Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So help you God? Think about it, if we lived in a perfect world you wouldn’t have to swear to anything. Your ‘Yes’ would be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ would be ‘No’. In other words, swearing oaths and making vows have to do with living in a fallen world.
Now, I’m not overly impressed with the way the department stores in Australia feel the need to look into your bag as you enter or leave their premises. It shows a clear lack of trust in people. Though I sympathise with where they’re coming from, I find it very accusatory. But again, this kind of thing simply shows that we’re living in a sinful world. People steal things – people tell lies.
I suppose the strange thing is that if you’re caught stealing and are taken to court, you’re asked to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So help you God. How can we expect dishonest people to tell the truth? The usual practice, if they haven’t already changed it, is that you get the person to swear on the Bible. He puts his left hand on the Bible and he raises his right hand to God. Then he utters his swear words – in the good sense of swear words. Then he proceeds to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Isn’t this the basis for the whole of Western society? Isn’t politics, religion, commerce – and all the day-to-day transactions between people – based on truth? If you buy 2 Kilos of potatoes from the corner store, you expect to have purchased 2 Kilos. How can we trade with others, how can we strike a bargain with others, or how can we deal with others, if we cannot trust them?
As Christians we know that the only way for any society to function properly is for God to be honoured in every sphere of life, and in all our personal undertakings. I suppose a verse that sums up what we’re saying might be Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Lawful oaths and vows in society remind us what is good. Lawful oaths and vows help us to deal justly with others, and to deal mercifully with them. And lawful oaths and vows help us to walk humbly before our God. All of this helps make for an honest and trustworthy society of people in a fallen world. Lawful oaths and vows are the very foundation of any honest society, for lawful oaths and vows are at the very heart of true religion.
We’ll define the difference between oaths and vows in a moment, but let’s just note one of the main similarities – swearing oaths and making or taking vows are acts of worship. Have you ever thought about that? Wherever and whenever you invoke or call on the name of God you are doing an act of worship.
We can see why some folk don’t want to mention God’s name in an oath. They don’t want to be seen to be worshipping the God they claim not to believe in. So what do they do? Well, the Commonwealth of Australia lets you make an affirmation. For instance, if you’re not an Australian, and you wish to become one, you may take your oath on the Bible while mentioning God, or you may leave God and His Word out of it altogether. But an affirmation is still an oath made with God as witness. For God would have to die and disappear for Him not to hold you to your oaths.
So it doesn’t make any difference whether you worship a false god or no god, for the true and living God, i.e., the Triune God is still your witness. But as you know, some people, because we live in a fallen world, don’t want to mention the true and living God when swearing an oath.
Now, the main difference between an oath and a vow is that an oath is made by calling God as witness to whatever it is you are swearing, whereas a vow is what you make with God Himself. GI Williamson says it well: “An oath concerns man’s duty to man. A vow concerns man’s duty to God. In an oath man calls God to witness and to judge what he says or promises to men. In a vow man makes a solemn promise to God. In both cases it is out of reverence for and obligation to God that we make and keep them.” (The Westminster Confession of Faith For Study Classes, p. 177).
The LORD says in Deuteronomy 10:20: “You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve Him, and to Him you shall hold fast, and take oaths in His name.” So we see that it is right and good to take oaths in His name.
Now, what is it that makes an oath a lawful oath? Well, surely it’s an oath sworn where the person does not take the LORD’s name in vain. Oaths are tied to the 3rd of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.” Exodus 20:7. And, directly related to taking oaths in the name of God is, of course, the 9th Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.” Exodus 20:16. So we see then that God will call to account any who lie when calling Him as witness to what they are saying or promising. God will not have His name associated with a person’s lies. The devil is the father of lies, not God.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the person who makes an affirmation instead of an oath will be free of guilt before God if he lies. In fact it simply doubles his sin because he has denied the truth of God, (i.e., that there is a true and living God), as well as lying as if the true and living God would not call him to judgment. Does the world and everything in it disappear every time an ostrich buries its head in the sand? No! Well, neither does God disappear every time someone denies Him.
So, what we are doing when we take a lawful oath, is that we are calling on God to be witness to what we are stating or promising. And we are calling Him to be the judge of the truth or falsehood of what we are swearing.
Swearing oaths is a serious matter and should only be done with a holy fear and reverence of God. Therefore to swear vainly or rashly, i.e., thoughtlessly or carelessly by God’s glorious and dreadful name ought to be detested. And so should swearing by anything other than God be abhorred.
The scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day swore by the Temple. They would swear by the gold in the Temple, and the altar in the Temple. They would swear by Heaven, and they would swear by the throne of God. They were so loose with the truth that they would use these objects as a measure of the degree with which they should keep their oath! Jesus speaks of these things and says in Matthew 23:16: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.’” How are you supposed to trust people who swear oaths or make vows with a built in escape clause?
I don’t want to be the alarmist, but I fear that we have such men posing as elders and minsters in our own wider denomination. In the Presbyterian Church of Australia all elders and minsters swear to uphold, i.e., assert, maintain, and defend the teaching of the Bible as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith. But have you ever known a person who holds, let’s say, a liberal theology do this?
And what about those who do not hold to what has become known as the Calvinistic or Covenant Theology (of which the Westminster Confession of Faith is the fullest expression to date)? I know elders and ministers in our denomination who hate Covenant Theology because they are Arminian in their theology, yet they’ve sworn on oath to God! What’s their ‘escape clause’? I think it’s clear that they think our ‘Declaratory Statement’ frees them from any obligation to keep their oath.
I’ve heard some ministers and elders say that were it not for that ‘Liberty of Opinion’ clause in the Declaratory Statement they wouldn’t be elders or ministers the Presbyterian Church of Australia! Is this the stuff of the scribes and Pharisees, or what? Until this so-called ‘loophole’ is fully addressed the Presbyterian Church of Australia will remain as it is at present – a house divided. To be sure, there is absolutely no loophole in our Declaratory Statement, but this doesn’t stop unscrupulous men using it as such. God will be their judge. Therefore we must take the greatest of care not to take His name in vain. As James says, “But above all, my brethren, do not swear either by heaven or by earth, or any other oath. [We could mention ‘Liberty of Opinion’ clauses in ‘Declaratory Statements’] But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment.” James 5:12.
With the same thing in mind (such as those who would swear by heaven and earth, temples, gold in the Temple, altars, etc.), Jesus says in Matthew 5:34-37: “But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.”
It makes for a far better society where a person’s word is his or her bond! But does this mean that Christians are never to swear oaths or make vows? Well, what about Jesus before the high priest when He was arrested and charged with blasphemy? Matthew 26:62-64: “And the high priest arose and said to Him, ‘Do You answer nothing? What is it that these men testify against You?’ But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest answered and said to Him, ‘I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.’” So, Jesus Christ, when He was put under oath, answered under oath that He was the Christ of God, God, even the Son of God.
And the Lord’s Apostle Paul calls God as his witness in Romans 1:9 where he says: “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son…” And also in 2 Corinthians 1:23 where he says, “Moreover I call God as witness against my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth.”
And what about Hebrews 6:13-17: “For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, ‘Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you.’ And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them the end of all dispute. Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath…”
So we see then that it is not wrong to make lawful oaths. Indeed they are warranted in serious and momentous matters, i.e., in matters of weight and importance. Therefore they should be taken when required by a lawful authority.
If you are being made an elder or minister in the Lord’s church then you need to take an oath. And if you are becoming a member or citizen of the Commonwealth of Australia you need to take an oath. In a court of law there are times when you might need to take an oath. There are lots of other examples that perhaps you could think of. But the point is that it would be sinful to refuse to take an oath about anything that is good and just when required by a lawful authority.
But when taking an oath a person needs to consider the seriousness of such a solemn act. And they ought to swear to nothing unless they are fully convinced that it is the truth. And they should make sure that what they are binding themselves to is good and just. And they need to be convinced in their own minds that it is good and just. And finally they must swear only to that which is in their power to carry out. So, in a word, to enter into an oath is to seriously swear to do something you are able to do, something you know to be good, just, and true.
We’ve seen then that an oath concerns man’s duty to man. A vow concerns man’s duty to God. But both should only be taken or made in the plain and common sense of the words attached. They need to be entered into without any fuzzy edges or grey areas or ambiguities, which is to say that they should be entered into without any escape clauses or loopholes in mind. And they should be entered into without any mental reservations. Oaths and vows should not be entered into until you are sure of what you are doing.
Now, an oath and a vow cannot oblige the person or persons to sin. We see an example of a terrible oath, of the sinful sort, entered into by some men who wanted to murder Paul the Apostle. Acts 23:12: “And when it was day, some of the Jews banded together and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul.” That was a diabolical oath to enter into – to swear to kill an innocent man.
And what about the vow of Jephthah? He obviously hadn’t considered the seriousness of his vow. We find Jephthah, one of the Judges of Israel, in the Book of Judges. It says of him in Judges 11:30&31: “And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, ‘If you will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.’”
We see in these words the difference between an oath and a vow. Jephthah is making a vow to God. He’s not simply calling God to witness some promise he’s making between himself and another man. Rather he is making the promise directly to God Himself. He wants God’s help to deliver his enemies into his hand. Therefore vows may be made to God for obtaining what we want.
So Jephthah was promising God that he would offer Him a burnt sacrifice if God would let him beat his enemies. Thus far so good. However, where Jephthah gets it wrong is when he says that he will offer up to God whatever comes out of the doors to meet him when he returns victorious.
The Puritan Richard Rogers makes a good point when he says: “This vow, though he meant well, was ill made and in great ignorance, in that he did not make it more distinctly and advisedly. For what if a dog had first met him? Which is a fawning [or affectionate] creature, and had been like enough to have first come forth to meet him. He could not have offered it to the Lord, it being unclean, and so forbidden to be made a sacrifice.” (Commentary on Judges, Facsimile of 1615 edition)
Richard Rogers makes a very good point. But what if it had been a person, even his only child, his own daughter who had come out first to greet him? Indeed that was the case! Judges 11:35: “And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he tore his clothes, and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low! For I have given my word to the LORD, and cannot go back on it.’” Then in verse 39 we read: “And it was so at the end of two months that she returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed.”
So the moral of the story is that we must be extremely careful what we vow to the LORD. But surely Jephthah would have been wiser to have broken his vow and sought the LORD’s forgiveness for its rashness, rather than to have sinned by sacrificing his daughter. But whatever you think of Jephthah keep in mind that he is mentioned as an example of faith in Hebrews 11:32. So, oaths and vows bind the person to keep them – even to their own hurt, but they must never include that which is sinful.
Now, oaths and vows are made in order to strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties or obligations. The idea is that by binding ourselves by oaths and vows we are more likely to perform our duties. A Christian marriage ceremony contains oaths and vows, whereby a man and a woman swear to certain marital duties before God. The marriage contains promises made between two people. And it contains promises made directly to God. God is called upon to bless the marriage, i.e., to assist in its success. So, marriage is a good illustration of the importance of oaths and vows in society today. Take away the oaths and vows from marriage and watch society crumble back to the dust from whence it came!
Now, I’m sure you can see from what we’ve looked at that there are such things as unlawful vows. Unlawful vows would include vows of life-long celibacy that you find among Roman Catholic priests. In fact you’ll find many superstitious and sinful snares, into which no Christian should become entangled, in the Romish Church. The Reformation brought the Lord’s Church out of all that.
A vow should be made to God alone, and not to any creature. And, so that God will accept the vow, it ought to be made freely or voluntarily. It ought to be made out of faith and conscience of duty. And it can be made in gratitude for mercy received or for obtaining what we want.
And no one ought to vow anything that is forbidden by God in His Word. Or anything that would hinder any duty God’s Word commands, or is not in the person’s power to fulfil it, or that which God has not promised to give the ability to perform. For swearing lawful oaths and making lawful vows are the very foundations supporting any honest and God honouring society.
For swearing and taking lawful oaths and vows in courts of law, in public ceremonies – such as becoming an Australian citizen – not to mention weddings, means that the State as well as the Church is involved in the worship of God.
For swearing and taking lawful oaths and vows, by definition, are acts of worship. Therefore, let us glorify God by keeping our oaths and vows.