Lord’s Day 37
Question 101. May we then swear religiously by the name of God?
Answer. Yes; either when the magistrates demand it of the subjects; or when necessity requires us thereby to confirm fidelity and truth to the glory of God and the safety of our neighbor; for such an oath is founded on God’s Word, and therefore was justly used by the saints both in the Old and New Testament.
Question 102. May we also swear by saints or any other creatures?
Answer. No; for a lawful oath is calling upon God, as the only one who knows the heart, that He will bear witness to the truth, and punish me if I swear falsely; which honor is due to no creature.
This Lord’s Day, which continues the treatment of the third commandment, is really an appendix to the previous Lord’s Day and treats one particular application of not using God’s name in vain. God’s name, we saw, is the sum of all that He is. His name is His entire self-revelation. When the commandment speaks of “taking” God’s name, it is referring to our taking up God’s name either upon ourselves or with our lips—how we represent God or speak of Him.
In an oath or vow a person calls on God, who cannot lie and is omniscient, and who also knows the hearts of man, to be his witness. An oath and a vow are not the same thing, though they are similar. An oath is a solemn declaration that what is said is true, whereas a vow is a solemn promise to fulfill an obligation. In both cases, God is called on to be witness and to curse or punish where the oath is a lie or the vow is broken.
A relevant question
May we swear, whether it be an oath or a vow?
This was an important practical question at the time of the Reformation. In the Roman Catholic Church many rash and foolish vows were taken, especially monastic vows and vows of celibacy. These vows were based on the false theology that taught that by celibacy or self-deprivation one merited God’s favor. The Reformers taught that these were sinful vows and that the one who had taken such vows needed to repent and turn from his vow. Even more pressing was the question of swearing in the name of saints or angels instead of God. If you swear “over my mother’s dead body,” you call on her to vouchsafe for your truthfulness and be your judge should you lie, something that only God can do.
Still another question was whether oaths were lawful at all. The radical and Anabaptist branch of the Reformation said that all oaths were wrong, including swearing allegiance to a country or to military service. They even taught that marriage is an agreement into which one entered “on good faith,” not as a vow before God. Part of the Anabaptist thinking was that the civil government, if not Christian, was not legitimate and certainly had no right to use God’s name in the civil sphere. If we think through that history and the issues involved, we can see that these are still legitimate issues today. We live under governments that are largely non-Christian and even anti-Christian. Both the legislative and judicial powers are pushing to silence biblical Christianity and to take away religious freedoms. And we ask, “Do these rulers and judges really have the right to rule? How can a judge who denies God put me under oath to God?” These are important questions be before God. Part of the Anabaptist thinking was that the civil government, if not Christian, was not legitimate and certainly had no right to use God’s name in the civil sphere.
If we think through that history and the issues involved, we can see that these are still legitimate issues today. We live under governments that are largely non-Christian and even anti-Christian. Both the legislative and judicial powers are pushing to silence biblical Christianity and to take away religious freedoms. And we ask, “Do these rulers and judges really have the right to rule? How can a judge who denies God put me under oath to God?” These are important questions because how we think on these issues not only answers the question whether we may take an oath or vow, but also reveals our entire attitude toward the civil authorities.
One other thing that makes this relevant is that every one of us, maybe without realizing it, has taken vows and made oaths, and in some cases at the demand of the civil authority. For example, if you are married, you once made vows, and you hold a license from the state, which acts in God’s behalf to legalize your marriage. Your marriage vows were not merely personal, between you and your spouse with a few friends and family around, but were vows you made before God and by the demand of the state. So also, when we sign our tax return, we are put under an oath of honesty by the state. Also, every one of us is a citizen of some country, and even if we have never taken an oath of citizenship to become a citizen, by our birth we are sworn citizens. Besides this, as believers, we make oaths and vows in the sphere of the church, such as confession of faith and baptism vows concerning children. These are made before God and attested to by the church and her officers.
The biblical answer
How do we justify the practice of vows and oaths, particularly as demanded by a secular government?
First, we must recognize the legitimacy of civil authority. The principle behind the swearing of an oath is that the civil authority is appointed by God. The Anabaptist says that since Jesus is the only King, His only legitimate rule comes in the sphere of the church, and that there we simply trust one another by letting our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no” (). Whenever we are tempted to think that the government, because it is secular and anti-Christian, does not warrant our honor, then we must be reminded of what Scripture says in (especially the phrases I have italicized):
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
What is abundantly clear in this passage is that the civil authority has its power and right to rule from God and so is the representative of God to us in this world. That is also true where the ruler does not himself acknowledge God and where he abuses his position for personal gain. He has his place by the appointment of God, and none of us are above civil authority, because civil authority is God’s authority. Civil authority is necessary in the earth because “all men are liars,” and so sin needs physical restraint.
When Jesus speaks on this subject in Matthew 5, He does not forbid all oaths and vows, but rather points to two things. First, that in general conversation between Christians vows and oaths should not be necessary. We ought to be able to trust the word of our fellow Christian. Second, that if we are required to take an oath, we ought to do it, indeed may only do it, in God’s name.
When Jesus says, “Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King,” He is addressing human and pharisaical traditions that taught the people to swear by something other than God because then they could more easily be absolved of the responsibility of keeping the oath made. This was something practiced, not only in official settings, as before a judge, but had become a part of daily conversation and was the justification for the flippant use of the oath. Jesus exposes this as hypocrisy because God is still witness to your oath, even if you only take it in the name of heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or your own head. Regardless, God is still the Judge and Searcher of hearts, whether you use His name or not. Hence, if you are going to take an oath, it must be done in God’s name because, as the Catechism says, He “is the only one who knows the heart.”
Furthermore, from the many examples in the rest of Scripture we see that oaths, in God’s name, are frequently used either before a magistrate or when circumstances demand it in order to affirm the truth. Abraham swore to the king of Sodom () and to Abimelech ( ). Abraham’s servant vowed to get a wife for Isaac from Haran ( ). Joshua and the leaders of Israel took a vow before God regarding the Gibeonites, which vow they kept ( ). Boaz made a promise regarding marriage to Ruth in the name of Jehovah ( ). David made a promise to Bathsheba “by the name of the Lord” ( ). And, lest we think this was merely an Old Testament practice, we should note that at least five times in the New Testament Paul calls on God as his witness, and that Jesus Himself, under oath before the High Priest, affirmed that He was the Christ ( ). And, then, there is the interesting contrast in Hebrews 6 between men swearing “by the greater,” (that is, by God), and God “because he could swear by no greater” swearing “by himself,” which does not condemn swearing in God’s name, but affirms the truth that God is the only one by whose name we may swear.
The conclusion, then, is not that we may not swear an oath, but that the oath should be used sparingly in conversation, and that for the Christian the taking of an oath, when required, is ultimately a confession concerning God and His truth and omniscience. Such reverent oaths can also benefit our fellow man. An oath is necessary because man cannot always be trusted, but under oath a Christian can promote justice for the benefit of his neighbor.
Our solemn duty
Our duty is, first, to be honest in daily life. As Christians we are, in a sense, always under oath, living before the face of God. An oath is a necessary reminder of this, but really an oath does not change anything. In all our daily interactions and relationships, we ought to be honest and trustworthy. Others ought to be able to trust us and take us at our word. We should not have to spend our time questioning the words and motives of fellow believers because our “yes” should mean “yes” and our “no” should mean “no.”
Second, our duty is to be and remain committed to the vows that we take. We need to take seriously our solemn duties before God. From the signing of an employment document to the vows of marriage, and from the vow of confession of faith to the vow at baptism regarding our duty towards our children, we place ourselves under solemn obligation before God. We cannot simply walk away from or abandon these vows, for in doing that we “take the name of God in vain” and “there is no sin greater or more provoking to God than the profaning of His name.”
Questions for discussion
1. What is the difference between an oath and a vow?
2. Who is always the witness to what we say or promise?
3. What were/are some of the Roman Catholic practices for vows and oaths?
4. What was the response of the Anabaptists to these Catholic practices?
5. What was the response of the Reformers, and how was it different to both the Roman Catholic and Anabaptist positions?
6. May we swear on the Bible when demanded to do so by a judge in a courtroom setting? Why/why not?
7. Why is it important to have a proper view of civil government and our duty toward them? How is this connected to the question of oaths and vows?
8. How might a vow or oath that you take protect the welfare of other people?
9. What are some of the oaths and vows that you have taken and are obligated to keep?
10. Why is it important to remember that, ultimately, an oath is taken and a promise is made before God, and not merely before other people?
11. How is the oath of marriage desecrated today? Did you ever think of this as a form of taking God’s name in vain? How does this help you in keeping your marriage vows?
12. What is Jesus teaching inconcerning our daily conversation and interaction with fellow Christians? Are your motives always pure in what you say or expect of others?