Chapter 23, Of Lawful Oaths and Vows

Please note: The following are only rough notes for this chapter, and are not a complete commentary. But I am posting them in the event they prove useful until the commentary for this chapter is complete.

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  1. A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein the person swearing in truth, righteousness, and judgement[1], solemnly calleth God to witness what he sweareth[2], and to judge him according to the truth or falseness thereof[3]. ( Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 10:20; Jeremiah 4:2; 2 Chronicles 6:22, 23 )

A lawful oath is a part of religious worship,

Oaths are not forbidden; they are, in fact, part of the Christian life. A key phrase is: A lawful oath.  An oath that is lawful is an oath that is not against God’s Word.  So the focus here is upon oaths that are to be taken.  These “lawful” oaths are a part of religious worship.   Remember the use of ‘religious worship’ in chapter 22, section 5.  There are two types of worship contrasted:

 

“Natural worship”

Natural worship is what God deserves from all men by virtue of who He is and who the creatures are. This natural worship is referenced in Romans 1:

  • For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Romans 1:21 (ESV)

‘Religious worship’

Religious: Imbued [filled] with religion. Exhibiting the spiritual or practical effects of religion; pious, godly, God-fearing, devout.  Oxford English Dictionary

Only the regenerate desire and are able to partake in ‘religious worship’ for it is their desire, and it is their ability to do so in a way that God accepts; it can only be accepted by the justified; it would be repugnant to God if done by the reprobate person (not that they would worship so). The regenerate do honor God and give him thanks.  They are not conformed to the world; they do not become futile in their thinking, but are transformed by the renewing of their minds.

 

Lawful oaths are as much a part of religious worship as the others mention in chapter 22, section 5. But why is a lawful oath a part of religious worship?

 

wherein the person swearing in truth, righteousness, and judgement, solemnly calleth God to witness what he sweareth,

A lawful oath is a swearing:

  • In truth
  • Righteousness
  • Judgement

You are solemnly calling God as your witness to the fact that you are taking an oath; this is to swear.

  • And if you swear, ‘As the Lord lives,’ in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, then nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory.” Jer 4:2 (ESV)

 

and to judge him according to the truth or falseness thereof.

You are invoking God to validate your oath. It is as if you are asking God to sign an affidavit to the truthfulness of your statement.

  • You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Ex 20:16 (ESV)
  • You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. Deut 10:20 (ESV)
  • “If a man sins against his neighbor and is made to take an oath and comes and swears his oath before your altar in this house, 23 then hear from heaven and act and judge your servants, repaying the guilty by bringing his conduct on his own head, and vindicating the righteous by rewarding him according to his righteousness. 2 Chron 6:22-23 (ESV)
  • “The confession has in view that a lawful oath is part of religious worship. We don’t usually think in those terms, but one of the ways in which we worship God is by calling upon him to be the witness and the enforcer of the oaths that we take.”[4] R.C. Sproul

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  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[5], 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. (Matthew 5:34, 37; James 5:12; Hebrews 6:16; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Nehemiah 13:25)

 

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;

If an oath is to be taken, it should be calling only on God as a witness, not by anything or any other person; to take an oath, and call to witness something other than God, is not religious worship, and could even be a form of idolatry. Only God can be a true witness and enforcer of our oaths.

  • But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, Matt 5:34 (ESV)

In normal day to day dealings with people, we should not normally have to make oaths. “Our word is our bond” as the chivalrous saying goes.

  • Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.   Matt 5:37 (ESV)
  • But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.   James 5:12 (ESV)

 

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;

To take an oath, you are calling God as your witness and punisher if you should fail to carry out your oath, therefore, this should never be done in an empty, quick, or unthinking way. Further, do not call anything, but God as your witness and enforcer; to do so is sinful and to be abhorred.  It is idolatry.

 

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;

If you are asked to make an oath, such as a notarized statement, an affidavit, sign a loan agreement, or a contract, it is okay to do so. Some misunderstand Jesus’ words and other words of the Bible to be saying that we cannot take oaths.  God allows the believer to do so when it is especially important that another person know that what we say is truthful.

  • “How much needless suffering by Quakers and others was caused by this plausible, but superficial understanding of the Scriptures!”[6] Samuel Waldron

It would be near impossible in our society, and probably in any society, to transact any kind of business without some form of an oath.

  • For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. Heb 6:16 (ESV)
  • But I call God to witness against me—it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth. 2 Cor 1:23 (ESV)

 

so a lawful oath being imposed by lawful authority in such matters, ought to be taken.

  • The major issue here [chapter 23] is the lawfulness of oaths. The Baptist Confession softens the attack of the Westminster and Savoy Confessions on the refusal of many Anabaptists to take any oaths. Those Confessions state clearly “It is a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, being imposed by lawful authority.” [7] Samuel Waldron
  • And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair. And I made them take oath in the name of God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Neh. 13:25 (ESV)

We see Jesus and Paul before civil powers, and when commanded to give an answer they did.

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  1. Whosoever taketh an oath warranted by the Word of God[8], 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.[9] ( Leviticus 19:12; Jeremiah 23:10 )

 

The confession goes on to say that when you take these oaths, you are to be genuine and sincere; you should not be “crossing your fingers” behind your back (so to speak). Our oaths are to be truthful or else we provoke the God to whom we are calling as witness.

  • You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. Lev 19:12 (ESV)
  • For the land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land mourns, and the pastures of the wilderness are dried up. Their course is evil, and their might is not right. Jer 23:10 (ESV)

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  1. An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation or mental reservation. ( Psalms 24:4 )

 

This means no hedging. It means not secretly redefining words; it means to accept the use of the plain and common sense understanding of the words.  Don’t look for loop holes; take the oath without equivocation.

Equivocation: Use of ambiguity; the use of vague or ambiguous and sometimes misleading language.

For example, if a professor is hired at a seminary, or to pastor a church, he usually has to agree with and teach a particular doctrinal view point. They are required to make these oaths in writing by signature.  Many have shamefully taken these oaths vainly, lightly, and falsely.

We can imagine a situation where a professor at a seminary is asked to agree that he believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, and yet he does not. As a result, he hedges and secretly redefines words he knows very well have historic meanings; he knows very well what the seminary means by their choice of words, and yet he redefines them in his mind for his own advantage.  He wants the job; he needs the job; so he takes a false oath; he bears false witness to his seminary president and the board—to God!

  • Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? 4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. Psalms 24:3-4 (ESV)

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  1. A Vow which[10] is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone, is to be made and performed with all religious care and faithfulness;[11] but[12] 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. ( Psalms 76:11; Genesis 28:20-22; 1 Corinthians 7:2, 9; Ephesians 4:28; Matthew 19:11 )

 

The WCF has a section 6. Part of it is incorporated in the 1689 section 5, some is left out.[13]

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;

We see a repeat of truths and a further building of them in this statement.

  • Make your vows to the Lord your God and perform them; let all around him bring gifts to him who is to be feared, Psalms 76:11 (ESV)
  • Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.” Gen 28:20-22 (ESV)

 

but popish monastical vows of perpetual single life,

Lawful oaths and vows are permitted, but only if they are according to God’s word? Chapter 16, Of Good Works, section 1 states:

  • 1. Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his Holy Word, and not such as without the warrant thereof are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intentions.

Here are texts to show how the vow of celibacy is not a lawful vow:

  • But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 1 Cor 7:2 (ESV)
  • But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. 1 Cor 7:9 (ESV)
  • The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”   Matt 19:10-12 (ESV)

Nothing need be said of all the problems this vow has caused the Roman Church—more particularly the young victims.

 

professed poverty

Reasons these Romish vows are not lawful:

  • Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Eph 4:28 (ESV)

 

and regular obedience,

Regular obedience refers to the third of a trio of Romish monastic vows. It is the obedience required for the particular monastic order you have made vows to (i.e. Augustinian, Benedictine, etc.).

 

are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself.

 

To take part in these monastic vows seems to hold a promise of a higher life. There are elements of monastic life that are attractive to many, but in the end asceticism does not deliver and are superstitious and are sinful snares.

What does the word of God make clear to us about such things?

  • These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. Col 2:23 (ESV)

Are monastic vows truly the way to grow in sanctification? We must go about growing God’s way, not in a way that seems best to us.

 

Vows versus Oaths

  • “Vows are solemn promises made to the Lord. Oaths are solemn promises made before the Lord, but to men. The purpose of an oath is confirmation. The purpose of the vow is commitment.”[14]   Samuel Waldron

The means of grace are not the trio of monastic vows, but the power of the Holy Spirit assisting us to makes use of biblical means of grace.

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  • [1] The 1689 Confession adds this to the WCF. The source is the Savoy Declaration.
  • [2] The 1689 Confession adds ‘sweareth’ to the WCF and the Savoy in lieu of “asserteth and promiseth. The source is presumably Collins.
  • [3] The 1689 adds this to the WCF and the Savoy in lieu of “falsehood of what he sweareth.” The source is presumably Collins.
  • [4] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess (P&R Publishing, New Jersey), Volume 2, pg. 353.
  • [5] The 1689 Confession adds this to the WCF and the Savoy. The source is the 1646 First London Confession of Faith.
  • [6] Samuel Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition (Evangelical Press, Darlington, England) pg. 280-281.
  • [7] Samuel Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition (Evangelical Press, Darlington, England) pg. 278.
  • [8] The 1689 adds this to the WCF. The source is the Savoy.
  • [9] The 1689 adds this to the WCF and the Savoy. The source is the 1646 First London Confession. This is in lieu of “is fully persuaded is the truth: neither may any man bind himself by oath to any thing, but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able to resolve to perform. Yet it is a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, being lawfully imposed by authority.”
  • [10] The 1689 Confession adds this to the WCF of “It.” The source is the Savoy Declaration.
  • [11] The 1689 adds this to the WCF. The source is the Savoy. The 1689 wording is in lieu of the following in the Savoy, “is of the like nature with a promissory oath, and ought to be made with the life religious care, and to be performed with the like faithfulness.” The 1689 wording is in lieu of the following in the WCF, “and that it may be accepted, it is to be made voluntarily, out of faith, and conscience of duty, in way of thankfulness for mercy received, or for the obtaining of what we want, whereby we more strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties; or, to other things, so far and so long as they may fitly conduce thereunto.”
  • [12] The 1689 adds this to the Savoy.
  • [13] VI. It is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone: and that it may be accepted, it is to be made voluntarily, out of faith, and conscience of duty, in way of thankfulness for mercy received, or for the obtaining of what we want, whereby we more strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties: or, to other things, so far and so long as they may fitly conduce thereunto.
  • VII. No man may vow to do any thing forbidden in the Word of God, or what would hinder any duty therein commanded, or which is not in his own power, and for the performance whereof he has no promise of ability from God. In which respects, 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.
  • [14] Samuel Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition (Evangelical Press, Darlington, England) pg. 282.
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