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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:The Third Commandment addresses our use of oaths
Text:LD 37 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic: 3rd Commandment (God's name)

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

NOTE:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Hymn 77

Psalm 61

Psalm 119:17

Hymn 1

Psalm 81:1-3

Scripture readings:  Deuteronomy 10:12-22, Matthew 26:57-75

Catechism lesson:  Lord's Day 37

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus,

It rarely happens that we’re called upon to swear an oath.  It might happen if you were involved in something that brings you before a judge in a courtroom or maybe at any inquiry.  It might happen if you become a citizen of a new country.  You would have to swear an oath if you joined the military or the police.  But aside from those sorts of things, genuine, lawful oaths are not common.  As we’re going to see, this is a good thing.  This is the way that it should be.

Since oaths involve the name of God, and since we are serious about not taking his name in vain, it’s good that we dedicate some attention to the biblical teachings found in Lord’s Day 37 this afternoon.  It’s good to focus on this one aspect of the Third Commandment.  Again, that’s because we’re serious about honouring the name of God.  Why?  Because our Lord Jesus has bought us with his precious blood to be his own possession.  We’re serious about respecting and fearing God because we have a great Saviour who gave his life for ours.  We have a faithful Mediator who perfectly obeyed this commandment for us.  We’re committed to obedience because we love our Saviour.  We love our God and our earnest desire is to please him and thank him. 

So with that in mind, this afternoon we’re considering what the Bible says about the Third Commandment and our use of oaths.  We’ll look at the use of:

  1. Legitimate oaths
  2. Illegitimate oaths

Today we take it for granted that it is acceptable to use oaths in certain situations.  However, historically there have been those who said that we should not use oaths at all – ever.  This has long been the position of various Anabaptist groups.  Around the time of the Reformation, some Anabaptists wrote a statement of faith called the Schleitheim Confession.  Article 7 of the Schleitheim Confession said that Christians should never, under any circumstances, swear oaths.  They believed that the Bible teaches that your ‘yes’ should be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ ‘no’ and anything further comes from sin.  So, no oaths, period. 

Today the Mennonites carry on the Anabaptist tradition regarding oaths.  Article 20 of the Mennonite Church of Canada’s Confession of Faith says it clearly: 

We commit ourselves to tell the truth, to give a simple yes or no, and to avoid swearing of oaths.

Jesus told his disciples not to swear oaths at all, but to let their yes be yes, and their no be no.  We believe that this teaching applies to truth telling as well as to avoiding profane language.  An oath is often sworn as a guarantee that one is telling the truth. This implies that when one has not taken an oath, one may be less careful about telling the truth. Jesus' followers are always to speak the truth and, in legal matters, simply to affirm that their statements are true.

In the commentary on this article, we find further explanation:

We follow the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, which has usually applied Jesus' words against taking oaths in these ways: in affirming rather than swearing in courts of law and in other legal matters, in a commitment to unconditional truth telling and to keeping one's word, in avoiding membership in oath-bound or secret societies, in refusing to take oaths of allegiance that would conflict with our ultimate allegiance to God through Christ, and in avoiding all profane oaths.

Jesus' counsel to tell the truth without oaths and to be true in our relationships applies to family life, business dealings, advertising, and other agreements we make.

So Mennonites today continue to say that Christians should not make any oaths at all.  We may never swear an oath in the Name of God in a godly manner. 

That means the first question in Lord’s Day 37 still has relevance.  Are the Mennonites correct?  It was a good question to ask in 1563 when the Catechism was written and it’s still a good question today.

The question has to be answered by going back to the Bible.  We see examples of believers in the Old Testament taking oaths in God’s Name.  For instance, in Genesis 21, Abraham swore an oath to Abimelech.  By doing this he was calling on God to be his witness that he was telling the truth.  At the same time, it was a statement that God should punish him if he was lying.  By doing this, Abimelech could be confident that Abraham was giving him the straight goods.  There are numerous other examples in the Old Testament. 

We not only find examples, but also clear commands.  The passage we read from Deuteronomy said it plainly.  In Deuteronomy 10:20, the Israelites were instructed to take their oaths in the name of Yahweh their God.  It was expected that there would be occasions where it was necessary to make an oath.  And where those occasions arose, the Jews were told to do it properly, with reference to the LORD.  They were to call upon God alone as their witness. 

Now the historic Anabaptists and the contemporary Mennonites were and are fully aware of these biblical examples and commands from the Old Testament.  The Schleitheim Confession even mentioned them.  But it went on to say that Christ is the perfection of the law.  With his teaching, Christ has made the law perfect.  So he says, “Don’t swear at all,” and that is the end of the matter.  The Schleitheim Confession says, “all those who seek him simply will understand his Word.” 

Simple is good.  We shouldn’t try to complicate things that are easily understood.  However, the Anabaptist approach is not simple.  Instead, it’s simplistic.  Scripture must interpret Scripture.  Yes, Jesus did say in Matthew 5, “Do not swear at all...”  But he went on to explain what he meant by that.  Don’t swear by heaven or by the earth or by Jerusalem.  The problem with the Jewish people of his day was that they were using oaths in a flippant and casual way, swearing by anything other than God.  Doing that was the first century equivalent of making a promise with your fingers crossed.  Our Lord Jesus was not forbidding oaths as such.  He was forbidding bad and sloppy oaths, oaths that were used to advance the manipulation, distortion, or denial of the truth.      

This is supported by what we read about him in Matthew 26.  Our Saviour was put under oath by the high priest in verse 63.  The high priest said, “I charge you under oath by the living God: tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”  If the Anabaptist and Mennonite tradition is correct, we would expect Jesus to balk at this.  We might expect him to say, “I will not be put under oath.  I will just tell you and you can take my answer for what it is.  Let my yes be yes, and my no be no.”  Instead, he proceeds to give his answer under oath. 

Now if our Lord Jesus made a lawful oath at his trial, those who are united to him should also be expected to be willing to make lawful oaths at appropriate times.  Certainly we see that with the apostle Paul.  On a number of occasions, he solemnly affirms certain things with an oath.  One example is in 2 Corinthians 1:23, “But I call God to witness against me – it was to spare you that I refrained from coming to Corinth.”  That was an oath.  No, he doesn’t say, “I swear by God,” but calling God as his witness is effectively the same thing.  It amounts to the same.  We see it also in Romans 1:9-10, “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers…”  

We can conclude that it is acceptable for Christians to swear oaths in God’s Name.  The Old Testament commanded it.  Old Testament believers did it.  The Lord Jesus did it.  The apostles did it.  Believers today may also do it when necessary.  The necessary times include being asked to by our government officials or when we need to maintain and promote faithfulness and truth.  If we are in a moment where we must absolutely drive home the fact that we are speaking the truth, we may call on God as our witness.  We may swear an oath in his Name.

However, most of the time in our lives as Christians, it should be enough to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’  Or to say, “I speak the truth.”  When children are baptized, their parents are always asked some questions at the baptism font.  They are not asked to swear an oath.  They don’t put their hand on the Bible and swear to God that they are telling the truth.  Instead, they are asked some questions about their convictions.  They are asked to make a promise or a vow.  And how are parents expected to answer?  Simply by saying “I do.”  Some day we expect the babies who are baptized will be here again at the front of the church.  They will take those promises that have been made to them and make it plain to all of us that they have made them her own.  That’s our prayer for all our children, of course.  We look forward to that day.  In a few months, we look forward to seeing some of our young people arriving at that day.  When they do make public profession of faith, they won’t be asked to swear an oath.  They will be simply asked some questions about their faith and their convictions.  They will be asked to make declarations and promises.  And their answer will be a simple “I do.”  That type of answer to weighty questions provides a pattern for our entire life as Christians.  99% of the time, whether with relatively insignificant things or even with weighty matters, it should be enough to say, “I do,” or “Yes,” or “No.”  Why?  Because our Saviour is the truth.  He called himself that in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  We are united to the truth.  Therefore, we speak the truth.  We have the freedom to use oaths where necessary, but since our life is in Christ, we don’t use oaths frequently or casually.

But when we do make oaths, we must be careful to formulate them biblically.  A proper oath is a calling upon God only.  A proper oath recognizes him as the source and foundation of all truth.  A proper, biblical oath recognizes that God knows the truth and will punish liars.  The government has its own formulas for oath-taking and as long as they fit within these biblical parameters we can use them.  But outside of those contexts, we may have to say something like, “In what I am about to say, I call upon the Triune God as my witness that I am speaking the truth.  If I am lying, God knows it and he will assuredly punish me.”  Something like that would be a legitimate, biblical oath that honours and pleases God and falls within the framework of the Third Commandment.

As we’ve seen, one way of getting the biblical teaching on oaths wrong is to deny their lawfulness for Christians.  Another way is to use oaths inappropriately.  There are at least two ways that can happen.  We find the first in Question 102 of the Catechism:  swearing by saints or other creatures. 

The word “saints” there makes us think right away of the Roman Catholic Church.  As you may know, the Roman Catholic Church has a catechism as well.  It’s called the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Remarkably, on the swearing of oaths and the Third Commandment, the Roman Catholic Catechism is quite close to the Heidelberg Catechism.  Mostly.  However, there is a loophole in a quote from the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola.  Ignatius says, “Do not swear whether by the Creator, or any creature, except truthfully, of necessity and with reverence.”  In other words you may swear by the Creator and creatures, as long as you do it truthfully, with reverence, and out of necessity.     

What is ambiguous in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not so ambiguous in Roman Catholic practice.  Historically and today, it is not unheard of for Roman Catholics to swear by Mary or to swear by St. Jude or other saints.  That goes together with the Roman Catholic belief in venerating creatures.  As you know, Roman Catholics also pray to Mary and to the saints.  They give them the worship and honour that are due only to God.  So it’s only logical to move to the next step and then also swear by them.  If you can pray or sing to Mary, which is a form of worship, then certainly you can also swear by her – which also has been described as a form of worship.  The question is:  may we honour and worship creatures as we honour and worship God? 

The biblical answer to that has to be ‘no.’  We are to worship God only.  We are to pray to him only.  A lawful oath is a sort of prayer, “calling upon God” to bear witness to the truth.  Therefore, our oaths must be only in God’s Name. 

Loved ones, let’s take that point home with us.  It’s easy to single out the Roman Catholics as gross offenders in this matter.  But I’m sure you’ve heard people say things like “I swear on my mother’s grave,” or just plainly, “I swear...”  In popular culture, you hear it in songs, “I swear by the stars above,” or words to that effect.  Our swearing and our oaths must only be in God’s Name.  And that will ensure too that we don’t casually swear oaths.  You see, such a casual use of oaths is also illegitimate and displeasing to God.  Here too, we have to be circumspect and careful.

Of course, there is another illegitimate use of oaths.  That is the obvious sin of swearing an oath and then proceeding to lie under that oath.  In a courtroom setting that’s called perjury.  In other contexts, it’s just lying and it’s worse because we do it knowing that we are living before God’s face.  We say, “I know that you hear me God, but I just don’t care.  I’m going to lie anyway.”  It’s displeasing and dishonouring to God in the extreme.

In Matthew 26, Peter did exactly that.  At first, Peter simply denied knowing Jesus.  The second time, though, he denied it with an oath.  The third time, he went even further.  He called down curses on himself and swore again, “I don’t know the man!”  Think about that for a minute.  Peter used an oath to deny Jesus.  He called upon God as his witness that he was telling the truth.  But he wasn’t.  He broke the Third Commandment to turn his back on our Saviour.  Is it any wonder that he went out afterwards and wept bitterly?  What a rotten thing to do. 

Still, we know that Peter was later restored by our Lord Jesus.  He was forgiven.  Jesus went to the cross to pay for Peter’s sin.  When Jesus was under oath and told the truth, he did that for Peter.  He did it in his place.  And for you too, brothers and sisters.  Any illegitimate oaths you’ve ever made are covered by the righteousness of Christ.  The gospel promises you that.

From there, we move forward living in Christ.  We move forward committed to following our Lord.  When it comes to oaths, we will be careful and want to follow what the Bible teaches.  Where we need to, we can and must make oaths in God’s Name.  Otherwise, we speak the truth and make sure that we are known as people of integrity and honesty.  Why?  Because we love God and we want to please him.  We know that we carry his name.  We were all baptized into the Name of the Triune God.  We are Christians.  With our lips and with our lives, we seek to make much of him in everything, everywhere.  AMEN.                  


Our gracious God and Father,

You are the God of truth.  You desire truth in our hearts and lives.  You’ve given us Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life.  We earnestly want to live in him.  Because we love you, we want to venerate you only with our lips and our lives.  Please give us more grace with your Holy Spirit so that we may keep your Word and follow your precepts.  Help us to be wise and careful in how we swear our oaths.  Please help us to honour you and to be known as truthful and honest people.  Please give us your help in resisting the temptation to swear false and illegitimate oaths.  O God, we are weak and we need your assistance.  Please graciously provide that for us today, and in the week to come, and throughout our lives.               

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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