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Author:Rev. Jeremy Segstro
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Congregation:Cloverdale Canadian Reformed Church
 Surrey, BC
 cloverdalecanrc.org
 
Title:How Then Shall We Vow?
Text:LD 37 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Keeping Vows
 
Added:2021-11-15
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Reading: Hebrews 6:10-20

Lesson: LD 37

 

HOW THEN SHALL WE VOW?

  1. The Right Words

  2. The Right Occasion

  3. The Right Example

 

  1. Psalm 95:1-3

  2. Psalm 110:1, 4, 6

  3. Hymn 55:1-3

  4. Hymn 1

  5. Psalm 61: 3, 4, 6

  6. Hymn 8

 

Words to Listen For: real-estate, beard, suing, plagues, whispers

 

Questions for Understanding:

  1. What is the first rule of understanding Scripture? 

  2. How can we hold to Lord’s Day 37 and Matthew 5:33-35 at the same time?

  3. What are the four situations in which we can vow?

  4. What are the three types of vows that God makes?

  5. Why are vows important?

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Jeremy Segstro, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved citizens of the Kingdom,

This afternoon, our subject of study is not exactly what many of us would call...exciting.  The idea of vows, the idea of oaths isn’t constantly on our minds...at least...for most of us.  A lawyer might have to think about it a little more, as clients have to take an oath in court...but when do the rest of us really encounter this?

“There are more burning issues out there!” we think.  Why take the time to focus on this particular issue?

Well, the answer is two-fold.

First of all, we have to remember that the catechism is a historical document.  It was written at a particular time and place, and addressed the particular issues of the day.  As we will hear later in the sermon, this Lord’s Day was written specifically against the Anabaptists, who refused to take oaths, and the Roman Catholics who seemed to constantly be making oaths.  It was written in a day when oath-taking was a “hot button issue” so to speak.  The catechism is a historical document, responding to history unfolding in that time.  There may come a time when the material is altered to reflect the current concerns in the church.  And yet...it is truly amazing how the catechism stays so relevant.

  • All Christians everywhere need the comfort of the gospel.

  • All Christians everywhere need to know how God’s justice and mercy work together in salvation.

  • All Christians everywhere should understand the Apostles’ Creed, the Sacraments, the Law, and the Lord’s Prayer.

The catechism is a product of its time, but it summarizes the timeless truths of Scripture.

 

And secondly, the topic of oaths and vows exists in more minds than just lawyers.  Vows are made at marriage ceremonies.  Vows are made at baptisms, and Professions of Faith.  Vows are part of the life of the church, and we would do well to understand them.  Through the vow, we can catch a better glimpse of the importance of God’s name, and our identity as partakers of that name.  I therefore preach to you the gospel as found in this aspect of the 3rd commandment under the following theme and points:

HOW THEN SHALL WE VOW?

  1. The Right Words

  2. The Right Occasion

  3. The Right Example

 

The Right Words

First of all, since this is a somewhat obscure topic, we should get all our ducks in a row as it were.  We should DEFINE OUR TERMS.

Our catechism defines an oath this way: A lawful oath is a calling upon God, who alone knows the heart, to bear witness to the truth, and to punish me if I swear falsely.

It is easy to understand how the taking of oaths fits here in our catechism.  While at first, it may seem to be an element of the 8th commandment - You shall not lie - an oath is more than truth-telling.  A proper oath, a true and lawful oath calls upon God’s name, and uses it.  It should be no surprise then, that there are differences of opinion on the oath.

There is the one side, held by the Anabaptists.  Just as the Jewish people refused to use God’s personal name - Yahweh - for fear of misusing it, the Anabaptists refuse to use the oath for fear of exactly the same thing.

The Anabaptists will turn to the only two passages that speak about the oath in this way -  Matthew 5:33-35 and James 5:12, and say, “Case closed!  Jesus said this, James quoted Jesus...good enough for me!”

 

So let’s take a quick look at Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5

Matthew 5:33-35 - “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.’  But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,  or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.  Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.

This seems to be a rather open-and-shut case...isn’t it?

“Do not take an oath at all!”  These are the words of Christ.  And yet, our catechism says that we can take oaths in some circumstances.  What should we do with this?  Well...as with every single Bible verse, the context is key.

They say that the first rule in real-estate is: LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION…well...the first rule in understanding Scripture is CONTEXT CONTEXT CONTEXT.  And here, the context isn’t even very far away.

Do not take an oath at all is immediately followed by either by heaven...or by earth.  What Jesus is saying here is that we must not swear foolishly or improperly by any created thing.  Either by angels or animals.  Either by the heavenly altar or the earthly altar.

Christ simply meant this: All oaths that abuse or profane God, either by using them at an inappropriate time, or by calling upon ANYTHING or ANYONE other than God to hold them to their oath are forbidden.  DO NOT VOW IN THIS WAY.  We are to vow properly, just as we are to worship properly - there is only one way.

James, in chapter 5 uses exactly the same language, so there is no need to go over it again.  Just as Jesus is preaching to the Pharisees, James is preaching to the tribes of the Dispersion, correcting their false upbringing, and instructing them in the truth.

 

So, we have seen that Jesus teaching does not mean that we can never take an oath...proper oaths in the proper context are not forbidden...but what about the other extreme?

The Roman Catholics in the days of the catechism, were, rather the opposite of the Anabaptists.  They would swear many oaths, whether casually in conversation, “I swear by St. Peter’s beard, I saw him at the pub” or in a more serious manner, in the ordination of priests for example.  And so this Lord’s Day also teaches against them.

It is clear that the casual taking of oaths is wrong, but what was so wrong about priests taking vows at their ordination?  After all, at my ordination, I took a vow.

I was asked to promise before God and His holy church that I felt God had called me to the ministry, that I would teach only the pure doctrine of Scripture, and that I would do my work faithfully, both personally and professionally.  And I answered “I do.”  This was a vow before God.  Just like marriage vows, or baptismal vows.

So what was the difference in the days of the Reformation?

Well, let me read to you a little bit of the vow that a Jesuit priest had to make in the 1600s

I, THEIR NAME, now in the presence of Almighty God, the blessed Virgin Mary, the blessed Michael the archangel, the blessed St. John Baptist, the holy apostles St. Peter and St. Paul, and the saints and sacred hosts of heaven, and to you my ghostly father, do declare from my heart, without mental reservation, that his holiness Pope Urban is Christ's vicar general… and it goes on from here.

Not only would the priest have to swear by God, but also the Virgin Mary, Michael the Archangel, John the Baptist, the Apostles, the saints, and the sacred hosts of heaven.

This is not a proper oath.  This is a sinful oath, and it is clearly condemned by Christ in Matthew 5.

Oaths are not something to be taken lightly.

They should not be used casually in conversation, and when they are used, they must be used by taking God’s holy name upon our lips, with all reverence and worship.  No other creature, no matter how glorious angels are, no matter how faithful and humble the Virgin Mary was in her special act of service...they are not deserving of this honour.  Reverence and worship, vows and oaths, are reserved for GOD HIMSELF and HIM ONLY.

 

This is HOW we are to vow.  But WHEN are we to vow?  Our second point.

Very simply, there are 4 occasions when we are to vow: When the government requires it, when the church requires it, to affirm a fact, or to back up a promise.

These four form the exhaustive list of when vows or oaths are appropriate.  Let’s briefly go through each one.

When the Government Requires It

There are a few times when the government may require of its citizens to take an oath.  If you appear in court as a witness, in British Columbia, unless you make prior arrangements, you will be asked the question: Do you swear that the evidence you shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?

The witness would then respond: I do, possibly placing his or her hand on a Bible.

A Christian should have no concern swearing this oath.  You are, as the catechism says: calling upon God, who alone knows the heart, to bear witness to the truth, and to punish me if I swear falsely.

As to whether you should or should not place your hand on the Bible, it all depends on how you view the Bible.  If you are swearing your oath by God, and the Bible is symbol of that, you have not sinned.  If, however, you are swearing your oath by God and by the Bible, then you have fallen into the trap of an improper oath.

If you ever are called as a witness in court, examine your heart.  The Bible, though it is the WORD OF GOD, is not God Himself, and should not be treated in that way.

You may swear an oath when the Government requires it.

 

You may also swear an oath when the church requires it.

We already have mentioned these occasions, so let me briefly give a bit of explanation.

The church would require you to make a vow on the occasion of your ordination - pastors, elders, deacons, your profession of faith, your wedding, and at the baptism of your children.

These are vows that you make, with God as your witness, and with God as your strength.

There are those who add the words “God helping me” to the end of their vow…“I do, God helping me” to emphasize that they cannot fulfill this vow in their own strength.

An office-bearer vows to faithfully discharge his office, and to lead a life that adorns that office.  This is a serious vow that is impossible for office-bearers to keep in their own strength.  This vow is proper and important.

An individual professing his faith vows to steadfastly continue living a life of true faith, both in doctrine and in life, serve Him according to His Word, and commit his whole life to the Lord’s service as a living member of Christ’s church.  This is a serious vow that is impossible for believers to keep in their own strength.  This vow is proper and important.

The same is true for weddings.  Bride and Groom make these wonderful promises that are impossible to keep as sinful people.  At baptisms, these wonderful promises are made that are impossible to keep as sinful parents.  But with God’s strength, the vow is kept, even if it is kept imperfectly.

You may swear an oath when the church requires it.

 

You may also swear an oath to affirm a fact.

We read this in Exodus 22: If a man gives to his neighbor a donkey or an ox or a sheep or any beast to keep safe, and it dies or is injured or is driven away, without anyone seeing it, an oath by the Lord shall be between them both to see whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor's property. The owner shall accept the oath, and he shall not make restitution. 

This is similar to swearing an oath in court.  There is an issue, there is a challenge between two men, and, instead of taking it to court, instead of suing his neighbour, the one neighbour asks if the other will take an oath to affirm the fact, and thus avoid court.

This is an oath that we would rarely use in our day and age, but it is not inappropriate.  To affirm important facts, to give strength to your word, an oath may be asked of you.  This oath is not sinful.  You may swear an oath to affirm a fact.

 

And finally, you may swear an oath to back up a promise.

This, we find in Joshua chapter 2.  The spies are asked by Rahab to make an oath that they would spare her life because of her kindness to them.

Joshua 2 - Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father's house, and give me a sure sign that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.

This was not a sinful oath, but rather a declaration of God’s mercy on Rahab, by the power of God’s name.

Just as in the former example, this type of oath-taking would be rarely used today, but it is not inappropriate.  It is done perfectly in line with who God is, and what He commands of His people.

You may swear an oath to back up a promise.

 

So far, we have been looking at the oaths we swear.  As Christians.  But what about the oaths that God has sworn?  What about our example in all of this?  Our third point.

Boys and girls, did you know that we have a God who swears?  It’s true!

Of course, He doesn’t swear in the same way that your unchristian friends do...the way that maybe your older brother or sister swears when Mom and Dad aren’t home, and they’re frustrated…

But our God does swear!

He swears oaths!

We heard this in our reading, Hebrews 6 - For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, He swore by Himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.”

This is far from the only time that God swears in Scripture...and when He does, we would do well to sit up and take notice.  We just heard the four times when we are allowed to make an oath...what about God?  What are the circumstances in which we read of God making an oath?  After all, the church or the government cannot REQUIRE anything of God.  So, when God makes an oath, He does so in a different way, for a different reason than we do.

And through His oaths, we can learn about who He is - and worship Him for it.

Throughout Scripture, God swears oaths in 3 different categories: oaths of blessing, oaths of cursing, and oaths about salvation.

God makes oaths of blessing - to encourage His people

This is the type of oath that we read about in Hebrews 6 - He swore by Himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.”

Hebrews 6 references God’s oath to Abraham, but He made this oath multiple times to Abraham, and repeated it to Isaac and Jacob.

He swears to Abraham when Abraham is undergoing one of the worst times in his life - thinking that he would have to sacrifice his son Isaac - God swears this to him

Genesis 22 - By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

Abraham thought this was the end, and he despaired, but God swore to bless him.


 

Isaac, when starving to death in the midst of a famine, had God remind him of the blessing that was his, as Abraham’s son

Genesis 26 - Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father.

Isaac thought this was the end, and he despaired, but God swore to bless him.


 

Jacob, when running for his life from Esau, had God appear to him at Bethel and remind him of the covenant.  Though the word “swore” or “oath” is not here, it is clearly a reference to these formers oaths

Genesis 28 -  I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring.  Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.  Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.

Jacob thought this was the end, and he despaired, but God swore to bless him.

 

Are you starting to get the idea here?  When God’s people are at their weakest, at their most desperate moments, our God goes above and beyond a simply word of comfort.  He goes above and beyond “just” appearing to His people, but He swears.  He knows that they doubt, and so, in the midst of our doubts, He gives us exactly what we need - comfort and assurance.

Listen to the way that the author of Hebrews puts it - when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose,

He guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.  We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.

Were there more comforting words ever spoken?  That God KNOWS our weaknesses...and not only does He not rebuke us for them, but He meets us where we are at.  He is mindful of our insensitivity and weakness, and so He has graciously given us His oath, which He swears by Himself.

 

He makes oaths of blessing, but also oaths of cursing.  God makes oaths of cursing to warn His people.

Psalm 95 - Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.  For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.”  Therefore I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter my rest.”

“I swore in my wrath, they shall not enter my rest.”

This seems to go against EVERYTHING that God swore in His blessing.  The people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness.  They thought this was the end.  They despaired.  And instead of God coming in love and mercy...He comes and swears an oath of anger and judgement.  An oath of condemnation and cursing.

How should we understand this?

As we heard earlier in the sermon...the rule for understanding Scripture is: CONTEXT CONTEXT CONTEXT.

Though these words come from Psalm 95, historically they reflect on God’s curse of the Israelites in the wilderness.  Though they wandered, they were led.  Though they hungered, they were fed.  The only reason that the Israelites thought this was the end and despaired is because they REFUSED TO SEE God working among them.  They REFUSED TO TRUST IN HIM, after He had shown them the 10 plagues.  After He had shown them Himself on the Mountain.  After He had saved them so many times.  They shut their eyes and refused to trust in Him.

And the context of Psalm 95 is important too.  This context, we sang at the beginning of the service.  Come praise the LORD! Let us rejoice, and let us make a joyful noise to Him the rock of our salvation.

The psalmist, reflecting on Israel’s past rebellion is pleading with the current generation not to rebel.  This curse and condemnation is given as a WARNING.  As a WARNING out of LOVE.  Don’t do this!  You’re a covenant child!  You have so much potential, God has given you so many promises - don’t waste it!  This is a warning to each one of us, just as it is a warning to Elijah Louis, baptized here today.

Don’t squander your covenant status!  Your status is a blessing, but it will not prevent you from falling away.  Your salvation is not guaranteed in your baptism.

 

But, even though the guarantee of your salvation is not in your baptism, this doesn’t mean that there is no guarantee at all.  For God also swears an oath in relation to your salvation.

Hebrews 7 - “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever.’”

Psalm 110 - You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”  The Lord is at your right hand; He will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.  He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; He will shatter chiefs over the wide earth.  He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head.

It seems, at first, that this is an oath made to Christ rather than to us...but it is both.  For whose benefit was Christ a priest?  Was Christ a priest for the benefit of God?  That God would finally get some proper worship?  No!  Christ was a priest for OUR SAKE!  He was the perfect priest, the perfect sacrifice.

He is a priest after the order of Melchizedek, a priest with no beginning or end, a priest who died once, but constantly serves before the heavenly altar, before the heavenly throne, applying His sacrifice to us.

Do you see?

God makes oaths about the things that truly matter to Him.  He does not make oaths lightly.

So what matters in His oaths of blessing, His oaths or cursing, and His oaths of salvation?

YOU.  YOU MATTER.

When God vows to bless you...He does so because He cares about you.  Because He loves you.  He knows that you are scared, that you are frightened.  And He comes up beside you, and pulls you into His chest and says - I have a plan for you.  You have hope, you have a future, and it will ultimately be good.  Because I am the architect of that future, and I am good.

When God vows in ager, about disobedience...He does so because He cares about you.  Because He loves you.  He knows that you are weak, that you want to give in to sin.  And so He comes up beside you and whispers in your ear - you are on the road to death!  Repent!

As I live, declares the Lord God, - another oath - As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die?

And when God makes vows in relation to your salvation...in relation to His Son...He does so because He cares about you.  Because He loves you.  He knows that you are sinful, and that you are lost without Him.  And so He sends His Son.  He sends His Son as an everlasting priest, to bring you back to Him.  He sends His Son with outstretched arms...arms outstretched on the cross, arms outstretched in welcome, and He tells you that you belong to Him.

Every time our God makes an oath, He does so, guaranteeing His steadfast love for us.  He does so, giving us encouragement to hope when we feel no hope.  God swears by Himself, essentially saying that it is as impossible that He will break His word of promise to bless us as it is that He will ever be anyone but Himself.  There is nothing and no one like God as a refuge and a rock of hope.

 

So, beloved, do oaths matter?  Do vows matter for our Christian life?

Yes!  Our salvation is based on a vow, and as we live our lives, our vows must reflect that same love that we have been shown.  A love for truth, a love for justice, a love for God’s Holy Name, and all that He IS, and evermore will be.

AMEN.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Jeremy Segstro, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright, Rev. Jeremy Segstro

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