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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Southern River
 West Kelmscott
Title:Christians may swear oaths in a godly manner
Text:LD 37 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic: 3rd Commandment (God's name)

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 78

Hymn 11:1,4,9

Psalm 119:17

Hymn 1

Hymn 9

Scripture readings: Matthew 14:1-12; 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 congregation of Christ,

This afternoon we’re looking at Lord’s Day 37 and the whole matter of swearing oaths.  When our Catechism was first written in 1563, the topic of oaths and vows loomed large in people’s minds.  That was for two reasons.  On the one hand, you had many people who’d made vows of different kinds when they’d been Roman Catholics.  For instance, there were men and women who had taken vows of chastity and became priests, or monks, or nuns.  After they became Christians, were they still bound to these vows that they’d made?  After the Reformation, were they still obligated to be celibate and never get married?  On the other hand, there were Anabaptists who argued that followers of Christ should never make any oaths or vows.  After all, Jesus said, “Let your ‘yes’ be yes, and your ‘no’ be no.”  So the Anabaptists argued that oaths and vows are unlawful for Christians.  So back in the sixteenth century, Lord’s Day 37 was relevant for Reformed believers. 

It still is for today.  Let me mention three ways.  The first is the most common issue we face in connection with oaths or vows.  It’s the tendency for people in regular speech to say things like, “I swear it’s true!”  or “I swear on my mother’s grave,” or even more piously, “I swear on the Bible.”  Lord’s Day 37 has something to say to those who casually use these sorts of oaths.

Far less common are those moments where the government requires us to swear an oath.  If you find yourself in a courtroom giving testimony, you may be placed under oath.  Is it okay for Christians to do this?  How should we do it?  Lord’s Day 37 gives a biblical answer to those questions.

Finally, Lord’s Day 37 is also often relevant today when it comes to the question of union membership.  It’s true that not all labour unions are the same.  They don’t all require the same level of commitment from their members.  However, we need to recognize that many labour unions do have membership oaths.  Their constitutions call them membership oaths.  Sometimes that involves swearing unconditional allegiance to the union.  Can Christians swear such an oath?  Again, as we’ll see this afternoon, Lord’s Day 37 helps us sort that out with sound biblical teaching.

Before we get into the meat of the matter, I want to deal with one other important preliminary item.  As we look at the biblical teaching on oaths, we should keep our eyes on the gospel.  We need to remember our Saviour and how he factors into this teaching.  We can’t take that for granted.  First of all, we cannot forget that by ourselves we are law-breakers.  You and I have both broken the third commandment in many ways, perhaps also when it comes to the use of oaths or vows.  God has provided us with a Saviour.  As we’ll see later in this sermon, Jesus obeyed this commandment perfectly, even when it led to his death.  This obedience is ours when we believe in him.  In his death on the cross, he has made a sacrifice which covers for all our failures in keeping the law.  The blood of Christ covers every breach of this commandment.  That’s good news, isn’t it?  In fact, that’s the best news we sinners could hope for.  In the sight of the heavenly judge, we are not merely acquitted, but declared totally righteous.  That good news puts Lord’s Day 37 into the proper perspective.  Listen carefully: this is not a prescription for how to be forgiven.  Instead, it’s a description of the lifestyle of a Christian who is forgiven, also when it comes to the matter of oaths.  This is not about measuring up in any way, but how we respond to the gospel of grace.  The law is our guide for showing God our love and gratitude.

So let’s look at the biblical teaching in Lord’s Day 37 and what it says about oaths.  We’ll see that Christians may swear oaths in a godly manner

We’ll consider three questions this afternoon:

  1. What is a lawful oath?
  2. When can you swear an oath?
  3. What is our oath-taking based upon?

QA 102 gives us a clear definition of a lawful oath.  It’s quite simple:  you make a lawful oath when you call upon God to bear witness to the truth.  At the same time, you’re acknowledging that God will punish you if you have lied.  In a sense then, an oath is like a prayer.  The connection to the third commandment is that if you’re lying in this prayer to God and before God, you are taking God’s Name in vain.  At the same time, it’s also clear that a lawful oath must be made by calling upon the highest authority who knows all human hearts.  Only God qualifies.  In the Roman Catholic Church, oaths have been and still are sometimes sworn in the name of saints.  But saints are mere human beings.   They don’t have the insight into human hearts to see whether the truth is being told or not.  Saints also don’t have the authority to punish anyone if they’re lying.  Moreover, if we shouldn’t be praying to saints, and if oaths are a sort of prayer, then certainly we shouldn’t be swearing oaths in their name either.  Only God is worthy of being honoured through prayer and through our oaths.  That’s the logic of QA 102.

It’s biblical logic.  After all, the first commandment tells us to worship only God.  Prayer is part of worship, and since swearing an oath is a sort of prayer, a lawful oath can only be calling upon the one true God.                          

We could add that lawful oaths are also going to conform to the rest of God’s law.  You cannot make a lawful oath where you say something contrary to God’s law, whether it’s lying testimony or a promise to do something sinful.  When we make oaths or vows, what comes out of our mouths has to be consistent with God’s perfect will for our lives. 

Let me give an illustration of an unlawful oath.  It’s in what we read from Matthew 14.  In that chapter, King Herod made a rash oath to Salome, the daughter of Herodias.  Verse 7 says he promised with an oath to give her whatever she wanted.  It was an unconditional promise.  The text doesn’t say he swore this oath in the name of God, but perhaps he did.  Whether he did or didn’t, the oath was still unlawful.  This 13 or 14 year old Salome went to her mother to see what she should ask for and Herodias told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist.  Herod obliged.  If he had seen that his oath was unlawful, he could have repented and kept John alive.  But he thought he was bound by this oath and so he went ahead and murdered God’s prophet.  An unconditional oath that leads to murder is unlawful.  Any oath or vow that leads to the breaking of God’s commandments is unlawful and should never be made.  This is why the Reformers argued that vows of chastity made by monks and nuns could be broken.  Such vows should never be made by men and women when God instituted marriage as a good and holy state.  These were unlawful vows or oaths and those who made them could break them without sinning before God. 

But what about lawful oaths?  There are a good number of those in Scripture.  There’s Paul’s use of an oath formula in passages like 2 Corinthians 1:23, “But I call God to witness against me – it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth.”  That’s essentially an oath.  Paul was calling on God as his witness that he was speaking the truth. 

Then there’s also what we read from Matthew 26.  There are two oath-takers mentioned in that reading.  The second oath-taker made not just one, but two unlawful oaths.  As Peter was standing outside the house of the high priest, he swore twice with an oath that he didn’t know Jesus.  He took God’s Name in vain to deny his Master.  That’s sinking pretty low.  While Peter was outside doing that, Jesus was doing the complete opposite.  We read in verses 63 and 64, that Jesus was put under oath by the high priest.  When that happened, Christ spoke the truth.  He did it in obedience to the Third Commandment.  He did it for Peter and for you and me.  He did it even though he knew that this obedience would lead to the cross.  He knew that there would be a cost attached to his lawful oath – and yet he made it.  Why?  Because of his great love for sinners like Peter, and you, and me.  Peter outside swearing unlawfully, deserving of condemnation.  Jesus inside swearing lawfully, undeserving of condemnation.  This is not only a picture of unlawful versus lawful oaths, but more importantly a picture of what we call the great exchange.  With an oath on his lips, our Saviour takes our sin on himself so that we can receive his righteousness and holiness.  When we see this gospel picture in Matthew 26, that should move our hearts to love for God, the kind of love where we want to honour him by only making lawful oaths ourselves.  

If it isn’t obvious already, a Christian who loves the Lord can’t make an unconditional oath of allegiance to a labour union or any organization.  A Christian simply can’t promise to obey the union leadership no matter what.  When you become a member of a union that requires that commitment, that oath, you are promising that you’ll do whatever they say, even if it contradicts what God says in his Word.  Such unions seek to trump Christ as Lord and your commitment to him.  It should be obvious that a Christian wouldn’t want to have any part in that.  Our highest and ultimate allegiance is always to the Lord and we should never deny that by taking an unlawful oath of membership in a labour union. 

So then when can you swear an oath?  There are two main scenarios where godly oath-taking is appropriate.  The first is when “the government demands it.”  If you find yourself in a courtroom or in a public inquiry or something like that, an oath is permissible.  In years gone by, going to court as a witness would always require an oath of some kind.  But in today’s secular world, judges may not always require an oath.  The legal system makes allowances for people who aren’t religious or who may have conscientious objections to making an oath.  So sometimes a judge will allow witnesses to simply make a solemn affirmation that they’ll tell the truth.  But for us as Christians, since we are indeed going to tell the truth, we should use the opportunity in that setting to honour God and swear in his Name that we will bear witness to the truth.  It’s a good opportunity to make clear to the world that we live our lives before the face of God.

The other scenario is “when necessity requires it, in order to maintain and promote fidelity and truth…”  There is some room for interpretation here of “when necessity requires it.”  But certainly, if we keep in mind that we are speaking about the use of God’s Name, we’ll never be glib and casual about it.  What could qualify as a necessary situation?  I’ve never seen it happen, but it could be that a consistory would be dealing with a difficult case where there are conflicting accounts of what happened.  In a situation like that, a consistory could certainly have the people involved swear an oath and thereby promise to tell the truth.  Or perhaps in a serious matter, if our credibility was being called into question, perhaps in a situation like that we might take it upon ourselves to swear an oath that we are telling the truth.  But it should be a serious matter, not something frivolous.  It’s certainly not something that should be a habit.  Instead, it should be reserved for exceptional circumstances.

It should be clear then that casual swearing has to be out for followers of Christ.  In our casual talk each day, I trust we would never say, “I swear to God…”  We should understand that to be blasphemous.   Something similar, though, is true when we say, “I swear by my mother’s grave,” or stuff like that.  Then it’s not so much blasphemous as it is idolatrous.  Your mother’s grave has replaced God in your glib casual oath.  Brothers and sisters, when can you swear an oath?  When can you say, “I swear it’s true”?  When the government requires it or when it’s absolutely necessary.  But not just casually on an everyday basis.  On an everyday basis, Christ’s instruction should be enough:  let your yes be yes and your no be no.  We shouldn’t have to pepper our speech with unnecessary oaths.  It should be clear whenever we speak that we are people of integrity whose words can be trusted, because we belong to Jesus Christ and live in union with him as our head and Lord.

Finally, we want to look at the question:  what is our oath-taking based upon?  Our Catechism says it is “based on God’s Word and was therefore rightly used by saints in the Old and the New Testament.”  We’ve already seen two examples of proper godly oath-taking in Scripture.  Jesus did it when he was before the Sanhedrin and Paul did it in places like 2 Cor. 1:23.  If Christ and his apostles were swearing oaths in a godly manner, why can’t Christians today, when it’s necessary?

Certainly that’s backed up by Hebrews 6 as well.  That chapter speaks of God’s covenant with Abraham.  It says that in that covenant of grace, God himself swore an oath to Abraham.  God swore by himself, says Hebrews 6:13, because he could swear by no one greater.  This is what we call a self-maledictory oath.  God was saying, “Let me die if I am not faithful to what I have promised Abraham.”  Of course, God could not die or lie.  God could be trusted.  His Word was good and faithful.  But for our purposes here this afternoon, we can see that oath-taking is commended here.  If God could swear by himself to Abraham, why could we not swear by God to one another if the need is there or it’s required of us?  Scripture is clear that godly oath-taking is not out of the question.  It’s found in God’s Word.

Therefore, we have to say that the Anabaptists were wrong when they forbid it completely.  They focussed on Jesus saying, “Let your yes be yes,” etc. but neglected what Scripture said elsewhere.  Unfortunately, there are still many Mennonites and other Anabaptists who continue to follow this erroneous teaching.  That’s why we can be thankful that we still have Lord’s Day 37.  The wrong thinking it was written to address is still around today.  We need to be aware that the Bible says we may and must indeed call upon God with our oaths when the need arises.

Loved ones, God’s Name is a gift and it’s a privilege that we may use it.  It’s a privilege that we as his children through Christ may pray to him.  It’s also a privilege that we can use his Name, if we need to, in order to maintain faithfulness and truth.  But this is a privilege that shouldn’t be exercised cavalierly, as if God’s Name is light and not that important.  When we swear oaths, let it be in God’s Name only, calling on him only to bear witness to the truth.  When we swear oaths, let it be only when we really need to, for his glory and for the good of our neighbours.  AMEN. 


O faithful and true God,

Thank you for your Name and all that it means.  You have blessed us with the knowledge of who you are and what you stand for.  Above all, we have heard and know that you are our God and Father through Jesus Christ.  Thank you for taking us into this relationship of fellowship.  Thank you for forgiving our sin and trespass through Jesus, including all the times that we misused oaths or have not been faithful in them.  The gospel of our salvation makes us want to honour you with everything we do and say.  We also want to honour you when it comes to oaths.  Help us to make only lawful oaths that acknowledge you as the only true God and Lord of our lives.  Please strengthen us with your Spirit, so that with our words we show our commitment to you as the source of all truth and goodness.  Father, please also give us more grace so that we can be faithful in everything we have sworn and vowed in our lives – whether it’s as members of the church, as parents, or as office bearers.  Help us to always be faithful and true, reflecting your image, and showing our union with Christ – for your glory.

* 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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