"Of Lawful Oaths and Vows"
i. A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein, upon just occasion, the person swearing solemnly calleth God to witness what he asserteth or promiseth; and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he sweareth.
ii. 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 matters of weight and moment, an oath is warranted by the Word of God, under the New Testament as well as under the Old; so a lawful oath, being imposed by lawful authority, in such matters, ought to be taken.
iii. Whosoever taketh an oath, ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he fully persuaded is the truth. Neither may any man bind himself by oath to anything but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform. Yet it is a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, being imposed by lawful authority.
iv. An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation, or mental reservation. It cannot oblige to sin; but in anything not sinful being taken, it binds to performance, although to a man's own hurt; nor is it to be violated, although made to heretics or infidels.
v. A vow is of the like nature with a promissory oath, and ought to be made with the like religious care, and to be performed with the like faithfulness.
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 anything 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 hath 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.
Chapter twenty-three of the Confession addresses a subject that may seem irrelevant, if not trivial, in today's society. Why would a Christian confession of faith include a seven-paragraph chapter regarding oaths and vows? While the question is not objectionable, the very fact that so many ask it reveals how far we as a society have fallen in our understanding of oaths and vows.
First, we need to define our terms. An oath involves both men and God, usually when a person makes a promise to another and invokes God as a witness. A vow is a promise made to God. This is why we promise before God to keep our wedding vows; they are first and foremost promises made to God that we will treat our spouses in a godly manner. Thus, as you can see, the two are closely related but slightly different.
In the opening paragraphs, the Confession teaches us that vows are exceedingly solemn affairs. The reasoning is simple. The triune God alone is the true and living God. Therefore, this God is the only one by whom we should swear or to whom we should make vows. This is why the Divines encourage us to consider carefully what we take an oath to do or what we vow to perform. God will not hold guiltless those who profane his name by swearing oaths and vows falsely.
As I said at the beginning, the reason the words of the Confession strike us as strange is precisely because we see so few people faithfully keeping either oaths or vows. Consider the public official who takes an oath on the Bible to perform certain duties. Unfortunately, few people are surprised when that same official, a few months into his term, utterly violates his oath. Yet God will hold him accountable, for he swore on God's holy word, which is his divine self-revelation.
More pervasive than dishonest public officials, however, is the criminal way in which so many people--even many Christians--break their marital vows. The sorry state of our marriages is pictured by the fact that many people today do not prefer to say traditional vows; instead, they write their own vows. As is to be expected, these vows almost never take God into account and are generally unbiblical. Where traditional vows are taken, the two people getting married seem to have no trouble heading straight for the divorce attorney when "irreconcilable differences" rear their ugly head. Such a trivializing of vows ought to cause us great sadness. God certainly does not treat our vows, or our breaking of them, lightly. This is why David, in Psalm 15:4, holds up the man "who swears to his own hurt and does not change."
Now, at this point, someone might object. "Didn't Jesus tell us not to swear at all but simply let our 'yes' be 'yes' and our 'no' be 'no'"? We find our Lord's words along these lines in Matthew 5:33-37. The answer to the question is fairly simple. Since the Bible gives us examples of people taking lawful oaths and vows (e.g., Isaiah 65:16, 2 Cor 1:23) and since Jesus never contradicts his own word, he cannot be speaking about all oaths and vows. Rather, he is forbidding exactly what the third commandment forbids: the taking of God's name in vain by the swearing of trivial oaths and vows. Put simply, Jesus tells us we can't swear by our dead mother's grave or swear by all that is holy, to use some common examples. These are blasphemous false vows and God will punish those who unrepentantly make them.
The Confession goes on to set forth different aspects of lawful and unlawful oaths and vows. All vows are binding, whether made to believers or unbelievers. This seems to be a direct refutation of the Roman Catholic practice of allowing a person to break vows to "infidels and heretics." No, the Bible says that when we make an oath or vow, as long as it does not contradict God's word, we must keep it, whether to believer or unbeliever.
The Confession not only tells us we must keep our lawful oaths and vows, it also tells us that we must never take unlawful vows. The example it gives is that of monastic vows. Why does the Confession forbid the practice of these kinds of vows? Simply because they are not Biblical. To vow perpetual singleness, as many monks did then and do today, is not a Scriptural vow. Therefore, it is a false vow and no Christian should enter into such a vow.
This chapter is a summons to be a truth-telling and truth-loving people. Indeed, our salvation is based on an oath, as it were. Because there is no one higher than he, God swears by none other than himself that we will be saved (cf. Heb 6:17-18). Indeed, Jesus was the man of Psalm 15:4 whom David spoke of. Unlike us, Jesus swore to his own hurt--his massive suffering--and did not change, keeping his promise of salvation all the way up Calvary's bloody hill. Now, in resurrection glory, he call us, his beloved bride, to be a people whose word can be trusted. He calls us to be a people who faithfully keep our lawful oaths and vows. We can only do so in union with him and by doing so, we show the world a faithful Savior who always keeps his word of salvation to all those who trust him.
Dr. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Greenville, SC and chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.