“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
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.”
Our words are incredibly powerful. I’m not talking about the law of manifestation or any new age piffle. The Scriptures routinely condemn lies and speaking untruthfully in any measure. In summary fashion, the Confession begins:
A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein the person swearing in truth, righteousness, and judgment, solemnly calls God to witness what he swears, and to judge him according to the truth or falseness thereof.
Besides being true on its own, some historical context is helpful in understanding why it’s true. The Baptists wrote this section of the Confession as a way of clearly delineating their view from both Roman Catholics and Anabaptists. Roman Catholics dramatically changed the meaning and purpose of oaths and vows specifically. Anabaptists (from whom modern-day Baptists do not descend) forbade all forms of oaths and vows.
There are oaths where we guarantee that what we are saying is absolutely true without any equivocation or doublespeak. There are also oaths where we swear to do something.
By “religious” oaths, the Confession is simply acknowledging that an oath is something where we are specifically swearing in God’s name. It is not ordinary, daily speech. It should not be common. This is the intent of the third commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Religious oaths are not those that take place during a worship service. What would that even look like?
Righteousness is a key component of proper oaths. We do not swear to do something that is wicked or evil. In Judges 11, Jephthah swears to sacrifice the first thing that walks out of his house if God will deliver the Israelites from the army of the Ammonites. The battle is a success for Israel. To Jephthah’s dismay, the first “thing” to walk out of his house is his only daughter. Even though this was a wicked vow that he would be under no obligation to keep (and should never have made), Jephthah still sacrificed his daughter to God—who always forbade human sacrifice!
An oath, properly sworn, calls on God to be a witness to what is said. This is in fact proper because it recognizes that God alone is omniscient and omnipresent. He is the only one who can hear and bear witness to all the words of men, and he will curse those who go back on their oaths.
The Confession continues, 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, 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.
If you were ever taught that all oaths and vows are condemned by God, it likely stems from isolating Matthew 5:34-35, which says, “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.”
It is worth putting that verse in its full context.
“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” (Matthew 5:33-37).
You notice that we are not forbidden from swearing by God’s name but by lesser things. The trick played by the religious leaders of Jesus’s day was to swear by things lesser than God’s name so that there was a way out of keeping their oaths. In fact, in its proper context, we see that Jesus reiterates the fact that we should only swear by God’s name and nothing else.
The third commandment does in fact forbid using God’s name in invoking curses or speaking blasphemy. But the commandment goes further than that. We should actively honor God’s name. Not taking his name “in vain” means using it properly in confirming what is true.
Next time, we’ll take a closer look at how oath-taking is good but never something to be done hastily.