Soli Deo Gloria: For the Glory of God Alone
Posted: Friday, September 7, 2012 12:16 pm
The Messenger, September 6, 2012
I Swear to God!
By WALLY BUMPAS
Special to The Messenger.
Most of us can remember as children making some statement with which we intended to impress our friends, like “I was fishing with my dad and we saw THREE SNAKES.” Then to add weight to our words, we would say, “I swear to God.”
Is it ever right to “swear to God?” And what might this have to do with the third commandment: “You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain” (Exodus 20:7)?
As the Heidelberg Catechism goes through the Ten Commandments, it devotes one Lord’s Day to each commandment, with the exception of the third. Only the third commandment gets two studies. Our last article covered the basic meaning and application of the commandment. Now we consider two additional questions:
Question 101 asks: But may we swear an oath in God’s name if we do it reverently? Answer: Yes, when the government demands it, or when necessity requires it, in order to maintain and promote truth and trustworthiness for God’s glory and our neighbor’s good. Such oaths are approved in God’s Word and were rightly used by Old and New Testament believers.
Question 102: May we swear by saints or other creatures? Answer: No. A legitimate oath means calling upon God as the one who knows my heart to witness to my truthfulness and to punish me if I swear falsely. No creature is worthy of such honor.
With all the ethical problems facing our culture, why would anyone consider the swearing of oaths to be a pressing moral dilemma? The framers of our catechism certainly did. There is one particular New Testament passage that gives rise to the problem. In Matthew 5: 33-37 Jesus said, “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.”
If these words of Jesus rule out even an oath taken in God’s name, then to do so would take God’s name in vain. What’s the answer?
We must set the verses in their context. Jesus, in all of Matthew 5, is correcting distortions of the Old Testament law that had become common in His day. Deuteronomy 10:20 instructed God’s people to swear “by His name.” In the first century it had become common to swear by things or persons other than God. That way you could break the oath and it wouldn’t be so bad, since you didn’t swear in God’s name. In that context Jesus said the thing to do is just tell the truth and stick by what you say. If you are a person of honesty and integrity, you don’t need to always be saying, “I swear to God.” or “I swear on my mother’s grave.” Taking oaths had become a cover for dishonesty and hypocrisy. This is what Jesus was addressing.
We must also take into account that “swearing,” in the sense of taking a solemn oath, occurs all through the Bible. Abraham, Jacob, David, Paul, Christ Himself and many others swore on certain important occasions, calling God as witness to their truthfulness.
In the end, as those who bear God’s name, we should rarely need to swear because our word alone should be trustworthy. However, “when government demands it, or when necessity requires it” we may lawfully speak under an oath, to promote truth and the glory of God. But normally, just say “yes” or “no” and mean it.
Bible readers will notice that on many occasions God Himself “swears” in order to give added weight and certainty to His promises and threats. In Hebrews 6 listen to how we are assured that, having set our hope in Christ and His promise of pardon and eternal life, we can have “strong encouragement” to the end of our days on earth:
“For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So 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.” (Hebrews 6:16-18)
Editor’s note: The Rev. Wally Bumpas serves as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Dyersburg.
Soli Deo Gloria: For the Glory of God Alone