George Orwell once wrote, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” In the ninth commandment forbidding the bearing of false witness (Exodus 20:16). And, Jesus declared, “Let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil” (Matthew 5:37). In a world where deceit and lying is commonplace, God desires that His people be revolutionary truth tellers, men and women of their word.
That’s what chapter 22 (“Of Lawful Oaths and Vows”) of the Westminster Confession of Faith is all about. This is the chapter that we studied in our most recent adult Sunday school class. But, before we delve in, it’s helpful to have a basic definition of the difference between an oath and a vow. In our common vernacular, we don’t usually make a distinction between the two – at least as far as I’ve noticed in my own personal experience. However, according to the Westminster Divines, “In an oath man calls upon God to witness and to judge what he says or promises to men. In a vow man makes a solemn promise to God” (G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, 231). Simply put, an oath is promise which one makes to another person, and a vow is a promise which one makes to God.
WCF 22.1 – The definition of an oath
In keeping with the definition of an oath above, this paragraph of the confession defines an oath as a part of religious worship, wherein God is called to witness what a person promises to do. In example, the Apostle Paul called upon God as witness of his intention for not visiting the church in Corinth at a particular time (2 Corinthians 1:23).
WCF 22.2 – Oaths are to be taken in God’s name only
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day had sought to differentiate between different levels of oaths. In their minds, some oaths were more binding than others. For instance, swearing by the temple was less binding than swearing by God’s name (Matthew 23:16-21). But, Jesus rebuked them, saying, “Whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it” (Matthew 23:22). In the Old Testament, the Bible clearly states, “You shall fear only the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name” (Deuteronomy 6:13).
WCF 22.3 – The seriousness of an oath
Oaths are serious matters; therefore, we ought to never swear ‘with our fingers crossed.’ That is, if we take an oath, we ought to willing and able to keep it; “you shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Therefore, like Abraham’s servant (Genesis 24:2-9), when contemplating taking an oath in God’s name, we ought to thoroughly investigate the details of what we are promising in order to make sure that we are able to perform it.
WCF 22.4 – Honesty in oath-taking
‘Doublespeak’ is not to be employed as an excuse in oath-taking. As the confession puts it, “An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation, or mental reservation (Psalm 24:4).
Also, even if an oath is made with unbelievers who have entered into a pact under false pretenses, for the believer who seeks to honor the Lord, it is still binding. This was the case for Joshua and the Israelites when they entered into a covenant with the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites (a city of the Amorites) pretended to be sojourners in the land, so without asking for the counsel of the LORD (9:14), Joshua and the elders of Israel made a covenant with them. It is not until 3 days later that they learn that the Gibeonites were actually their neighbors and living in the land (Joshua 9:1-17). Yet, the leaders of Israel maintained that Israel had to keep their end of the bargain because they had sworn to them “but he LORD, the God of Israel” (Joshua 9:18-20).
WCF 22.5 – Vows are similar to oaths
Vows – those promises made to God – are similar to oaths which are made to men. Thus, vows ought to be made with similar religious care and kept. In Preacher of Ecclesiastes warns of the serious nature of vows:
Guard your steps as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil. Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few. For the dream comes through much effort and the voice of a fool through many words. When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. (Ecclesiastes 5:1-5)
WCF 22.6 – The definition of a vow
Vows are to be made to God alone. And, they are to be made voluntarily, out of faith and a good conscience of one’s duty to God. Usually, vows are made for the purpose of giving thanks or for obtaining something which is desired. And, vows are often made when one is in deep distress as a plea for God to help (Psalm 66:13-14; Jonah 2:1-10).
WCF 22.7 – The definition of unlawful vows
Vows may not be made by a person to do anything sinful (forbidden in God’s Word) or that would contradict a life of faithfulness. By way of example of unlawful vows, the confession speaks of “Popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience.” That is to say, a life of celibacy is a personal calling, not a prerequisite to ministry (Matthew 19:11-12). Likewise, a vow of poverty obligates a person to give up all claims to personal property and runs against the teaching of Scripture (Acts 5:3-4; Ephesians 4:28). Lastly, vows of regular obedience to a particular hierarchical structure or person, with no regard for liberty of conscience (see WCF 20.2), violates the principle of Scripture which teaches that we ought to obey men to whom we are subject, as long as that obedience does not conflict with our obedience to God (Acts 5:29; 1 Corinthians 7:23).
Today, we may not typically think about the difference between an oath (a promise to men) and vow (a promise to God); however, in the end, our commitment to honesty, truthfulness, and doing what we say will do ought to drive us to be revolutionary truth tellers in a world of universal deceit.
Peter M. Dietsch is pastor of Providence PCA in Midland, Texas. This article first appeared on his church website and is used with permission.