Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
The Misuse of God's Name, Part 2
But I say to you, do not swear at all… But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.
Matthew 5:34a, 37
Today we continue to look at Question 113 of the Larger Catechism, which asks, “What are the sins forbidden in the Third Commandment?” Here we notice the second part of the answer, which states, “The sins forbidden in the Third Commandments are… all sinful cursings, oaths, vows, and lots; violating of our oaths and vows, if lawful; and fulfilling them, if of things unlawful.” Last week we examined specific ways in which people dishonor the name of God through their words and attitudes as they speak. This week we look at how God’s name is disrespected when we do not rightly keep our promises.
In the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, in addition to reformers like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin: who are sometimes known as “magisterial reformers,” because they conducted their ministries lawfully under the local magistrates; there was another branch of the Reformation who are usually classified under the title “Anabaptists.” Furthermore, whereas Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli had many doctrines and practices in common, the Anabaptists represent a wide range of doctrinal diversity. In fact, historians appear to have only two requirements to label a Protestant from the 16th century an Anabaptist: 1) you had to reject infant baptism; and 2) you had to be operating without the approval of your country’s lawful rulers.
However, many Anabaptists had another doctrine in common, which often set them at odds with their governing authorities: they believed it was a sin to ever, under any circumstances, take an oath or a vow. They interpreted the Scripture at the head of this article absolutely, arguing that since Jesus clearly said, “Do not swear at all,” in obedience to Christ we too must refuse to take oaths of any kind: whether marriage vows, oaths of citizenship, or to tell the truth in court, or whatever. Notice how the Westminster divines rejected this position in today’s question. They agree the Third Commandment (and thus, Christ in the Sermon on the Mount) prohibits all SINFUL oaths and vows, yet they aver that Christ commanded believers to keep all “lawful” oaths and vows. How do they get this? by interpreting Scripture as a consistent whole. Other Scriptures show the rightful taking of vows (2Cor. 1:23; Heb. 6:16-17), and all swearing or vowing is ultimately to the Lord. Accordingly, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that to swear by heaven is actually to swear by God’s throne (Matt. 5:34), and by the earth is to swear by His footstool (5:35). And so, it follows that to swear by everything in between heaven and earth is to in the same fashion call God to witness to the truth of your words. The Old Testament similarly affirms that vows are only to be offered to the Lord (Ps. 76:11).
Why then does Jesus say “Do not swear at all?” In order to properly understand Christ’s intent in making this statement, we must examine the context of the Sermon on the Mount. Clearly, our Lord is preaching a sermon to Israelites, in which He is correcting current distortions of God’s Word as taught by the religious authorities of the day, and thereby calling the people back to the pure worship of God through the right interpretation of Scripture. Furthermore, when Christ addresses their false practices, He does so by the common figure of hyperbole in order to get at, in a memorable way, the sin issue He is trying to correct. In the context of the sermon, His audience would have without a doubt understood Christ’s true meaning. Thus, when Jesus commanded that charitable deeds must be done in secret (Matt. 6:3-4), and that prayer must be offered from closets (Matt. 6:6), His audience would have clearly understood that Christ was correcting the hypocrisy of insincere worshipers who act only to be seen by men, not that He was giving exact instruction on the proper way to give or pray. And so also with swearing: Christ was teaching that in our daily life, we should always practice honesty, and not for a show, be quick to say “I swear to God!” or something similar. Such things are not said out of true piety towards God but to impress people we are trying to convince. God’s name is too holy for you to invoke it for such selfish reasons as convincing others of your honesty, or even worse: to make a lie look more impressive. And so we should avoid such sinful vows. However, as Jesus submitted to a proper oath when placed under it by legitimate government authority (Matt. 26:63), even so should we. May God grant that when we do, we will not take His name in vain.