A Vow’s Intent

“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” (Matt. 5:34–35).

- Matthew 5:33–37

Regrettably in our day, many people fail to keep their promises. They routinely break the oaths that they have made with little fear of repercussion. High divorce rates and political corruption testify that many are unconcerned with keeping their vows. Because the solemnity of our sworn promises is not often taken seriously, this week we will study what Scripture has to say about oaths and vows with the help of the teaching series Oaths and Vows by Dr. R.C. Sproul.

Last Friday we examined James 5:12 and its teaching regarding oaths. At first glance, it might seem that this passage forbids oaths altogether. In fact, some Christian traditions have read this verse in this way and do not allow oaths under any circumstance.

However, as we discussed briefly on Friday, this is not the proper way to understand this passage. God Himself commands His people to swear by His name in the Old Testament (Deut. 10:20). If the apostles were to forbid all oaths, they would be calling into question the trustworthiness of God’s Word. An apostle would never do that, and so James cannot be forbidding all oaths in His epistle.

Based on the similarity of James 5:12 with today’s passage, we can see that James likely took His teaching on oaths directly from the earthly teaching ministry of Jesus. Therefore, if we understand the setting of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:33–37, we will better understand what Jesus and James mean when they seemingly forbid oaths.

In Jesus’ day, many taught that an oath made in the name of anything other than God could be broken with impunity. Thus, people would make oaths in the name of created things (see Matt. 5:34) so that they could break their vows without fear of consequence.

However, while such a practice might conform to the letter of the Law, it certainly violates the spirit of the Law. God commands us to swear oaths in order to reinforce the necessity of truthful speech. If we swear vows by created things in order to get out of our obligations, we have not submitted to God’s concern for the truth. Therefore we can see that Jesus does not forbid all oaths, although He does forbid us from making oaths that we do not intend to keep.

Coram Deo

All of us have made promises that we do not intend to keep. We make vows all the while knowing that we have a way out if we want it. As we have seen today, however, such activity violates the law of God. God looks upon the heart (1 Sam. 16:7) and knows whether our intentions conform to the promises that we make. If you have made a promise that you did not intend to keep, remember that if it is a lawful promise you must keep it. Go and keep it today.

Passages for Further Study

Ps. 94:8–11
Eccl. 5:4–5
Matt. 5:17
Mark 7:20–23

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.