Concerning Lawful Oaths (23.1-4)
The first four paragraphs address nature, propriety, solemnity and sincerity of lawful oaths.
The nature of a lawful oath (23.1)
A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein the person swearing in truth, righteousness, and judgement, solemnly calleth God to witness what he sweareth, and to judge him according to the truth or falseness thereof.Modern Version
A lawful oath is an element of religious worship in which a person swearing in truth, righteousness, and judgment solemnly calls God to witness what is sworn and to judge the one swearing according to the truth or falsity of it.
 Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 10:20; Jeremiah 4:2  2 Chronicles 6:22, 23The first paragraph describes the nature of an oath. An oath is a solemn promise made to another party in which God is called upon to act as a witness and judge.
There are two kinds of oaths: (1) an assertory oath is used to confirm the truthfulness and reliability of one’s testimony. This type of oath is often used in the courtroom setting; (2) a promissory oath is used to confirm one’s intent to fulfill an obligation or promise. Those assuming some public office or a contractual obligation, like marriage, often use this type of oath. Traditionally, oaths have been viewed as religious in nature2 since God is evoked as a witness.3 However, in modern times oaths have begun to lose their religious character with the increase of secularism.
The Bible contains numerous examples of oaths. Sometimes civil or religious authorities would require an individual or community to confirm a plea of innocence with an oath when suspected or accused of a crime (Exodus 22:10, 11; Leviticus 5:1; 6:3; Numbers 5:11-28; Matthew 26:63, 64). Oaths were also employed to confirm one’s fidelity to his covenantal commitments and responsibilities (1 Kings 2:43; Ecclesiastes 8:2; Hebrews 6:16, 17).
Oaths often included such verbal formulas as “I swear by God” (1 Samuel 30:15; Nehemiah 13:25), “God is witness between you and me” (Genesis 31:50; 1 Samuel 12:5; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Philippians 1:8), “As the Lord lives” (1 Samuel 14:39; 19:6; 20:3; 2 Samuel 15:21), or “May the Lord do so to me if I do not” (Ruth 1:17; 1 Samuel 3:17; 14:44; 2 Samuel 3:35; 1 Kings 2:23).
Oaths were also often accompanied by physical gestures, such as raising one’s right hand heavenward (Deuteronomy 32:40; Psalm 106:26; Isaiah 62:8; Daniel 12:7; Revelation 10:5, 6) or, less commonly, placing one’s hand under another’s thigh (Genesis 24:2; 47:29).4 In modern times, the adjured raises his right hand or places it upon a Bible and swears to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help [him] God.”
The propriety of a lawful oath (23.2)
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.Modern Version
People should swear by the name of God alone and only with the mot holy fear and reverence. Therefore to swear an empty or ill-advised oath by that glorious and awe-inspiring name, or to swear at all by anything else, is sinful and to be abhorred. Yet in weighty and significant matters, an oath is authorized by the Word of God to confirm truth and end all conflict. So a lawful oath should be taken when it is required by legitimate authority in such circumstances.
 Matthew 5:34, 37; James 5:12  Hebrews 6:16; 2 Corinthians 1:23  Nehemiah 13:25Having briefly described the nature of an oath, the Confession defends the propriety of lawful oaths in the second paragraph.
First of all, “sinful” oaths are identified and condemned. Idolatrous oaths are those in which invoke any one or thing except the one true God as witness (Joshua 23:7; Jeremiah 5:7; Zephaniah 1:5). Vain oaths are those taken flippantly for trivial matters or with the intent to deceive (Exodus 20:7; Matthew 23:16-22). Rash oaths are those taken in haste without proper forethought or solemnity (Numbers 30:6; Ecclesiastes 5:2-5). All such oaths are forbidden and condemned by Scripture (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 6:13; Jeremiah 5:7; Matthew 5:33-37).
Especially strong is Christ’s censure in the Sermon on the Mount:
Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.” But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No.” For whatever is more than these is from the evil one (Matt 5:33-37, NKJV).Because Quakers and some Anabaptists frequently cited this censure, which is repeated by the apostle James (5:12), the Puritans felt constrained to defend the propriety of lawful oaths in the second half of this paragraph. They affirmed that, in certain circumstances, “an oath is warranted by the word of God.” In fact, the Puritans not only viewed lawful oaths as appropriate, but also as mandatory when imposed by a lawful authority.5
The Scripture offers the following support for lawful oaths:
1. The commands to swear in Jehovah’s name and the prohibitions against swearing falsely assume the propriety of lawful oaths (Exodus 20:7; Leviticus19:12; Deuteronomy 6:13; 10:20).
2. The Mosaic Law sometimes required the swearing of an oath (Exodus 22:10, 11; Leviticus 5:1; 6:3; Numbers 5:19-22; 1 Kings 8:31).
3. The example of many OT saints vindicates the use of lawful oaths: Abraham (Genesis 24:2); Jacob (Genesis 47:30-31); Joseph (Genesis 50:25); Elijah (1 Kings 17:1); Nehemiah (Nehemiah 5:12; 13:25); and Ezra (Ezra 10:5).
4. The example of Christ and the Apostle Paul vindicate the use of lawful oaths (Matthew 26:62-64; Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Philippians 1:8).
5. The example of God Himself vindicates the use of lawful oaths (Genesis 22:16; Numbers 14:28; Deuteronomy 32:40; Psalm 95:11; Jeremiah 22:5; Amos 6:8; 8:7; Luke 1:73; Hebrews 6:13-17).
But if lawful oaths are appropriate, then why does Jesus say, “Do not swear at all” (Matthew 5:34)? Why does He say, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37)?
In light of the ample biblical support for lawful oaths, we must not interpret Christ’s censure as an absolute prohibition against all oaths. Rather, as indicated by the context, Jesus is condemning Pharisaic casuistry and misuse of the Law.
The Pharisees took the Old Testament command “do not swear falsely, but perform [one’s] oaths to the Lord,” and they shifted the emphasis from the integrity of the oath to the formula of the oath. No longer was the emphasis upon keeping one’s promise, but now it was on the phrase “to the Lord.”
As a result, the Pharisees concluded that one might break his oath provided that he did not swear by the Lord.6 In fact, they devoted an entire book to distinguish between the kinds of oaths that could be broken and those that were obligatory! (cf. Matthew 23:16-22). Thus, Jesus’ censure was not against lawful oath-taking but against sinful oath-taking.7
The solemnity of a lawful oath (23.3)
Whosoever taketh an oath warranted by the Word of God, ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he knoweth to be truth; for that by rash, false, and vain oaths, the Lord is provoked, and for them this land mourns.Modern Version
Whoever takes an oath authorized by the Word of God should consider with due gravity the seriousness of such a weighty act and to affirm nothing in it except what one knows to be true. For the Lord is provoked by ill-advised, false, and empty oaths, and because of them this land mourns.
 Lev. 19:12; Jer. 23:10The third paragraph underscores the solemnity of oath-taking. Oaths should only be taken when required by a lawful authority or when circumstances demand it.8 The Baptists added a closing phrase, which highlights the consequences of sinful oath taking—God’s anger is provoked and society suffers. But Baptists also omitted a significant section of the WCF, which they apparently felt was sufficiently addressed elsewhere in the chapter.9
The sincerity of a lawful oath (23.4)
An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation or mental reservation.Modern Version
An oath is to be expressed in the plain and ordinary meaning of the words, without any ambiguity or mental reservation.
 Psalm 24:4The fourth paragraph addresses the need for absolute integrity in oath-taking. As pointed out earlier, some of the Pharisees were “spinsters.” They were experts at twisting the meaning of words and phrases (Matthew 5:33-37; 23:16-22).
But such dishonest “word games” were not limited to Jesus’ day. Today, an American president can justify perjury because he intended something different than his interrogator when he used the word “is.” Liberal pastors and theologians can confess adherence to evangelical doctrinal standards after they “reinterpret” such words and phrases as “inspiration,” “deity of Christ,” “virgin birth,” “resurrection” and so on. Taxpayers can justify “fudging” on their tax return form on the basis of a loose interpretation of the phrase “to the best of my knowledge and belief.”
This is precisely the kind of dishonest casuistry censured by this paragraph and forbidden by Scripture (Leviticus 19:12; Matthew 5:34-36). As G. I. Williamson appropriately remarks,
The taking of an oath with secret intention of double meaning, not disclosed to others, or with mental reservations, whereby the mind silently voices dissent from part or all of what is being sworn, is a sin of enormity.10That is because the Bible commends absolute honesty and fidelity (Psalm 24:4; Matthew 5:37; James 5:12).
The WCF includes some important qualifying and clarifying remarks, not included the Baptist Confession:
[An oath] cannot oblige to sin; but in anything not sinful, being taken, it binds to performance, although to a man’s own hurt. Nor is it to be violated, although made to heretics, or infidels.I am uncertain why the Baptist Confession omitted these remarks. But I find them helpful.
To begin with, an oath to do something sinful is non-binding. For example, an individual might wrongly swear allegiance to an apostate church. Later he is converted and realizes his error. In such a case, he not only may, but he must break that oath. A. A. Hodge notes that in such a case, “The sin is in taking the oath to do the unlawful thing, not in breaking it.”11 One might add that breaking an oath that leads to sin is act of obedience.
On the other hand, the WCF indicates that oaths resulting in personal loss or inconvenience are not to be broken. The righteous man “swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psalm 15:4).
In the spring of 1992, I made a commitment to serve another year as a Graduate Assistant teaching Greek at seminary. Just before the school year I realized I would have to use a good portion of my savings to supplement our living expenses and regretted the commitment I had made. However, to resign my post would place the university in a difficult position. In light of the biblical teaching on the sincerity of oath-taking, I decided it would be better for me to suffer loss than to break my word.
The WCF also addresses the issue of oaths made to heretics or infidels. Historically, the Roman Catholic Church had justified the practice of breaking oaths to those judged to be heretics or infidels. One of the most notorious examples was the case of Bohemian Reformer Jan Hus. In 1414 the Emperor Sigismund invited Hus to a council in Constance and promised him safe conduct. But the Catholic authorities arrested and imprisoned Hus. Under pressure from the Church, the emperor informed Hus that he was not bound to keep his promise of safe conduct since Hus was a heretic.12
The Puritans rightly condemned such deceptive behavior. They commended the virtuous example of Joshua, who kept his oath with the Gibeonites though they had deceived him into making the oath (Joshua 9:1-20).
Concerning Lawful Vows (23.5)
A vow, which is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone, is to be made and performed with all religious care and faithfulness; but popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself.Modern Version
A vow must not be made to any creature but to God alone. Vows should be made and performed with the most conscientious care and faithfulness. However, Roman Catholic monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverity, and obedience to monastic rules, are by no means steps to higher perfection. Instead, they are superstitious and sinful snares in which Christians may not entangle themselves.
 Psalm 76:11; Genesis 28:20-22  1 Corinthians 7:2, 9  Ephesians 4:28  Matthew 19:11The English terms “oath” and “vow” are sometimes used interchangeably. But the Old and New Testaments employ distinct vocabulary for each concept.13 Though oaths and vows are clearly related (cf. Numbers 30:2), an oath refers to a promise made in God’s presence to another human party; whereas a vow refers to a promise made directly to God.
The vows in Scripture often included both a negative and also a positive pledge. Negatively, the individual promised to abstain from some liberty, comfort, or necessity for a period of time. For example, the Nazarite promised to abstain from grape products, cutting his hair, and touching anything dead (Numbers 6:2-8; Judges 13:5-7; cf. Numbers 30:3ff.). David vowed to give himself no rest until he had found a resting place for the Ark (Psalm 132:2-5).
Positively, the individual pledged his (or another’s) time, energies, and/or resources to God’s service. Jephthah vowed to sacrifice the first living thing from his home that greeted him should God grant him victory in battle (Judges 11:30, 31). Hannah vowed to dedicate Samuel to God’s service (1 Samuel 1:11, 27, 28). As these examples demonstrate, vows were often conditioned upon God’s answering prayer (cf. Genesis 28:20-22). In other cases, vows were offered as a thankful response to prayers already answered (Psalm 22:25; 50:14; 116:14-19).
Since vows are closely related to oaths (cf. Numbers 30:2), much of the Confession’s teaching concerning the latter would also apply to the former. This may be the reason why the Baptist’s abbreviated three of the WCF’s paragraphs into one paragraph. Monastic vows were one issue the Baptists did judge worthy of reiteration. These included vows of celibacy, poverty, and unquestioned submission to the Church. Since all these practices are unbiblical,14 the Puritans rightly viewed such vows as “superstitious and sinful snares,” and as a result, non-binding.15
Below are a few practical "take aways" from our study.
Glorifying God and Doing Good to Men
In light of the potential dangers of oaths, we might be tempted to avoid them altogether. However, there are times when oaths are prudent and necessary. According to Scripture, a properly taken oath glorifies God (Deuteronomy 10:20-21).
By taking an oath in God’s name we publicly confess our faith in the one true God who is omniscient, omnipresent, and just. Furthermore, oaths have the potential to promote good among men. Jochem Douma explains,
A society that respects the oath is not easily disrupted. In this kind of society, people still recoil from lying and expend energy in taking their office or calling seriously. An oath-bound monarch is bound by the rights of his subjects that have been established in the constitution, so that his administration does not exercise tyranny. Oath-bound physicians are committed to healing their patients. An oath-bound officer serves the preservation of the state. An oath-bound property assessor can be expected to estimate property value honestly. By means of an oath in court, witnesses are restrained from declaring the innocent to be guilty, or the guilty to be innocent. By means of the oath, we are placed before the very face of God. Reverence for God has salutary consequences for society.16It might be added that reverent oath taking can have salutary consequences for the church in settling unresolved interpersonal strife or conflict.
The Importance of Honesty and Commitment
The Bible and Confession require absolute honesty and unflinching commitment from those employ oaths and vows, especially those in positions of leadership. Those of us who have taken wedding vows or pledged commitment to a local church need to reflect upon the high demands under which we have placed ourselves. Too often, professing Christians quietly qualify their promises with all sorts of secret conditions and provisos. As a result, the marriage vow or church covenant loses much of its binding force.17
Christian leaders also need to take seriously their ministerial oaths and vows. Too often in our day, pastors and theologians publicly vow allegiance to a Confession of Faith while secretly at variance with substantial doctrines in that confession. This kind of behavior is unethical and irreprehensible among those who should be models of integrity. “It is little wonder,” writes G. I. Williamson, “that the spiritual condition of the churches is low, when it has become accepted practice to swear deceitfully, and that on the part of the shepherds of Israel.”18
Of course, such a commitment does not preclude a Christian taking “exceptions” to wording, propositions, or even doctrines in a Confession so long as he makes those exceptions known. No confession is infallible. And even those who can substantially affirm comprehensive confessions like the WCF or 2LCF may find some statements that need to be refined. But what the person must not do is be dishonest or deceptive. If he takes exceptions to any teachings in the confession, he should make those exceptions known.
Don't Be Too Hasty!
It’s common practice among evangelical churches today to pressure small children into making pledges of commitment to Christian service. Sometimes young children are encouraged to sign a pledge card or publicly to dedicate their lives to “fulltime” Christian service.
As the child grows, his family and friends, as well as his own conscience remind him of this pledge. As a result, he may struggle with feelings of guilt at the thought of pursuing a secular vocation. This practice not only betrays a false view of “fulltime” Christian service, but it also reflects a lack of wisdom among those who pressure children into these formal pledges.
Since oaths and vows should not be made lightly or rashly, we must be sure that those upon whom we call to make them are mentally and spiritually able to understand and fulfill the commitment they are making. The high ethical demands of oaths and vows should caution us against the practice of pressuring small children to make unwarranted or untimely pledges to God.
1 The Westminster Confession contains seven paragraphs; the 1689 five. The Baptist Confession omits part of the third and fourth paragraphs, and it combines the substance of the fifth, sixth, and seventh paragraphs of the WCF into one paragraph.↩
2 The WCF includes “religious oaths [and] vows” as elements of worship (WCF 21.5), but both the Savoy Declaration and Baptist Confession omit them.↩
3 Or “the gods” in the case of paganism (Joshua 23:7; 1 Kings 19:2; 20:10; Jeremiah 5:7; Zephaniah 1:5).↩
4 There is biblical evidence that the “thigh” (ירך) in this context was a metonym or euphemism for the genitals (cf. Genesis 46:26; Exodus 1:5). The significance of this gesture is uncertain though there is probably some connection with circumcision and God’s covenantal promise of a “seed.” Interestingly, the terms “testimony” and “attestation” originate from the Latin word testis (Eng. ‘testicle’) which suggests the possibility that Roman society may have associated certain oaths with the source of procreative powers. See Bruce Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 327.↩
5 According to the third paragraph in the WCF, “It is a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, being imposed by a lawful authority.” Though the 2LCF omitted this statement, they did retain the wording of paragraph two, which clearly affirms that when “imposed by a lawful authority” an oath “ought to be taken.”↩
6 The behavior of the Pharisees reminds one of the teenage son who, in spite of his father’s clear prohibition not to drink alcohol at the party, defends his disobedience by asserting, “Dad, you said not to drink at the party. You didn’t say I couldn’t drink when I left the party.”↩
7 For some helpful treatments of the passage in Matthew 5:33-37, see John Broadus, Commentary on Matthew (1886; reprint, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1990), 113-17; Donald Carson, Matthew, vol. 8 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 153-55; William Hendricksen, Exposition of the Gospel of Matthew in The New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1973), 306-09.↩
8 The Confession alluded to such circumstances in the previous paragraph when it spoke of an oath “ending all strife.” Occasionally, situations may arise when someone’s reputation is attacked by accusations that seem to be credible but that cannot be either proved or disproved. Under such circumstances, requiring the defendant to swear an oath may serve to bring the dispute to a close. See Jochem Douma, The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1996), 88-89.↩
9 The following section of the WCF has been omitted: “… neither may any man bind himself by oath to anything but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform. Yet it is a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, being imposed by lawful authority....”↩
10 The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964), 175.↩
11 Commentary on the Confession of Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1901), 392; G. I. Williamson’s remarks are also helpful: “It was wrong to make such an oath in the first place. It would be doubly wrong to keep it after discovering that it was sinful.” For Study Classes, 176.↩
12 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (1910; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 6:371-88.↩
13 The Hebrew vocabulary for “oaths” includes שבע (‘to swear’), שבועה (‘oath’), אלה (‘curse’), and for “vows” נדר (‘to vow,’ ‘vow’), אסר (‘to vow to abstain,’ ‘a vow of abstention’). The Greek vocabulary for “oaths” includes ὁρκίζω, ὀμνύω, ἐνορκίζω (‘to swear’), ὅρκος, ὁρκωμοσία (‘oath’), and εὐχή (‘vow’).↩
14 Against imposed celibacy, see Matthew 19:11; 1 Corinthians 7:2, 9; 1 Timothy 3:2; 4:1, 3; against imposed poverty, see Exodus 20:15; Acts 5:4; against unquestioned submission to ecclesiastical authority, see Acts 4:19, 20; 5:29.↩
15 It was this realization that freed Martin Luther to renounce his former monastic vow of celibacy and to marry Catherine von Bora. See Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 7:454-60.↩
16 The Ten Commandments, 90.↩
17 For Study Classes, 176.↩