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Frequently Asked Questions about Oaths, Vows, Promises, and Pledges
Copyright © 2004-2012 - All rights retained by author
Written by: C. W. Booth

Before reading the following questions and answers about the doctrine of oaths, vows, promises, and sovereignty, please read the article Oaths, Vows, Pledges, and Sovereignty. That article will provide the necessary doctrinal context about which the questions and answers provide additional elaboration.

Each of the questions and answers below discuss in a general way the doctrine of oaths as defined in the Scriptures. Before applying any of these questions or answers to a serious and specific issue in your own life, it is most advisable to seek out the counsel of a godly pastor or even a Nouthetic Counselor with whom you can review the details of your situation and make choices based on the peculiarities of your own circumstances.

Q1 - Since making vows is wrong, are not all vows void?
Q2 - If two of my vows contradict each other, which one is valid?
Q3 - If I vow to commit a sin, must I do it?
Q4 - If Paul made an oath in Acts 18:18, why can't I?
Q5 - Did Jesus change the Law by forbidding oaths?
Q6 - Was Paul wrong to say, "As God is my witness"?
Q7 - Is my word as binding as my oath?
Q8 - Can I pray my intention without it becoming a vow?
Q9 - Is a promise the same as a vow?
Q10 - Is a rash vow binding for life?
Q11 - Is a false vow the same thing as breaking a vow?
Q12 - Is making (or accepting) a marriage engagement proposal the same as making an unalterable promise?

Question 1.

Since all vows are forbidden, and since making a vow with God is itself a sin, doesnít that automatically mean that any vow I have made is itself a sin which would make the vow no longer binding, and therefore I am free to ignore the promise?

Asked another way:

When a vow is made to God, but I come to realize that Jesus no longer wants me to make any vow at all, does God still require me to live up to the vow I did make?

Answer 1.

When we make a vow, and doing so is always inappropriate according to Matthew 5, we are giving our word, our "yes", that we will do this thing. Though the extra oath added to the "yes" (which makes the promise into an oath) is improper, the fact is we agreed to do something. That we agreed through the improper use of an oath is wrong, but that we made the commitment or the contract is nonetheless in force.

Consider these passages from Deuteronomy and Ecclesiastes. Vows were voluntary / optional, but once made, they were a contract that required fulfillment. It was not appropriate to say, "oops, I made a mistake" , God still considered the contract to be in force.

"When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the Lord your God will surely require it of you. However, if you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you. You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God, what you have promised." (Deuteronomy 23:21-23)

"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. Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger of God that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands? " (Ecclesiastes 5:4-6)

As Christians, our word of "yes", our agreement, is as binding as an oath or vow. What we say we will do, we must do. Psalm 15:4 indicates that a righteous man will keep his word even if it causes him personal loss.

One word of caution, be certain that the thing promised is itself indeed an act of righteousness. For example, vowing to the Lord to throw oneís wife out of the house for nagging is not to be considered a valid oath for it violates Godís law of grace. Also be mindful that your promise should not cause a biblical conflict--you should not promise to give away all your money to missions if that means that your own household will literally not be fed or clothed. This is an impropriety because you are Scripturally obligated to support your own household while also supporting missions (1 Timothy 5:8). God desires compassion on our families and neighbors as part of our obedience.

Question 2.

If I make a "rash" vow, in haste and poorly thought-through, and I break it later by making a second vow that contradicts the first, can you show me a Bible verse that tells me which vow I am obligated to keep?

Answer 2.

First, please stop making vows, for any agreement beyond a simple "yes" or "no" is evil according to Matthew 5:33-37.

Second, as FAQ number 1 demonstrated, your obligation is to keep your word, whether it is made with an oath or not. If it is no longer possible to keep your original agreement, but it is possible to keep your second agreement, then you already know the answer--keep your word when you have the ability to do so.

Often people ask, "I took an oath when I married my first wife, then I got a divorce, and then I took another oath when I married my second wife; is the second oath valid and is the second marriage a valid marriage?" In both cases you made an agreement. By committing to the second marriage you eliminated the possibility of keeping your commitment to the first. All that is left to you is to keep your current commitment, live up to the agreement you have made. Marriage is always optional in so much that no one forces you to get married, but once made a marriage agreement is binding for life (with few exceptions).

Question 3.

Is a vow "binding" even if the vow-maker is promising to do something that is actually defined in the Bible as a sin?

Answer 3.

No. Just as a marriage contract (church-sponsored Christian wedding) is invalid when it is made between two homosexuals (marriage was never created for the purpose of bringing together two people of the same sex) and therefore needs no ecclesiastical "divorce" to be severed, so it is with any "contract" between man and God in which the man is promising to commit evil acts. In such a situation, if the thing promised is indeed a sinful thing to do, then it would be appropriate to confess that you have sinned by intending to do a sinful thing, and then it is also appropriate to confess the sin of attempting to create an oath. God is gracious, and even just, to forgive us our sins that we confess.

Question 4.

Paul made a vow according to Acts 18:18 - wouldn't he have been doing so in contradiction to Christ's commandment in Matthew 5:34?

Answer 4.

There is not a clear answer to this question. Therefore, here are two different viewpoints.

Theory 1--Paul may have made the vow before he was saved (Paul was saved during his journey to Damascus while still on the road), but was still honor-bound to fulfill the vow even after salvation. Evidence for this theory is found in the fact that Paul allowed his hair to grow until the vow was completed. Allowing oneís hair to grow as a sign of commitment to a temporary vow was apparently common in the ancient Jewish culture, and cutting oneís hair indicated the oath had been fulfilled. That a vow would remain in force even following salvation is entirely possible in the same spirit that marriage contracts remain in force even after salvation.

Theory 2--Paul may have vowed rashly and therefore sinned. Apostles did indeed sin, such as when Peter did not fellowship with the Gentiles and therefore incurred Paulís rebuke. Another example of when apostles sinned is the argument between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark. Not everything that the apostles did was good and proper, and God forgave them just as He forgives us. Paul may have trapped himself in a rash vow.

In either case, Paul never commanded us to make vows. When Paul told us to be imitators of him, he did not mean for us to imitate any of his sins nor did he mean to compel us to partake of his Jewish customs.

Question 5.

Since the Law was in effect during Christís earthly ministry, and the Law permitted voluntary oaths, how is it that He forbade the Jews of His day to make oaths?

Answer 5.

Oaths were meant to be the ultimate verbal stamp of agreement on top of a finalized legal contract. Once made, an oath ended negotiations between two people and an unbreakable contract was sealed. If one person broke the contract all the other person had to do was ask, "Did you not swear to do this?" and the judges would immediately rule that the matter was binding. As the Jews moved away from the understanding that oaths used in agreements were always binding toward the practice of using tricky wording that appeared to be an oath but was crafted to be "less binding", Jesus stopped the entire practice cold. He reminded them that all oaths were binding, regardless of the wording, which was the intent of the Law as delivered by Moses. Then He, the Lawgiver, added a new understanding to the Law (not really a new Law as much as a more harsh interpretation of the original Law): make no more oaths because every time you make an agreement it is already as binding as the strictest oath and God will require it of you. Jesus did not rescind the Law, He completed it by emphasizing what it was originally intended to do.

Question 6.

Paul says in Philippians 1:8, "For God is my record, how greatly I long after youÖ" - Could that be construed as him saying "As the Lord liveth, how greatly I long after you?", and couldnít that be construed as adding an oath to his assertion about how much he cared for the Philippians?

Answer 6.

Paul is not swearing to do anything here, however, he does testify that God Himself is aware of his great affection for these believers. Invoking God to be your witness and to verify the truthfulness of your statement is the very definition of invoking a vow. This is precisely what Jesus forbade men to do, because men are not capable of knowing Godís heart and mind (apart from Scripture) and they are not capable of calling on God to actually witness for them because God is in heaven (making an oath of this nature is therefore merely a grandiose gesture with no practical means of verification).

There is really only one person who can honestly call upon God to be a witness for him, a prophet. All Scripture is "breathed out" from Godís own mouth. When Paul says that God is the witness of the truth of his statements, Paul is not being glib and he is not making a joke, nor is he making a grandiose gesture. Not only is God truly the witness of the truth of Paulís statements, Paulís statements are the very Word of God and God upholds all His words. God not only witnesses as to the truth of His own words spoken by His prophets, but the very Spirit of God told Paul that God is His witness in this matter and the Spirit told Paul to write those very words of witness. Was Paul making an oath, or was he simply following the dictates of the Holy Spirit?

Again, this is not an example for us to follow unless we are penning Scripture and the Holy Spirit requires us to express Godís witness of the truthfulness of the prophecies that we write.

Question 7.

Does not Christ expect all our "yes" and "no" answers to be just as binding as if they were uttered in the form of an oath?

Answer 7.

Yes. I believe this is exactly what Christ intended, and it is certainly what is stated in James 5:12.

Question 8.

Can I pray and tell God the intents of my heart without it being construed as a vow?

Answer 8.

Yes, I believe that one can always tell God all oneís intents. Though I would caution such a one to always remind themselves that they ought not to say, "I swear to do this", and to constantly remind themselves that all manís plans can be changed or interrupted by God, so the use of "if it is Your will" is much advised.

Question 9.

Do you make any distinction between promises to God and vows made to Him, barring mere semantics? For if a promise is binding, is it not a de facto vow or oath?

Answer 9.

When you say, "Yes, I will do this" it is truly as binding on the believer as any oath, and indeed, adding an oath to it will not improve on this or make it any more binding. Therefore, make your agreements carefully and purposefully before God. But adding the oath robs God of His sovereignty because the goal of an oath is to make God accountable for the truthfulness of your promise--say "yes", but forgo the oath.

In my own youth I also made a foolishly rash oath to God regarding my intent never to commit a certain sin again, allowing for no temporary time period for this oath. Though I have wished that I had not done so at all, for every time I sin in this regard I feel I am doubly guilty, I cannot in good conscience say to God, "I made a mistake, please release me." I now believe that such oath-making is itself a sin, but I also believe that once made, it is a contract, so I continue to attempt to abide by my rash agreement. God is gracious, kind, and forgiving, so I often must fully rely on this knowledge of His goodness to alleviate my guilt, and you know, this is sufficient for me.

Question 10.

If a person were to make a rash vow to God in their youth, as described in Numbers 30, would they be bound for life? What if the thing they vowed not to do was an innocent activity; for example, the person vowed never to go skateboarding again?

Answer 10.

You need to ask yourself some tough questions. Did you vow that you would give up skateboarding for His sake, or, did you vow that you would give up skateboarding IF skateboarding displeased God? I do not think a search for a loophole is profitable or wise, but understanding what you contracted to do and why you contracted to do it is important.

If you come to the point where you realize that you did indeed promise God that skateboarding was no longer something that you would do, you may also obtain the grace from God to say as Paul did, all those things are but dung in comparison to what God has already done and will do with me.

Is it fair that some decisions are binding for as long as we live? In human terms, no. In Godís terms, yes. When we decide to marry, our decision is life long and binding. When we decide to have children, the consequences (good and bad) and obligations are with us our entire lives. When we decide to accept salvation, our decision is life long, eternity long, and forever binding. When some men choose to commit adultery, they wear the title adulterer for their entire lives, whether others know about it or not. Some decisions do have life long implications. Fair? In whose eyes?

I do not mean to sound unsympathetic, when in fact such a person has my sympathy and empathy, but try comparing this to eternal values and the pain may ease a bit. As you read Ecclesiastes, compare the phrases "under the sun" (meaning "from manís human perspective") with the phrase "under heaven" (meaning "from Godís eternal perspective") and you begin to grasp that there is much more at stake than temporal recreation. A person has an entire world of sports and activities to pursue, if one must forgo this activity or that activity for the cause of honoring his word before the Lord (even if made rashly), thank God that you have something special to offer back to Him, not as payment for salvation, but as a "thank you."

Question 11.

What is the difference between making a false vow and simply breaking a vow?

Answer 11.

Jesus was teaching that false vows were promises purposely made to deceive (and to be broken). This can be contrasted with broken vows, which were made with the intent to keep them, but the person ultimately changed his mind and violated the contract. This is different from a false vow which was made by a person who never intended to keep the agreement.

Understanding the difference in Matthew 5 does not really alter the interpretation which is an overall prohibition on vows. Jesus was saying, "you already know the truth, and the truth is that you should never make a vow knowing that you intend to break your word, but even that is not enough, because I am telling you to make no oaths at all, say yes and keep your word adding nothing else to it."

Your word has two components, your original intent, and your ability to fulfill it. If you say "yes", then you meant to accomplish something, and that is fair enough. But did you follow through and keep your agreement? Could you follow through? If God takes away the means, then that is His domain, He is sovereign, and that is why we implicitly and explicitly say, "if God wills, then I will do this." But if you say yes, and God grants the means, then you are obligated to follow through.

Question 12.

Is making (or accepting) a marriage engagement proposal the same as making an unalterable promise?

Answer 12.

In the first century the Jews interpreted the Old Testament Law as establishing a marriage engagement as being so strong a contract that it required a divorce to break it (with all the theology and legalities such a thing would involve). Recall that Joseph was going to divorce Mary so as to break the engagement (betrothal) before they were even married.

We are not under the Old Testament Law. So consideration of the Law may be safely put aside for this question. Instead, we will focus on what the New Testament requires of Christians in this situation.

With regard to the intent to marry (or not), Paul instructs Christians that they have the freedom to marry those to whom they were engaged ("promised to marry") or to break the promise of engagement, and they could do so without having sinned (1 Corinthians 7:25-38). How can one break a promise without sinning; would that not make them a liar?

If we understand Paul properly he is saying that the promise to marry is just a statement of intent (as opposed to a binding vow) but that in his post-Law Gentile culture engagements (statements of intent to marry) were never considered so serious that anyone considered it a "lie" to decide to break off the engagement. In other words, engagements always came with the unspoken clause that either party could legitimately change their mind at any time...such is the nature of engagements, unlike most other promises.

This is the same appreciation Christians ought to have of engagements today. We make or accept a proposal for marriage with the unstated understanding that to change oneís mind is an accepted and agreeable part of the contract. We break the engagement without sinning and without lying because the potential for dissolution (the easy-out no-penalty escape clause) was always part of the contract that both parties accepted when they agreed to it and announced their intent to marry.

If you have a question about the doctrine of oaths found in Matthew 5, please send your question to the contact specified below.

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