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  • The Baptist Confession on Oaths

    by Robert Gonzales Jr.
    Court Building

    In the 17th century, certain sects of Christendom, such as the Anabaptists and, later, the Quakers, denied the legitimacy of taking oaths or making vows. The teaching of chapter 23 of the 1689 Baptist Confession was designed to clarify the meaning and confirm the lawfulness of oaths and vows when properly used. The 1689 Baptist Confession retains the substance of the Westminster Confession, but it abbreviates the form. Below we’ll use the Confession as a guide to examine the Bible’s teaching on oaths and vows. Then we’ll draw some practical lessons.

    Concerning Lawful Oaths (23.1-4)

    The Confession’s teaching divides into four paragraphs and addresses the nature, propriety, solemnity, and sincerity of lawful oaths and vows.

    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.[1]

    [1] Deut. 10:20; Exod. 20:7; Lev. 19:12; 2 Chron. 6:22, 23; 2 Cor. 1:23

    The 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. This type of oath is often used by those assuming some public office or a contractual obligation, like marriage.  Traditionally, oaths have been viewed as religious in nature[1] since God is evoked as a witness.[2] 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 (Exod. 22:10, 11; Lev. 5:1; 6:3; Num. 5:11-28; Matt. 26:63, 64). Oaths were also employed to confirm one’s fidelity to his covenantal commitments and responsibilities (1 Kgs. 2:43; Eccl. 8:2; Heb. 6:16, 17). Oaths often included such verbal formulas as “I swear by God” (1 Sam. 30:15; Neh. 13:25), “God is witness between you and me” (Gen. 31:50; 1 Sam. 12:5; 2 Cor. 1:23; Phil. 1:8), “As the Lord lives” (1 Sam. 14:39; 19:6; 20:3; 2 Sam. 15:21), or “May the Lord do so to me if I do not …” (Ruth 1:17; 1 Sam. 3:17; 14:44; 2 Sam. 3:35; 1 Kgs. 2:23).  Oaths were also often accompanied by physical gestures, such as raising one’s right hand heavenward (Deut. 32:40; Psa. 106:26; Isa. 62:8; Dan. 12:7; Rev. 10:5, 6) or, less commonly, placing one’s hand under another’s thigh (Gen. 24:2; 47:29).[3] 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;[1] 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.[2]

    [1] Deut. 6:13; Exod. 20:7; Jer. 5:7  [2]Heb. 6:13-16; Gen. 24:3; Gen. 47:30, 31; Gen. 50:25; 1 Kings 17:1; Neh. 13:25; 5:12; Ezra 10:5; Num. 5:19, 21; 1 Kings 8:31; Exod. 22:11; Isa. 45:23; Isa. 65:16; Matt. 26:62-64; Rom. 1:9; 2 Cor. 1:23; Acts 18:18

    Having briefly described the nature of an oath, the Confession defends the propriety of lawful oaths in the second paragraph. First, “sinful” oaths are identified and condemned. Idolatrous oaths are those in which invoke any one or thing except the one true God as witness (Jos. 23:7; Jer. 5:7; Zeph. 1:5). Vain oaths are those taken flippantly for trivial matters or with the intent to deceive (Exo. 20:7; Matt. 23:16-22). Rash oaths are those taken in haste without proper forethought or solemnity (Num. 30:6; Eccl. 5:2-5). All such oaths are forbidden and condemned by Scripture (Exod. 20:7; Deut. 6:13; Jer. 5:7; Matt. 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).

    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.[4]

    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 (Exod. 20:7; Lev. 19:12; Deut. 6:13; 10:20).

    (2) The Mosaic law sometimes required the swearing of an oath (Exod. 22:10, 11; Lev. 5:1; 6:3; Num. 5:19-22; 1 Kgs. 8:31).

    (3) The example of many OT saints vindicates the use of lawful oaths: Abraham (Gen. 24:2); Jacob (Gen. 47:30-31); Joseph (Gen. 50:25); Elijah (1Kgs. 17:1); Nehemiah (Neh. 5:12; 13:25); and Ezra (Ezra 10:5).

    (4) The example of Christ and the Apostle Paul vindicate the use of lawful oaths (Matt. 26:62-64; Rom. 1:9; 2Cor. 1:23; Phil. 1:8).

    (5) The example of God Himself vindicates the use of lawful oaths (Gen. 22:16; Num. 14:28; Deut. 32:40; Psa. 95:11; Jer. 22:5; Amos 6:8; 8:7; Luke 1:73; Heb. 6:13-17).

    But if lawful oaths are appropriate, then why does Jesus say, “Do not swear at all” (Matt. 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” (Matt. 5:37)?

    Considering 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 OT 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 he did not swear by the Lord.[5] In fact, they devoted an entire book to distinguish between the kinds of oaths that could be broken and those that were obligatory! (cf. Matt. 23:16-22). Thus, Jesus’ censure was not against lawful oath-taking but against sinful oath-taking.[6]

    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; [WCF- 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]; for that by rash, false, and vain oaths, the Lord is provoked, and for them this land mourns.[1]

    [1] Exod. 20:7; Lev. 19:12; Numbers 30:2; Jer. 4:2

    The third paragraph underscores the solemnity of oath-taking. Oaths should only be taken when required by a lawful authority or when circumstances demand it.[7] 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.

    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.[1] [WCF- ‘It 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.’]

    [1] Ps. 24:4; Jer. 4:2

    The 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 (Matt. 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,” etc. Taxpayers can justify “fudging” on their tax return form based on 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 (Lev. 19:12; Matt. 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.”[8] That is because the Bible commends absolute honesty and fidelity (Psa. 24:4; Matt. 5:37; Jas. 5:12).

    The WCF includes some important qualifying and clarifying remarks, not included the Baptist Confession.[9] First, 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.”[10] 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” (Psa. 15:4). In the spring of 1992, I made a commitment to serve another year as a Graduate Assistant teaching Greek at the seminary I was attending. 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 Psalm 15:4, 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.[11] 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 (Jos. 9:1-20).

    Concerning Lawful Vows (23.5)

    A vow, which is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone,[1] [WCF- and that it may be accepted, it] is to be made and performed [WCF- voluntarily] with all religious care and faithfulness;[2] 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.[3]

    [1] Num. 30:2, 3; Ps. 76:11; Jer. 44:25, 26  [2] Num. 30:2; Ps. 61:8; 66:13, 14; Eccles 5:4-6; Isa. 19:21 [3] 1 Cor. 6:18 with 7:2, 9; 1 Tim. 4:3; Eph. 4:28; 1 Cor. 7:23; Matt. 19:11, 12

    The English terms “oath” and “vow” are sometimes used interchangeably. But the Old and New Testaments employ distinct vocabulary for each concept.[12] Though oaths and vows are clearly related (cf. Num. 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 (Num. 6:2-8; Jud. 13:5-7; cf. Num. 30:3ff.). David vowed to give himself no rest until he had found a resting place for the Ark (Ps. 132:2-5). Positively, the individual pledged his (or another’s) time, energies, and/or resources to God’s service. Jepthah vowed to sacrifice the first living thing from his home that greeted him should God grant him victory in battle (Jud. 11:30, 31). Hannah vowed to dedicate Samuel to God’s service (1 Sam. 1:11, 27, 28). As these examples demonstrate, vows were often conditioned upon God’s answering prayer (cf. Gen. 28:20-22). In other cases, vows were offered as a thankful response to prayers already answered (Pss. 22:25; 50:14; 116:14-19).

    Since vows are closely related to oaths (cf. Num. 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,[13] the Puritans rightly viewed such vows as “superstitious and sinful snares,” and as a result, non-binding.[14]

    Some Practical Lessons

    What are some applications we can make from our study?

    1. The Right Place for Oaths

    Oaths are not only valid, but when wisely and solemnly employed, they can bring glory to God and promote good among 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 (Deut. 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.[15]

    It might be added that reverent oath taking can have salutary consequences for the church in settling unresolved interpersonal strife or conflict.

    2. Honesty and Integrity

    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.[16] 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.”[17]

    3. Child Evangelism

    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. 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.

    Dr. Robert R. Gonzales Jr., Ph.D, has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of RBS since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. Dr Gonzales is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society. He and his wife, Becky, reside in Sacramento, California. (from rbseminary.org)

    More Resources

    [1] The WCF includes “religious oaths [and] vows” as elements of worship (WCF 21.5), but both the Savoy Declaration and Baptist Confession omit them.

    [2] Or “the gods” in the case of paganism (Jos. 23:7; 1 Kgs. 19:2; 20:10; Jer. 5:7; Zeph. 1:5).

    [3] There is biblical evidence that the “thigh” (ירך) in this context was a metonym or euphemism for the genitals (cf. Gen. 46:26; Exo. 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), p. 327.

    [4] 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 LBC 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.”

    [5] 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.”

    [6] For some helpful treatments of the passage in Matthew 5:33-37, see John Broadus, Commentary on Matthew (1886; reprint, Grand Rapids: Kregal Publications, 1990), pp. 113-17; Donald Carson, Matthew, vol. 8 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), pp. 153-55; William Hendricksen, Exposition of the Gospel of Matthew in The New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), pp. 306-09.

    [7] 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), pp. 88-89.

    [8] The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964), p. 175.

    [9] I am uncertain why the Baptist Confession omitted these helpful remarks.

    [10] Commentary on the Confession of Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1901), p. 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, p. 176.

    [11] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (1910; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 6:371-88.

    [12] 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 ορκιζω, ομνύω, επιορκεω (‘to swear’), ορκος, ορκωμοσια (‘oath’), and for “vows” ευχη (‘vow’).

    [13] Against imposed celibacy, see Matt. 19:11; 1 Cor. 7:2, 9; 1 Tim. 3:2; 4:1, 3; against imposed poverty, see Exod. 20:15; Acts 5:4; against unquestioned submission to ecclesiastical authority, see Acts 4:19, 20; 5:29.

    [14] 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.

    [15] The Ten Commandments, p. 90.

    [16] For Study Classes, p. 176.

    [17] Ibid. I don’t believe this precludes 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 2LBCF 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.

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