A truthful heart

At the outset of his epistle, when he is preparing us for the subjects he will treat, James makes it clear that one of his chief objectives will be to draw the line between true religion and hypocrisy. He wants those who claim the name of Christ to have a religion that is not lip service, but heart devotion. They should not only hear the Word "able to save your souls" (Jas. 1:21), but also put it into practice by renouncing dead profession and embracing living testimony (Jas. 1:22). He declares that one of the marks of hypocrisy is an unbridled tongue (Jas. 1:26). In the main body of the epistle, warnings against sins of the tongue are a main theme.

Then right before bringing his epistle to a close, James describes a form of sinful speech that he has not previously considered. Yet because he draws much of his inspiration from the Sermon on the Mount, he would not be likely to neglect a topic that Jesus gives prominence. Jesus, in His exposition of the Ten Commandments, addresses the question of whether it is right to take an oath (Matt. 5:33-37). His answer is the basis of verse 12, which is James's nearest approach to an actual quotation from the Sermon on the Mount. Although James gives us Jesus' teaching in a condensed form, he exactly repeats some of the key wording.

Rather than comment on what James says, we will shift our attention to the fuller teaching that he summarizes. Jesus was shedding light on the Third Commandment: "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain" (Exod. 20:7). In Old Testament times it was permitted to certify words of promise or testimony by means of an oath. The primary meaning of the Third Commandment is that an oath in the name of the Lord must be honored. To break a solemn promise sealed with an oath or to give false testimony despite an oath is to take His name in vain.

The Third Commandment is similar to the Ninth: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor" (Exod. 20:16). Both prohibit false statements: the first, any false statement backed by an oath; the second, any false statement made to harm another person. The Third and Ninth Commandments converge in condemning a witness in a formal judicial proceeding who tells lies after he has sworn to tell the truth. The fact that two of the Ten Commandments deal with truthfulness shows how important it is to God.

In recalling the teaching of the Old Testament (Matt. 5:33), Jesus chose not to quote the Third Commandment itself. Instead, He referred to some of the secondary laws intended to define specific violations. Yet what He said is not an exact quotation of any one in particular. Rather, He melded several (Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:21) into a single concise prohibition. The mere fact that He freely edited the wording of the law was a claim of high authority.

In His treatment of the Third Commandment as in His treatment of the Sixth and Seventh (the commandments forbidding murder and adultery), Jesus sought to illumine the underlying moral principle. The principle obliging us to perform an oath is that we should be honest through and through. What God wants, Jesus implied, is truthfulness deeply lodged in the heart. Every small word we utter should be gold-plated truth. As Jesus said, our "yes" should mean "yes" and nothing else, and our "no" should mean "no" and nothing else (Matt. 5:37). If our promises are well known to be absolutely dependable, an oath adds nothing to what we say. Indeed, an oath cannot give us credibility if we have a reputation for lying.

Sticking to promises

The way of truthfulness often winds through tricky dilemmas. For example, what if you give your word, then change your mind? To say one thing today and another tomorrow is a form of dishonesty, even though what you say today is sincere. To change your mind after giving your word turns your word into a lie. You should be willing to keep your word despite the cost (Ps. 15:4).

Are there circumstances permitting you to break a promise? We must define a promise. It is any commitment that, if not kept, will causes others to lose something. Asking the seller at a garage sale to hold an item until you come back with payment is a promise, because he may lose money if you fail to keep your word. Telling children that you will take them to the park on Saturday is a promise, because if you do not go, you will deprive them of a good time. But mentioning to your neighbor that you plan to shop for groceries tomorrow is not a promise, because whether you follow through has no effect on him.

So, we repeat. Are there ever circumstances permitting you to break a promise? Yes, if keeping a promise will require you to break the law of God. The need for this exception clause becomes obvious when we consider specific cases. If anyone agrees to help evil companions commit murder, he had better withdraw from the plot. If a young person is enticed by friends to swear that he will join some pursuit of sinful pleasure, he had better not go along with them. But if you break a promise to do wrong, you avoid the wrongdoing only by reneging on your word. You avoid the greater sin only by committing a lesser sin. You lose either way. So watch what you say.

All other promises—that is, all that do not give consent to sin—are absolutely binding. The most solemn of all, the kind known as a vow, is a promise made to God. Scripture says plainly that we dare not fail to perform a vow (Eccles. 5:1–7). The same passage advises us that the course of wisdom may be to refrain from a vow, because it will put us in a position of danger. If, in our feeble humanity, we forget it and let it go unfulfilled, we will offend God. Yet it is not desirable to shun vows altogether. The proper foundation of marriage, for example, is a vow of faithfulness.

If you make a promise that is not a vow, strictly speaking, it is no less a solemn obligation. Promises in the form of contracts are often necessary in the realm of work and business. But what if the circumstances of life intervene and make it impossible for you to fulfill a contract? For example, a teacher who signs a contract for the coming year might be stricken by an illness that will sideline him before the year is finished. To protect yourself from falsehood when you sign a contract or give any other promise liable to be overruled by future events, you should attach the qualification, "Lord willing" (Jas. 4:15).

If we do not have moral freedom to change our word, what must we conclude? That we must be careful in giving our word. Do not bind yourself to any promise, do not give any advice, do not render any judgment, and do not make any commitment without first thinking through all the implications. Think before you speak. Do not say anything today that will make you uncomfortable tomorrow. Engage your mind, especially your common sense, before you limit your future to a course that can never be undone. In making decisions, do not let guesses and impressions and momentary feelings take the place of sound reasoning based on solid information.

The sins in swearing

Jesus did not teach that we should shun oaths as a matter of preference. Rather, He forbade them outright. He said, "Swear not at all" (Matt. 5:34). He prohibited all swearing for several reasons including the following:

  1. An oath in the form "by God" is presumptuous. It is essentially a plea that God will witness the oath and punish us if we do not keep our word. Children make the true meaning of their oaths explicit. They say, "Cross my heart and hope to die." But God does not want any man to ask for his own condemnation. We are to seek God's mercy. We must not allow the devil to trap us into sworn promises that we cannot fulfill, thus earning God's wrath. That is why Jesus said that anything more than "yes" or "no" comes "of evil" (Matt. 5:37); that is, from the evil one.
  2. Jesus wanted us to distance ourselves from the Pharisees, who used oaths as a cover for lying. They taught that whether failure to perform an oath is a violation of the Third Commandment depends on the name called upon to enforce the oath. It is a violation if the oath taker referred to God. It is not a violation if he referred to heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or one's head. Jesus pointed out that all these lesser things belong to God and are subject to His control (Matt. 5:34–36). Therefore, to name any of these in an oath is the same as naming God Himself.

Some Christians concerned to obey the prohibition against oath-taking have decided that in good conscience they cannot give pledges, such as the Scout pledge, the Pledge of Allegiance, or a pledge of marriage. But a pledge does not invoke the name of God. It is merely a solemn promise that we should not make unless we intend to keep it.

Even more Christians historically have refused to do the swearing required in certain legal ceremonies, such as the induction of a witness or juror to a trial proceeding or the inauguration of a government official. But the traditional form of the oath taken on these occasions sets it apart from a real oath. It is not a promise "by God" but "so help me God." This is merely a prayer for God's assistance in performing the promise.

Deception in warfare

Now that we have built a strong case for telling the truth, some reader might wonder whether Rahab, the harlot of Jericho, sinned when she lied to protect the two Israelite spies from being discovered and killed (Josh. 2). The short answer is that God has on occasion specifically authorized the use of deception in prosecuting a just war (Josh. 8:11–29; Judg. 7:15–25; 1 Chron. 14:13–16). It would be nonsensical ethics that permitted killing an enemy but forbade lying to him. Imagine saying to your enemy, "I cannot hurt you by telling you a lie, but I can shoot you."


1. Is my word so dependable that no one doubts it?

Or do you have a reputation for skimping on the truth? You may think that no one suspects you are a liar. But a law of human psychology is that a liar never recognizes the man who recognizes a liar. Just because a man does not call you to account for your lying does not mean that you have fooled him. A wise man in this sinful world learns to protect himself from liars by pretending not to notice, unless he can respond effectively. Indeed, a wise man follows God’s example (Ps. 18:26). That is, although a wise man will not lie, he will not tell all his thoughts to a liar. Certainly he will not tell his suspicions unless he can make them stick.

To present a balanced picture, we must add that although you are responsible for your word, you are not responsible for whatever people might read into it. Others are sometimes not content with the ordinary meaning of what we do or say, so they imagine some additional meaning hidden below the surface.

Examples are a routine part of life. A girl thinks a boy is in love with her because he happened to say, "Hi." Before a church service, a boy thinks his two friends are trying to exclude him when they come in and sit by themselves on the other side. Actually, they do not see him.

There are two problems with supposing that someone's real intent differs from what he actually says or does. First, you are accusing him of not being exactly truthful. Second, people are complex beings. Like everyone else, I have thoughts that others would never guess. The only way to discover them is by talking to me. The devil is a master of mind games, and the only way we can counter his constant work of creating false impressions and misunderstandings is through communication.

2. Do I keep my promises?

Or do you forsake them if they prove hard to carry through? Or do you conveniently forget them, so that your word changes from day to day? It is vital in dealing with children to keep your word so as to build their trust. The same is true for the adults you know. To gain their trust requires that you consistently follow up your promises with action.

3. Do I excuse myself for little white lies, so-called?

When someone you dislike calls on the phone, do you plead that you are just going out the door? White lies of this kind are commonplace because there is little fear of detection or reprisal. But besides being wrong in themselves, they corrupt your soul. They deaden your conscience against lying, and make it easier to tell big lies.

As we have said before, however, saying nice things to people about their appearance or performance is never lying if they are doing their best. Complimenting them is taking God's point of view. By human standards they may fall short, but God grades only for effort.

4. Do I cheat?

One form of cheating common in the world of professional writing is plagiarism. It is even more common in student papers. A typical student is so foolish as to assume that a veteran teacher cannot tell the difference between the prose of a published author and the prose of a C student in English. Even at the college level, I was continually catching students at plagiarism. Dealing with it wasted a considerable amount of my time.

5. Do I exaggerate?

I must confess that much of my humor, such as it is, is based on exaggeration. So I warn people, "The one time you need not believe me is when I am trying to be funny." Bending the truth to make a joke is known as comedic license. Exaggeration is not a form of lying so long as everyone understands that it is not meant to be taken seriously.

The time we are most inclined to exaggerate is when we are telling about our accomplishments. This kind of lying is called boasting, a sin that Scripture severely condemns (Rom. 1:28–30). Scripture says also that it will be a characteristic sin in the Last Days even among people who pretend to be religious (2 Tim. 3:1–2).

Some people doctor the facts on a resumé so they will appear more qualified for a job they are seeking. Resumé inflation has become a serious problem in America. The lesson for us? Never take a resumé at face value. Also, when you prepare a resumé, it is best to avoid suspicion by understating your credentials. Make no claim about yourself that cannot be documented.

6. Am I forthright?

If a man fails to tell his fiancée that he has been married before, he is lying to her, although she never dreams to question him about his marital history. It is lying to withhold information that someone has a right to possess.

7. Do I take oaths?

Any oaths or promises that fall outside the categories of solemn promise and seeking God’s aid are illegitimate. In our culture, oath-taking has become a rare practice except among children. Still, never let yourself be trapped into swearing on a stack of Bibles or anything else of like character.

8. Do I use minced oaths?

Minced oaths include all those expletives that appear to be innocuous in meaning, but derive from blasphemous expressions. "Gosh," "golly," "goodness," and "heaven" (as in "heavens" and "for heaven’s sake") originated as substitutes for "God." "Oh dear," "dear me," "my," "oh my," and many others originated as substitutes for longer phrases containing His name. (My use of these terms is not immoral because, as a teacher of right conduct, I must make its boundaries clear.) "God damn" has become "goldarn" or just "darn." "Hell" has become "heck." The name of Jesus has been transmuted into such forms as "jee," "jeepers," "jee whiz" (which probably means "Jesus’ wounds"), and "jiminy crickets" (which probably means "Jesus Christ"). It would not be edifying to list all the words people have invented in an attempt to swear in a socially acceptable manner. You may easily verify what I am saying by consulting a dictionary of slang.

All these minced oaths seem to be disappearing, not because people today are more scrupulous, but because, on the contrary, people today have no qualms about using the real words instead of their substitutes. They feel no need to disguise holy or solemn words when they abuse them.

It is important to understand exactly why minced oaths are wrong. Most have nothing to do with oath-taking itself and are therefore not violations of Jesus' command, "Swear not at all" (Matt. 5:34). The term "swearing" expanded long ago to take in all foul language.

Some of the foulest resorts to obscenities, perhaps in modified forms. These we have not included in our list, and we need not consider them, except to point out that Scripture forbids all manner of filthy speech (Eph. 5:4).

Terms like "hell" and "damn" and all their substitutes pronounce a curse, and cursing is wholly improper for God's children (Matt. 5:44; Jas. 3:8–10).

The most common use of minced oaths employing God’s name in disguise is to express surprise or dismay. Yet to serve the same purpose, many people habitually speak His true name, whether in a proper form or in a cheapened form such as “Lordy.” Such interjections are not swearing in the strict sense. Nor are they obscene. Nor are they cursing. Yet they are wrong, because they refer to God flippantly, with no real intent to give Him honor or to address Him in reverent and loving prayer. So they demean God's name by using it in vain, which is forbidden by the Third Commandment.

Study Questions

  1. What teaching of Jesus does James virtually quote?
  2. What shows the importance of truthfulness?
  3. What is the moral principle underlying the Third Commandment?
  4. What is the proper definition of a promise?
  5. Is it ever right to break a promise?
  6. What does Scripture teach concerning a vow?
  7. What lesson should we draw from the necessity to keep our promises?
  8. What is the first reason that swearing is wrong?
  9. What is the second reason?
  10. Why is the oath taken on certain formal occasions not a violation of Jesus' teaching?
  11. Why was Rahab's lie justified?

Further Reading

If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.