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:
- 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.
- 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."