Call To Die

Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

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Follower of Christ, husband of Abby, member of Kosmosdale Baptist Church, and tutor/staff member at Sayers Classical Academy.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Calvin on Oaths

Recently in the Scripture Memory exercises at Sayers Classical Academy, my Writing & Literature class came upon the following words from Christ:

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33-37 NIV 1984)

In our discussion of these verses, several students had some excellent questions about whether the Lord Jesus intended to forbid all oaths, including swearing to testimony in court, politicians taking oaths of office, wedding vows, etc.

In this regard, I found the following thoughts from John Calvin [from Institutes on the Christian Religion 2.8.26-27] to be extremely helpful.

Calvin mentions God Himself swearing an oath, as taught in Hebrews 6:13, then he writes:

[Some], not content with this moderate use of oaths, condemn all, without exception, on the ground of our Saviour's general prohibition, "I say unto you, Swear not at all:" "Let your speech be Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil," (Matth. 5: 34; James 5: 12.)

Calvin goes on to note that, in the Old Testament, God commands His people to take oaths. (Calvin gives the example of Exodus 22:11, but also observe Deuteronomy 6:13 in this connection: “Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.”) Rhetorically, Calvin asks: “What then? Will they make God contradict himself, by approving and commanding at one time, what he afterwards prohibits and condemns?” Calvin assumes that no Christian would wish to suggest that God contradicts Himself.

Why, then, does it seem that Christ forbids all oaths? Calvin explains:


[Christ’s] purpose was, neither to relax nor to curtail the Law, but to restore the true and genuine meaning, which had been greatly corrupted by the false glosses of the Scribes and Pharisees. If we attend to this we shall not suppose that Christ condemned all oaths but those only which transgressed the rule of the Law. It is evident, from the oaths themselves, that the people were accustomed to think it enough if they avoided perjury, whereas the Law prohibits not perjury merely, but also vain and superfluous oaths. Therefore our Lord, who is the best interpreter of the Law, reminds them that there is a sin not only in perjury, but in swearing. How in swearing? Namely, by swearing vainly. Those oaths, however, which are authorised by the Law, he leaves safe and free. Those who [absolutely] condemn oaths think their argument invincible when they fasten on the expression, "not at all". The expression applies not to the word swear, but to the subjoined forms of oaths. For part of the error consisted in their supposing, that when they swore by the heaven and the earth, they did not touch the name of God. The Lord, therefore, after cutting off the principal source of prevarication, deprives them of all subterfuges, warning them against supposing that they escape guilt by suppressing the name of God, and appealing to heaven and earth.

Calvin’s explanation fits with Deuteronomy 6:13, mentioned above. The activity prohibited by Jesus is swearing falsely, and then trying to assuage one’s conscience concerning false swearing through another direct violation of the Law! This explanation of Matthew 5:33-37 is in keeping with Jesus’ words recorded later in Matthew:


16 “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it. (Matthew 23:16-22 NIV 1984)


In guiding my students concerning how to think about Scripture, it is my hope that they will neither ignore the commands of our Lord, nor take His commands out of context and thereby make them contradict the rest of Scripture.

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