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.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"so help me God"

Stomach virus afflicted my family at the end of last week. Sunday, instead of taking part in the Resurrection Day activities with my church family, I was at home with recovering children. I decided to redeem the time by going back over my notes from the Gospel of Matthew; using SermonAudio, I was listening to various sermons from my pastor on passages that I missed due to travel, nursery duty, etc.

Late Sunday night, I was finishing taking notes from Matthew 5:33-37. I had Facebook open on my browser, and was surprised to see an article/interview come across the screen from John Piper, in which he was answering a question from the passage I was considering. John Piper was addressing the question, "Should Christians Swear on the Bible?" Piper was arguing that based on Matthew 5:33-37, Christians should not swear to tell the truth in a court of law. My own pastor (Mitch Chase) took a different view from Piper in his sermon, and I believe that Mitch's view is supported by sound exegesis. (You can hear his entire sermon HERE.)

New Testament Evidence

In arguing that Matthew 5:33-37 is NOT meant to prevent every kind of oath whatsoever (provided the oath is honestly given), Mitch pointed to certain passages from later Scriptures in which oath-taking is indicated in a positive manner. Piper notes the New Testament evidence in passing:

"God himself took an oath in Hebrews 6:13–18. And angels take oaths (Revelation 10:5–7). And Paul at least five times heightened his seriousness in telling this truth by saying he was speaking in the presence of God or Christ (see, for example,Romans 9:1–2)."

Without any engagement with these passages, Piper treats them as irrelevant. But if you look at each of these passages, they provide weighty evidence indeed. Notice the way in which Paul communicates to the churches in Corinth and in Galatia, from which he was experiencing some opposition. In these contexts, in which people might doubt his word due to no fault of his own, Paul confirms his testimony with words like, "I call God as witness to my soul" (2 Cor 1:23), or, "I assure you before God that I am not lying" (Gal 1:20). There is not a hairsbreadth of difference between this language and the "so help me God" of an oath in court. There is, in fact, no way of understanding the Holy Spirit-inspired Apostle's language as anything other than an oath.

Old Testament Evidence

Whereas the New Testament evidence may be especially telling, in that it demonstrates oath-taking occurring even after Christ gives His instruction, the Old Testament also has bearing upon this question. In Deuteronomy 6:13 and 10:20, God commands His people to take oaths in His name. The Old Testament is full of people taking oaths, and doing so-when the oath is taken honestly-is not always portrayed as a bad thing. These Old Testament commands and examples are not just for people in ancient times; they are for US who trust in Christ (see Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:6-11; 2 Tim 3:16-17). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was not contradicting the earlier words of God; He was rightly interpreting them.

Confessional Evidence

I would also like to submit that Piper's biblical reasoning on this issue could benefit from an examination of the Reformed/Baptist confessional heritage. Today, there are many who distrust confessions of faith (and works of systematic theology in general), believing that they necessarily force an interpretive grid upon Scripture. But as I read  Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ by Nehemiah Coxe and John Owen, I see Owen (the architect of the Savoy Declaration) and Coxe (the architect of the Second London Baptist Confesion) drawing their arguments by careful exegesis of specific passages. And on this issue as well, it is better to take our older brothers' words into consideration than to have each generation pretend as if they are thinking through disputed issues for the first time. So, for example, we should consider Chapter 23 of the Second London Confession, "Of Lawful Oaths," where it declares:
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. (Heb 6:16; 2 Cor 1:23; Neh 13:25)
We should look at the reasoning of the Confession and the Scripture proofs it cites to see if there is wisdom from our elders that will benefit us.

Conclusion

John Piper, in his advice against oaths in court, is trying to be faithful to the command of His Lord. In this, he is to be commended. However, I am convinced that he is wrong on the question at hand, and that his error-however honest-has the potential for serious consequences.

Piper envisions himself, if in court, refusing to give an oath. Instead, he believes he would give a miniature sermon: something like Stephen before the Sanhedrin. But, though United States judges and justices have made wicked decisions at times, our court system is not the Sanhedrin. It is, however, an environment in which many witnesses have a reason to lie, and the judge and jury need a formal mechanism by which people are either bound to tell the truth, or else they face legal repercussions. It is not a place where each witness can establish a reputation whereby everyone can know that his "yes" is "yes" and his "no," "no." It is not a place where each witness can give a theological dissertation based on private opinion. Introducing unusual language into the proceeding just confuses the matter at hand. Instead of providing the opportunity for witness that Piper imagines, failure to give a simple answer may make the Christian seem unnecessarily obnoxious, and place him-again, unnecessarily-in danger of contempt.

Finally, apart from the specific example at hand-the question of a Christian who is a witness at trial-the approach that Piper takes to this question introduces a detrimental method of biblical interpretation. People have used this method-taking a single phrase from the Sermon on the Mount out of context, not interpreting Bible verses by the light of Scripture as a whole-and they have argued for absolute pacifism  (based on "love your enemies"), they have argued against proper Christian discernment (based on "judge not"), and they have promoted even worse errors.

Several of Piper's works have been a great blessing in my own life. He is greatly influential with many in our churches. But I would urge anyone reading this to re-consider his exegesis concerning oath-taking; in general, I would hope that we will all strive to interpret every Scripture in context.

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