Archive for the ‘James’ Category
By Andrew V. Ste. Marie
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” (James 2:21).
“For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God” (Romans 4:2).
“Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:24).
“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28).
Two authors. Two books. Two audiences. And it appears…two contradictory points of view. But is it true? Or is it an illusion?
Is it possible that all four statements are true at the same time, and that they naturally harmonize with each other when we take the time to investigate the contexts of the statements, without letting preconceived ideas get in the way of understanding?
It is not only possible, but true. If we understand the context in which these statements are made, and what each author meant by the word “works,” the solution falls neatly into place.
Let us begin with the book of James. The book of James was probably the first book of the New Testament to be written. It was not written to argue against Paul, since it was written before any of Paul’s epistles were written. In James 2:14-26, we read:
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought [worked together] with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also (James 2:14-26).
James here teaches that Abraham was justified by works, and that we are not justified by faith only, but by works. But what kind of works was he talking about?
Looking carefully in the passage, we notice that he is talking about good works. Specifically, there are two kinds of good works which he is talking about: 1) Works of obedience, such as Abraham offering up Isaac, and 2) philanthropic works of kindness, such as Rahab saving the spies from certain death. Abraham and Rahab were justified by these works. They obeyed God. They did good to their fellowman, motivated by faith.
We, also, cannot be justified without the good works of obedience to God’s commands and goodness to others. (Justified or justification usually means “to make righteous or just.” It can mean “to prove something as correct, righteous, or just.” A discussion of the meaning of justification is beyond the scope of this article.)
What about Paul? What kind of works was he talking about when he said Abraham was not justified by works, and that we are justified by faith? Was he talking about good works, dead works, works of faith, evil works, works of the law, or any and all types of works?
What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God…What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin…Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law (Romans 3:1-2, 9, 19-31).
What kind of works is Paul talking about in this passage? Notice who he is talking about at the beginning of the chapter – the Jews, the people of circumcision (verse 1). Unto them were committed the oracles of God (verse 2) – the Old Testament, the Law of Moses. Notice that he continues talking about the Jews throughout the passage, and the Law. This is the Law of Moses, the “oracles of God” from verse 2. It is not just any set of rules or a code of morality. It is a specific law, the Law of Moses. The “works” which he is speaking about in this passage are the works of that Law. So when he says, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds [same Greek word as that which is translated “works”] of the law,” he is talking about the works of the Law of Moses – Sabbaths, feasts, new moons, dietary laws, and especially circumcision. This is further confirmed as we move into the next chapter, and see what he says about Abraham.
What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised. For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect: Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression. Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all, (As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were (Romans 4:1-17).
Abraham – the father of the Jewish nation – was going to need to be addressed by Paul if he was going to get the Jews to pay attention to his argument. If circumcision was not necessary for salvation, as he argued in chapter 3, he is going to have to address the case of Abraham, to whom circumcision was first given. Paul does so by pointing out that Abraham was justified and his faith was counted to him as righteousness before he was circumcised. So when Paul says, “if Abraham were justified by works,” he is talking about the works of the Law of Moses – specifically circumcision. And he proves that Abraham was not justified by such works, because he was justified before being circumcised. Therefore, circumcision is not necessary for justification.
Therefore, to take verse 5 (“But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness”) out of context as support for a faith-alone view of salvation is wresting the Scriptures. In its original context, this was intended as a repudiation of the works of the Law of Moses, not of obedience to Christ’s commandments, basic morality, or of the authority of the church.
To fully grasp these teachings of the Apostle Paul, we need to understand the historical background in which he was working. We are first introduced to the Judaizers in Acts 15. “And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). These were Jews from Judaea who were coming to Antioch (Acts 14:26-28). Antioch was a church composed of both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 11:19-20; 13:1). It had been a stretching experience for Jewish Christians to accept the fact that God had accepted the Gentiles into the fold of faith (Acts 11:1-18). Some of them got the idea that the Gentiles could come to faith in Christ and be accepted, but that they still must observe the Old Testament/Mosaic ceremonies, such as circumcision.
Antioch was Paul’s home church. It was the church which had commissioned his first missionary journey. And it was Ground Zero for the teaching of the Judaizers. Paul was right on the scene when the trouble began, and he encountered it head on: “When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question” (Acts 15:2).
Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem, where the Jerusalem Council discussed and settled the question. Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and James all spoke in favor of the point of view eventually adopted by the Council under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – namely, that the Gentiles who converted to Christianity did not need to keep the Mosaic Law; the only items from the Law which would be enjoined upon the Gentiles were the necessity to abstain from things offered to idols, from fornication, and from eating meat with blood in it and animals that had been strangled (Acts 15:20, 29; cf. 21:25). When this decision was made known to the Gentiles who had been converted, “they rejoiced for the consolation” (Acts 15:31).
Unfortunately, although the issue had been officially settled, the Judaizers continued to make trouble for the church, and would continue to do so for the next few centuries. Paul’s letters had much material intended to refute the claims of the Judaizers about circumcision, as well as about Sabbaths, new moons, feast days, etc. When Paul talks about “works” and “law,” as opposed to faith and the grace of God, this is the type of works and law which he is talking about – that promoted by the Judaizers as necessary for salvation, i.e., the Law of Moses.
We know that Paul was the “Apostle to the Gentiles,” and in the earliest years of the church (i.e., those covered in the Book of Acts), he was more involved with evangelization to the Gentiles than the other apostles were. Of course, it was Gentile converts who were being targeted by the Judaizers. Thus, it makes sense that his writings would contain more on this topic than those of the other Apostles.
This we will now demonstrate by a careful examination of the letters of Paul.
The book of Romans is Paul’s longest surviving letter, and it has much to say regarding the subject of the Law of Moses and its relationship to salvation today. Paul’s statements in the book of Romans about works and law have been taken out of context by those preaching a “faith alone” salvation. However, in the second chapter of the book, we have a very surprising statement which is usually ignored by those preaching “faith alone”:
[God] will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: For there is no respect of persons with God (Romans 2:6-11).
Every man – Jew and Gentile – will be judged according to his deeds. Those who seek for glory and honor and immortality by patient continuance in good works will be rewarded by God with eternal life. Those who do not obey the truth, but rather practice unrighteousness, will be given tribulation and anguish. Thus, what can we conclude about Romans 3:28?
Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law (Romans 3:28).
Paul had already said that we will be judged according to our deeds in chapter 2, and defined those deeds as “patient continuance in well doing,” as opposed to “do not obey the truth…obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath”. Therefore, we know for a fact that when Paul says we are justified by faith “without…deeds” in chapter 3, he is not talking about those deeds mentioned in chapter 2. Reading the rest of the sentence, and seeing it in context, tells us exactly what kind of “deeds” he is talking about: “justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” It is the deeds of the Law which are irrelevant to our justification – particularly circumcision. As we have seen above, this theme is continued into chapter 4 regarding the circumcision of Abraham.
The book of Galatians has also been a stronghold for those who teach “faith alone.” However, even a cursory reading of the book will show that the specific works and law which Paul is arguing against in this book are those of the Law of Moses.
Paul quickly gets to his main point in the sixth verse of the book. “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel” (Galatians 1:6). What this other gospel was, we are not told immediately. Rather, the rest of chapter 1 and most of chapter 2 consist of an autobiographical account of Paul’s conversion and ministry, in which he defends the gospel which he had preached to the Galatians. However, we get an idea of what the problem was in the account of his confrontation with Peter in Galatians 2:11-16.
But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
With this passage, Paul is getting to his main point about works and law. Peter, a Jew himself, had overcome his prejudice against Gentiles and had come to the point where he could eat with the Gentiles – even though “it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation” (Acts 10:28), as Peter himself had told Cornelius. However, when other Jewish Christians came to Peter in Antioch, he was embarrassed to be seen eating with the Gentiles, and withdrew himself. This poor example was too much like the Judaizers for Paul, and he asked Peter “why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?” – which was the main issue at stake in the controversy with the Judaizers. Three times in the ensuing context, Paul names “works of the law” as that which cannot justify. Again, it is the works of the Law of Moses which are the issue.
In chapter 3, Paul gets to the meat of his argument in trying to persuade the Galatians. They had not received the Spirit by the works of the law (3:2). Miracles are done in faith, not by the works of the law (3:5). Being subject to the works of the law brings the curse of the law – which Paul proves by quoting the Law of Moses (Galatians 3:10, quoting Deuteronomy 27:26). Throughout chapter 3, it is very clear that the “law” is not a theological abstraction, but a specific reality grounded in history. This is demonstrated by the thoroughly historical approach which Paul takes in proving the superiority of the promise – the specific promise given to Abraham, “In thee shall all nations be blessed” (verse 8) – to the law, which came later.
Paul’s specific description of the error which the Galatians were falling into is given in 4:9-10:
But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years.
The Galatians were falling into bondage to the requirements of the Law of Moses, and were observing “days, and months, and times, and years.” Paul encourages them in 5:1, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” This “yoke of bondage” which Paul is talking about is not any law, or any requirement, or any restraint, or any authority. The liberty he is speaking of is not the liberty to do whatever one pleases. It is the liberty of Christ from the Law of Moses; the yoke of bondage is the requirements of the Law of Moses.
The next verses specifically name circumcision as the heart of the issue:
Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love…And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased (Galatians 5:2-6, 11).
The “works salvation” argued against in the book of Galatians is the teaching that obedience to the Law of Moses is necessary for salvation, specifically the salvation of the Gentiles. This idea is thoroughly refuted in the book of Galatians. However, the book has nothing to say against the good works of obedience to God, helping the poor, prayer, baptism, or any of the other New Covenant works. To believe in and practice them does not fall under the condemnation of Paul nor of God.
The book of Ephesians is the home of the famous verses, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). But what kind of works is Paul talking about that salvation does not come from? From the context of his other writings, concluding that he meant “works of the law” is reasonable. However, the following context helps:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace (Ephesians 2:10-15).
Paul is not speaking against good works; rather, in the very next verse he declares that we are created in Christ Jesus to do good works! The ensuing verses ground the context in the subject of the Gentiles coming to be accepted, with Jews, in the new community of Christian faith. Paul declares that it is the blood of Christ which brings the Gentiles close to God, and that the “law of commandments contained in ordinances” had been abolished by Christ. These statements, made in the context of the ongoing controversy with the Judaizers, help to ground Ephesians 2:8-9 in its historical context. It is not by the works of the Mosaic Law that we are saved. Circumcision, sabbaths, new moons, dietary regulations, etc. have nothing to do with Gentiles coming to Christ.
Paul declared in fervent love for Christ, “I count all things but loss…that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Philippians 3:8-9).
Wait a minute – something is wrong with that quotation. Did you catch it?
If you guessed that a phrase was missing, you were right. What Paul actually said was, “not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith…” etc. What law? Verses 2-3 say, “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision. For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.” He is again addressing the issue of the Judaizers, warning the Philippians against them. The “concision” are the Judaizers. Paul declares that Christians are the true circumcision (cf. Colossians 2:11). Paul’s own righteousness, which he rejected, was that “of the law” which gave him the list of reasons why he “might trust in the flesh” given in verses 5-6: He was circumcised the eighth day, was a genetic Jew, he was a Pharisee, had persecuted the church, and followed the righteousness of the law.
Paul’s letter to Titus was one giving instruction and guidance to his younger associate, who had been left on the island of Crete to care for the church there. Titus’s assignment was to ordain elders for the churches in Crete and to give them a good, solid spiritual footing for life in God’s kingdom. Paul was giving Titus instructions on things which he needed to teach the Christians in Crete. In Titus 3:4-5, he told Titus: “But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done [not: which we are doing], but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:4-5). Again, faith-alone teachers have taken these verses as proof for their position, but we must ask: What kind of works is Paul talking about? What is the context of these words?
Earlier in the book, Paul had told Titus that there were false teachers to combat:
For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision: Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake…Not giving heed to Jewish fables, and commandments of men, that turn from the truth (Titus 1:10-11, 14).
We see in this passage that part of Paul’s concern was that Titus effectively combat the errors of “they of the circumcision.” We are not specifically told if it was Judaizers or unbelieving Jews that Paul was concerned about; he had combated both throughout his ministry. It is quite reasonable to conclude, therefore, that when Paul says that “Not by works of righteousness which we have done” in 3:4-5, he is talking again about the works of the Law of Moses. That he is not here discouraging the performance of good works is proven by the fact that only a few verses later, he says:
This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men. But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain (Titus 3:8-9).
Paul was not teaching that we are saved by the mercy of God apart from living righteously. Jesus, Paul, and the other New Testament writers continually make clear that it is necessary to live a righteous life (see, for instance, I John 3:3-10).
What About Today?
We have seen that when Paul puts law or works in opposition to grace or faith, he is speaking of the works of the Law of Moses – specifically, circumcision. But do these passages have any relevance for us today? Do they teach us anything, other than to not be deceived into believing that circumcision is necessary for our salvation?
Yes, they do. We must be careful not to take these words out of their historical contexts, and any application we make must honor them in their correct contexts. However, we can learn from passages like Titus 3:4-5 that no works we do can provide our salvation. These provisional works – works which create or provide our salvation – have all been done by God through Christ. Provisional works include Jesus’ death on the cross, sending the Holy Spirit, etc., which created our salvation or made it available. However, God has enjoined on man conditional works. These works include repentance, faith, baptism, obedience, and good works. God has made our salvation conditional upon our response to Him in these types of works. Unless we obey Him, we cannot expect Him to give us salvation. These works do not earn our salvation, but unless we do them, we cannot have salvation.
Shocking Statements by Paul
In light of the discussion above regarding Paul’s use of the words “works” and “law,” it is worth noting that there are several passages in his writings which should be quite shocking to those who use his writings to “prove” a “faith alone” gospel.
Sin is not tolerated in the kingdom of God; repentance from these sins is necessary for salvation:
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God (I Corinthians 6:9-11; compare with II Corinthians 5:9-10, 11:15).
Our salvation is conditional upon our separation from the world:
Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (II Corinthians 6:14-7:1).
Salvation requires cooperation between God and man:
Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).
The grace of God is a teacher:
For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world (Titus 2:11-12).
Faith is active:
For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love (Galatians 5:6).
We must live in a way worthy of God:
Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly and unblameably we behaved ourselves among you that believe: As ye know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children, That ye would walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto his kingdom and glory (I Thessalonians 2:10-12).
Christ is the author of salvation only for those who obey Him:
And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him (Hebrews 5:9).
Holiness is necessary if we wish to see the Lord:
Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled (Hebrews 12:14-15).
Finally, if Paul had to summarize his entire message in just one sentence, what would you expect him to say? We do not have to guess, for he did just that for King Agrippa:
Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance (Acts 26:20).
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” (James 2:21).
“For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God” (Romans 4:2).
“Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:24).
“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28).
We now come back to the two pairs of verses with which we started, and we conclude that they are in fact in harmony, not contradiction to each other. Abraham was justified (became a righteous person) by his good works of obedience to God in offering Isaac on the altar, but not by his work of circumcision. We are justified by our conditional works of repentance, faith, obedience to God, baptism, etc., but not by the deeds of the Law of Moses, such as circumcision.
James and Paul agreed with each other completely on the subject of salvation and of the Law. However, they used words – specifically, the word “works” – differently from each other in their writings, which can be confusing for the modern reader. A careful reading, however, reveals the source of the difficulty and makes the solution plain and obvious.
 Furthermore, due to the hardness of the Israelites’ hearts, Moses allowed bondage to various evils to continue under his system. For instance, divorce and remarriage was permitted, whereas Christ’s teachings free us from that bondage. Moses allowed war and the hating of enemies; Christ’s teachings free us from this bondage, etc.
 This point is admirably explained in the highly recommended book by Aaron M. Shank, Faith and Works in Salvation, 2011.
Originally published in The Witness 13(4) (April 2015):3-10.
Matt. 5:33-37; James 5:12.
By Simon P. Yoder
“Swear not at all”—thus taught the Son
Of God, that pure and holy One,
Whose words with truth are ever rife;
Who for a ransom gave his life—
Man to restore from Adam’s fall—
Yes, Jesus said, “Swear not at all.”
“Swear not at all.” In times of old,
Before Christ came truth to unfold,
Oaths were allowed, and men would bind
Themselves with solemn oaths to find
Their perjured souls could not obey—
But Jesus taught a better way.
“Swear not at all,” whate’er you do,
Oaths cannot make your words more true.
Speak words of promise with a “yea,”
And when denying, answer “nay;”
But keep your lips from words profane,
They come of evil and are vain.
“Swear not at all,” said Christ; and James
His own apostle too, proclaims
The same divine commands for see:
“Above all things swear not!” said he.—
And are not here forbidden both
The statesman and the ruffian’s oath?
“Swear not at all” includes all kinds
Of oaths, and how the swearer finds
A way to reconcile his words
With the plain teachings of the Lord
I know not,—for to great and small
Is this command: “Swear not at all.”
“Swear not at all.”—Then while we live
O let us due obedience give
To this commandment firm and plain.
No “legal oaths” nor words profane
From Christian lips should ever fall,
Since Jesus said, “SWEAR NOT AT ALL.”
Originally published in the Herald of Truth 11(11) (November 1874):185.
By Andrew V. Ste. Marie“But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath” (James 5:12)
“I am content.”
A twenty-four year old young man stood before the city council of colonial New York City and said these words. What was he content with? He was content to be put back in jail. For what cause? For refusing to disobey the words of Jesus.
Early in 1745, young David Zeisberger had set off with Christian Frederick Post to learn the language of the Mohawk Indians. The two young Moravian missionaries were arrested and charged with refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to the King of England. The colony of New York had a new law which stated that “Every Vagrant Preacher, Moravian, Disguised Papist [Roman Catholic], or any other person presuming to reside among and teach the Indians” who had no license and had not taken the oath “shall be treated as a person taking upon him to seduce the Indians from his Majesty’s interest.” The council read the new law to David, and asked him if he would take the oath. He replied, “I hope the honorable Council will not force me to do it.” They said, “We will not constrain you; you may let it alone if it is against your conscience; but you will have to go to prison again.”
“I am content,” David told them. So back into jail he went, with his companion, for a total of fifty-one days. “We count it an honor to suffer for the Saviour’s sake,” David wrote.
These two Moravians sat in a New York prison for standing against the swearing of oaths. For others, refusal to swear has led to death. How does God view the swearing of oaths? Is swearing really that bad – or might it be, as some suggest, an act of worship which is highly pleasing to God?
What does Jesus say?
What is an Oath?
Before discussing whether oaths are right, we must first understand what oaths are. Those who defend the swearing of oaths define an oath as “calling God to witness to the truth of a statement.” (We will see why they define it this way later.) However, Jesus had a different definition of oaths.
“Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon” (Matthew 23:16-22).
In this passage, Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees for making rules concerning which oaths could be broken without guilt and which ones had to be kept inviolable. Notice what the Pharisees were swearing by: the temple, the gold of the temple, the altar, and the gift on the altar. Obviously, these were oaths, and Jesus treated them as such. However, none of them were “calling God to witness”! We see then that this cannot be the true definition of an oath. There are two parts to an oath: 1) the oath itself (“I swear”) and 2) the confirmation: what is being sworn by. People swear by many things, for instance, “I swear to God” or “I swear by my mother’s grave.” Some even swear without a confirmation, just saying “I swear that…” There are the judicial oaths in courts, service oaths for public office or military service, and the Hippocratic oath for medical professionals. These are all oaths. The writer of the book of Hebrews affirms that oaths are sworn by something greater than the swearer and are used for confirmation of something asserted: “For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife” (Hebrews 6:16). We see in this verse that the purpose of oaths is for confirmation of a statement based on the authority or weight of something greater than the swearer.
First Oath in the Bible
The first recorded oath in the Bible was given by a Godly man, Abraham. In Genesis 21:22-24, 27, & 31, we read:
“And it came to pass at that time, that Abimelech and Phichol the chief captain of his host spake unto Abraham, saying, God is with thee in all that thou doest: Now therefore swear unto me here by God that thou wilt not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son’s son: but according to the kindness that I have done unto thee, thou shalt do unto me, and to the land wherein thou hast sojourned. And Abraham said, I will swear…And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Abimelech; and both of them made a covenant…Wherefore he called that place Beersheba; because there they sware both of them.”
The Law of Moses
Amid the flames, clouds, smoke, and trumpetings on Mount Sinai, God gave a covenant to Moses to give to the people of Israel. This law would be the standard of righteousness until the Messiah came to replace it. The Mosaic Law has plenty to say about oaths, and it is essential to understand exactly what the Law allowed and did not allow when we are discussing the subject of oaths.
Under the Law of Moses, oaths were permitted, and the children of Israel made extensive use of them in Old Testament times. In fact, under certain circumstances, the Law actually commanded the use of oaths. In Exodus 22:10-12, we read:
“If a man deliver unto his neighbour an ass, or an ox, or a sheep, or any beast, to keep; and it die, or be hurt, or driven away, no man seeing it: Then shall an oath of the LORD be between them both, that he hath not put his hand unto his neighbour’s goods; and the owner of it shall accept thereof, and he shall not make it good. And if it be stolen from him, he shall make restitution unto the owner thereof.”
In this passage, we learn that if the animal was lost to the owner in some way, the man who was keeping it was to swear an oath that he was not guilty of stealing or destroying his neighbor’s animal. This oath released him from being required to replace the animal for his neighbor. The neighbor was required to accept the oath as confirmation that his neighbor was innocent.
In the book of Deuteronomy, God includes swearing by His Name as part of the service which He desired from the Israelites and mentions it in the context of a rejection of idolatry.
“Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name. Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you; (For the LORD thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the LORD thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 6:13-15).
“Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God; him shalt thou serve, and to him shalt thou cleave, and swear by his name. He is thy praise, and he is thy God, that hath done for thee these great and terrible things, which thine eyes have seen” (Deuteronomy 10:20-21).
Oaths were also required in the service of the priests. Numbers 5 records what was to be done with a woman who was suspected by her husband of unfaithfulness. She was to be brought to the priest, who was to perform a ceremony to allow the Lord to reveal whether she was guilty or innocent. Part of this ceremony involved an oath:
“And the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say unto the woman, If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse: But if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee beside thine husband: Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell; And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen” (Numbers 5:19-22).
Not only were oaths permitted and commanded in the Mosaic Law, God Himself made use of oaths on more than one occasion. For instance, in Jeremiah 22:5, God declares: “But if ye will not hear these words, I swear by myself, saith the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation.” In Exodus 17, after a battle between the Israelites and the Amalekites, Moses built an altar and called it Jehovah—nissi, “Because the LORD hath sworn that the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16). (See also Deuteronomy 7:8; Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 6:13, 16; Isaiah 45:23).
So we see that not only were oaths permitted under the Law of Moses, they were actually required in some circumstances, and God Himself swore. Nevertheless, there were restrictions which were applied even under the Mosaic Law which are important to understand.
Restrictions on Swearing
The Law of Moses strictly forbade false oaths – swearing to something which was not true, or swearing that a person would do something and then not doing it.
If a man swore to do something and was unable to perform it, the Law considered it sin and required that he bring a trespass offering to the priest.
“Or if a soul swear, pronouncing with his lips to do evil, or to do good, whatsoever it be that a man shall pronounce with an oath, and it be hid from him; when he knoweth of it, then he shall be guilty in one of these. And it shall be, when he shall be guilty in one of these things, that he shall confess that he hath sinned in that thing: And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the LORD for his sin which he hath sinned, a female from the flock, a lamb or a kid of the goats, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make an atonement for him concerning his sin” (Leviticus 5:4-6).
Numbers 30:1-2 also commands that oaths were to be kept:
“And Moses spake unto the heads of the tribes concerning the children of Israel, saying, This is the thing which the LORD hath commanded. If a man vow a vow unto the LORD, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.”
Swearing falsely was also forbidden. Leviticus 6:2a, 3-5 says:
“If a soul sin, and commit a trespass against the LORD…Or have found that which was lost, and lieth concerning it, and sweareth falsely; in any of all these that a man doeth, sinning therein: Then it shall be, because he hath sinned, and is guilty, that he shall restore that which he took violently away, or the thing which he hath deceitfully gotten, or that which was delivered him to keep, or the lost thing which he found, Or all that about which he hath sworn falsely; he shall even restore it in the principal, and shall add the fifth part more thereto, and give it unto him to whom it appertaineth, in the day of his trespass offering.”
God further declared in Leviticus 19:12:
“And ye shall not swear by my name falsely, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.”
The prophets, who called the people to return to the Lord and repent of their transgressions, also spoke against false oaths. Zechariah includes false oaths in a list of things which God declares that He hates.
“These are the things that ye shall do; Speak ye every man the truth to his neighbour; execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates: And let none of you imagine evil in your hearts against his neighbour; and love no false oath: for all these are things that I hate, saith the LORD” (Zechariah 8:16-17).
In the book of Malachi, those who swear falsely are put in the same list with sorcerers and adulterers:
“And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me, saith the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 3:5).
Another restriction was given by Joshua near the end of his life. He warned against swearing by the names of false gods.
“Be ye therefore very courageous to keep and to do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, that ye turn not aside therefrom to the right hand or to the left; That ye come not among these nations, these that remain among you; neither make mention of the name of their gods, nor cause to swear by them, neither serve them, nor bow yourselves unto them: But cleave unto the LORD your God, as ye have done unto this day” (Joshua 23:6-8).
Oaths were not a light thing among the ancient Israelites. They took oaths very seriously. An example of this is found in I Samuel 14. King Saul, in the middle of a battle with the Philistines, swore an oath: “Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on mine enemies” (I Samuel 14:24). All the people, who “feared the oath” (verse 26), refrained from eating anything, even when passing by a piece of honeycomb dropped from the hive – except Jonathan, who had not heard of his father’s oath. He nearly lost his life for eating when his father had rashly cursed anyone who ate that day.
Oaths were taken so seriously that any oath or vow which a woman made was subject to the approval of her husband or father, who could nullify her oath or vow if he so chose (Numbers 30:3-16).
So we see that with some important exceptions, oaths were permitted and even required under the Old Covenant. But the day came when the reign of the Law of Moses ended.
A New Kingdom
“Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” cried John the Baptist (Matthew 3:2). People from all over Judaea flocked to hear this man, dressed in camel’s hair, preach about the coming of the new Kingdom. Then one day, John greeted the King Himself with these words: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29b). “The law and the prophets were until John,” Jesus later said; “since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it” (Luke 16:16). The reign of Moses’ Law had ended, and the King was here to establish the laws by which His Kingdom would operate. Among the laws which He set up was a radically different standard on the swearing of oaths.
Jesus’ Words on Oaths
Jesus addressed the subject of oaths in the most influential sermon of all time, the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:33-37, we read:
“Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.”
Jesus made clear the radical new standard which He was requiring of those in His Kingdom – no oaths at all, for any purpose, in any way. “Swear not at all,” He said. There is nothing unclear about this instruction.
James’ Words on Swearing
Jesus was not the only one to instruct the citizens of the Kingdom of God to abstain from swearing. The Apostle James wrote:
“But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation” (James 5:12).
In this verse, we again find the answer to the question “does God want His children to swear oaths?” James tells us “swear not,” and then instructs us to avoid swearing by heaven, earth, or “by any other oath.” “Any other” would include swearing by God Himself.
This verse also gives us the answer to the question “is the subject of swearing really all that important?” The Book of James discusses many topics – responding to the trials of life, partiality, the relationship of faith and works, controlling our tongues, strife, separation from the world, wealth, etc. These are undoubtedly important issues. Nevertheless, when he arrives at the topic of swearing, he begins with “But above all things, my brethren” – in other words, this one topic is more important than anything else discussed in the entire book!
What Were They Forbidding?
In spite of the clear instructions given by Jesus and James, there are some today – and there have been some for centuries – who insist that the swearing of oaths is permissible, or perhaps even highly pleasing to God. They insist that what Jesus and James were actually forbidding was only false and frivolous oaths – not any oath. There are some serious problems with this view. First, if they meant to forbid only false and frivolous oaths, why did they not say that they were forbidding false and frivolous oaths? Secondly, why did they use such absolute language – “Swear not at all,” “swear not…by any other oath”? Thirdly, Jesus was clearly following the pattern of the other sections in the Sermon on the Mount where He raised the standards of the Law of Moses (“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time…But I say unto you”). The Law of Moses forbade false oaths, as we have seen; if Jesus only forbade false oaths, He would not have raised the standard at all.
Did Paul Swear?
Those who defend the swearing of oaths point to the epistles of Paul, claiming that he swore several times in his writings. The verses quoted here are used to support this claim:
“For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers” (Romans 1:9). “I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 9:1). “But as God is true, our word toward you was not yea and nay” (II Corinthians 1:18). “Moreover I call God for a record upon my soul, that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth” (II Corinthians 1:23). “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not” (II Corinthians 11:31). “Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not” (Galatians 1:20). “For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:8). “For neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloke of covetousness; God is witness” (I Thessalonians 2:5). “Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle, (I speak the truth in Christ, and lie not;) a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity” (I Timothy 2:7).
What is it in these verses which lead some to believe that the Apostle Paul swore oaths? Do you remember that those who defend the swearing of oaths define an oath as “calling on God for confirmation”? In all of these verses, Paul calls on God to confirm what he is saying. Those who defend oaths, then, take these as oaths and as confirmation that it is perfectly acceptable to God to swear oaths. But God is not the author of confusion.
As we pointed out before, their definition of the word oath is faulty, and thus their conclusion regarding these verses is also faulty. Although Paul did call on God to confirm his words, he did not use oaths (saying “I swear”).
Whenever a teaching of Jesus seems to be contradicted by Paul, we must find a way to harmonize the two which leaves Jesus’ words supreme – not the other way around. Jesus is the King, and the servant is not greater than his master (John 13:16, 15:20) – even if that servant is the great Apostle Paul. (Of course, Paul’s writings never do contradict Jesus’ words.)
The Early Church on the Swearing of Oaths
We have seen that whereas the Old Covenant allowed and even required some oaths, they are strictly forbidden under the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. The early Christians of the first two generations after the apostles held to this view.
Justin Martyr, about the year 160 A.D., wrote, “And with regard to our not swearing at all, and always speaking the truth, He commanded as follows: ‘Swear not at all.’” Irenaeus (student of Polycarp, who was a student of John the Apostle) wrote: “He commanded them not only not to swear falsely, but not even to swear at all.” Tertullian wrote, “Of perjury I am silent, since even swearing is not lawful.”
The Early Anabaptists
The early Anabaptists (Dutch Mennonites, Swiss Brethren, and Hutterites) took firm stands against the swearing of oaths. Their writings on the subject are well worth reading, because they faced several of the same objections which we do today when we insist on obedience to Christ’s teachings on this subject.
The Schleitheim Confession (written 1527), the earliest Anabaptist confession of faith, was written by the Swiss Brethren and took a strong stand against oaths:
“We are agreed as follows concerning the oath: The oath is a confirmation among those who are quarreling or making promises. In the Law it is commanded to be performed in God’s Name, but only in truth, not falsely. Christ, who teaches the perfection of the Law, prohibits all swearing to His [followers], whether true or false,—neither by heaven, nor by the earth, nor by Jerusalem, nor by our head,—and that for the reason which He shortly thereafter gives, For you are not able to make one hair white or black. So you see it is for this reason that all swearing is forbidden: we cannot fulfill that which we promise when we swear, for we cannot change [even] the very least thing on us.
“Now there are some who do not give credence to the simple command of God, but object with this question: Well now, did not God swear to Abraham by Himself (since He was God) when He promised him that He would be with him and that He would be his God if he would keep His commandments,—why then should I not also swear when I promise to someone? Answer: Hear what the Scripture says: God, since He wished more abundantly to show unto the heirs the immutability of His counsel, inserted an oath, that by two immutable things (in which it is impossible for God to lie) we might have a strong consolation. Observe the meaning of this Scripture: What God forbids you to do, He has power to do, for everything is possible for Him. God swore an oath to Abraham, says the Scripture, so that He might show that His counsel is immutable. That is, no one can withstand nor thwart His will; therefore He can keep His oath. But we can do nothing, as is said above by Christ, to keep or perform [our oaths]: therefore we shall not swear at all.
“Then others further say as follows: It is not forbidden of God to swear in the New Testament, when it is actually commanded in the Old, but it is forbidden only to swear by heaven, earth, Jerusalem and our head. Answer: Hear the Scripture, He who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by Him who sitteth thereon. Observe: it is forbidden to swear by heaven, which is only the throne of God: how much more is it forbidden [to swear] by God Himself! Ye fools and blind, which is greater, the throne or Him that sitteth thereon?”
Menno Simons, in a book which he wrote against Reformed theologian Martin Micron, wrote:
“That these things are so your unscriptural glosses [comments, explanations] concerning the oath make plain. Christ says, Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths; but I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne: nor by the earth; for it is his footstool. Matt. 5:33-35. And you, Micron, say that nothing but light-minded, false oaths are hereby prohibited, as if Moses allowed Israel to swear light-mindedly and falsely, and that Christ under the New Testament merely forbade these, notwithstanding that all intelligent readers know that it was not merely allowed Israel to swear truly but it was also commanded them to do so. Lev. 19:12; Deut. 10:20.
“If the Israelites then, as you hold, had the liberty in this matter that we have, and if it be such a glorious thing and an honor to God rightly to swear by the name of God, as you make bold to lie against your God, then tell me (Dear me) why Wisdom did not say, You have heard that it hath been said to them of old, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, and I say the same thing. Instead Christ says, Moses commanded not to forswear thyself, but I say unto you, Thou shalt not swear at all.”
In another book, Menno wrote:
“Nearly everything which is transacted before the magistracy must be affirmed by an oath, although the Lord has so plainly forbidden the swearing of oaths to all Christians. Matt. 5:34…We confess and heartily believe that no emperor or king may rule as superior, nor command contrary to His Word, since He is the Head of all princes, and is the King of all kings, and unto Him every knee shall bow which is in heaven, in earth, or under the earth. He has plainly forbidden us to swear, and pointed us to yea and nay alone. Therefore it is that through fear of God we do not swear, nor dare to swear, though we must hear and suffer much on that account from the world…it should be observed that Christ Jesus does not in the New Testament point His disciples to the Law in regard to the matter of swearing—the dispensation of imperfectness which allowed swearing, but He points us now from the Law to yea and nay, as to the dispensation of perfectness, saying, Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time (that is, to the fathers under the law by Moses), Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths (that is, thou shalt swear truly and fulfill thine oath): but I (Christ) say unto you my disciples, Swear not at all (that is, neither truly nor falsely), neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne, nor by the earth, for it is his footstool, neither by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be yea, yea; nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. Here you have Christ’s own doctrine and ordinance concerning swearing.”
Peter Reidemann, an important early Hutterite leader, wrote:
“Therefore Christ, in order to drive away the shadows that the light of truth—which light he is himself—may shine upon us, cometh and saith, ‘Ye have heard that it hath been said to them of old: Thou shalt swear no false oath but shalt perform thine oath unto God. But I say unto you that ye swear not 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. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil’—that is the devil.
“Now, if one should say, as they all interpret it, false and superficial swearing is forbidden, but when one sweareth out of love, necessity and the profit of one’s neighbour, it is well done and not wrong—this happeneth when human reason goeth before the knowledge of God, and where human cleverness desireth to rule over the Spirit of God, and not allow itself to be controlled by the same. For just so did Eve look at the forbidden fruit, and chose the same at the counsel of the serpent, which she followed more than the counsel of God, therefore was she deceived by its cunning and led into death. So it is still: whosoever will please men cannot be Christ’s servant. For truly here one cannot let reason rule or twist the scriptures in accordance with human presumption or opinion, for that is futile, but one must give God the honour and leave his command unaltered…Therefore saith James, ‘Above all things, dear brothers, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into hypocrisy.’ Here James will have no oath at all, whether small or great, to avoid hypocrisy. Therefore, let men twist it as they will and dress it up and adorn it as they may, no good will be found in human swearing, for Christ himself saith, ‘Let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.’ The evil one, however, is the devil, that teareth good from the heart of men and planteth evil.
“Therefore the devout will walk in the truth, allow it to rule and guide them and hold to the same; whatsoever it stirreth, speaketh and doeth within them, believe and observe the same; and this for the sake of the truth which is God himself, which dwelleth in them. Therefore they neither need nor desire any oath.”
The Dortrecht Confession (also known as the 18 Articles of Faith), written by the Dutch Mennonites in 1632, states in Article 15:
“Regarding the swearing of oaths, we believe and confess, that the Lord Jesus has dissuaded his followers from and forbidden them the same; that is, that he commanded them to ‘swear not at all,’ but that their ‘Yea’ should be ‘yea’ and their ‘Nay nay.’ From which we understand that all oaths, high and low, are forbidden; and that instead of them we are to confirm all our promises and covenants, declarations and testimonies of all matters, merely with ‘Yea that is yea,’ and ‘Nay that is nay;’ and that we are to perform and fulfill at all times, and in all things, to every one, every promise and obligation to which we thus affirm, as faithfully as if we had confirmed it with the most solemn oath. And if we thus do, we have confidence that no one—not even the government itself—will have just cause to require more of us. Matt. 5:34-37; James 5:12; II Cor. 1:17.”
Application for Today
To take a stand against swearing oaths is, at first glance, not nearly as costly a decision today as it was for the early Anabaptists. They decided to stand with Christ on this issue at risk of life and limb. Today, if we want to take a stand against oath-swearing, we simply ask to affirm instead of swear if necessary, and no one seems to care. Nevertheless, Jesus’ teachings about oaths ought to affect our lives profoundly.
Jesus wants our yes to be yes and our no to be no. James says the same thing. Our speech ought to be so reliable that we do not need oaths to confirm what we say. We should be known as honest people because Jesus has transformed our lives. We do not need oaths anymore because everyone knows that whatever we say will be true and reliable.
We also must be careful in our everyday speech to avoid oaths. Interjecting “I swear” into a conversation is an oath, a violation of the command of Jesus Christ. Such expressions as “by George,” “by Jove,” or even “by golly” are abbreviated oaths – the confirmation without the swearing. If we use these expressions, perceptive people will not take us seriously when we say we do not believe in swearing oaths. Furthermore, they are, in and of themselves, violations of Jesus’ commandments and therefore sin.
Lying and exaggeration must be completely eradicated from our speech. Otherwise, we open ourselves up to the criticism that we refuse to swear because we know we are not telling the truth. May such things never be heard. Rather, may all know that we refuse to swear oaths because we have accepted the Kingdom of God, with its high standard of honesty, and are following the commands and teachings of Christ and the Apostles which forbid oaths – and everything we say is scrupulously honest and, as God grants power, within the standards of righteousness which He has set for His Kingdom.
May we earnestly pray to God that He would tame our tongues. “But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). God can tame it for us, and a tamed tongue must be one of the most remarkable proofs of a regenerated life. “For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body” (James 3:2).
 Ante-Nicene Fathers, volume 1, p. 168
 Ibid., volume 1, p. 408
 Ibid., volume 3, p. 67. A few early Christians allowed swearing under some circumstances, but discouraged it.
 There were over ten different groups of early Anabaptists – some of them quite strange. Some of these groups allowed the swearing of oaths. For the purposes of this article, when we talk about the early Anabaptists, we are referring to the Dutch Mennonites, the Swiss Brethren, and the Hutterites.
 J. C. Wenger, translator, “The Schleitheim Confession of Faith,” Mennonite Quarterly Review October 1945, pp. 251-252
 Menno Simons, “Epistle to Martin Micron,” 1554, in J. C. Wenger, editor, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, Herald Press, pp. 922-923
 Menno Simons, “Confession of the Distressed Christians,” 1552, in J. C. Wenger, editor, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, Herald Press, pp. 518-519
 Peter Reidemann, Confession of Faith, Plough Publishing, pp. 197-198, 204-205
 Dortrecht Confession of Faith, in A Devoted Christian’s Prayer Book, 1967, Pathway Publishers, pp. 107-108