Heidelbasics: Brief Weekly Reflections on the Heidelberg Catechism by Rev. David Fagrey, Pastor of Grace Reformed Church of Rapid City, SD
101. But may we swear reverently by the name of God?
Yes, when the magistrate requires it, or when it may be needful otherwise, to maintain and promote fidelity and truth to the glory of God and our neighbor’s good; for such an oath is grounded in God’s Word, and therefore was rightly used by the saints in the Old and New Testaments.
When the Lord Jesus said to His disciples, “Do not swear at all” (Matt. 5:34), He was not abolishing the lawful oath required in God’s law on certain solemn occasions. “You shall take oaths in His name” (Deut. 6:13); “and swear by His name” (Deut. 10:20; cf. Ex. 22:10-11). Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). Jesus Himself swore an oath when commanded to do so by the high priest (Matt. 26:63-64; cf. Heb. 6:13). The apostle Paul swore at least one oath. “I call God as witness against my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth” (2 Cor. 1:23).
One of the ways Jesus fulfilled the law was to clarify its true meaning, in order to correct the scribes and Pharisees’ perversions of God’s law. They perverted the oath by saying it was okay to swear without using God’s name. As Jesus pointed out, they swore by heaven, by earth, by Jerusalem, by their own head (Matt. 5:34-36). “The Jews made a distinction between binding and nonbinding oaths. Instead of using the divine name (which would be binding), they swore ‘by heaven or by earth or by anything.’ …that would be non-binding and would not incur the wrath of God” (Hendriksen, Commentary, James 5:12). But Jesus said that to swear by anything is to swear by God, for God stands behind everything (Matt. 23:21-22). Oath-taking is a very serious matter, and it is to be done only when necessary. In our daily conversations with people there is no need to swear at all. “But let your Yes be Yes and your No, No. For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37). As Christians, living before the face of God, we are under oath at all times to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, out of thankfulness for our salvation (Eph. 4:15, 25).
In a court of law, especially, the oath is necessary–first and foremost because it promotes the glory of God. God is a God of truth; and the manifestation of truth is glorious to God. The oath also contributes to our neighbor’s safety. Law and order depend on men speaking truthfully and being faithful to their word. Because of man’s natural tendency to speak lies, the oath is required in this sinful world. There is no higher motive for telling the truth than the fear of God’s wrath. An oath temporarily reminds sinners that they will be judged for what they say, and this does reduce the amount of exaggeration, distortion, and perjury. In our courts today, “So help me God,” is being removed from the oath. Why then should people tell the truth?
102. May we swear by the saints or by any other creatures?
No, for a lawful oath is a calling upon God, that He, as the only searcher of hearts, may bear witness to the truth, and punish me if I swear falsely; which honor is due to no creature.
Only God can make the oath meaningful. The unbeliever will go to hell for lying; the untruthful believer will receive God’s fatherly discipline (1 Cor. 11:31-32).