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Is our word not enough? Our kids knew not to make playground promises. Jesus made it clear that we should do the same in Matthew 5:37: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ ”

Yet based on the teaching of the whole Bible, the Westminster Confession of Faith asserts, “In matters of weight and moment, an oath is warranted by the Word of God, under the New Testament as well as the old” (WCF 22.2).

When we make vows (promises to God) and oaths (promises before God), we witness to the world that life is not a playground: there are matters of weight and moment. In our entertainment-driven culture, the mere reference to weighty matters can sound radical. Beyond pointing to the presence of such matters, our vows testify to what those matters are.

We do not make vows about just anything, and here the confession helpfully guides us. When we make a vow, as Israel did when entering Canaan (Num. 21:2), we call on God to judge us more strictly according to the truth or falsehood of what we swear (WCF 22.1). So we vow only about that which we are fully persuaded is the truth, and we bind ourselves only to what is good and just and to what we are able and resolved to perform (WCF 22.3). Understanding that we need to fulfill our vows, even to our own hurt (WCF 22:4), we make vows with caution, but we still make them.

We make vows because we need them. Vows aren’t for the proud but for the humble. Our vows witness to the world of our weakness and vulnerability more than they speak of our strength. When we sing, “Prone to wander—Lord, I feel it—prone to leave the God I love,” we don’t sing sentimentality; we sing the truth. Even the Apostle Paul said, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15). Should we expect anything more for run-of-the-mill Christians like ourselves? Let’s face it. Despite our best intentions, we can drift from even our most important commitments. Recognizing our weakness, we use vows and oaths to more strictly bind ourselves to our necessary duties (WCF 22.6).

In keeping our vows, we serve the world’s greatest need and enjoy our highest privilege: we testify to our triune God’s promise-keeping character revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Our vows not only help us keep our commitments; they help others keep theirs. Consider God’s reason for making an oath as described in Hebrews 6:17–18:

So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.

God did not need an oath to help Him keep His commitment, for it is impossible for Him to lie. He made His oath to encourage us in keeping ours. Following the pattern set by God, we, too, make our vows to benefit others. Consider how our marriage vows help our spouse to be faithful. Simply put, when we make a vow to stick with our spouse “for better or for worse,” we make it easier for our spouse to stick with us, too.

Our vows even encourage our spouses in fulfilling their particular duties. For example, my husband’s vow gives me one more reason to respect him. Anyone who has called on God to judge him more strictly according to how well he loves me deserves my respect. Likewise, my vow to submit to him helps him in his particular duty: it’s easier for him to lead me when I have promised to follow. When the world sees how our vows support one another, it sees the distinct character of Christian love—namely, that it aims to serve.

When the world sees how our vows support one another, it sees the distinct character of Christian love.

Our vows in church work the same way: they not only help us to be faithful; they help others. Consider how the elders’ ordination vows help us keep our membership vows. It’s easier for us to submit to their rule when we know that they have vowed to lead according to Scripture and not to lord over us (Luke 22:25–27; 1 Peter 5:3). Likewise, our vows help them: it is easier for them to teach and correct us gently when we vow to submit to them willingly, seeking to make their job a joy (Ps. 32:9; Heb. 13:17). In addition to supporting the elders, our membership vows support other members. Our vows tell them: “You are not alone. We all make the same vows, relying on the same God.” The same is true for baptismal vows. Together, all our vows in church witness to the world of our particular duties, how we are knit together in the body of Christ and receive strength in our unity.

When we make vows, whether in church or in marriage, we testify to how we love one another and show ourselves to be genuine disciples of Christ (John 13:35).

Why, then, do we keep our vows? We keep vows because God Almighty will come to judge us according to them. And simply put—because God keeps His.

In keeping our vows, we testify to who God is and what He has done. God the Father kept His promise to save a people for Himself, even at the cost of His own Son. Jesus kept His word, even as He suffered on the cross. And now the Holy Spirit enables us to keep our vows, even to our own hurt (Ps. 15:4). Acknowledging that there are rare exceptions when it is best that a vow be broken (WCF 22.7), we strive to keep our vows always. In keeping our vows, we serve the world’s greatest need and enjoy our highest privilege: we testify to our triune God’s promise-keeping character revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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From the October 2022 Issue
Oct 2022 Issue