A Question about Oaths and Vows
January 12, 2024, 3:11 PM

Question: I remembered this one act or promise that I made to God, and honestly, I don’t know what to do. To keep it vague for privacy, back then I was zealous and then made a promise to God, but then as the days went on, I couldn't take it anymore and had a not-so-great night. I really tried to search for an answer back then about what to do, then thought that since having what was probably a mental breakdown resulting from the promise was not a part of the promise, I just stopped doing it. And then now I feel bad because that might be counted as sin. I mean, the Book of Judges had a whole segment about this with Jephthah and his scenario was worse than mine and he still went through with it. I hate my tendency to do unintelligent stunts like this. I’m sorry for venting, but I don’t know what else to do.

Answer: Thank you for your question. There are several ways to go about answering it. First, we can look at some Scripture regarding oaths and promises.

  • “When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it; for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin to you.” (Deuteronomy 23:21 NKJV)
  • “I will pay my vows to the LORD Now in the presence of all His people.” (Psalm 116:18 NKJV)
  • “When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; For He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed. Better not to vow than to vow and not pay.” (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 NKJV)

The thrust of all these passages tells us that if we make a vow to the Lord, we should make haste to pay it. In fact, the Ecclesiastes passage adds that it’s better to not vow at all than to make a vow and not pay. Our Lord Jesus Christ makes this point in The Sermon on the Mount:

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear 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. Nor shall you swear by your head because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:33-37 NKJV)

It's not that Jesus is “anti-oath,” rather He is arguing against the superficial and hypocritical way the scribes and Pharisees twisted their words in their oaths. Jesus wants His disciples to be people of their word; people whose “yes” means “yes,” and whose “no” means “no.”

That’s what Scripture has to say on the subject. Second, is it considered sin to make a vow and not pay it? Yes. Sin, as The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines it (question 14), is “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” In other words, failing to do what the law of God commands you to do, or doing what the law of God commands you not to do, is sin. If you make a vow to the Lord and fail to keep it, it is sin.

Third, while the Book of Judges, and the story of Jephthah, can be instructive and illustrative on this subject, we should be wary of looking to the Book of Judges as normative for the Christian life. What I mean by that is there is a lot of Scripture that tells us what happened in redemptive-history that isn’t meant to be understood as what we ought to do. So, if you want to look at the story of Jephthah as a historical illustration of why not to make a rash vow, that’s fine. We should not think that God will necessarily treat us as He treated Jephthah.

Finally, Scripture tells us about vows, to make a vow and not keep it is sin, what can we do about it? Well, what do we do if we sin? We go to the Lord and confess that sin. Scripture tells us that if we confess our sins before the Lord, He will forgive us (1 John 1:9). We have an Advocate before the Father who is the “propitiation for our sins,” Jesus Christ (1 John 2:1-2). Jesus, our Great High Priest, ever lives to make intercession for us before the Father (Hebrews 7:25). If you are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, then there is nothing that can separate you from the love of God that’s ours in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:39), and that includes broken vows.

Before closing, I want to offer a bit of pastoral counseling. I think it’s commendable to want to make a vow before the Lord, and there is a time and a place to do such things. However, and I don’t know the particulars of your situation, we should not vow to stop sinning or anything like that. This is just a recipe for discouragement and despair. Paul, in Romans 7, is quite clear that we are always going to struggle with sin. I am convinced that the more we try not to sin, the more we do sin because our minds are focused on the wrong thing. Paul, in Colossians 3:1-4, before he gives them a single exhortation, tells his readers to set their minds on things above where Christ is seated. In other words, focus on Christ and His person and work on your behalf. This is not a license to sin, but an encouragement to remember Christ died for you, He was raised for your justification, and He will return to take you to be with Him for all eternity.

I hope this helps.

~ Pastor Carl