Lord's Day 37 (1941) - Lord's Day 37 (1941) - Prof. Ben Holwerda
Note about the translator: Mr. Gilbert Zekveld was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to Canada as a young man. He farmed for many years in the Bowmanville area of Ontario where he was actively involved with Christian Reformed and later Orthodox Christian Reformed church life.
This sermon was delivered Sunday, June 8, 1941
Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ,
This afternoon we deal with Lord's Day 37 and the oath. This is a Lord's Day, the subject of which we are not all that much interested. It seems to us there are more important matters in the catechism, as for instance faith, God's Providence, justification and the Sacraments. Someone acquainted with the times that the Catechism was written would maybe say: this Lord's Day is not timely. It was different in the days of the Reformation.
During those days the Church had to contend with the Anabaptists who were wholly adverse to swearing an oath. It is understandable that the Church of that day made oathswearing a part of its confession. But that time is long past, and therefore this Lord's Day lost its relevance. You know it yourself, how often does it happen in our life we have to swear an oath? It is likely that most of us have never been called upon to swear an oath. Others did swear an oath before the judge in court, or when entering upon a new office; it was for them only one time. We cannot say that this question is for us of vital importance. Yet, I believe, this matter is of greater importance than we are aware of at first sight. And that precisely when we reckon with the circumstances which brought the Church of the Reformation to confessing Lord's Day 37.
We said a while ago that it was the Anabaptists who thought differently about the swearing of oaths. For the Anabaptists the oath was not an isolated, incidental matter; no, in their thinking this question was associated with other questions. For the same reasons the Anabaptists were against taking interest, military service; and the more radical groups against the authority of government and marriage. A whole complex of other problems is associated with the question of the oath which all can be retraced to one and the same attitude, which is basic to all these questions.
The contest which is in order in this Lord's Day is not a contest for the oath as such, for in those days so much was connected with the oath. The struggle is here against the spirit for which the oath was rejected. Our confession does not contest here the Anabaptists for one heresy that stood all by itself, but for the whole heretical spirit, as it came to light here. The struggle was basically not about the oath itself, but about the relationship between nature and grace.
The Anabaptists were of the opinion that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ was a complete contradiction to all created life. To be redeemed by Christ and living under the rule of grace was to be made free from all natural life and the laws of natural life. It was only of the earth and the spiritually minded is bound to withdraw from this.
And so, for Christ's sake, the Anabaptists became adverse to the natural, of everyday human life with all its institutions and laws and ordinances. That is why they rejected marriage - it was only for the flesh -, rejected the authority of governments - it was only worldly - , refused to swear an oath - for all of judicial life also belonged to the "natural" -, that is why they did not charge interest and were against military service, for all these were things of this life, the Christian had done away with these things. So because of the redeeming work of God the Son, they became adversaries to this life and the laws for this life as they are given by God the Father. They were not really contending just for the oath, but they were contending about the Trinity, because they placed God the Son in His work of redemption over against God the Father in His work of Creation. The quarrel about the oath is only a small part, only a certain moment about that great question how the redeemed Christian must see this life on the one hand and the work of God the Father on the other. About the question, if for Christ's sake he will say "yes" to the things of this life.
When you understand this, you understand that this Lord's Day lost nothing of its relevance. The important question, how must a Christian see this life? - that big question is in this Lord's Day answered in virtue of a point that does not look that important, but in the overall scene it is a question of life and death. So I bring you the Word of God concerning
The problem of the oath:
1. The grace in the oath.
2. The poverty of the oath.
3. The triumph of the oath.
1. First of all I will say something about grace that is in the oath. You all know what is the meaning of the oath. The oath is there to give security to the life of people in a lying world. The oath would not have been necessary if there was not the terrible fact of unfaithfulness and the lie. The oath at all times presupposes the dominon of sin. I don't need to say much about that: sin ruined everything in people's lives: businesslife, marriage, relationships, traffic, trade, everything is ruined by sin. And so sin has taken dominion of that very definite form in which people relate to each other: I mean the relation of language and speaking. The word is one of the means whereby God made people have contact. In grace He would thereby remove man's loneliness, and He opend the possibilty to speak with each other, and by that word exercise communion with each other. Is it not so? Our lives would be so impoverished if we were all alone and would have to rely completely on our own recourses. We would not be able to communicate. But the Lord gives us eyes to see each other, ears to hear, a heart to love each other, a mouth to speak with each other, feet to come near each other, and much more. But language especially is of so great significance in the life of people. Now they can exchange their thoughts, reveal the secrets of their hearts, now they can make promises to each other, and so lean upon the word of the other.
But sin has completely poisoned this means of relating to each other by speech. You know it for yourself: now sin has come, we just say something, we promise much, and we do not keep our word. Our word that must support the other cannot be trusted and is deceiving. Now we have that superficial word that is void of all depth and content; we have the thoughtless word of which we do not see the import; now we have the over-hasty word which we soon forget or cannot keep; we have now also the conscious-misleading word, wherewith we make others stray. Come to think of it, we cannot help each other very much anymore. We never know if we can fully trust the other. When someone makes a promise today, does he really mean it? Does he know what he is saying? Or does he lead me down the garden path?
And so that beautiful word-communication wherewith we relate to each other has become a heap of rubbish. After God's purpose it must give certainty to our lives and peace and rest. In our words the communion of love must be unfolded. But as it is, our word makes life uncertain. It is so bad that when someone says something, we become suspicious and think, "why did he say that"? Can I trust him? Society has become a lie and is ruined by lying. With our words we don't love the neighbour anymore, for we don't love the Lord. Our words do not give any more certainty to those around us for our words miss the bond with God.
The heathen sensed something about the fact that there is no firmness of character among people when there is not first a bond with God. That also in the word we speak to man, we deceive, unless we speak that word in the presence of God. That our word only then is firm and certain, then we just don't speak it before the ear of people, but first and most before the ear of God, with Him as witness.
That is how the oath came into being. In it we declare: what I now say and promise, I seriously plan on doing. I do not say it today, and tomorrow I will say something else. No, I know we are here with the three of us: you and I and God. He is with us as witness. The Lord hears what we discuss here. And when we do not keep our word, God is present; then He may say what we agreed on for He heard it. Then He may break our lie with His truth and faithfulness. For I can lie, and you can lie, but He does not lie; we have a faithful Witness, and when we disagree, we have already in advance appealed to Him and bound ourselves to His verdict. The Lord is witness between you and me.
That, beloved, is the oath. The oath means that in the midst of the instability of people, we have one solid point, namely that the words of people, which are in themselves not to be trusted, are anchored in God. The oath means, that by binding our word to God, we also bind ourselves solidly to people; we say that the lie among people is conquered by our faithfulness to the Lord. We swear by Him, that is to say in our words we bind ourselves to Him and thereby we bind ourselves to people, and so our words again obtain firmness and certainty.
Yes, with the heathen this is different. For they do not know God. When they swear they bind themselves to the god of their fancy, and because their god is an idol, a nothing, a vanity, the binding to their god is therefore nothing but vanity. The oath represented by an idol is ultimately an act of lying; they don't know the truth, not in their oaths either; that is why they don't conquer the lie with their oaths.
But with Israel this is different. To Israel God revealed Himself, also in the third commandment He makes Himself known as the Lord, their God, Who brought them out of Egypt. He is the Lord, and His Name is Truth. That name says indeed Who God is, He is, Who He is, they can be sure of His Word. And He brought them out of Egypt. He delivered them from the idols and the bonds to these idols. He reveals Himself to them as the Veritable and the Faithfull God, and makes them swear by His Name; that is to say, they swear by the certainty, by the truth of their God. They do not swear by a god of their fancy, without knowing Him; not by a god of lies, whereby all their oaths become powerless. But they swear by the God of absolute faithfulness and absolute truth. The Name of the Lord is really their only design in the midst of the lies of people, the only positive point. That is not just a certainty they imagine, but a real certainty. When they swear by Him, they bind themselves to the absolute truth. The God of truth placed His Name under their life as the sure foundation. Now they can build their whole life upon this sure foundation; they can now anchor and base their word-communication in God's unwavering faithfulness. By their oaths, in the Name of the Lord they bind their words to His faithfulness, to His truth, and thereby their word-communication among people, every promise and every pledge receive a firm basis. Their words now stand upon the solid foundation of the Name of the Lord, and therefore they themselves are sure; and it makes human life firm and solid once more.
Beloved, that is the grace of the oath. The Name of God is revealed. That is to say, now there again is something to hold on to. This God is not a figment of their imagination, not a product of their fancy, but this God Himself is the Truth. They do now, in the degeneraton of life, in the midst of all uncertainty, discover an absolute solid point, and in their oaths with their confidence in God, they make make their whole life steady and dependable. They can bind all their words to the immoveable security of God's Name, to truth itself. Now the Name of God, truth itself, is in the oath the great means to conquer the lie. So is the oath a means of grace.
I hope you now understand, why the struggle of the Church of the Reformation also at this point was so important. If the Anabaptists had only rejected the oath, because they did not understand the word of Christ: "do not swear at all", I say, if with the Anabaptists it was only that, it was not so important. If it was just the one text they did not understand, we could let them get by with just making a promise. But there was much more to it. It was not a misunderstanding of one Bible word, but this was basically rejecting the Name of the Lord, a lack of appreciation of all His revelation. The Anabaptists say: the oath is worldly, just like marriage and military service and charging interest are of this world. When God reveals Himself, it means we let go of all the world as being anti-god.
With the Anabaptists, the Name of the Lord stands over against the whole of human life. That is why the Churches of the Reformation resisted the Anabpatists at this point. The Name of the Lord is not against life, but that Name is revealed to give human life a solid basis. Without the revelation of God's truth human life is uncertain; without that Name there is no confidence and certainty in business life, in married life, in the life of the citizen. But God revealed His truth in order that life again would have a foundation and life could be built upon that solid foundation. Because the Church knew this, it confessed: everything must be made subject to the Name of the Lord. Then again, the businessman can be confident, there is faithfulness in marriage and people are true to their word. God's revelation never means rejecting created life, but accepting the foundations of life; it means that life is made healthy. That is why they fought so hard to keep the oath, for it was not because of an oath more or less, but it was about the foundation of life, and that word-communication would thrive and flourish once more. Everything, also our words, must be subject to the Name of the Lord, for then life will blossom and grow. No world-flight, no negation of what God created; no, accepting all of that created life, as it is connected with the Name of the Lord, and therefore redeemed.
2. For many still have a difficulty with the words of Jesus: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; not by this or that, but let your communincation be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay; what is more than this, swear not at all, every oath, is from the evil one. This brings me to the second thought: the poverty of the oath.
On the one hand we hold against all Anabaptist ideas that the oath is a gift of grace, for in the oath the word of man binds to God and thus faithfulness and truth are established. But beside this we must emphatically place the second: the oath, how great the gift of grace that is in it, the oath means great poverty.
Why? In the first place because the oath can be abused. The oath whereby we bind the word to God, even the oath can be a mockery, and have no other purpose than to mislead. The Jews from Jesus' days were very crafty in this matter. They knew very well that the oath served to strengthen one's word and make it credible. But the Pharisees with their hairsplitting methods saw the way clear to evade the real meaning of the oath. They went to work as follows: when you swear an oath to the Lord, you must keep the oath. By saying this they made the people believe that when you swear any other oath (not by the Lord), such an oath is not binding. That is how they had many oaths wherewith they attempted to deceive. When someone swore by the temple, that was nothing; for he could mean the stones of the temple; but when he swore an oath by the gold of the temple, he was obliged to keep that oath. For that gold was consecrated to the Lord. The same was true when they swore by the altar, it was not binding. An oath like that could be broken; but did he swear by the gift on the altar, a gift that was consecrated to the Lord, he was bound to keep the oath. Or still different: when they swore by the law, that was not serious; for they could mean the paper on which the law was written; and an oath by that piece of paper was no oath done to the Lord, and so not binding. But when they swore by the words of the law, then it was different; for those words were spoken by the Lord Himself; and an oath done to these divine words must be kept.
You sense what the results were. With some cleverness the oath was made to serve the lie. They had some serious formulas to which they were bound; but they thought of a lot more fake oaths that could easily be broken. God gave the oath to break the dominion of sin and so make human society possible. But the Jews taught differently: they could without compunction deceive and lie to the people, you may be as untruthful as you like; you may even commit perjury, as long as you use the right formula. That led to a complete degeneration of the Jews. This was even worse than perjury; he who commits perjury can at least in his heart acknowledge that he is wrong and feel bad about it. But in the system of the Jews perjury is only not explained away, but allowed, defended and sanctioned. The lie here is no more a sin, truth is intentionally and under oath violated; not just by accident, but they were fully aware of it.
Jesus saw it in His day; there is a Jew who promises something to his neighbour; he says: by the Temple, I will do that. He swears an oath, and his neighbour will think: I can trust him. But the Jew deceives him; he covered himself in advance. If the neighbour sees he is deceived, he will answer: I did not say: by the gold of the Temple, but: by the temple and therefore I don't have to keep my promise. They lie and deceive, they swear by high and low and it appears that they are all for the truth, but in advance they intend to break their word. And their conscience is set at rest: it was not a real oath; even the Lord can do nothing about that. They gave themselves a license to deceive each other. The one is so handy to take a light formula; another is so foolish to believe what he heard, but forgot to make sure that it was a real oath that obliged the other to do as he had promised. He left confidently: did he not hear the other swear an oath? But now he is dupedand can say nothing; the other can deceive him under oath, as long as he is careful with the formula. That is how bad it was in Israel, perjury was allowed, and then, no man, not even the Lord, can blame you.
The oath, the means to defend the truth, became a great weapon of the lie. God gave the oath so that with His Name their life would again be made solid and firm. But they use that Name to render everything doubtful and to destroy all that remains of faithfulness and truth. All concept of honesty is lost here. What remains when a way is found which practically allows all kinds of perjury?
Then Christ contended for the character of the oath. Every oath in its character is calling upon God's Name. No matter what formula is used, whether one swears by the Temple or by Jerusalem, by heaven or by earth, it makes no difference. For the Temple is His throne and the earth His footstool, Jerusalem His city, heaven His dwelling place. Whoever swears an oath, no matter how, always swears by God. Whoever swears an oath obliges himself to be faithful to his oath, for he binds his word to the Name of the Lord, he couples his own faithfulness to God's faithfulness. He says: as faithful as is the Lord, I am; as true as is the Holy One, I will be the same.
But that Christ had to speak like that is evidence of the insufficiency of the oath. The Lord gave the oath to fight the lie but the oath is still subject to abuse by man. In grace the Lord gives the oath to bring certainty to life; but it does not mean that man will use it to promote truth. When he so desires he can make it an instrument of the lie and leave matters obscure and questionable. God gives a fair weapon for the conquest of truth but sinful man makes a wrong use of it. He can make the medicine worse than the disease. With the Jews, the medicine became worse than the malady. For the disease, the lie, was evil. But the medicine made the sin worse and life more impossible: the medicine was used to make the disease worse, to defend sin.
The poverty of the oath. Yes, the oath remains poor, even when it is not abused. For if in some cases I need the oath, I must make use of the oath, that is evidence that sin still exists, that the lie is still with us. When at times I speak and call upon God to be my witness, that means that I do not speak all my words before the Lord. They don't have to be lies. But then I have words the Lord hears; and other words I do not speak before Him.
That is what Jesus meant when He said, "Whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil" vs. 37. It is not that all oaths are evil; but every oath is there because of evil; when there was no lie, there would be no need of the oath.
The oath exists and has great value; Yet, the oath should not be here; a world where we have to make use of oaths is not an ideal world. The oath is indeed a weapon to fight the lie, but it leaves as such a large area for the lie to work in. I am only than in the right place with my words, when I do not off and on call upon Him as Witness, but when all my words are spoken in truth, when I speak all my words before His ears. Today I swear an oath at a certain occasion. I admit thereby that the lie still has a large area to operate in. Today I call upon God's Name but only at special occasions that are important; just as if truth is not at all times important; just as if God must be Witness only by serious and weighty matters, as if not all matters are serious.
A Christian can therefore never be at peace with the oath. He will swear an oath to establish truth and faithfulness. But the oath remains for him something he deplores. We must still fight against the lie, truth has not as yet conquered. God is called upon at some occasions; He is not yet present at all occasions. That is the misery revealed to us in the commandment of the oath; we are not yet where we should be. Truth is not yet absolute in this world, and we ourselves, we don't know yet that we speak all our words before the ears of the Lord, even those words, whereby we do not expressly call upon Him.
3. That is why we look ahead to the age which shall know the oath no more, a time when we are delivered from the oath. We know for sure that age shall come. For Christ shed forth His Spirit in our hearts; for it was Pentecost. Now we are all prophets, and prophets are no people who today speak the word of the Lord and tomorrow speak their own word; Prophets speak God's word all the time; they always speak His truth. Prophets are men who know what Elijah said: As truly as the Lord lives before Whose face I stand. Prophets always have the truth in their mouth and speak their words before the ears of the Lord.
Beloved, you are anointed to be prophets. When you speak, speak the words of God. Do not dwell in God's presence occasionally, but at all times walk before the Lord in truth. When you live like that, you don't need the oath anymore. You don't have to call upon God intentionally, for you are aware, you always speak with Him as witness. You don't have to swear oaths anymore, because your everyday words have the strength of an oath. Let your yea, simply be yea, and your no, simply be no, without more; not because you attempt to speak the truth occasionally, but because you walk in truth. Pentecost is past; speak all your words with the strength of an oath and with the purpose of an oath, speak them without the formula, speak all of them before the ears of God. Then by the power of the Spirit your word is just as certain as the word of God and then your life is healthy once again. By the Spirit you are delivered from special formulas because all your words received the strength of an oath.
Elijah swore: as truly as the Lord lives before Whose face I stand. We are prophets who always stand before His face. That is why we don't need to swear an oath. It is no exception but rule that we stand before His face and speak in His ears. Because now it is habit and we don't have to add anything. We swear not using a formula: we swear every second.
Sunday, June 8, 1941