Having said that, I think that many times we can control some of the specifics of our language. We might not control the thought that we express, but we ought to control how it is uttered. For example, we ought to have enough self-control to keep ourselves from ever telling a lie. Lying should be so contrary to our nature that it becomes impossible to do it – I say “should” be impossible. And I think that every Christian should have the ability to completely avoid blasphemy. While the world around us may be saying things like “God damn it this or that” that kind of language should be impossible for us to utter. I find that it’s embarrassing to say it even to condemn it – it is that foreign to me.
And that is my point: through what a person says, you can usually discern the condition of his heart. If he is a blasphemer, then you should assume that he is a heathen – an unbeliever – a wicked sinner. If he is a liar, then he shall have his part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone. If he says filthy things, then you should assume that he is a filthy-minded or filthy-hearted person. If he is a flatterer, then beware of him just as you would someone with the plague.
The Lord Jesus once said, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.” And in another context He said, “O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.”
After these things, about which there is absolutely not controversy or confusion, I would like to talk about a very confusing and controversial subject. I just about guarantee that we will not leave this room tonight with complete unanimity on the subject. Let every man be persuaded in his own heart, because he will have to give an account for his heart only before the Lord.
There is no controversy about the fact that blasphemy is sin.
To “blaspheme” is to use the Name of the Lord in an unholy fashion or in a way that is unbefitting the Lord. To “blaspheme” is different from using the name of the Lord in vain, in that this is unholy and sinful, not just empty and useless. According to the dictionary synonyms for “blasphemy” include “cursing” and “swearing.” But this is only in common use and in the common English dictionary.
Biblical “blasphemy” is rather specific – it is to speak of God in an irreverent, impious or sinful manner. And if to use the name of the Lord in an empty or vain manner brings about guilt, to tie that Holy Name to direct or obvious sin must be worthy of quadruple guilt.
I think that one verse of scripture might be used to show that “blasphemy,” “cursing” and “swearing” are all slightly different. It’s a verse which describes Peter before the fire in the courtyard of the High Priest. When it was suggested that he was one of the disciples of the Lord, in order to protect his unworthy hide, “he began to curse AND to swear, saying, I know not this man of whom ye speak.” I cannot bring myself to believe that Peter blasphemed the name of the Lord, but he did curse and swear. He “cursed” which means that uttered something profane and perhaps obscene, or it could mean that he made an appeal for some kind of judgment on himself: “May lightning strike me dead, if I am one of those disciples of Christ.” But then in addition to the curse he also “swore.” Peter likely appealed to the Lord, or to Heaven, as a witness to what he was saying. To swear is to utter an oath – to make a solemn formal declaration that something is true. To stand in a court of law, putting your hand on the Bible promising to tell the truth is to “swear.” Was what Peter did sinful? Absolutely. Was it blasphemous? Probably not, although that is my personal opinion for which I have no real proof.
This brings us to the general Biblical rule against swearing.
Once while in Deming, New Mexico, I was called upon to testify in a civil court about a child custody case. When I took the stand, I was asked to put my hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth. I turned to the judge and told him that as a Christian I always tell the truth and that based on what I believed the scriptures to teach I shouldn’t make an oath like that. Without any argument or further instruction he agreed to accept my testimony without my “swearing in.”
I based what I said that day on statements of the Lord Jesus and of James. Without any explanation whatsoever James 5:12 says, “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.” It is apparent to me that James was not talking about profanity, but about making an oath. The Lord Jesus gives us a little more to think about in Matthew 5:33-37. “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.”
As you know, I have a great deal of respect for C.H. Spurgeon. He errs in some respects, such as ecclesiology, so I avoid him in areas like, but in the main I have to respect almost everything that he says. In his commentary on Matthew 5:33-37 Spurgeon wrote: “False swearing was forbidden of old; but every kind of swearing is forbidden now by the word of our Lord Jesus. He mentions several forms of oath and forbids them all, and prescribes simple forms of affirmation or denial, as all that his followers should employ. Notwithstanding much that may be advanced to the contrary, there is no evading the plain sense of this passage, that every sort of oath, however solemn or true , is forbidden to a follower of Jesus. Whether in a court of law, or out of it, the rule is, “Swear not at all.” A bad man cannot be believed on his oath, and a good man speaks the truth without an oath: to what purpose is the superfluous custom of legal swearing preserved? Christians should not yield to an evil custom, however great the pressure put upon them; but they should abide by the plain an unmistakable command of their Lord and King.”
Is there an acceptable use of swearing?
Spurgeon is absolutely clear about his interpretation of our Saviour’s words. But would it surprise you to know that I have yet to find a single commentator who agrees with him? It doesn’t matter where I turned for help, they all disagree with Spurgeon. For example, Baptist John Gill put it this way. “Swear not at all” – “which must not be understood in the strictest sense, as though it was not lawful to take an oath upon any occasion, in an affair of moment, in a solemn serious manner, and in the name of God; which may be safely done: but of rash swearing, about trivial matters “swear not at all.'” Baptist John Broadus agrees with Gill, “An oath is not inherently and necessarily wrong, and there are occasions which justify its use, as in judicial proceedings (for which we even have our Lord’s example), and where some solemn as-sever-ation in speech or writing is required by the circumstances.” An as-sever-ation is merely a solemn statement – it is to assert something. The Pulpit Commentary puts it this way: “How can we explain the Lord’s absolute prohibition here? In that our Lord is not here thinking at all of formal and solemn oaths, but of oaths as the outcome of impatience and exaggeration. The thoughtlessness of fervent as-sever-ation is often betrayed into an oath.” Robertson in his “Word Pictures” pretty well summarizes all the rest of the commentators. “Certainly Jesus does not prohibit oaths in a court of justice for he himself answered Caiaphas on oath, and Paul made solemn appeals to God. Jesus prohibits all forms of profanity. The Jews were past-masters in the art of splitting hairs about allowable and forbidden oaths or forms of profanity just as modern Christians employ a great variety of vernacular “cuss-words” and excuse themselves because they do not use the more flagrant forms.”
As Robertson suggests several of the commentaries refer to Jesus’ tacit approval of oath taking. But I’m not sure that we should put too much stress on that argument. During our Lord’s trial before the Sanhedrin in Matthew 26 we read: “And the high priest arose, and said unto him, Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee? But Jesus held his peace. And the high priest answered and said unto him, I adjure thee BY THE LIVING GOD, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said.” When Caiaphas said “by the living God” that was a form of swearing – it was a formal religious oath. Our Lord replied to the question after the oath. But it might be argued that just because He didn’t rebuke Caiaphas, it wasn’t necessarily an approval.
But then we come to the words of Paul.
Isn’t what Paul says here in Romans 1:9 an example of an oath? “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.” The first definition of the word “to swear” in my dictionary reads like this: “To make a solemn declaration, invoking a deity or a sacred person or thing, in confirmation of and witness to the honesty or truth of such a declaration.” Isn’t that exactly what Paul does in this verse? And not only here but in many other places Paul does the same sort of thing. II Corinthians 11:10 – “As the truth of Christ is in me, no man shall stop me of this boasting in the regions of Achaia.” II Corinthians 11:31 – “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not.” Galatians 1:20 – “Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not.” Philippians 1:8 – “For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.” I Thessalonians 2:5 – “For neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloke of covetousness; God is witness.” I Timothy 2:7 – “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.”
Without doubt, the primary point of our Lord Jesus in Matthew 5 was that the Christian’s “yes” and “no” should always be true and honest, accurately expressing what we believe. It should not be necessary for the Christian to call upon God to affirm what the Christian has to say; it should always be the truth. One of my problems with the “swearing in” prior to the giving of testimony in some human court, is that it implies that this time I am going to tell the truth, but when I don’t make such an oath, you are going to have to guess whether I am telling the truth. The rule of Christ’s Kingdom, which is the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount, is absolute honesty at all times. No matter how we interpret the “swear not at all” that must be the primary lesson we learn from Matthew 5.
As for what the Apostle Paul writes here in Romans, we go back to my opening comments. Paul was exposing his heart before his readers in Rome. He was not uttering an oath simply to be uttering an oath, he was expressing the condition of his soul. “I constantly pray for you brethren across the sea, and if the Lord chose to do so, He could testify on my behalf that this is the truth.” Paul’s heart said that the Lord could testify that he always told the truth.
In this sense, based on Paul’s example, I see nothing wrong in taking an oath, even in a court of law. If it was permissible for Paul to swear, then it is also permissible for us. However, if I am ever asked to testify in court, for the sake of a public testimony, once again I think that I will address the judge telling him that as a Christian, I am obligated to tell the truth under all circumstances. I always tell the truth and this court room isn’t going to make me tell a lie. If he orders me to put my hand on the Bible and once again make that as-sever-ation, I will do so without bring harm to my conscience in the least.