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False Oaths and Perjury

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 12 Mar 2021

Lee Gatiss preaches Part 2 of the “Homily against swearing and perjury.”

You have been taught in the first part of this sermon against swearing and perjury, what a great danger it is to use the name of God in vain. And that not every kind of swearing is unlawful or against God’s commandment, but that there are three things required in a lawful oath. First, that it is made for the maintenance of the truth. Secondly, that it is made with judgment, not rashly and unadvisedly. Thirdly, that it is made for the zeal and love of justice. You heard also what benefits come from lawful oaths, and what danger comes from rash and unlawful oaths. Now concerning the rest of this subject, you shall understand that those who make lawful promises of good and honest things by an oath, but do not keep them, also use the name of God in vain. As do those who promise evil and unlawful things, and do perform those.

Breaking oaths and making bad ones
There are two notable punishments which we read of in scripture for those who do not regard their godly promises bound by an oath, but who wittingly and wilfully break them. First, Joshua and the people of Israel made a league and faithful promise of perpetual amity and friendship with the Gibeonites (Joshua 9:3-15). Despite this, afterwards in the days of wicked Saul many of these Gibeonites were murdered, contrary to this faithful promise made. Almighty God was so very displeased with this, that he sent a universal famine on the whole country, which continued for the space of three years. And God would not withdraw his punishment until the offence was avenged by the death of seven sons or kinsmen of King Saul (2 Samuel 21:1-14).

Second, when Zedekiah, King of Jerusalem, promised fidelity to the King of Babylon, but afterwards (contrary to his oath and allegiance) rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar: this heathen king, by God’s permission and sufferance, invaded the land of Judah and, besieging the city of Jerusalem, compelled King Zedekiah to flee. And as he fled, he took him prisoner, slaughtered his sons before his face, and put out both his eyes; and binding him with chains, he led him as a prisoner miserably into Babylon (2 Kings 24:17-25:7). In this way, God shows plainly how much he abhors breakers of honest promises bound by an oath made in his name.

We also have examples in the scriptures of those who make wicked promises by an oath, and do carry them out: chiefly Herod, certain wicked Jews, and Jephthah. Herod promised by an oath to the girl who danced before him, to give her whatever she asked for. When she was instructed by her wicked mother to ask for the head of John the Baptist, Herod, as he had taken a wicked oath, so he more wickedly carried it out, and cruelly killed the most holy prophet (Matthew 14:6-11). In the same way, some malicious Jews made an oath, cursing themselves if they either ate or drank, until they had slain St. Paul (Acts 23:12). And Jephthah, when God had given to him victory over the children of Ammon, promised to God (in an act of foolish devotion) to offer for a sacrifice to him whatever came out of the doors of his house to meet him after his return home. By force of which foolish and ill-advised oath, he killed his one and only daughter, who came out of his house with mirth and joy to welcome him home (Judges 11:30-39). Thus the promise which he made (most foolishly) to God, against God’s everlasting will and the law of nature, he most cruelly performed, thus committing against God a double offence.

Therefore, whoever makes any promise, binding themselves to it by an oath: let them be careful that the thing which they promise is good and honest, and not against the commandment of God, and that it is in their own power to perform it justly. And such good promises must all people assuredly always keep. But if someone at any time shall, either out of ignorance or out of malice, promise and swear to do any thing which is either against the law of Almighty God, or not in their power to perform: let them count it as an unlawful and ungodly oath.

Against perjury
Now, we must also say something about perjury. So that you may know how great and grievous an offence against God wilful perjury is, I will show you what it is to take an oath before a judge upon a book.

First, people lay their hands on the gospel book, and swear truly to enquire and to make a true presentation of things they are charged with, and not to hold back from saying the truth, and doing truly, for favour, love, dread, or malice towards any person, as God and the holy contents of that book may help them. They must consider that in that book is contained God’s everlasting truth, his most holy and eternal word, by which we have forgiveness of our sins and are made inheritors of heaven, to live for ever with God’s angels and saints in joy and gladness. In the gospel book are also contained God’s terrible threats to obstinate sinners who will not amend their lives or believe the truth of God’s holy word, and the everlasting pain prepared in hell for idolaters, hypocrites, for false and vain swearers, for perjured people, for false witness bearers, for false condemners of the innocent and guiltless, and for those who for favour, hide the crimes of evildoers so that they are not punished.

So whoever wilfully lies and perjures themselves on Christ’s holy gospel, utterly forsakes God’s mercy, goodness, and truth, as well as the merits of our Saviour Christ’s nativity, life, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension. They refuse the forgiveness of sins promised to all penitent sinners, the joys of heaven, and the company of angels and saints for ever. All these benefits and comforts are promised to true Christians in the gospel. But they, lying on the gospel, give themselves over to the service of the Devil — the master of all lies, falsehood, deceit, and perjury — provoking the great indignation and curse of God against them in this life, and the terrible wrath and judgment of our Saviour Christ at the great day of the last judgment, when he shall justly judge both the living and the dead, according to their works. For whoever forsakes the truth — for the love or displeasure of anyone, or for cash and profit to themselves — forsakes Christ and, with Judas, betrays him.

And even if such perjured people’s falsehood is now kept secret, yet it shall be exposed at the last day, when the secrets of all our hearts shall be revealed to all the world. And then the truth shall appear, and accuse them; and their own conscience, with all the blessed company of heaven, shall bear witness truly against them. And Christ the righteous judge shall then justly condemn them to everlasting shame and death.

Almighty God by the prophet Malachi threatens to punish this sin of perjury severely, saying to the Jews, “I will come to you in judgment, and I will be a swift witness and a sharp judge against sorcerers, adulterers, and perjured persons” (Malachi 3:5). God also declared this to the prophet Zechariah in a vision, in which the prophet saw a book flying, which was twenty cubits long and ten cubits broad. God then said to him, “This is the curse that shall go forth on the face of the earth, for falsehood, false swearing, and perjury. And this curse shall enter into the house of the false person and into the house of the perjured person, and it shall remain in the midst of their house, and consume them, the timber and stones of their house” (Zechariah 5:1-4). Thus you see how much God hates perjury, and what punishment God has prepared for those who swear falsely, and perjured persons.

Thus you have heard, how and in what causes it is lawful for a Christian to swear an oath. You have heard what characteristics and conditions a lawful oath must have, and also how such lawful oaths are both godly and necessary to be observed. You have heard that it is not lawful to swear vainly — that is, to swear for other, lesser causes and in such ways as have been declared. And finally, you have heard how damnable a thing it is, either to perjure ourselves, or to keep an unlawful or an ill-advised oath. Therefore, let us earnestly pray for grace, that all vain swearing and perjury may be set aside, and we may only use such oaths as are lawful and godly, and that we may truly without all fraud keep them, according to God’s will and pleasure — to whom, with the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory. Amen.

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society

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