Text: Ecclesiastes 5:1-7; Psalm 15:1-4; Acts 18:18

If you commonplace your Bible as I do, collect in one spot both various cross references that help you illuminate the teaching of God’s Word on any particular subject and quotations that remind you of the importance of that subject or apply it in some interesting and important way to your own life, this is the place to commonplace your Bible on the subject of vows: Ecclesiastes 5.

As we have discussed in this series on the disciplines of the Christian life or the means of Christian devotion – in turn, meditation, prayer, solitude, and self-denial – we have noted that in each case these disciplines are viewed in the Bible in personalist terms. They are the means of a relationship between God and the soul and between the Lord and his people when they are gathered together. Whether the worship is private or corporate, whether a man or woman is pondering the truth of God or lifting the heart in prayer or sitting in silence or training his will by self-denial, in every case it is the meeting of persons that is in view, the meeting of ourselves with God; it is communion such as we experience with other human beings; it is a form of a relationship that we have with anyone with whom we have a relationship, at least a true, living and loving relationship. We listen, we speak, we sit quietly together in the sharing of life as Job’s friends did with him; in love we make sacrifices for the sake of one another. Of such things are personal relationships made, and the more of such things, the deeper the relationship: the knowledge, the understanding, the sympathy, the love, the gratitude, the commitment and the benefit.

Well this personalist emphasis continues with the last of the disciplines I will cover in this short series, viz. the making of vows. Here too we are talking about something less a technique in the Bible than the inevitable expression of a deepening a personal commitment, of fostering a greater personal regard, and of proving one’s loyalty. This too is what people in a relationship do for the sake of that relationship.

Vow-making has fallen on hard times in our culture and, accordingly, as well in the Christian church. I’m sure there are some of you who have never made a vow and I know there are a great many Bible-believing Christians today who wouldn’t have the slightest idea that they ought to make vows or, if they should, what that would entail. No one has ever so much as mentioned the practice to them much less commended its use.

Some, of course, would argue that the practice was Jewish and belongs to the Old Testament and has no place in Christian life today. But vows, or especially solemn promises – for that is what a vow is – were made for a variety of reasons in the Old Testament, there is nothing about them that limits their use to a particular time or place, the Apostle Paul was still making vows long after the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and his ascension to heaven, and the godly have used the practice with great profit through the ages since. A vow is, after all, a very simple thing and an immediately obvious thing. Its use, its profit is very easy to explain, which is why oaths and vows are found in almost every society and every nation on earth.

A vow is a promise made directly to God or in God’s presence and with the understanding that the one making the vow bears a direct and serious accountability to God for its fulfillment. Sometimes the term “vow” in the Bible and in ordinary human life is used to describe certain particularly solemn promises made before God, certain oaths that, given certain conditions, must be made. If one marries, for example, one is not free to refuse to swear to God a lifetime of loyalty to one’s husband or wife. As we learn in Malachi 2, even in ancient times, marriages were sealed with an oath or vow, such a solemn giving of one’s word that it could not be broken without causing a special offense to God and so incurring a special penalty. If one enters office in the Christian church – as a minister, elder, or deacon, just as if one enters office in the government of the United States or the State of Washington – he is not free to refuse the taking of vows of fidelity to the truth of God’s word, to that office, and to the church. If one is called to bear witness at trial or to serve on a jury, one is not free to refuse to swear an oath to tell the truth or to discharge his office as a juror according to the law. The fact that oaths are taken, vows are made, is why in our tradition – shaped as it has been by the Bible – perjury and jury misconduct are regarded as particularly egregious crimes with particularly heavy penalties unlike most of the lies that people tell. People lie all the time, but lying after taking an oath is something different and something worse.

Now some will say that a man or woman should tell the truth no matter whether a vow has been required. And that is undoubtedly true. But it is only to understand human nature to see the need to provide weightier reasons for truth-telling when there can be so many reasons for that man or that woman to lie, or, if not to lie, to shave the truth, to bend it a bit, to allow a false impression to be given. “…so help me God,” in the oath taken by witnesses in court has long amounted to someone saying “As God is my witness, I will tell the truth and I will keep my word and if I do not, I understand that God will hold me to account for my lie.”
Vows of this kind are still taken in our culture, but they mean less and less. Whether the promise to tell the truth on the witness stand or to be faithful to one’s marriage, fewer and fewer people feel obliged to keep the vows they have taken if keeping them should prove difficult, painful, or even merely unpleasant. Indeed, vows in our day have become little more than a ceremony. The actual promise made is not widely regarded as having any special sanctity nor is it thought that breaking such a promise made as a vow or with an oath carries any particular penalty. I told you, not long ago, of the remark of the judge in the trial of Marion Barry Jr., the former mayor of Washington D.C. who had been caught red-handed in an FBI drug sting. He was actually videotaped smoking crack and made self-incriminating comments that were recorded by listening federal agents. Indicted of various serious crimes and some less serious ones he was tried in a D.C. court by a jury of his peers. Everyone knew he was guilty; the evidence condemned him; but the jury acquitted him of all but one minor, misdemeanor charge. The jury, in effect, was poking the justice system in the eye with a stick. Thomas Penfield Jackson, the trial judge, in obvious frustration, said after the verdict was announced: “The jurors will have to answer to themselves and to their fellow citizens for the way in which they discharged their duty." Maybe he thought that would strike fear into the jurors’ hearts. But what does that amount to? If all it means is that a man or woman must answer to himself or herself, what is the point of an oath or a vow? In the past the oath or vow took its special sanction from the fact that it was a promise made to God or in the presence of God for the discharge of which, therefore, a person would have to answer directly to God. Few people think such a thing any longer.
That does not surprise us, alas; we expect it more and more of a society like ours. We expect unbelievers to act like unbelievers and not care about the judgment of God. But it has become more and more common that such vows taken by Christians likewise carry little weight. When a person joins the church he or she regularly takes vows. The Elders require them to take those vows. He promises, he vows, among other things, to submit to the government and discipline of the church. But times without number if the government of the church has the temerity to reproach him for something that he has done or is doing, he will take offense and ignore the church’s admonition and leave for a congregation that will allow him to do what he pleases. The fact that he took a vow will not trouble him at all. It will never occur to him to apply Psalm 15 to his own case and conclude that he must not be a godly man because he did not keep his vow, even when it hurt; when it mattered, when it counted. That may be one reason why vows have lost their place in the life of Christian people. Solemn promises simply don’t mean to us what they once did. We’ve have lost the art of swearing an oath and understanding that by it we have committed ourselves unalterably to a course of action however difficult that course of action may prove to be.
But vows that one must make are not the only vows in the Bible. There is also a class of vows that are entirely voluntary. In these cases a vow is a promise that does not have to be made, but being made to God, once made it must, it absolutely must be kept. It is a promise to which is added a greater measure of seriousness and a deeper measure of obligation. That is what a vow is. Such a vow was the Nazirite vow of Numbers 6, for example. One did not have to make such a vow. I am sure there were many Israelites, even faithful Israelites, who never once in their lives took a Nazirite vow. But once the vow was taken, all the emphasis of the Scripture and that passage in particular is laid on the fact that the vow must be kept. The Nazirite vow, by the way, was probably the vow that Paul took to which mention is made in Acts 18:18. The fact that he had his hair cut indicates that the period of the vow had come to an end as you will see if you read the information about the Nazirite vow in Numbers 6. The fact that he had his hair cut means that he had taken such a vow. And for a particular period of time, apparently a period of time that he was allowed to set himself, he had done those things the Nazirite vow had required of him and he had reached the end of the period of the vow and brought it to an end in a proper and appropriate way. These voluntary vows are the ones I am particularly interested in this evening.
We understand the reason why a witness makes a vow before taking the stand. He or she is being placed under a still heavier obligation to the truth because so much rides on his or her telling the truth. So much harm to others can come from a lie told in court. A special sense of obligation is thus laid upon the one making the promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In the same way, marriage is so vital to the welfare and happiness of individuals and society as a whole, it was thought right to attach a special sanctity to the promises made by husbands and wives at the outset of their marriage. We say, “They take vows.”
Well, by the same principle, a voluntary vow ups the ante. That’s what it does, it ups the ante. It increases the sense of absolute obligation. It binds a man or woman to a promise in a way and to a degree beyond what is otherwise customary. If you want to do something for the Lord, for your own soul, for the growth of your spirit, but you know that, all things considered, you are likely not to follow through, make a vow. You put yourself under an absolute obligation and must do what you promise. Even if you regret making the vow ten seconds after having made it, you are stuck. You have to do what you promised because that is what a vow is. If you have got stuck at some point in your Christian life and can’t seem to get beyond the point to which you have so far attained, make a vow. It shoves you forward, precisely because you have to do what you promised God. It is always a sin to lie, but it is a greater sin to break one’s vow. That is how vows work and why they work. Serious Christians don’t break vows and everyone knows it.
That is the idea and has always been the idea. God’s people have used vows in this way from time immemorial. I have used them myself to great effect and blessing, so when I commend the use of vows to you, I am speaking out of the abundance of my own heart.
The question we ought all to be putting to ourselves as one year draws to its close and another begins is whether we can contemplate, or should, the prospect that we might finish our pilgrimage through this world in the condition to which we have so far attained, nothing more. The Lord is going to get from us what he is getting now, nothing more, and maybe less. As the years pass and we get older we use up our reservoirs of energy and so forth. Am I never going to move beyond some of the sins that continue to bedevil my life; or, if not entirely move beyond them, am I never going to gain more regular success in subduing them. Am I never going to be more faithful a man of prayer, or a woman of Christian witness, or a man who has learned to keep his anger in check, or a woman who has risen above the spirit of complaint? Am I never to be a deeper Christian, more devout, more conscious of the Lord in my daily life, more motivated by love for him in what I think and say and do?
It is no use to count on the effect and power of mere wishes. We have all gone too long hoping that the fact that we wanted to be deeper Christians would somehow translate into our becoming one! It is a simple fact, a brute fact of the Bible and Christian living known all to well to those of us who have lived long as Christians, that we can stand virtually still spiritually for a long time. So if we do not want to stand still; if we are committed not to allow ourselves to stand still; if we are not content with what we have so far attained and are determined to be more and do more for the Lord than we now are and do, then what? How do I take the next step; how would the Lord have me push myself forward? What means and what efforts is he most likely to bless?
In the present climate I think it is important for me to say that what we are asking after are the means of godliness, the practices that the Lord has taught his people as the way of gaining that godliness that only his grace and Spirit can create in a soul and in a life. By working out our salvation, by putting on godliness in the fear of the Lord, we are not by any means asserting that it is within our power to sanctify ourselves. Without the Lord we can do nothing. Let’s all admit that. What we are asking is what we are to do with the Lord! What would he have us do together with him?
If the question is the question Paul asks in Gal. 3:3:
“Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”
Our answer is a decided and unqualified, “No!”
But Paul and the Scripture also tell us such things as these and do so over and over again.
“…make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness; knowledge; and to knowledge self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and so on.” [2 Pet. 1:5-7]
“So, then, my friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless, and at peace with him.” [3:14]
“Make every effort…” That is what we are talking about in this series. What efforts are we to make? What efforts do growth in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord require? What efforts are did the Scripture writers have in mind?
Well vows are one of those efforts and, in particular, one of those efforts that are in the Lord’s mind when he tells us to make every effort. Vows are not prayer or reading the Word. They are the relatively infrequent and special efforts that the godly employ at certain points in their Christian life to attain some particular blessing or progress. They are part of making every effort.
Again, a vow is a promise one does not have to make but, once made, a promise that must be kept. It is biblically appointed means of giving oneself a leg up on making those changes that you know ought to be made in your life. But, remember, we said we only understand such things rightly in personalist terms. What we are after is not a technique that works in some kind of materialist, automatic, or impersonal way. What we are after is the voluntary and active demonstration of our commitment to the Lord and to his will for our lives. It is a way of looking to the Lord, of deepening and embodying our prayer for his will to be accomplished in our hearts and lives, and of demonstrating our loyalty to him. We are making, after all, a promise to him. A vow begins with that address: “Lord, here I am, I have a promise to make to you.” The whole point of the vow is that we are making that promise to him, in his sight, with him as our witness. Is this not inevitable and utterly natural? The depth of any friendship is marked, is it not, by the seriousness with which promises are made as it is by the nature of the promises that are made? You make promises to your close friends, to your loved ones – your wife and children; your parents – that you would never make to casual acquaintances.
Well, then, what sort of promises are we talking about? What vows do Christians make and what vows should they make? Well, a vow can be made about literally anything of importance in your life; anything that needs doing for the honor of the Lord and the accomplishment of his will in you and through you; anything that sets you on the road to a deepening devotion, godliness and obedience. You might make a vow because

  1. There is a longstanding debt that you owe and have not repaid and perhaps no one else is aware that you owe this debt, but you are and know very well the Lord expects you to repay. Your vow places you under an absolute obligation to repay and sets you on the road to repaying it.
  2. Or you might make a vow because there is a sin that you must confess, the consequences of which you must acknowledge and deal with and you have been too afraid or too ashamed to do so for far too long.
  3. Or you might make a vow because you know very well that your life of prayer is a pale shadow of what it ought to be.
  4. Or you might make a vow concerning the reading of the Word of God.
  5. Or concerning the gospel witness you know you owe to a neighbor, workmate, or friend. You would be overcome with shame if somehow or another that person died, or disappeared from your life and you never spoke to them of the Lord Jesus Christ and yet you still have not done it and you are afraid you never will.
  6. Or concerning the faithfulness with which you know you ought to attend to some responsibility: young people to your homework, adults to your money management, to completing, gentlemen, those projects around the house that your wife has stopped pestering you about because she has lost all hope that they will ever be finished.
  7. I know a missionary who made a vow to take every other cup of tea without sugar. Why? He didn’t like tea without sugar; never learned to like it without sugar. But he wanted to be the kind of man who would never refuse the Lord’s call, never be unwilling to go anywhere in the world and live under any sort of circumstances in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ because he would lose the enjoyment of creature comforts. And so he vowed to place into his life a regular, daily form of the demonstration to the Lord of his willingness to serve him anywhere and in anyway. And so his commitment to the Lord, his devotion to the gospel was demonstrated to himself and to the Lord every time he took a cup of tea. He was a Scot, he drank a lot of tea! Day after day he was always reckoning with the fact that the Lord and the gospel came first in his life. That’s what even a very simple vow can achieve.

I say, you can make a vow about virtually anything of importance in your life; regarding anything that you know would please the Lord were you to do it. But, as we read in Ecclesiastes 5, whatever vow you make must be made wisely. Foolish vows are not only no help, they are an active hindrance to the very thing you are attempting to achieve in your relationship with the Lord. You are telling him you want to serve him more faithfully. You are looking the Lord in the eye and you are saying, “Lord, I promise you this for love’s sake.” And then you make a stupid promise that you can’t or won’t keep; how does that help you? Not only are foolish vows more likely to be broken, but they very soon they lose touch with their purpose and the vow becomes a burden not a boon. Jephthah’s vow, of course, is a classic biblical example of an utterly foolish vow that brought tragedy rather than good.
I have, in the course of my ministry, spoken with young men who in the wonderful flush of Christian consecration as they are entering young adulthood, when they are discovering how much the Lord Jesus means to them and how much they want to serve him with their lives, have contemplated making a vow of celibacy or poverty so that they might remain all their lives long utterly unencumbered in their service of the Lord. And I have always said, and very forcefully, “Don’t!” Young Christians ought never to make vows stretching over long periods of their lives because they cannot know what the future will bring and they ought never to make vows forsaking perfectly lawful and righteous things – such as marriage or home ownership – until they are mature enough and have enough experience of life to know what they should and can rightly promise to God.
Acting as a spiritual father, I have more than once through the years released a young man or a young woman from a foolish vow, usually made in a moment of high emotion, and then repented of when reality came home to roost.
Let me say, as an aside here, that no vow that is sinful in itself obliges a person to commit sin. Jephthah’s vow was sinful and he should have broken it, repented of it and then asked forgiveness for having made it. A vow is a promise made to God in which God is called upon to witness the promise. But God cannot be and will not be made a witness to sin and you cannot ask  God to regard with sanctity a promise that you are going to sin against him. “It was no more right for Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter – a grotesque crime abominated in the Law of God – than it was for Herod because of his foolish oath to deliver the head of John the Baptist on a platter (Matt. 14:1-12).” Herod should have stood up in the middle of his guests, admitted to them all that he was a complete and unmitigated ass and that he was going immediately to his room to pray that God would forgive him for the stupid promise that he made, but that he was not about ready to take the head off one of God’s prophets because he had made a stupid promise. Bad vows, wrong vows should be penitently repudiated. [Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 141-142]
But take heed. It would be foolish for most of us to make a vow that we are going to pray for forty minutes every day through the coming year. We should never make vows we cannot be certain we are able to keep. Taking vows in a personalist way, as I have recommended we do, we should never make a promise to God that he knows very well we can only make because we are taking little account of the difficulties involved, of our own weaknesses, or of the solemnity that attaches to a promise made directly to the Almighty!  I have told you before of Thomas Boston’s foolish vow to pray three times a day. He found himself sometimes at the end of the day making a travesty of his vow by praying three times separately, quickly in a row just to fulfill his vow. Fortunately for him, his vow was only for a limited period of time. Or, as I have told you before, a dear Christian friend of ours, a woman who was very hospitable to us and our family when we spent half a year in Holland in 1984, had come to believe that she ought to have what Paul calls a “sign of authority on her head,” and, worse, she came to think that required her to wear a hat. She was a devout woman and wanted to do the right thing and felt this was something that would honor the Lord. In all of that her heart was right. But her head was wrong and she came eventually to realize that Paul wasn’t talking about ladies’ hats in 1 Corinthians 11. But what to do? She had made her vow. It wasn’t a sinful vow, she had to keep it. Well, it rankled her. She had a hard time not thinking about it through the service. Here she was wearing a hat when almost no other woman was. They probably didn’t think anything of it. They chalked it up to her personal taste. But she was terribly self-conscious and would take the hat off as soon as the minister had finished his benediction. If you have any doubt whatever as to whether a particular vow is wise or foolish, consult an experienced Christian or one of your ministers before you make it. Because, remember, the whole, unique power of a vow is that it is a promise that, once made, must be kept!
Back in the days when making vows was a common Christian practice, spiritual writers wrote down rules for vow-making and some of those rules had to do with the avoidance of foolish vows. In his spiritual classic, Holy Living, the English Anglican Jeremy Taylor, gives eight “cautions” in the making of vows. God wants you to make vows, but he expects you to make them wisely and well. Take heed, in other words, that in making a vow you make a promise you ought to make.
So what is a wise vow, then?

  1. Well, it is a vow that is perfectly capable of being kept. In making promise to God you are not tempting providence. You are not promising to do something that even mature and very godly men and women have difficulty doing. You are not proposing that by the making of a vow you will cross from spiritual childhood to spiritual maturity in a single bound. Suppose, for example, you want to read the Bible more faithfully than you do. You have always struggled to read it faithfully and you want to change your life in that way. I would not recommend that you vow to God that you will read the Bible through in 2010, though that might be a very useful and proper vow for some Christians – Christians, for example, who have got close to reading the Bible through in a year but never quite succeeded. But for someone who has never come near to that much Bible reading, a wise vow directed to your Bible reading might be something like this: a promise made to God in connection with a reasonable, more modest goal, a promise you have every reason to believe you can keep. Then, because it is a vow, you will keep it and you will have done something you have not done before. Remember, once you make a promise to God it must be kept. That is how vows work. They lay you under obligations that you must meet.
  2. Or suppose it is a besetting sin that you are hoping to attack by the making of a vow. A foolish vow would be to promise the Lord that you will not commit the sin. That is too much to promise and risks lying to God. But, you might vow to keep a record; force yourself to reckon with your obedience or disobedience. I have used such a vow to real effect in years past. Every day a mark went into my journal. Did I or didn’t I? And simply having to reckon with it and not to live without a reckoning made a great difference. Such a vow can be a great help if you wish to pray more faithfully and at greater length, or wish to be more faithful in your stewardship of your money, or your witness to the unsaved or any other piece of Christian devotion.
  3. Or perhaps there is something that you know the Lord expects you to do and you are afraid to do it, have long been afraid, or you are too ashamed to do it. You know that there is a step and if you take that step it will change everything. But that is why you haven’t ever taken that step because you know that if you take that step it will all be done. Perhaps that step is that you will confess the matter to a Christian friend and to ask him or her to help you, to hold you to account, and to brook absolutely no resistance on your part. “No matter how much I plead with you to let me off the hook, do not let me off the hook. Will you promise me that you will not let me off this hook? In fact, let’s up the ante still further. Will you promise me that if I don’t do what I need to do, you will bring somebody else in and add that person to my circle of accountability until the deed is done? You know very well that if you were to do that, you would have to put things right. That is why you have not confided the matter to someone else. You are well aware that to do that would be to do everything. So how will you get over that hump and take that step that is going to lead you to doing the thing you know the Lord expects you to do? Make a vow. A promise you don’t have to make, but once you’ve made you absolutely have to keep.

Sometimes, vows are made conditionally. They are not simply a promise to God that you will do something. They are a promise that you will do something if he does something… Remember, a vow is a voluntary promise. It does not have to be made. Many Christians through the ages have made such vows. “Lord, if you will do this for me, I will do this in gratitude and love.” I have made such vows. They are a perfect illustration of the personalist nature of vow-making, personal dealing in a relationship. You are not telling God what to do. That is not your place. You are not bribing him because you know he has no need of what you are promising to give him. You are not extorting some blessing from him as if you had some control over him. No; nothing like that. You are saying, “Lord, I want you to know how much this means to me. It means so much that if you will do this for me, I will do this for you.” Then make it something you know he would find otherwise very difficult to do.  Read Christian biography and you will find such vows frequently. Remember Martin Luther’s vow made when he was terrified in a storm: “St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk.” Well, Luther would later admit he shouldn’t have called upon a saint, and being a monk, he would later agree was not a proper calling for a Christian man.” In that moment Luther was what we nowadays would call a “fox-hole” Christian.
But imagine a godly man doing a like thing, not out of fear of death, but in hopes of a blessing for someone else, or for the salvation of a lost soul, or for the meeting of a very great need for yourself or someone else. “Lord, if you will do this, I promise to do this for you.” Parents, you do this with your children, do you not. It is because you love them that you make such offers. Son, daughter, do this and I will give you this. And would you not love it if they came to you as their mother or father and said, “Mother, if you will do this for me, I will do this for you,” all the more if the thing they promise to do is the very thing you want them to do and want them to want to do. Would a parent not love to answer such a request?
I encourage you to make vows. To make a promise directly to the Lord and before the Lord. A promise that you will keep because it is a vow; you must keep. It is a time-honored and biblically approved form of spiritual discipline. And it is a very serious way of dealing directly with your God. It is what they do who make every effort to be godly!