By Peter Amsterdam
October 27, 2020
(Points for this article were taken from The Doctrine of the Christian Life by John M. Frame1 and Kingdom Ethics by Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee.2)
The ninth commandment states:
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.3
This commandment addresses truthfulness. It is presented in the context of giving witness in a trial, and commands that someone who is testifying must not lie. However, it is not limited to testifying in a legal scenario; it also speaks to being truthful in our everyday lives. This concept is also seen in verses such as:
Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD.4
A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who breathes out lies will perish.5
Having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.6
The focus here will be on two aspects of truthfulness: vows and oaths, and lying.
Throughout the Old Testament, we read of individuals swearing oaths or making sacred vows. At that time, when a vow was given or an oath was sworn, whatever was agreed upon was legally binding in the same manner as when two parties sign a contract today.
Some examples are:
Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do. Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my descendants or with my posterity, but as I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned.” And Abraham said, “I will swear.”7
Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob.8
Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”9
[Hannah] vowed a vow and said, “O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”10
Within the Old Testament, God Himself is also depicted as making vows and swearing oaths. An example is the promise He made to Abraham.
By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.11
Making a vow and swearing an oath in God’s name is stating that what we are saying or agreeing to is truthful, and that we are willing to suffer God’s judgment if we break our word. An oath is a sign by which we guarantee that our promise, our word, is authentic and that we will keep the promises we have made.
If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.12
In the New Testament, we find examples of vows made.
Paul after this tarried there yet a good while, and then took his leave of the brethren, and sailed thence into Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila; having shorn his head in Cenchrea: for he had a vow.13
Within Paul’s writings, we find other statements where he appealed to God’s name to give assurance that what he was writing was the truth.
I call God to witness against me—it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth.14
In what I am writing to you, I assure you before God that I am not lying.15
God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.16
As Christians, part of our faith and our example is to be honest and trustworthy. When we make a vow or swear an oath, we have given our word and we should do our utmost to fulfill what we have agreed to do. Because we want to be truthful and to fulfill our commitments by doing the things that we promised to do, it is necessary to prayerfully and wisely consider the promises we make or the things we commit ourselves to. When we make promises or take vows, we do so before God, and having given our word before Him, we are bound to carry them out. Any vows or oaths one makes should be made only after much thought and prayer.
The ninth commandment—You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor—encompasses the sin of lying. While truth is an accurate representation of the facts, lying is any deliberate misrepresentation of the facts. Scripture tells us that Jesus is the embodiment of the truth, as stated in John 14:6:
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
This is reiterated in the Epistles as well, where we read that the truth is in Jesus.17 We’re also told that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth.18
By contrast, Scripture teaches that Satan is the source of falsehood and lies. Jesus called Satan a liar and the “father of lies.”19 He introduced the first lie in the garden of Eden when he implied that God was lying.
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”20
Scripture makes it clear that God is vehemently against dishonesty.
Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD.21
In Proverbs 6, we read that there are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him. One of the things on that list is a lying tongue.22 We’re also told that a false witness will not go unpunished, and he who breathes out lies will perish.23 A false witness will perish.24
Truthfulness is important because honesty is grounded in the character of God; therefore we are to be truthful, because God is truthful. The apostle Paul refers to God who never lies.25 Jesus and the Holy Spirit are both referred to as the truth.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”26
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.27
The Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.28
God’s Word is also referred to as truth.
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.29
Your righteousness is righteous forever, and your law is true.30
As believers, we are called to emulate God; because He is truth, we are to be truthful.
Is it ever morally acceptable to lie? The easiest answer is no, we should never lie, and for the most part that is correct. However, there are some very rare situations when it would be morally acceptable to not tell the truth. There are biblical examples of individuals lying to save life. In Exodus chapter 1 we read about the Hebrew midwives who were ordered by the king of Egypt to put all Hebrew baby boys to death. They disobeyed, and when the king questioned them about it, they lied, saying it was “because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives.31 Another Old Testament example of someone lying to save life is seen in the story of Rahab, who deceived the soldiers of Jericho to save the lives of the Israelite spies.32
One nonbiblical example is found in the life of Corrie ten Boom, whose family was hiding Jews in their house during the occupation of Holland in World War II. When she was asked by the Gestapo if there were Jews hiding in the house, she lied to the authorities in order to protect lives. In such a case, the obligation to save lives was more important than the obligation to tell the truth, especially when telling the truth would result in the likely death of innocent people.
While rare incidents may occur where it would be morally acceptable to not tell the truth, the vast majority of the time telling the truth is the morally right thing to do, and is in alignment with the nature and character of God.
As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way … by truthful speech, and the power of God.33
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing), 2008.
2 Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press), 2003.
3 Exodus 20:16. See also Deuteronomy 5:20.
4 Proverbs 12:22.
5 Proverbs 19:9.
6 Ephesian 4:25.
7 Genesis 21:22–24.
8 Genesis 25:32–33.
9 Genesis 28:20–22.
10 1 Samuel 1:11. See also: Genesis 50:5–6, Joshua 6:26, 1 Samuel 14:24, Nehemiah 13:2.
11 Genesis 22:15–18. See also Genesis 26:1–5.
12 Numbers 30:2.
13 Acts 18:18 KJV.
14 2 Corinthians 1:23.
15 Galatians 1:20 NAS.
16 Philippians 1:8.
17 Ephesians 4:21.
18 John 14:17. See also John 15:26, 16:13.
19 John 8:44.
20 Genesis 3:2–5.
21 Proverbs 12:22.
22 Proverbs 6:16–17.
23 Proverbs 19:9.
24 Proverbs 21:28.
25 Titus 1:2.
26 John 14:6.
27 John 16:13.
28 1 John 5:6.
29 John 17:17.
30 Psalm 119:142.
31 Exodus 1:19–20.
32 Joshua 2:1–24.
33 2 Corinthians 6:4–7.