This is continued from part three.
The NIV translation uses the English word pledge in the apostle Peter’s teaching about the meaning of baptism (1 Peter 3: 21), but this is not a pledge in the sense of making a vow, and other translations do not use this word. Rather than the NIV’s “...the pledge of a good conscience toward God,” the NASB has “an appeal to God for a good conscience...,” and the KJV has “...the answer of a good conscience toward God.” The NIV footnote has the alternative word as “response,” in keeping with the meaning of the Greek term used by Peter. What could Peter’s statement mean for us.
The word ‘response’ and ‘answer’ will help us here, and the word ‘pledge’ is also useful, for this all refers surely to something we have given to God.
Baptism is the only ‘pledge’ you will ever need – it is the only real, wonderful, workable, and God-given one, and is the one which does remove all need for any other. Baptism is that occasion when, as a result of repentance and faith, you surrender all to Christ, and in obedience submit to baptism, believing that you no longer live but Christ lives in you, and that you are dead to the world, having been crucified with Christ, and the world crucified to you. In all good conscience, you are saying to God that you are giving everything you are, and everything you have, to Him. Your heart has been surrendered, and you are now completely His. As far as you know, you have handed yourself over.
This is your ‘answer,’ and it is a real pledge. It is then up to the Holy Spirit to work with what you have given Him – to refine and sanctify you. So if your motives are not completely pure, it is His job to help you get them pure.
That, baptism, is a pledge we should make. It is a declaration that, from this point on, your whole life is the Lord’s. Baptism is our appropriate response to the claims of Christ. But that is the last pledge you should ever make because, properly, you have handed everything over. You now are to live by the light of His Word and the help of the Holy Spirit. But if you start making vows, like, “I will rise at 3a.m. everyday for the rest of my life for prayer,” or “I will read a minimum of five chapters of the Bible every day,” you are setting yourself up for failure.
But Resolve is Good
Please note: all this about the deadly danger of vows does not mean there is not a place for resolve. Resolution (the resolve of our hearts) is what Jesus was referring to in Matthew 5:37 when He said, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be “Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No;’” Resolution to act, goal setting, aims and purpose, good decisions, and commitments are all part of a healthy life in your obedient service of Christ. We should not be frightened to make decisions or commitments, led by the Spirit, and in doing so, always keep our word. But see that Jesus added here, “...anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
Now examine more fully what Jesus said about vows in the Sermon on the Mount, where He is obviously making a complete distinction between practices under the Old Covenant and the New. I think His instruction is very clear, and we should be surprised that we have been so slow to see that it applies to the death-dealing practices so many of us have engaged in, in making covenants and vows – and this has occurred in every branch of the church historically.
Jesus speaks: “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all... Simply let your ‘Yes’ be “Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No;’ anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5: 33, 37)
What About Marriage Vows?
Some will want to know how this affects marriage vows. So more as an aside, may I say, there are two things we need to understand.
Firstly, marriage is a covenant designed and instituted by God, not man. Therefore it is a blessing, and a grace. As such, it fits in well with what we have already discussed. I said earlier that in New Testament Christianity, all legitimate covenants are given by God to man, and we should not enter into covenants of our own private making. When a man and a woman enter marriage, they enter into a relationship of grace that has been designed for mankind since the creation, and its meaning and terms have been set by the same sovereign Creator who had the blood of His Son in mind for us, and who instituted the marriage covenant as a picture in the earth of the intimate relationship that is Christ and the church. This is why marriage is holy.
The second thing we need to understand is that the security or health or longevity of a marriage is not so much determined by the vows a couple make, as it is by the relationship they have, and what is in their hearts. In marriage there is a giving of the heart to each other, which should never be removed, and this is in fact what God designed marriage for. The many marriages which last for life have not necessarily lasted because of the vows, and the many marriages that have failed have not been kept from failing even though they had taken vows. This is why I think it is true to say that marriages that stay together are held together not by vows, but by what is in the hearts of the individuals. And generally, that will be not only love and faithfulness, but a deep knowledge and sense, on some inner bedrock of the heart, that they are one with, and belong to, are in fact married to, their partner for life. These are beliefs, or heart knowledge.
I don’t know about other nations, but under Australian law no vows as such are required for a legal marriage. For a marriage to be legal, our law requires only that the groom states publicly that he takes the woman to be his wife, the bride states that she takes the groom to be her husband, and for the marriage celebrant to declare them to be married. Anything beyond this, as far as the law is concerned,is rather the important matter of having a suitable ceremony for the marriage to be significant, respected, understood to be intended as permanent, and creating an effective sense of occasion and celebration.
I do not promote the idea that vows in wedding ceremonies should be discarded, because they occupy a rather huge place culturally in both secular and Christian weddings, and help to create that sense of the importance and permanence of marriage. As well, they are usually a reasonably accurate reflection of what the marriage covenant is, and therefore may really help to establish in the heart this inner sense of identity in being one with their spouse for life. But I do not think the glue that actually holds them together in marriage, which is referred to at least four times in Scripture, the first being found in Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and they will become one flesh,” comes from any power that vows have, but rather from the Lord who joins them together. And that glue is real, which is why it is so painful when couples separate.
But I do think it would probably be more effective and powerful, and may have a greater effect on the intimacy of the relationship than we realise, if instead of a couple making public declarations in the form of vows, they rather made these declarations in the form of beliefs they hold. This could include what they believe about marriage, about what God has instituted marriage for, what they believe about giving themselves to each other, about life, about love, about God, about family, etc. We all live out of our values, and act in accordance with what we deeply believe. Vows as vows have no power to guide, control, or enhance behaviour in the medium to long term, except to the degree that they are an actual reflection of what we genuinely believe. The challenge then, in marriage preparation, is to establish deeply held beliefs as values. But we do need to be careful in thinking through all the implications, since we are dealing with major issues of life and the well-being of society.
This article will be concluded in part five next week