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Several times in the New Testament, we are told not to make oaths but to make simple statements of affirmation or denial. For example...

Matthew 5:33-37 (NIV)

    33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

James 5:12 (NIV)

 12 Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.

However, near the beginning of Paul's letter to the Galatians, he seems to make an oath himself.

Galatians 1:20 (NLT)

20 I declare before God that what I am writing to you is not a lie.

Sadly, no reference to a cake, but anyway, it seems like Paul is making an oath based on God Himself. How can these passages be reconciled?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

Oaths generally refer to something you will/won't do. We are unable to control what will happen in the future, and therefore don't know if we will be able to keep that oath ("you cannot make even one hair white or black"). Paul, in this situation, was writing about what already happened. He already experienced it so he knows it is true. He doesn't need to have control over anything but his hand (or the hand of his scribe) so he can know he is keeping his "oath." This is why I believe there is nothing wrong with Paul's statement, but it still may very well go against Jesus' teaching because Paul wasn't perfect.

In applying it to our lives, I believe we should avoid making statements such as Paul's even if we know it to be true since we are to give God our best rather than flirt with the line of right and wrong.

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There is no getting around it. Paul was swearing an oath: just as we might do in a court of law, although the wording is less formal than that used in a court. How to judge Paul for that is another matter. The injunction in James 5:12 is the easier one to dismiss, because this is a command attributed to James, not to Jesus. However, the injunction in Matthew 5:37 is more serious, as it is attributed to Jesus.

In defence of Paul, he was writing several decades before Matthew's Gospel is believed to have been published and could not have been aware of what the Gospel would say on this matter. He never met Jesus, and had said a few verses earlier (Galatians 1:15-16) that he never conferred with another person:

Galatians 1:15-16: But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood:

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