Living and Speaking Honest (James 5:12)

Living and Speaking Honest

The test of truthfulness–James 5:12

In almost every college ethics class today, the vast majority of students think, if a particular lie produces more good consequences than bad consequences, then the majority of the students are not morally offended with lying. Lying is a way of life today–will you admit that you have lied? Still lie? Do you lie about the age of your 2-year-old to save money on an airline ticket? Do you deliberately omit some income from your tax return? Do you tell your sister you haven’t seen her red jacket–the one you secretly took, then spilled coffee on, then took to the cleaners hoping they could get the stain out in order to avoid the fight over taking the coat in the first place?

Do you lie about why you were so late coming home? Do you make up a pretend event that kept you from a commitment? Did you lie on your loan application? Do you lie to your parents about boyfriends or girlfriends? Do you lie to your kids about what is really going on in your lives? Do you tell polite lies to avoid conflict, to avoid looking bad, or to avoid the hard talk? Do you lie to the pushy salesman on the phone, or lie to the angry customer threatening to sue? At work, do you lie about your use of time? At school, do you lie about your homework?

Do you lie? It’s easy to justify lying, since we live in a society of liars and lying. Politicians faithfully lie as a way of life. The media does not tell the objective truth. Advertising is most often based on lies. You are swimming in the cesspool of deceit—so it is easy to let slip the lie. As Christians, it should not surprise you that you live in a world of lies, because the word of truth informs us that the children of the devil submit to their father of lies.

Read aloud with me John 8:44, “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” So what do people who daily swim in the waters of deception do to be able to engage in business, to work together, come to some form of agreement, or convince each other they are speaking truth and not lying?

Today, we have lawyers and contracts and legal agreements. But in the first century, that was expensive and rare. So what unbelievers did was to make promises–they’d make oaths to convince others they were telling the truth, in order to come to an agreement or believe each other. You’ve said them, you’ve made them. “I swear by God, I’m not lying!” Or, “Before God, I will do this.” Or, “As God is my witness, this will never happen!” A society saturated in lies leads people to impose oaths in order to encourage trust, force others to be truthful, and make people keep their promises. This is the world the book of James is speaking to.

Open an outline and open your Bibles to James chapter 5, verse 12. If you’re new, we’re working our way verse by verse through this first New Testament letter written by the half-brother of our Lord Jesus. He is writing to help church attenders determine whether they are internally born again, or are they externally a Christian in name only. Are they religious or in a relationship? Are they a make believer or a real believer? And today, James offers his readers and us the test of truthfulness. Even though you and I have lied as believers, born again Christians are not known for lies–they don’t live lies, they are not habitual liars.

The command of Colossians 3:9 is present tense, meaning to not habitually lie. Paul commands Christians, “Do not [continually] lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices.” Paul is affirming that as a born again believer, you are not the same anymore–that your old man is dead and you have a new internal you that wants to obey God’s Word, tell the truth and not lie. And because you and I have been made internally new, then using an oath to convince others you are not lying or convince them you’re telling the truth is not only not necessary, but it insults God, demeans the Gospel, undermines the body of Christ and dirties Christian fellowship.

Christian, you submit to the Lord of truth. You are indwelt by the Spirit of truth. You obey the Word of truth. Christians are people of truth, not lies, not deception. It is demeaning for any born again Christ-follower to have to promise they are telling the truth, or give an oath that they are not lying, since as a true Christian, you and I have a nature of truth, are saturated in truth and to be known for truth.

Now because the instruction on oaths is only one verse doesn’t mean it’s not meaty. This verse is filled with truth for everyday living. You and I need this verse because we all battle with deception at some level. All of us are prone to live by our feelings and not the truth. Each of us needs to work harder at speaking the truth in love. None of us should normally boost our talk with oaths or with promises–why? Because the truth is powerful enough to stand on its own.

Read aloud what James says in James 5:12, “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.” What is James teaching us? First in your outline . . .

#1  Determine to speak DISTINCTLY  Verse 12a

James says in verse 12a, “But above all, my brethren,”—stop there. In verses 7 to 11, James just taught his readers how to respond to oppression–how to live for Christ during the seasons of painful waiting and deep suffering. You might ask, “What does that (verse 7 to 11) have to do with speaking oaths in verse 12?” Well, if you’ve suffered through a dark season, you already know the answer! It is easy to say things you don’t mean, or even make bargains with God, or make oaths with oppressors when you’re living through painful suffering.

So James begins verse 12 with a “but”–when you are painfully waiting, don’t make foolish oaths. Then with great tenderness, James reminds his readers they’re family–he is compassionately with them. They are together in this–they are “my brethren”. This verse again is about speech. James has taught on the tongue in every chapter of this small letter–why? Our talking is not only a thermometer of our maturity, but our speech also gives evidence if we are truly born again or unregenerate/unsaved.

Remember James 1:26? “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.” Despite any outward veneer of religious activity, those who fail to control their tongues at all are proving they are fake Christians. So along with his tender family affection, James the apostle also strongly exhorts his readers with, “but above all”. The words “above all” tell us that the command which follows is preeminent. It’s like saying, “Hey my family–especially obey this.” What?

#2  Refuse to promise by swearing an OATH  Verse 12b

Verse 12b, “Do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath.” James says, “Do not swear”–this is not referring to illicit speech, dirty talk, filthy jokes, or four-letter words. God, in His Word, forbids that kind of non-edifying talk. Genuine, born-again Christians do not use cuss words or non-edifying talk. Cuss words are often used in the same way as oaths—to emphasize/accent one’s feelings, thoughts, disgust, or opinion about a topic or person.

But here, James is prohibiting the swearing of oaths. James continually commands, “do not swear.” The Jews of James’ day had developed a complex system of swearing oaths, and those Jewish Christians had brought swearing oaths with them into the Church. What does James mean in verse 12, “either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath”? In the ancient world, there were two evil practices which James wants destroyed.

ONE  In the Jewish world, there were oaths which were binding and oaths which were not binding. Any oath that directly used the name of God was considered binding. But any oath where God’s name was not directly mentioned, were not binding. The idea was, once God’s name was used that God became an active partner in the transaction. But the Lord did not become a partner unless His name was introduced.

The result of this process was that it became a matter of skill and manipulation to speak an oath which sounded binding, but really wasn’t binding. This ultimately made a mockery of the whole practice of confirming anything by an oath.

TWO  During the first century, there was an extraordinary amount of oath-taking. When oaths became commonplace, they ceased to be respected as they should be. Sadly, the practice of frequent oath-stating was proof of the prevalence of lying and cheating. In an honest society, no oath is needed–it’s only when men cannot be trusted to tell the truth that they have to be under oath or give an oath.

An oath is like a vow or a promise–it is an additional formal word given to affirm the truth. In saying that, do not misunderstand. The Bible does not forbid taking oaths or giving oaths. In a world filled with liars, there are times when oaths, vows and promises are necessary. Many of you made a binding oath, a permanent vow when you said, “I do promise, before God and these witnesses, to be your loving and faithful husband/wife, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.”

It’s not wrong to take an oath when testifying in court, being ordained, or getting married. Oaths to God are wrong when they are misused with the intent to deceive others, or when they are made rashly or flippantly. God’s Word gives examples of godly men who took oaths, lists God’s commands for oaths to be taken, and records instances of God Himself making an oath.

In the Bible, you will find Abraham dealing with oaths in Genesis 21 and 26. Joshua 2 records the oath of Rahab. David swore an oath to Jonathan in 1 Samuel 20 to 21. Jephthah made a foolish vow in Judges 11. Paul made a vow to God in Acts 18. Then add to those oaths, Luke 1:73 refers to “the oath which [God] swore to Abraham our father.” Acts 2:30 describes the oath God swore to David. Exodus 6:8 records God’s oath that He would give the land of Israel to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants.

Not all oaths, vows and promises are wrong. James’ command, ”do not swear,” must not be viewed as a blanket restriction against all oath-taking. Oaths were permitted on serious occasions, like a marriage–but only in the name of God. James does not forbid oathing in the name of the Lord–but verse 12, “by heaven or by earth or with any other oath.” James is addressing church attenders who would not swear by God, but they would swear by where God lived, Heaven, or by where God worked, Earth, or by the temple or some other earthly place. And James says that is wrong.

You make your promises to God–just like Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:33 to 37, “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.”

The phrase, “You have heard that the ancients were told,” is not the Old Testament, but rabbinic tradition. And notice the declaration, “You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.” Again, some vows are good. But what appears on the surface to be in harmony with the Old Testament teaching regarding the sacredness of taking oaths has a sneaky escape clause.

Rabbinic teaching held only vows to the Lord were binding. In their thinking, God was only a party to an oath if His name were invoked. All other oaths, they taught, could be (and were intended to be) violated without committing perjury. This is like you promising, but behind your back you had your fingers crossed. These fake believers were attempting to deceive others–so they’d swear by Heaven, Jerusalem, the Temple, the altar in the Temple, the veil in the Temple, their own heads–anything but the name of the Lord. This type of oathing was designed to hide their lying hearts.

Listen, friends–a Spirit-transformed heart will reveal itself in honest speech. How people speak is the most revealing test of their true spiritual state. People almost sin more with their tongues than in any other way (maybe thoughts win)–one can’t do everything, but one can say anything. It’s no wonder that Jesus declared in Matthew12:34, “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” The heart is a storehouse, and people’s words reveal what they keep there.

#3  Choose to Speak HONESTLY–simply, directly and clearly  Verse 12c

Verse 12c adds, “but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no.” Like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, James is calling for simple, straightforward, honest, direct, clear speech–say what you mean, and mean what you say. Christians are those whose yes means yes, and whose no means no. People of integrity have no need to swear elaborate oaths to convince others of their truthfulness. Nor will people of character swear falsely to deceive people.

That is why Jesus taught in Matthew 5:37, “Anything beyond these is of evil.” Again, neither James nor Jesus prohibits the swearing of oaths under special, God-centered, Christ exalting circumstances. But under normal circumstances, oaths and promises are unnecessary for those whose hearts have been made honest. So how do we demonstrate our love for truth and honesty?

First  Speak with SIMPLICITY, not complexity

James and Jesus teach you to respond to circumstances with a simple “yes” or “no.” Answer succinctly and authentically. True Christian character requires few words. Anyone who must use many words (including oaths) to convince you of something has something wrong with their character–they have to bolster their weak character by using more words. If you’re a true man or woman of integrity, a born again believer, then all you have to say is yes or no and people will believe you. Like Jesus said, “Anything beyond that is evil.”

Second  Speak with TRUTH, not deception

As you grow in maturity, do not merely talk more about the Bible, but talk the Bible–allow the truth to be what you talk about. Not like a hammer, not in pride, not to appear pious, not to control the conversation–but to filter everything you think and everything you talk about through the lens of God’s Word. When you’re bothered by what a political leader says on the news, then say out loud Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.”

When you ponder about things you don’t understand, say I am going to Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” When something is said about Hemet which concerns you, read Joshua 6:26, “Cursed before the Lord is the man who rises up and builds this city.” When some circumstances don’t make sense, speak Romans 8:28, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

And you know if you have a problem with lying, one of the keys is not merely memorizing Colossians 3:9, “Do not lie,”–but also pursuing truth, living by truth, loving the truth, and speaking the truth aloud.

Third  Speak with EDIFICATION, not severity

Ephesians 4:29, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” Speak no unwholesome, rotten words–but only words that build, encourage, edify, and bless . . . words intentionally timed to meet that specific need at that moment, and words that point to God’s grace and give grace to those who hear you. Speak the truth in love. Like Christ, be full of grace and truth. Use edifying, timed, loving, gracious words. The truth is powerful enough to stand on its own.

Fourth  Speak with DOCTRINE, not feelings

Far too many believers speak emotionally and not doctrinally. Too many Christians today are all about emotions and feelings and experiences. They only step out in obedience when they’re moved by the truth. They only speak well, obey God or serve if they feel like it at that moment. They only love others, sacrifice for others, give to others, when they feel love. Everything with Christ is only spiritual for them, if they feel something. How they feel about Christ is what their faith and speech is all about.

Listen, friends–the Christian life is not about what you feel. The Christian life is about what you know and who you know. Animals live by instinct. People live by feelings. But Christians live by the truth of God’s Word. We live by doctrine—truth. Some believers get offended by others and want to speak to them in the flesh, never considering what the truth of God’s Word says.

There are others who won’t speak or serve until they get their emotions back. They don’t feel like going to church. When their emotions are gone, attending church wouldn’t be real worship if they went. They don’t obey, cause they don’t feel–therefore, they don’t go. Since they don’t feel like showing love to their wives or respecting their husbands, it wouldn’t be a spiritual action to them–so they don’t do it. They don’t feel like reading their Bibles, it’s a dry experience without emotion–so they don’t do it. Why? Because no emotion is involved, therefore it can’t be genuine nor Gospel-driven.

They don’t guide their mouth doctrinally, they speak only emotionally. Their entire life is about getting their emotions back. They must have emotions or they think they are not sincere. But in reality, what they have done is they have made a god of their glands. Now this is not an appeal for a hollow, rote, ritualistic, going-through-the-motions Christianity–but to repent of constantly surfing to find your waves of emotions. You and I need to speak and live by conviction, by doctrine, by truth–to do what is right until it feels right, but do what is right.

Just like oaths kept believers from speaking honest, emotions keep Christians from speaking truthful. Our job is not to seek emotions, but seek God–not speak feelings, but speak truth. You trust the Lord, with or without emotions. Faith is not emotion. Agape love is not emotion. We must live by faith and speak with love, with or without emotion–we obey. The Christian life is obedience, with or without emotion. You obey because that alone pleases the Lord–so you choose to love your spouse when you don’t feel like it, because that is what Spirit-filled, godly Christians do to obey God.

You attend worship because you trust God to change your life, with or without emotions. You serve others when you are weary and tired to be like Christ–you keep serving. You speak to others with edifying words, even when you don’t feel like it, because it is right. For a generation, subtly, we’ve been drawn away with words like pleasure, heart, joy, satisfaction, desire of the inner person–to the point where we’ve become addicted to, and dependent on, emotions.

Desiring God is a good thing, but not if your life is dependent upon emotion. That is not what the Bible teaches. Like the Psalmist, when you’re afraid can you put your trust in God? Like Job, “though He slay me, I will hope in him”? Can you be like Paul in 2 Corinthians, who was sorrowful, yet always rejoicing? Can you rejoice always, give thanks always, and not have to be emotionally happy or sappy or pappy?

Don’t follow your emotions–follow Christ as revealed in His Word. Speak doctrine, speak truth, speak God’s character, whether you have emotions or not. You don’t wait for a feeling when your baby cries at 2am–you go feed him. You don’t wait for a feeling to obey God–you obey, trusting the emotions will come later. Speak the truth, with simplicity, honesty, and biblically–not depending on emotions.

#4  Speak knowing your words are under EVALUATION  Verse 12d

The purpose of no flippant oaths, speaking honestly with a simple yes and no, is found at the end of verse 12d, “so that you may not fall under judgment.” Here is your motivation to speak honestly, directly, edifyingly, not with oaths–not according to emotions, not with complexity. Your Savior teaches you here that every word you utter, mumble or speak is spoken in the presence of God. As motivation against swearing false oaths, James highlights the consequences of violating them. James warns that those who practice oaths will fall under judgment.

Jesus even cursed/judged the Pharisees in Matthew 23:16 for practicing false oaths. And my friends, the word James uses for judgment here is not the discipline of a believer. It is not the believer’s reward. No, this word “judgment” was used by James back in 2:13 to describe God’s merciless sentencing to Hell of those who lacked mercy. The gospels use this word judgement 25 times with the idea of passing sentence. James does teach that believers will make mistakes with their tongues, and true believers will lapse into falsehood on occasion. But lying will not be the unbroken pattern of their life.

That is not James’ point here. The judgment here is a sober warning–those who continue to blaspheme God’s name through lying oaths will face eternal damnation. This is the test of James 5:12–a test of true living faith. Anyone who demonstrates a habitual pattern of lying gives evidence of an unregenerate heart. Anyone who is characterized by a pattern of lying is proving they are not saved. The Bible teaches that the offspring of the father of lies will all lie. And those liars will be sentenced to Hell forever.

Listen to how the Lord describes what happens to liars as they step into eternity. Three times (not just once) at the end of the book of Revelation, God tells you what He thinks of liars. Revelation 21:8, “For the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” Then in 21:27, “Nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” And in 22:15, “Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying.”

James 5:12 says this, “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.” The truth is powerful enough to stand on its own.


A  Be slow to make OATHS; be fast to practice EDIFYING talk

One of your most important daily commitments is to practice encouraging talk. Do not leave this campus today until you have said at least three edifying comments. If you love Christ and you worship Him, then your speech needs practice in edification. For the godly, make it a goal every day this week to speak edifying words three to ten times. For the courageous, make a goal to speak only edifying words in your home this week.

B  Get AGGRESSIVE against lying, if you are a Christian who sometimes lies

It could be you lie to get your own way, or you battle with feelings of inferiority, or want to be accepted, avoid consequences, project an image, close a sale—whatever. Ephesians 4:25 says, “Laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.”

Admit it verbally to God, to others, and to yourself that lying is wrong–every time. Embrace that lying has grave consequences, affecting trust, respect and relationship. Repent of lying by admitting it the moment you lie–say, “No that’s not true . . .” and then correct yourself with what is. Get brothers and sisters to hold you accountable every week–sometimes every day. And know that God will bless you when you speak the truth.

C  Pursue SALVATION if you are at ease with lying

The God who made you is Christ, and Christ is the way, and the truth and the life. No one can be saved, forgiven and Heaven bound, unless they are in Christ. Hate your sin in repentance and surrender your life to Christ in dependent faith. Believe Christ was God who became a man, died for your sin, rose from the dead–and when your sin falls on Christ, His righteousness covers you, allowing God to accept you.

When salvation is genuine, God will give you a new heart that loves truth, wants to obey the truth of His Word, and doesn’t want to lie at all. Turn to Christ. James 5:12, “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.”

About Chris Mueller

Chris is the teaching pastor at Faith Bible Church - Murrieta.

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