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How a Forgotten Ancient Practice Can Transform Your Life
By Ed Gungor
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Ed Gungor
All rights reserved.
What Is a Vow?
Praise awaits you, O God, in Zion; to you our vows will be fulfilled. –Ps. 65:1
I was breezing through my devotion time one morning and hit a verse that got me rubbernecking. (Ever rubberneck while reading the Bible?) I was reading the book of Acts when this verse snagged me: "He had his hair cut off at Cenchrea because of a vow he had taken." It was my morning rush hour (I needed to get to an appointment), so I couldn't stop to investigate, but I knew I was going to have to return to the scene later to figure out why the great apostle Paul—the New Testament grace man—participated in a vow in the first place. Other than getting married or becoming a priest or a nun, I thought vowing was some kind of antiquated, Old Testament thingee that I was sure Jesus had abolished.
When I came back to the text later, I discovered another verse in Acts that had never caught my attention in regards to the "vowing" practice. Paul was asked to accompany to the temple four other believers who had "made a vow." I had never noticed it before, but these New Testament Christ-followers were making vows!
As I dug deeper I discovered that the practice of vow-making was actually commonplace in the early church. Making vows, it turns out, was about as popular as prayer and worship gatherings. Scholars claim the making of vows was practiced by ordinary people all through Israel's history, as well as by adherents to most religions in the societies surrounding Israel. The popularity of making vows is peppered all through the Bible. For example, King Joash refers to "personal vows" in 2 Kings, and the Lord instructs Moses about a "special vow" people could choose to make as a part of their worship.
This vowing practice continued in the early church and was not at all considered unusual, as is evidenced by the passages that did not include further explanation, including the reference to Paul and the other disciples cited above, and from records from the first century. Tony Cartledge claims this "shows that vow-making was an important element of popular or 'folk' religion throughout the ancient Near Eastern world of the first millennium."
What Is a Vow?
Vows are love-promises we make to God. They are "descriptive of the thanks of the pious" and have been called "acts of generosity toward God" throughout church history. Vows are simply our own unrequired, promised love-acts directed toward God and the cause of his kingdom. They are not unlike the simple, unexpected gestures of love and kindness couples show each other in order to make their relationship special (we'll come back to this later).
Vow-making was popular through all Jewish history. So much so that the Jews were guilty of being overly zealous about them—they made too many and did not take them as seriously as they should have. Though vow-making has always been seen as something voluntary (vows are never mandated in Scripture), once a vow is made, it is sacred; it must be kept. The Hebrew word for a vow is nadar, which is connected with the word nazar, meaning "to dedicate." Solomon warns, "When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it."
Because the Jews tended to make vows rashly and then forget them after the emotion of piety wore off, there was actually a special evening service dedicated for people to back out of the vows they had made during the previous year! It was a kind of "reset button" for Jewish vow-makers, and it took place in the synagogue the night before the Day of Atonement. It was called Kol nidre. The service opened with the words, "All vows, renunciations, bans ... which we vow and swear and ban and bind upon our souls, from this day of atonement until the [next] day of atonement which shall come for our welfare—we repent them all; they shall be solved, remitted, abolished, be void and null, without power and without validity. May our vows be no vows." The fact that a service like this even existed shows us the historical popularity of vow-making.
While the Old Testament assumes vows are a natural part of religious life, the New Testament is basically silent about them. That doesn't mean they are invalid, and may actually imply that the discussion of them in the Old Testament is enough to make a case for participating in them. Vows were so commonplace that the New Testament writers saw no need to justify their presence in worship practice.
Jesus and Vow–making
The one time Jesus addressed vow-making was when he needed to correct those who had vowed resources to the temple that they should have used to support their elderly parents (a biblically commanded responsibility). Jesus was not opposed to vowing here, but he clearly points out that a voluntary vow cannot nullify or obviate a biblical rule, which in this case was honoring one's father and mother. Precisely because vows are voluntary, they can never usurp a biblical command.
Though Jesus does not side against vowing in general, he did speak against "swearing" or making "oaths" in Scripture. Jesus said, "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." But there is a difference between making a vow and swearing an oath. Webster's defines a vow as "a solemn promise," and defines swearing as "an act to invoke the name of [God] in an oath." Jesus was against folks' invoking the name of God in an oath. Let me give you an example.
When I was a boy, we kids would sometimes use the phrase "I swear to God!" when we were trying to convince each other we were telling the truth. Most young boys have integrity issues as well as a penchant for deception, so we would occasionally need to bring up God's name as a backup to our word. In essence we were saying, "You may not believe me on my own merit, but I'm bringing in God to back me up on this!"
Adults are far less likely to openly swear by heaven, but I can't help but wonder if we aren't just more sophisticated at it. Ever see a businessperson with the Christian fish symbol prominently displayed on his or her business card? I've seen it on the cards of plumbers, carpenters, car salespeople, and so on. I've even seen lawyers and doctors use it. (I live smack in the buckle of the Bible belt.) I know some are trying to honor God by doing so, but I have often gotten the impression that many of these individuals are trying to use God to give them more credibility than they have earned on their own. When I see business cards or Yellow Page ads like this, I can't help but feel it's just a little fishy and I think, I appreciate that you are a Christian, but are you qualified to do the work you do? Do you have a good reputation? Is your customer service satisfactory? Or does your fish imply God is siding with you and so should I? Are you trying to make me feel (consciously or not) that if I don't use you I am resisting God in some way?
This is the kind of thing I think Jesus was addressing when he forbade swearing. He said, "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." He was telling folks not to bring God into the equation to prove they are telling the truth or to prove they should be trusted. Instead, they just need to have a reputation that speaks for itself that they are good at what they do. People will see a difference in the way you do things, and they will ask you about it. Peter writes, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." If you live a God-honoring life, people will notice and ask you about it. Then give glory to God, which means you should probably redo your business cards.
Vows and the Church
Actually, vows were commonly practiced throughout church history. It wasn't until the Reformation in the 1500s that leaders like Martin Luther began to speak of vows in a derogatory way. However, it is important to note that this attitude was probably jacked-up a notch or two by the fact that the Reformers wanted to push off from the authority of the vow-friendly church at Rome.
Luther took the stand that the only important vow made by believers is the one made at water baptism. The "baptismal vow" is a promise to believe in Christ, to hope for eternal life in him; it is a promise to live one's life in accord with the ordinary norms of good conduct. He argued that this was an "all-embracing" vow. He saw all other vows as secondary at best.
Though Luther was willing to tolerate vow-making, which, again, evidences their popularity, he thought little of them. John Calvin, however, insisted that vows had merit and could be engaged in to reinforce the weakness of the human will or to express one's gratitude toward God.
The Greatest Vow
I agree with Luther that the granddaddy of all vows is our baptismal vow. Scripture says when a person comes to Christ, "we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body." The church has historically demonstrated this "spiritual baptism" through water baptism. When we begin to declare Jesus Christ as Lord of our lives, our baptism into Christ becomes an all-embracing vow that our whole life belongs to God. And this vow is life changing. Paul writes, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!"
On a purely theological and philosophical level, Luther's position seems to be the best: being baptized into the body of Christ means Christians are pledged completely to Jesus Christ—lock, stock, and barrel. Declaring Jesus as Lord means we belong to him, period. And since the baptismal vow commits us to a total conversion of our will to God's, it seems obvious that any secondary or lesser vows would be pointless. However, on a practical level, our baptismal pledge to Christ's lordship seems to get lost in the shuffle. Think of it this way. When two people marry they go to an altar and commit before God to have and to hold each other in love and respect till death parts them. But no couple expects to accomplish this task just because of the words they promised at the altar alone. Unity—two becoming one flesh—is no small task. Most couples recognize they will have to work in special ways toward understanding and loving each other before they will experience the promise they committed in their vows. They know it will take time and a great deal of effort to mirror what was promised at the altar. And as they wrestle through various issues, they will need to make smaller commitments—secondary promises or lesser vows, if you will—in an effort to "work out" the unity they committed to achieve.
This is the same role "lesser vows" have in our Christian experience. They do not replace the commitment we made to the lordship of Christ in the moment we were baptized, but they help us work out that baptismal vow in our daily experience. Remember Paul's words, "Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling." The Message translates this verse: "Redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God." I'm suggesting that vow-making helps us to do this in specific, concrete ways. I think this is what Calvin meant when he took the position that vows had merit and could be used to reinforce the weakness of the human will or to express one's gratitude toward God.
I think it is obvious that we need more than the one-time baptismal vow for discipleship and a robust Christian faith. Scripture calls us to "Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful." In another place Paul urges that saints should "Be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good." The word "devote" is actually derived from the word "vow." Its etymology is the Latin word devotus, which is the past participle of devovEre, from de-+vovEre, which means "to vow."
A "devotion" to prayer or good works would be an example of believers participating in a secondary kind of vow—a lesser vow than the baptismal vow but still one that is encouraged in the Scripture. I think lesser vows help us to fulfill the call to pursue the holy—to do more than just sit on our "blessed assurance."
And there are oodles of texts that call us to consider deeper commitments in our faith. We are called to be "zealous for good deeds," to "walk in a manner worthy of the Lord," to "please him in all respects," as well as "bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God."
Then there's this challenge from Paul for believers to train like Olympic athletes:
You've all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You're after one that's gold eternally.
I don't know about you, but I'm running hard for the finish line. I'm giving it everything I've got. No sloppy living for me! I'm staying alert and in top condition. I'm not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.
This is not casual Christianity. This is bore-on commitment; this is deep consecration. And though there is no suggestion that one must be this passionate or consecrated to be saved (salvation is the work of God, not the result of human perseverance or diligence), I do think feeling a deep, compelling need to consecrate oneself back to God—to give God more than he demands, which is the point of vow-making—is a natural reaction for those who have been deeply touched by God. There is something in us that echoes the psalmist's cry, "The LORD be magnified." When God is magnified, it means he gets bigger in our lives!
The Why of Vow-Making
Truth be told, I love God less than I want to. Jesus talked about loving God "with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." I'm not sure I love him with all that. Oh, I have my moments when my faith is white hot—an occasion of worship at church or at the apex of a morning devotional—but those moments don't seem to last.
I want to love God more than I do. I want to love God enough to be willing to do what saints who have gone before me have done: to be willing to give all my possessions to the poor and follow Jesus; to be stoned or sawn in two or slain with the sword; to be willing to wander about in sheepskins and goatskins; to be destitute, afflicted, or tormented; to be willing to go to a foreign country and live among the poorest of the poor like Mother Teresa; and so on. God hasn't asked me to do such things, but I want to be at a place in my soul where he knows (and I know) that if he should, there would be a resounding yes in me.
I'm not talking about ordinary faith here. Nor am I talking about something that is required. I'm talking about loving God in unnecessary, unrequired ways. There is a required love: we're supposed to love God enough to receive what he has freely given us in Christ. We're supposed to love God enough to face the cross so we don't ignore what Jesus did for us. Salvation is found there. And that is where our journey of faith begins. This is really all that is necessary or required by God as far as loving him is concerned. But that doesn't mean there isn't more.
Excerpted from The Vow by Ed Gungor. Copyright © 2007 Ed Gungor. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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