Vows are probably not on the radar of many Christians today. Perhaps there isn’t a specific reason why we don’t think much about vows, or perhaps we’ve heard of crazy or unbiblical vows which has made us shy away from them altogether. However, there are proper vows that Christians can voluntarily make to God. Scripture has more than a few examples (e.g. Deut. 6:13, Ps. 50:14, 119:106; Eccl. 5:4-6, etc.). So what is a biblical vow to God?
W. a Brakel defined a vow like this:
“[It] is a commitment toward God. It is a voluntary commitment either to perform a good deed or to refrain from something, either as an expression of gratitude or to promote our spiritual well-being.”
Similarly, the Westminster Confession of Faith says a vow is only to be made to God voluntarily out of faith and Christian duty, to show God thanks for mercy, for petitioning God, for binding ourselves to Christian duties, or other reasons, as long as as they help us in these areas (WCF 22.6; cf. Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 101-102).
Here are some things to think about concerning proper vows (the following is a summary of Brakel and the WCF’s discussion of vows):
1) A vow must pertain to lawful matters. Christians cannot make vows that go against Scripture’s teachings or laws. We cannot vow to do anything forbidden in God’s Word, and we must not vow anything that would hinder our Christian duty. For example, we shouldn’t make a vow to avoid all unbelievers, since Scripture tells us to love and help our neighbors and even our enemies. Positively speaking, it is proper to make vows that help us serve God and neighbor better.
2) A vow must be prudent. That is, when we vow, we must be acquainted with the situation and circumstances. A rash or sinful vow is made without knowing the circumstances and situations (Prov. 20:25). Ignorant vows are not lawful vows. For example, one shouldn’t make a vow to God that he will go to such and such a place to evangelize before he learns about that place. Therefore, vows are to be made with religious care; we must be very careful when making vows (Ecc. 5:4-5).
3) A vow must be within the realm of what we are capable of doing. It would be a reckless vow if someone promised to God that he would never sin again. We must not make vows that we don’t have the ability to keep. We must not make perpetual vows about neutral things (such as singleness, exact tithing amounts, abstaining from something, etc.) since we do not know what can transpire over time. We should, by God’s grace, be able to keep the vow we are making, and it should be performed with faithfulness.
4) When we make a vow, we must not act as if we were making a business deal with God, such as, ‘If you will give me this, then I will give you this.’ Rather, it must be made as an expression of gratitude towards God (Ps. 50:14).
In the Presbyterian/Reformed (and other) traditions, God’s people make vows when professing faith publicly, becoming members of a local church, and serving in office (deacon, elder, or pastor). These types of vows, done properly, are conducive to the glory of God and the good of his people. A proper vow might also include promising to God that one is going to raise his children with prayer, in the church’s fellowship, and knowledge of the Word. Another proper vow might be to promise devotion to a certain Bible study, promise to abstain from Sunday sports for the upcoming season since they hurt the Christian’s faith in the past, or to vow renewed commitment to one’s spouse during a serious illness. The list of proper vows goes on.
Basically, in a word, proper vows are those that are in harmony with Scripture, carefully and thoughtfully made, able to be kept with God’s help, and not used as a bargaining chip with God. “If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of this mouth (Num. 30:2 NASB).
The above quotes and summarize of Brakel’s discussion of vows can be found in The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol 4, ch. 80.