When are promises binding?


Does it work like this? When we make a promise we are bound to do what we promised. The moment we confess and are sorry for making any promise we had made that very moment the binding is removed and has no more hold over us ever again after that ever again. It will not bind us forever then until the day we die. Is it a sin to make a promise then? Why can we confess and ask forgiveness for making a promise? I do not understand that. Please help me understand each question would appreciate it.


Your question was thought provoking, for my wife and I.

Promise to be Sinful

For example if the promise was to lie once every hour, that would be sinning to keep the promise. God does not honor a promise to sin. If you promise a friend to lie once every hour and he agrees to it, either way you have made yourself sin, by lying to him, or constantly sinning by lying every hour.  God does allow us to seek forgiveness from a sinful lifestyle of any kind including stupid promises that are sinful. I am pretty sure we all would be going to hell if we had to keep all the promise we made as kids, such as we will be friends forever, or to some girl or guy I will love you no matter what happens, and we will get married.  But what happens is that God says we must stop following our sinful ways, as Paul says in I Corinthians 6:9-11. This gives us permission to stop following sinful ways no matter how many promises we made to do evil things. God doesn’t give us a choice in matter, either you leave your old ways or you are not following Him.

Conditional Promises

There are some promises that are not sinful, such as one that I just mentioned, for example: I will always love you forever and I promise to marry you. This is a stupid promise, not evil but stupid. Do we have to honor it? Well, let say, I said that to some other woman besides my wife before I met her, but then the woman and I broke up. Later I found my wonderful wife, and I marry her. I broke the promise but there is nothing that can re-instate the promise. It was a conditional promise (as in once you break it, it cannot be remade because of the certain factors in the promise). Another example would be that I promise I will make it to the soccer game at 2 pm. Well 2 pm rolls around and you don’t show up. Later on you see the person, and you can no longer honor that promise anymore.  A conditional promise can be done away with if the condition is set on certain circumstances.

Promise Obligations

But what about this situation: I will always for the rest of my life go running on Tuesday morning for 1 hour or try my best to. If you made this promise to someone but broke it, you then broke the whole condition of the promise “try my best to.” If you didn’t try your best over all that promise, even for the next Tuesday could not be kept because you didn’t fulfill it every time. It still can be binding though if you said to a person, “If I don’t run, I owe you 50 dollars a week.” You are obligated to pay the person unless you were to be released of the obligations.

What most people don’t realize is when a promise was made in the Bible, the vow or promise contained consequences or curses for not fulfilling it. There could be the consequence of not keeping the vow, such as owing so much money, losing your property, or losing your house. If you kept your vow, you got the benefit of it.

For example: You have made a promise or agreement with a bank for a loan. You agree that you will pay on time, every month for XXX amount of years. If the contract is broken, you are held to your promise in the contract, either losing the item that is being paid for, paying late fees, etc. If you pay it off, you keep the item. This is how promises work. Whatever was made in the promise as an obligation for not fulfilling it or fulfilling for benefit is to be followed. Once that happens you are released from it.

In Nehemiah 5:6-13 the nobles and officials were breaking the law by enslaving their Jewish brothers and taking them for everything they had through interest (Nehemiah 5:6-7; Deuteronomy 23:19-20; 24:10-13). Nehemiah goes to them and makes them promise to no longer do this, but upon that promise he puts a curse or a consequence in it.

Then they said, “We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say.” And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, “So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said “Amen” and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.” (Nehemiah 5:12-13).

If the promise involves two parties but one does not agree, then it is not valid. If I say to someone let us agree if either of us makes a 100,000 dollars, we have to share half with other person. If the person doesn’t agree to that, then the promise would not be valid due to the dependence of the promise is upon someone who is not in agreement.

If there are no consequences to our promises that are stated, then the consequence is that our reputation and our relationship with God is damaged because of sin. The sin is not constant but it is there until we ask forgiveness and repent.

Biblical Examples of a Wise Promise and a Not Very Wise Promise.

Look at Psalm 15 of what a righteous man does. Please notice the part about the vow.

O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent?
Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
and speaks truth in his heart;
who does not slander with his tongue
and does no evil to his neighbor,
nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
in whose eyes a vile person is despised,
but who honors those who fear the LORD;
who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
who does not put out his money at interest
and does not take a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things shall never be moved.

Wise Promises

The best example I can think of vow kept is about the mother of Samuel. "And she vowed a vow and said, "O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head" (I Samuel 1:11). God granted her prayer and she kept her vow. This was not a foolish vow, but a God-honoring one. Also, because he was the first born he could never be redeemed. It was a blessing but a sacrifice for his mother.

Not Wise Promises

One of the worst vows I have seen is by Jephthah, a judge over Israel. In Judges 11:29-40 he vows to give anything that comes out to him from his house as a burnt offering, his daughter walks out, his one and only child. She was the last of his blood line. Now she was a sacrifice in the sense of she lived a virgin and served at the temple most likely. For more on that issue see: Jephthah's Daughter. But please notice in Psalm 15 the part that says, “who keeps his oath even when it hurts.” I am pretty sure this definitely hurt Jephthah. Notice it also was a life changing promise. It was better not to sin against God and change your life than it is to sin.

Importance of a Promise

We need to realize how important promises are. "And this is what he promised us—even eternal life" (I John 2:25).

"Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will”" (Matthew 26:38-39).

I recently realized one reason this prayer is recorded for us. When Jesus prayed this prayer He was bound by his own word. God made a promise to mankind for salvation and eternal life (Genesis 3:15). Yet here is a situation we all agree would be nice to bail out of it. We all would feel the same way Jesus did during this prayer. Take into account that he knew how brutal his death was going to be, the agony, and separation from life itself and heaven. Now what if Jesus after his prayer did what a lot of people do on their promises and said, “You know I think mankind will understand if I don’t follow through, they would forgive me.” How would we view God if he did that?

Now imagine you make a promise, a stupid promise (not sinful) that is not even close to as serious as Jesus’ promise, and it is within your power to fulfill it. But you decided it is too much of a hassle to fulfill and wasn’t the smartest thing to do either. Are we being Christ like? As Christians we are called to be Christ-like. God is known for never breaking his promises from beginning till end (Hebrews 6:17-18). It is our responsibility to be Christ-like and keep our promises.

Are Promises Sinful?

There are reasons why we are told simply say yes or no, and nothing more. Because our reputation should be credibile -- that our word is as good as a promise. "But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your "yes" be yes and your "no" be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation" (James 5:12). The same concept is in “Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:37).

You can’t change anything that is in God’s control. You can’t predict future events and what will happen on this day, this hour, and this second. Why make a promise or a vow that you have no idea if you can keep it?

Are you held to promises? Yes, if it is stated in the agreement and consequences. But if it’s a conditional promise as majority are, then time eventually releases you from the promise by not keeping them, by suffering the consequences of them or fulfilling them.

To answer the question: Are promises sinful? The answer is no. We only make promises when we know we can follow through with them, but if it is not needed, then do not do it.

In a court of law you are asked to swear or take an oath (same as a promise) there is nothing wrong with that, it is an easy obligation to meet, and the law requires it. God calls us to makes promises such as covenants as we see in marriage (Malachi 2:14-16). We know not in all situations promises are bad, but we also must understand that they should not be needed if we are following Christ -- only under certain circumstances when it is required by law or by God.

Overall, this question somewhat complicated one, when you have never thought about how promises are used and in which way.

I would like to leave you with this verse to meditate on:

"If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth" (Deuteronomy 23:21-23).

Alan and Leia Feaster