What Happens When Christians Don’t Keep Their Word?

I heard a sermon a while back on Acts 4:32-5:11, the account of Ananias and Sapphira:

There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

(Acts 4:34–5:2 ESV)

Their failure to follow through on what they told the Church they were going to do with their finances had dire consequences:

But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.”But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.”Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.

(Acts 5:3–11 ESV)

Here’s the takeaway:

  1. If you tell the church you’re selling a piece of property for the kingdom or giving your hard-earned cash for a project, you had better follow through on your plans and spend that money on what had been promised. This is especially the case when you solicit giving from others and they join in your plans whether that be sending out a missionary, planting a church, providing for the poor, leasing or buying property, compensating ministers and staff, or any other work for the spread of the gospel.
  2. If you don’t follow through and use the money for other purposes; if you try to cover your tracks for whatever reason, you are actually lying to God’s people. And, God says that to lie or deceive is to hate or despise your brothers and sisters (Proverbs 26:28).
  3. And, when you deceive your brothers and sisters you are also lying to God, according to the words of Peter in Acts 5. Commenting on this in the sermon that day, the pastor composed this maxim: “to lie to the Bride is to lie to the Groom.”
  4. God is just and fair: not by our standards, perhaps. We might think He was too hard on Ananias and Sapphira for a relatively small and harmless sin, but God won’t tolerate people who “practice falsehood” by being evasive, shading the truth, constructing false narratives, or lying. We have His word on it: “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”(Revelation 22:15 ESV)

This passage wasn’t covered in the sermon, but Ephesians 4:20–25 applies the Gospel directly to this sin of not keeping one’s word to God and His church. Paul wrote, “assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires… let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” The old self loves to project a positive image to others in the community while looking out for its own interests, particularly in the Church. Often this results in living a double life of deceit that separates friends, destroys fellowship, and leaves a stain on the Church that outsiders and inquirers often see more clearly than believers.

So, what do we do if we have lied to the Church and to God, but haven’t been struck dead and carried out the door? Perhaps, like Ananias and Sapphira you have literally or figuratively sold a piece of property and held back some of that money for your own interests, to enrich yourself, your family, or your friends. Because of what Jesus did on the cross in the forgiveness of sin and the giving of His Spirit to live in and through us, we are able to put off that old self and speak the truth with our neighbors. If we have lied in the past, we can come clean and tell the truth about our sin in confession to others. The Scriptures promise that when we repent, we will be forgiven.

But, is that the end of it? No. There may be time left before others carry us out the door and we stand before the Lord to make good on the vows or promises made in the past, in the presence of others. In fact, God expects us to keep our word as He keeps His promises. That theme of faithfulness is woven throughout the Scriptures and forms the foundation of the Gospel. God does what He says He will do and so do His children. But, what if a lot of time has passed and keeping our word seems impossible. Do we just say, “oh well” and let it go? No. It may take some prayer and a little imagination, but the Bible is full of accounts of God’s people righting past wrongs and keeping their promises, even in the case of a rash vow or a promise to do something we later regretted. Perhaps, we can follow the example of Zacchaeus. Rather than imagine all the ways in which he couldn’t right past wrongs, he came up with ingenious ways to bless God and those he sinned against:

And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold. ”And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

(Luke 19:8–10 ESV)

For further reading on the subject:

Eerdmans Bible Dictionary: “A vow is a serious commitment and must be fulfilled or “paid.” Heb. šillēm (piel), from the same root as šālôm, indicates that the vow, as it were, hung in the air incomplete until “brought to wholeness” by the performance of the vow (Deut. 23:21-23[MT 22–24])… The act of fulfilling vows in the sacred assembly constituted acknowledgment of what God had done and was itself a public act of praise and thanksgiving (e.g., Ps. 22:25[26]; 50:14; 56:12[13]; 61:5, 8[6, 9]; 66:13–14; 76:11[12]). Michael Guinan

“This is what the LORD has commanded. If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” (Numbers 30:1–2 ESV)

Expositor’s Bible Commentary (EBC): Numbers 30  “This chapter is a significant OT text on the subject of the “vow” (GK H5624; see Dt 23:21-23). The principal issue is that a vow is not to be made rashly (see Ecc 5:1-7), but once made, a vow to the Lord must be kept.”

Matthew Henry: “He that vows is here said to bind his soul with a bond. It is a vow to God, who is a spirit, and to him the soul, with all its powers, must be bound. A promise to man is a bond upon the estate, but a promise to God is a bond upon the soul… Our occasional vows concerning that which before was in our own power (Acts. 5:4 ), when they are made, are bonds upon the soul likewise. The command given is that these vows be conscientiously performed: He shall not break his word, though afterwards he may change his mind, but he shall do according to what he has said. Margin, He shall not profane his word. Vowing is an ordinance of God; if we vow in hypocrisy we profane that ordinance: it is plainly determined, Better not vow than vow and not pay, Eccl. 5:5 . Be not deceived, God is not mocked. His promises to us are yea and amen, let not ours to him be yea and nay.”

EBC on Proverbs 20:25: “Rash vows. This warning about making a rash vow addresses what was a common problem. Declaring something sacred (as in Mk 7:11) can lead a person into financial difficulties (Lev 27 explains that Israelites could buy themselves out of rash vows—it was expensive). After making a vow, one must consider to fulfill it. Too many people make promises under the inspiration of the hour, only later to realize that they have strapped themselves; they then try to go back on their word.”

Matthew Henry: “Defer not to pay it… By delay the sense of the obligation slackens and cools, and is in danger of wearing off; we thereby discover a loathness and backwardness to perform our vow…. The longer it is put off the more difficult it will be to bring ourselves to it; death may not only prevent the payment, but fetch thee to judgment, under the guilt of a broken vow, Ps. 76:11 .2. Two reasons are here given why we should speedily and cheerfully pay our vows:—(1.) Because otherwise we affront God; we play the fool with him, as if we designed to put a trick upon him; and God has no pleasure in fools. More is implied than is expressed; the meaning is, He greatly abhors such fools and such foolish dealings. Has he need of fools? No; Be not deceived, God is not mocked, but will surely and severely reckon with those that thus play fast and loose with him. (2.) Because otherwise we wrong ourselves, we lose the benefit of the making of the vow, nay, we incur the penalty for the breach of it; so that it would have been better a great deal not to have vowed, more safe and more to our advantage, than to vow and not to pay. Not to have vowed would have been but an omission, but to vow and not pay incurs the guilt of treachery and perjury; it is lying to God, Acts. 5:4

EBC on Psalm 15:1-4: “When they promise, make a vow, or swear to do something, the wise remain true to their word (cf. Ecc 5:1-7; Mt 5:33-37). They have a deep sense of integrity and must often make material sacrifices to be honest. Their honor is more important than their wallet.”

“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 ESV)

NBC on Deuteronomy 23:21-23: “Vows were voluntary acts of devotion, usually fulfilled by a sacrifice (Lv. 7:16-18; Ps. 22:25). The law here is based on the huge importance attached to words and promises in Deuteronomy; the whole covenant is based on this and, therefore, their casual or insincere use was an offence in God’s eyes.”

“Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of a gift he does not give.” (Proverbs 25:14 ESV)

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