Vows and Resolutions—Is There a Difference?

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“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)

“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14)

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18)

It is good for a Christian to desire to improve. “Improvement” changes one’s habits and attitudes for the better and is part of the process of sanctification which the Holy Spirit desires to help us to achieve.

Ask yourself, “Where does the desire for improvement come from?” Scripture indicates that realizing the need and desiring to improve is the result of God’s grace working in our life (Phil. 2:12-13). I understand Romans 3:10-18 to teach that without the grace of God working in everyone’s life (often called “common grace”), no one would seek God, and “no one would do good, no not even one” (Rom. 3:12).

Resolutions and Goal Setting

To desire to be a better Christian, to be more disciplined in one’s daily thoughts and habits of life, is a therefore let your words be few” (5:2). If, however, we do decide to make a vow, he cautions us not to be late in paying our vows, for God takes no delight in fools who fail to pay their vows. It is better, he counsels, not to vow at all, than to vow and fail to pay (5:5). This agrees with Deuteronomy 23:22 which tells us “if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin.”

I think that if a person intends a desire for change to become a vow, he should deliberately use the term “vow” in his commitment. This would help clarify the difference between a resolution and a vow.

For example, when Christians marry, they exchange vows during their ceremony. They pledge before God and before human witnesses that they will do or not do specific things. These promises are vows; they are not resolutions or simply the verbal expressions of a desire to improve. Vows are regulated by Scripture, are acceptable to God, and are voluntary, not mandatory.

But if a vow is made, it must be kept. Breaking a vow is sin (Deut. 23:21; Eccl. 5:5-6; Num. 30:15), and to break a vow brings God’s punishment. However, God will forgive vow-breakers (Num. 30:6-9, 13), though He warns there may be severe consequences for failing to keep a vow (Eccl. 5:6). Solomon warns, “Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger, ‘It was a mistake.’ Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands?” (Eccl. 5:6).

In other words, God punishes those who break their vows. Claiming that you made a mistake and shouldn’t have vowed or didn’t really mean what you vowed arouses God’s anger against you. Thus, Solomon concludes, “Fear God” (Eccl. 5:7).

The seriousness of vows is further underscored in Numbers 30 where God identifies which vows are automatically binding and which may be nullified. God distinguishes the vows made by adult males, widows, and divorced women from those made by female children and wives.

In the case of adult males (30:2), widows, and divorced women (30:9), they must fulfill any vow they make. In the case of female children (30:3-5) and wives (30:6-8;10-15), if their father or husband nullifies their vow on the day that he hears it, then they are absolved of their vow (30:5, 8, 12). However, if the father or husband does not nullify their vow, then their vow stands. They are responsible to fulfill it. If the father or husband does not say anything the first time he hears it but decides to nullify it at a later time, then he will “bear the iniquity” of the broken vow (30:15).

Resolutions and Walking in the Light

Vows are solemn promises made to God or others and should be entered into carefully, prayerfully, and under direction of the Holy Spirit after seeking wise, godly counsel.

Resolutions, as distinct from vows, are useful tools to help us focus on areas in our lives that need improvement (we all have them), and serve as motivation for progress in that direction.

I suggest that, rather than use resolutions as the primary tool for improvement, Christians should simply “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7). Being led of the Spirit in our day-to-day lives (Rom. 8:14) helps us to seek the will of God for each day and strive to please Him in everything we do.

Walking in the light makes us sensitive to what the Spirit of God is saying through His Word. While personal “resolve” has its place, the real power for improvement, especially for spiritual things, is the power of Christ and His gospel working in us as we walk in the Spirit! If we do have a “resolution” to make, why not let it be to renew daily our commitment to Christ, His Word, and our attention to the Holy Spirit as He “speaks” to us in our daily walk. If we do this, we will find it much easier to witness for Him, live peaceably with others, and excel in whatever work God has put before us.

Resolutions are good things; walking in the light of God’s Word is better!


Originally published in the Ministry Library of God’s Bible School and College

Allan Brown
Allan Brown
Dr. Allan Brown is Professor and Chair of the Division of Ministerial Education at God's Bible School & College. He holds his PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of several books and articles.
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