George Whitefield Sermon 18

The Heinous Sin of Profane Cursing and Swearing

Matthew 5:34, "But I say unto you, Swear not at all."

Among the many heinous sins for which this nation is grown infamous,

perhaps there is no one more crying, but withal more common, than the

abominable custom of profane swearing and cursing. Our streets abound with

persons of all degrees and qualities, who are continually provoking the

holy one of Israel to anger, by their detestable oaths and blasphemies: and

our very children, "out of whose mouths," the psalmist observes in his

days, "was perfected praise," are now grown remarkable for the quite

opposite ill quality of cursing and swearing. This cannot but be a

melancholy prospect, for every sincere and honest minister of Jesus Christ,

to view his fellow-creatures in; and such as will put him on contriving

some means to prevent the spreading at least of so growing an evil; knowing

that the Lord (without repentance) will assuredly visit for these things.

But alas! what can he do? Public animadversions are so neglected amongst

us, that we seldom find a common swearer punished as the laws direct. And

as for private admonition, men are now so hardened through the

deceitfulness of sin, that to give them sober and pious advice, and to show

them the evil of their doings, is but like "casting pearls before swine;

they only turn again and rend you." Since matters then are come to this

pass, all that we can do is, that as we are appointed watchmen and

ambassadors of the Lord, it our duty from time to time to show the people

their transgression, and warn them of their sin; so that whether they will

hear, or whether they will forbear, we however may deliver our own souls.

That I therefore may discharge my duty in this particular, give me leave,

in the name of God, humbly to offer to your most serious consideration,

some few observations on the words of the text, in order to show the

heinousness of profane cursing and swearing.

But, before I proceed directly to the prosecution of this point, it

will be proper to clear this precept of our Lord from a misrepresentation

that has been put on it by some, who infer from hence, that our Savior

prohibits swearing before a magistrate, when required on a solemn and

proper occasion. But that all swearing is not absolutely unlawful for a

Christian, is evident from the writings of St. Paul, whom we often find

upon some solemn occasions using several forms of imprecation, as, "I call

God as witness;" "God is my judge;" "By your rejoicing in Christ Jesus,"

and suchlike. And that our savior does by no means forbid swearing before a

magistrate, in the words now before us, is plain, if we consider the sense

and design he had in view, when he gave his disciples this command. Permit

me to observe to you then, that our blessed master had set himself, from

the 27th verse of the chapter, out of which the text is taken, to vindicate

and clear the moral law from the corrupt glosses and misconstruction of the

Pharisees, who then sat in Moses's chair, but were notoriously faulty in

adhering too closely to the literal expression of the law, without ever

considering the due extent and spiritual meaning of it. Accordingly they

imagined, that because God had said, "Thou shalt not commit adultery," that

therefore, supposing a person was not guilty of the very act of adultery,

he was not chargeable with the breach of the seventh commandment. And

likewise in the matter of swearing, because God had forbidden his people,

in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, "to take his name in vain," or to

swear falsely by his name; they therefore judged it lawful to swear by any

creature in common discourse, supposing they did not directly mention the

name of God. Our blessed Savior therefore, in the words now before us,

rectifies this their mistake about swearing, as he had done in the verses

immediately forgoing, concerning adultery, and tells the people, that

whatever allowances the Pharisees might give to swear by any creature, yet

he pronounced it absolutely unlawful for any of his followers to do so.

"You have heard, that it has been said by them of old time," (namely, by

the Pharisees and teachers of the Jewish law) "Thou shalt not forswear

thyself, but perform unto the Lord thine oaths; but I say unto you," (I who

am appointed by the Father to be the great prophet and true law-giver of

his church) "Swear not at all, (in your common conversation) neither by

heaven for it is God's throne; (and therefore to swear by that, is to swear

by Him that sits thereon) neither by the earth, for it is his foot-stool;

nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King; neither shalt thou

swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black: but

let your communications (which plainly shows that Christ is here speaking

of swearing, not before a magistrate, but in common conversation) let your

communication be yea, yea; nay, nay, (a strong affirmation or negation at

the most); for whatsoever is more than this, cometh of evil;" that is,

cometh from an evil principle, from the evil one, the devil, the author of

all evil.

Which by the way, methinks, should be a caution to all such persons,

who, though not guilty of swearing in the gross sense of the word, yet

attest the truth of what they are speaking of, though ever so trifling, by

saying, Upon my life, -- as I live, -- by my faith, -- by the heavens, and

such like: which expressions, however harmless and innocent they may be

esteemed by some sorts of people, yet are the very oaths which our blessed

Lord condemns in the words immediately following the text; and persons who

use such unwarrantable forms of speaking, must expect to be convicted and

condemned as swearers, at our Savior's second coming to judge the world.

But to return: It appears then from the whole tenor of our Savior's

discourse, that in the words of the text he does by no means disannul or

forbid swearing before a magistrate (which, as might easily be shown, is

both lawful and necessary) but only profane swearing in common

conversation; the heinousness and sinfulness of which I come now, more

immediately to lay before you.

And here, not to mention that it is a direct breach of our blessed

master's and great law-giver's command in the words of the text, as

likewise of the third commandment, wherein God positively declares, "he

will not hold him guiltless (that is, will assuredly punish him) that

taketh his name in vain:" not to mention that it is the greatest abuse of

that noble faculty of speech, whereby we are distinguished from the brute

creation; or the great hazard the common swearer runs, of being perjured

some time or other: not to mention those reasons against it, which of

themselves would abundantly prove the folly and sinfulness of swearing: I

shall at this time content myself with instancing four particulars, which

highly aggravate the crime of profane swearing, and those are such as


I. FIRST, Because there is no temptation in nature to this sin, nor

does the commission of it afford the offender the least pleasure or


II. SECONDLY, Because it is a sin which may be so often repeated.

III. THIRDLY, Because it hardens infidels against the Christian

religion, and must give great offense, and occasion much sorrow and concern

to every true disciple of Jesus Christ.

IV. FOURTHLY, Because it is an extremity of sin, which can only be

matched in hell.

I. The first reason then, why swearing in common conversation is so

heinous in God's sight, and why we should not swear at all, is, because it

has no temptation in nature, nor does the commission of it, unless a man be

a devil incarnate, afford the offender the least pleasure or satisfaction.

Now here, I presume, we may lay it down as a maxim universally agreed

on, that the guilt of any crime is increased or lessened in proportion to

the weakness or strength of the temptation, by which a person is carried to

the commission of it. It was this consideration that extenuated and

diminished the guilt of Saul's taking upon him to offer sacrifice before

the Prophet Saumel came; and of Uzza's touching the ark, because it was in

danger of falling: as, on the contrary, what so highly aggravated the

disobedience of our first parents, and of Lot's wife, was, because the

former had so little reason to eat the forbidden fruit, and the latter so

small a temptation to look back on Sodom.

And now if this be granted, surely the common swearer must of all

sinners be the most without excuse, since there is no manner of temptation

in nature to commission of his crime. In most of the other commands,

persons, perhaps, may plead the force of natural inclination in excuse for

the breach of them: one, for instance, may alledge his string propensity to

anger, to excuse his breaking of the sixth; another, his proneness to lust,

for his violation of the seventh. But surely the common swearer has nothing

of this kind to urge in his behalf; for though he may have a natural

inclination to this or that crime, yet no man, it is to be presumed, can

say, he is born with a swearing constitution.

But further, As there is no temptation to it, so there is no pleasure

or profit to be reaped from the commission of it. Ask the drunkard why he

rises up early to follow strong drink, and he will tell you, because it

affords his sensual appetite some kind of pleasure and gratification,

though it be no higher than that of a brute. Inquire of the covetous

worldling, why he defrauds and over-reaches his neighbor, and he has an

answer ready; to enrich himself, and lay up goods for many years. But it

must certainly puzzle the profane swearer himself, to inform you what

pleasure he reaps from swearing: for alas! it is a fruitless tasteless

thing that he sells his soul for. But indeed he does not sell it at all: in

this case he prodigally gives it away (without repentance) to the devil;

and parts with a blessed eternity, and runs into everlasting torment,

merely for nothing.

II. But SECONDLY, what increases the heinousness of profane swearing,

is, that it is a sin which may so often be repeated.

This is another consideration which always serves to lessen or

increase the guilt and malignity of any sin. It was some excuse for the

drunkenness of Noah, and the adultery of David, that they committed these

crimes but once; as, on the contrary, of the patriarch Abraham's distrust

of God, that he repeated the dissembling [deception] of Sarah to be his

wife, two several times. And if this be admitted as an aggravation of other

profane crimes, surely much more so of the guilt of common swearing,

because it is a sin which may be, and is for the generality often repeated.

In many other gross sins it cannot be so: if a man be overcome in drink,

there must be a considerable time ere he can recover his debauch, and

return to his cups again: or if he be accustomed to profane the sabbath, he

cannot do it every day, but only one in seven. But alas! the profane

swearer is ready for another oath, almost before the sound of the first is

out of our ears; yea, some double and treble them in one sentence, even so

as to confound the sense of what they say, by an horrid din of blasphemy!

Now if the great and terrible Jehovah has expressly declared that he will

not hold him guiltless, that is, will assuredly punish him, that taketh his

name but once in vain; what a vast heap of these heinous sins lies at every

common swearer's door? It would be apt to sink him into an intolerable

despair, did he but see the whole sum of them. And O what a seared

conscience must that wretch have, that does not feel this prodigious


III. But THIRDLY, what makes the sin of profane swearing appear yet

more exceeding sinful, is, that it hardens infidels against the Christian


It is the Apostle Peter's advice to the married persons of his time,

that they should walk as became the gospel of Christ, that those who were

without, might be won to embrace the Christian religion, by seeing and

observing their pious conversation coupled together with fear. And what the

Apostle presses on married persons, we find elsewhere enjoined on each

particular member of the church. Accordingly we are commanded by our

blessed Lord, to "let our light to shine before men, that they may see our

good works, and glorify our Father which is in heaven;" And the Apostle

Paul bids us "walk circumspectly towards them that are without, redeeming

the time;" that is, embracing all opportunities to do them good, "because

the days are evil." But alas! in what a direct contradiction does the

profane swearer live to this and such-like precepts, who, instead of

gaining proselytes to Christ from the unbelieving part of the world, does

all he can to oppose it! For how can it be expected, that infidels should

honor God, when Christians themselves despise him; or that any should

embrace our religion, when professors of it themselves make so light of one

of its strictest commands? No; to our grief and shame be it spoken, it is

by reason of such impieties as these, that our holy religion (the best and

purest in itself) is become a by-word among the heathen; that the sacred

authority of the holy Jesus and his doctrine is despised; and "God's name

(as it is written) blasphemed among the Gentiles."

These cannot but be sad stumbling-blocks and offenses in the way of

our brethren's conversion; "But woe be to those men by whom such offenses

come." We may say of them, as our blessed Lord did of Judas, "It had been

better for such men, that they had never been born;" or, as he threatens in

another place, "It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the

day of judgment, than for such sinners."

But this is not all; As profane swearing must undoubtedly harden those

in their infidelity, that are without, so must it no less grieve and give

great offense to those hones and sincere persons that are within the

church. We hear of David's complaining and crying out, "Woe is me, that I

am constrained to dwell with Mesech, and to have my habitation amongst the

tents of Kedar;" that is, that he was obliged to live and converse with a

people exceedingly wicked and profane. And St. Peter tells us, that "Lot's

righteous soul was grieved day by day, whilst he saw and observed the

ungodly conversation of the wicked." And no doubt it was one great part of

our blessed Master's sufferings whilst on earth, that he was compelled to

converse with a wicked and perverse generation, and to hear his heavenly

Father's sacred name profaned and scoffed at by unrighteous and wicked men.

And surely it cannot but pierce the heart of every true and sincere

Christian, of every one that does in any measure partake of the spirit of

his master, to hear the multitude of oaths and curses which proceed daily

and hourly out of the mouths of many people, and those too, whose liberal

education, and seeming regard for the welfare of religion, one would think,

should teach them a more becoming behavior. To hear the great and terrible

name of God polluted by men, which is adored by angels; and to consider how

often that sacred name is profancd in common discourse, which we are not

worthy to mention in our prayers; this, I say, cannot but make each of them

cry out with holy David, "Woe is me, that I am constrained to dwell with

Mesech, and to have my habitation amongst the tents of Kedar." And though

the blasphemous and profane discourses of others, will not be imputed to

sincere persons for sin, so long as they "have no fellowship with such

hellish fruits of darkness, but rather reprove them;" yet it will greatly

enhance the present guilt, and sadly increase the future punishment of

every profane swearer, by whom such offenses come. For if, as our Savior

tells us, "it had been better for a man to have a mill-stone tied around

his neck, than that he should offend one of his little once, (that is, the

weakest of his disciples) how much sorer punishment will they be thought

worthy of," who not only cause God's name to be blasphemed among the

Gentiles, and the religion of our dear Redeemer to be abhorred; but who

make his saints to weep and mourn, and vex their righteous souls from day

to day, by their ungodly, profane, and blasphemous conversation? Surely, as

God will put the tears of the one into his bottle, so it will be just in

him to punish the other with eternal sorrow, for all their ungodly and hard

speeches, and cast them into a lake of fire and brimstone, where they shall

be glad of a drop of water to cool those tongues, with which they have so

often blasphemed the Lord of Hosts, and grieved the people of our God.

IV. But it is time for me to proceed to give my FOURTH and last

reason, why common swearing is so exceeding sinful; and that is, Because it

is such an extremity of sin, that can only be matched in hell, where all

are desperate, and without hope of mercy.

The damned devils, and damned souls of men in hell, may be supposed to

rave and blaspheme in their torments, because they know that the chains

wherein they are held, can never be knocked off; but for men that swim in

the river of God's goodness, whose mercies are renewed to them every

morning, and who are visited with fresh tokens of his infinite unmerited

loving-kindness every moment; for these favorite creatures to set their

mouths against heaven, and to blaspheme a gracious, patient, all-bountiful

God; is a height of sin which exceeds the blackness and impiety of devils

and hell itself.

And now, after what has been here offered, to show the heinousness of

profane cursing and swearing in common conversation, may I not very justly

address myself to you in the words of the text, "Therefore I say unto you,

Swear not at all;" since it is a sin that has no temptation in nature, nor

brings any pleasure or profit to the committer of it; since it hardens

infidels in their infidelity, and affords sad causes of grief and

lamentation to every honest Christian; since it is a sin that generally

grows into a habit, and lastly, such a sin that can only be matched in


1. And first then, if these things be so, and the sin of profane

swearing, as hath been in some measure shown, is so exceeding sinful, what

shall we say to such unhappy men, who think it not only allowable, but

fashionable and polite, to "take the name of God in vain;" who imagine that

swearing makes them look big among their companions, and really think it a

piece of honor to abound in it? But alas! little do they think that such a

behavior argues the greatest degeneracy of mind and fool-hardiness, that

can possibly be thought of. For what can be more base, than one hour to

pretend to adore God in public worship, and the very next moment to

blaspheme his name; indeed, such a behavior, from persons who deny the

being of a God, (if any such fools there be) is not altogether to much to

be wondered at; but for men, who not only subscribe to the belief of a

Deity, but likewise acknowledge him to be a God of infinite majesty and

power; for such men to blaspheme his holy name, by profane cursing and

swearing, and at the same time confess, that this very God has expressly

declared, he will not hold him guiltless, but will certainly and eternally

punish (without repentance) him that taketh his name in vain; is such an

instance of fool-hardiness, as well as baseness, that can scarcely be

paralleled. This is what they presume not to do in other cases of less

danger: they dare not revile a general at the head of his army, nor rouse a

sleeping lion when within reach of his paw. And is the Almighty God, the

great Jehovah, the everlasting King, who can consume them by the breath of

his nostrils, and frown them to hell in an instant; is he the only

contemptible being in their account, that may be provoked without fear, and

offended without punishment? No; though God hear long, he will not bear

always; the time will come, and that too, perhaps, much sooner than such

persons may expect, when God will vindicate his injured honor, when he will

lay bare his almighty arm, and make those wretches feel the eternal smart

of his justice, show power and name they have so often vilified and

blasphemed. Alas! what will become of all their bravery then? Will they

then wantonly sport with the name of their Maker, and call upon the King of

all the earth to damn them any more in jest? No; their note will then be

changed: indeed, they shall call, but it will be for "the rocks to fall on

them, and the hills to cover them from the wrath of him that sitteth upon

the throne, and from the Lamb for ever." It is true, time was when they

prayed, though without thought, perhaps, for damnation both for themselves

and others; and now they will find their prayers answered. "They delighted

in cursing, therefore shalt it happen unto them; they loved not blessing,

therefore shall it be far from them; they clothed themselves with cursing

like as with a garment, and it shall come into their bowels like water, and

like oil into their bones."

2. But further, if the sin of swearing is so exceeding heinous, and

withal so common, then it is every particular person's duty, especially

those that are in authority, to do their utmost towards discountenancing

and suppressing so malignant a crime. The duty we owe both to God and our

neighbor, requires this at our hands; by the one we are obliged to assert

our Maker's honor; by the other to prevent our neighbor's ruin; and it is

but doing as we would be done by, and as we ourselves act in cases of

lesser consequence. Were we to hear either our own or our friend's good

name vilified [slandered, maligned] and traduced [slandered, maligned], we

should think it our bounden duty to vindicate the wronged reputation of

each; and shall the great, terrible, and holy name of our best and only

friend, our king, our father, nay our God: shall this be daily, nay every

moment, defied and blasphemed; and will no one dare to stand up in defense

of his honor and holiness? Be astonished, O heavens, at this! No; let us

scorn all such base and treacherous treatment; let us resolve to support

the cause of religion, and with a becoming prudent courage manifest our

zeal for the honor of the Lord of Hosts. Men in authority have double the

advantages of ordinary Christians; their very office shows they are

intended for the punishment of evil doers. And such is the degeneracy of

mankind, that the generality of them will be more influenced by the power

of persons in authority, than by the most labored exhortations from the

pulpit. To such, therefore, if there are any here present, I humbly address

myself, beseeching them, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to do their

utmost to put a stop to, and restrain profane cursing and swearing. And

though it must be confessed, that this is a work which requires a great

deal of courage and pains, yet they would do well to consider, it is for

God they undertake it, who certainly will support and bear them out in a

due execution of their office here, and reward them with an exceeding and

eternal weight of glory hereafter. But it is time to draw towards a


3. Let me, therefore, once more address myself to every person here

present, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; and if any amongst them have

been any way guilty of this notorious sin of swearing, let me entreat them

by all that is near and dear to them, that they would neither give the

magistrate the trouble to punish, nor their friends any reason for the

future to warn them against committing the crime; but keep a constant and

careful watch over the door of their lips, and withal implore the divine

assistance (without which all is nothing) that they offend no more so

scandalously with their tongues. Let them seriously lay to heart, what with

great plainness and simplicity has here been delivered: and if they have

any regard for themselves as men, or their reputation as Christians; if

they would not be a public scandal to their profession, or a grief to all

that know or converse with them: in short, if they would not be devils

incarnate here, and provoke God to punish them eternally hereafter; I say

unto them in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, "Swear not at all."