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Is Cursing a Sin? (Can Christians Swear?)

illustration of woman cursing

Is cursing a sin? Many Christians would instantly answer yes.

But not so fast—it depends on what we mean by “cursing.” When you read the Bible, you’ll see that “cursing” and “swearing” mean something very different from what we might think. They aren’t the same as saying bad words.

That said, they’re probably right that yes, cursing is a sin—but not for the reasons you think.

Let’s first define each word, then look at the Scriptures to see what the words “swearing” and “cursing” meant in the Bible—and what kind of language God wants us to use today.

Why do the words we use matter so much?

If you’re a fan of the TV show The Office, you may remember the scene in which Michael Scott faced financial troubles and was told that bankruptcy was the easy way out. So, thinking his problems would soon be solved, he walked into his workplace and shouted, “I declare bankruptcy!”

Part of why we all laugh at this moment is because we know his words aren’t binding—nothing is going to happen just because he yelled about bankruptcy.

But what if Michael’s verbal declaration of bankruptcy actually had legal bearing? What if shouting “I declare bankruptcy” meant that everyone who heard him say it would hold him accountable to that as if it were a promise, and that there were personal penalties if he changed his mind? That helps us start thinking about what speech meant in the Bible.

In the biblical era (often called the ancient Near East), words were understood as carrying immense power. For example, Proverbs 18:21 (NIV) says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” Remember Genesis 1? God created the world by speaking it into existence. That’s how powerful words are.

The point for us is this: our words mean something. As Jesus taught in Matthew 12:36, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” (Ouch.)

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What’s the difference between cursing and swearing?

The Bible describes “cursing” (or “cussing”) and “swearing” as different categories of words, and both categories are separate from what we might call “bad words.” Before we can dig into verses about each category of speech, we need to define the words in the way the Bible’s human authors understood them.

What is cursing in the Bible?

A curse is “the invocation of harm or injury upon a person (or people), either immediately or contingent upon particular circumstances; a malediction or imprecation.”1

With the power of words in mind, what does it mean when someone curses?

When a curse is pronounced against any person, we are not to understand this as a mere wish, however violent, that disaster should overtake the person in question, any more than we are to understand that a corresponding “blessing” conveys simply a wish that prosperity should be the lot of the person on whom the blessing is invoked. A curse was considered to possess an inherent power of carrying itself into effect.2

What is swearing in the Bible?

Swearing is related to taking an oath, “a formal promise that binds an individual to do as pledged under threat of some penalty.”3

Sometimes swearing an oath is related to cursing, as it is “usually associated with maledictions when it is broken (see “curse”), but with benedictions when it is kept (see “bless”). The oath is also associated with the promise, the contract between two parties, sometimes with legal enforcement and with the judgment of God.”4

Again, the power of words helps us understand that when someone swore an oath, it was serious and binding. Breaking an oath was dangerous: “If either party transgressed the terms [of an oath], it was a heinous sin. … To breach an international treaty where the oath was taken in the Lord’s name merited death.”5

Here’s Darian Lockett’s explanation of what that means, from the course Survey of the General Epistles:

When James says, “Do not swear,” it is not coarse or vulgar speech that he prohibits, but he is prohibiting invoking God’s name to guarantee the reliability of what a person says. When we’re telling somebody something and they don’t believe us, and then we might say, “No, no, no, I’m telling you the truth; I swear to God,” that’s the kind of thing James is worried about. 

Oaths in general are by no means forbidden in Scripture. In fact, God himself takes oaths to guarantee the fulfillment, as it were, of what he has promised. It is not that the oath is in and of itself wrong, but really, what’s wrong here is that an oath like this divides speech into two levels: true speech, and then questionable speech. We can see that this is another way of being double-minded and lacking wholeness, according to James.6

What does the Bible say about cursing and swearing?

Now that we’ve defined our terms and understood why they matter, we’re ready to dig into Bible verses about each category of words:

Bible verses about cursing

With it [our tongues] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
—James 3:9–10

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
—Romans 12:14

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
—Luke 6:27–28

Let them curse, but you will bless! They arise and are put to shame, but your servant will be glad!
—Psalm 109:28

Balaam proclaimed his poem:
Balak brought me from Aram;
the king of Moab, from the eastern mountains:
“Come, put a curse on Jacob for me;
come, denounce Israel!”
How can I curse someone God has not cursed?
How can I denounce someone the Lord has not denounced?
—Numbers 23:7–8 (CSB)

For he did not remember to show kindness, but pursued the poor and needy and the brokenhearted, to put them to death. He loved to curse; let curses come upon him! He did not delight in blessing; may it be far from him!
—Psalm 109:16–17

Bible verses about swearing

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
—Exodus 20:7

Do not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God; I am the Lord.
—Leviticus 19:12

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.” But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply “Yes” or “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
—Matthew 5:33–37

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

People swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged.
—Hebrews 6:16–18 (NIV)

So, can we say bad words?

Maybe the better question to ask is this: What should our speech be like?

The Bible has a lot to say about the kind of words we should use:

  • Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Eph 4:29)
  • Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (Col 4:6)

How do we know what words are gracious and seasoned with salt? What we should say and not say, regardless of whether we’re using “bad words” in our conversation?

After all, it’s not only cursing and swearing that Scripture condemns.

  • Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. (2 Tim 2:16 NIV)
  • I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matt 12:36–37)
  • But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him. (Col 3:8–10 NASB)

Jesus said in Luke 6:45, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” In other words (ha!), what we say exposes who we are.

So, instead of asking, “Can I say bad words without sinning,” we should ask, “Are my words a reflecting the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in my life?”

And of course, when we’re temped or struggling, we can always ask for help: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (Jas 1:5).7

***

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This article was compiled by Jennifer Grisham and Mary Jahnke.

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  1. Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 248.
  2. R. K. Harrison, “Curse,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 837–38.
  3. Jacob N. Cerone, “Oath,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
  4. F. C. Fensham, “Oath,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 572.
  5. Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Oath,” in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1573.
  6. Darian R. Lockett, “NT286 Survey of the General Epistles,” Logos Mobile Education (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017).
  7. On a more pastoral note, what’s described in this article might be a far cry from the contexts of many ministry workers. You might work in a context where swearing is everyday language for the people you reach. How does biblical teaching on swearing apply in such contexts? If the context of “swear words” serves to build up the church, are the curse words themselves “wrong”? In the ministry context described by Greg Boyle in Tattoos on the Heart, explicit language was used both to build people up and to correct and redirect. Does it matter how the words are interpreted by the listener, or is explicit language disqualified from Christian vocabulary regardless of setting?

    As a Young Life leader, I constantly find myself entering a foreign culture—high school. Most of these kids are not like me. They don’t think like me. They don’t believe what I believe. They don’t talk like me. They aren’t interested in being like me. If I’m not well versed in “kid-culture,” it creates a disconnect between us, and that disconnect can add to the conception that the gospel isn’t for them. Obviously there is a different dynamic in effect in this relationship (I’m an adult and they’re kids), but Christians spread a gospel that was written for the whole world—every culture, every person, every language (cf. Mark 16:15, Matt 24:14, Ps 96:3, Rev 14:6–7, Matt 28:19–20). How do we reconcile that with what social science teaches about how vernacular, dialects, and cultural context shape our interpretation of language? Are swear words always inappropriate, “unwholesome,” “corrupting,” and therefore sinful (Eph 4:29)? As we bring the gospel to youth, gangs, and other cultural contexts where swearing is not only acceptable, but a major component of the vocabulary, can “swear words” be part of a conversation that points someone to Jesus, or helps someone understand how much they are loved by God? This is something that must be worked out with prayer and discernment. Note adapted from a previous Word by Word article by Ryan Nelson.

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Written by Logos Staff