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 ESV
Sermons must take on the tone of their text. Expository preaching must capture not simply the point of the passage in question but also its overall mood. For this reason, our studies through the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and now the Ten Commandments have been weighty. These texts teach the basics of our belief, prayer, and obedience. As Moses said of law given by God, “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil” (Deuteronomy 30:15). We are quite literally dealing with matters of life and death, the very definitions of good and evil. We are wading into eternal waters. May we, therefore, guard our steps as we discuss God’s holy name this morning.
As with our study of the Second Commandment last week, the Third Commandment contains two parts, the first being the actual command with the second part providing a reason for obedience.
HALLOWED OR VAIN?
Although indirectly, we have already studied the essence of this prohibition from using the LORD’s name in vain. The petition for God’s name to be hallowed is the positive side of the Third Commandment. This is because in many ways vain is opposite of hallowed, profane the antithesis of holy.
Of course, this requires our understanding of these two concepts. Holiness is intrinsically tied to the very Godhood of God. Because holy means to be unique or set apart, God alone can truly be called holy because He is uniquely God. Everything else in all of creation shares the commonality of being created by God, yet God Himself is the Creator.
For this reason, the opposite of holiness is commonness, not evil. There is, necessarily, a moral component of holiness because God is good and holiness reflects the nature of God. Yet whenever we declare God to be holy, we are proclaiming that He alone is extraordinary, whereas all other things (including us) are ordinary. He alone is hallowed; everything else is profane and vulgar.
But why does God warn us against the vain use of His name? As we discussed in Ecclesiastes, a vanity (something that is vain) is meaningless, worthless, a vapor, and the merest of breathes. The antonym of vain is substantial, weighty, heavy, and real. If God truly is holy, the almighty Creator who made heaven and earth, what then could be more substantial than Him? If He is eternal and His creation is temporal, then the cosmos itself is a vanity, a vapor that is here today but gone tomorrow. For instance, even if the universe really is 14 billion years old (or whatever number scientists have guesstimated now), it may as well be a fraction of a second in comparison to the endlessness of eternity. Life, as we instinctively feel in our gut, is a shadow. It is vain.
To take God’s name in vain, therefore, is to treat it as what it is not. This sin of blaspheme is false witness against God. It lies about who He is. God’s name, as we’ve noted, is the reflection of His being. To know God’s name is to know God Himself. God’s name is His honor, His reputation, His character. To take His name in vain is to treat it as common or ordinary, to treat it flippantly. It is the denial of God’s holiness, of God’s divinity.
But how exactly do we see the Third Commandment being violated today?
Perhaps the most rampant blaspheming of God’s name today comes in the form of invoking God’s name as a petty exclamation. Of course, the Psalmists often cry out the LORD’s name from the throes of lamentation, but those are prayers. When a stubbed toe or unexpected news elicits the name of God from our lips, the result is hardly ever a prayer. In fact, in many situations, we could replace God’s name with any other word, such as bicycle, and the meaning would remain unchanged because, and here’s the key, there is no meaning. Such exclamations are words for the wind. They are, as the Oxford dictionary notes, “used for emphasis or to express emotions such as surprise, anger, or distress.”
But, you might say, such exclamations might be an improper use of God’s name, but they’re not blaspheme. They aren’t actually cursing God, so we shouldn’t call it blasphemous, right? Allow me to answer that question with another question. Why would denigrating the worth of God’s name into a means of emphasizing our emotions not be consider blasphemous? If God’s name reflects His being, what are we then declaring whenever we use the Holy One’s name for our own self-expression? It does not convey the grandeur and supremacy of the great I Am, the Alpha and the Omega; rather, it depicts a “god” who is subservient to His own creation.
Indeed, the very idea of profanity (that is, vulgar language) is making sacred or indecent concepts ordinary and profane. Chair is not considered a vulgar word because a chair is already a common item. Hell and damn are called profanity because they are connected to the holiness of God (namely, honoring God’s holiness by damning sin to hell for eternity). Other words pertain to sex and genitalia, which God has declared to be under the holy institution of marriage. These words represent eternal realities that are grounded in the glory of God’s name, yet we treat them as common by our vain and flippant usage of them.
Notice, therefore, that our choice of words reflects either our conformity or rebellion to His will. By deprecating God’s name and sacred things attached to Him, we are subtly attempting to dethrone God. We are defining reality by our own words rather than the God’s words. This is just as great as the sin of those at Babel. They sought to exalt themselves into the heavens, but by our words, we seek to use God as a vanity, as no different than worthless idols that cannot see, hear, or speak.
Profanity, therefore, is not a matter of Christian liberty; it is an act of blaspheme. It is “out of place” among the saints of God, as Paul told the Ephesians: “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (4:4). Whenever a saint (a holy one) speaks in an unholy and vain way, it is out of place. It’s like wearing a swimsuit to a black-tie affair (at best it should be an embarrassment and at worst you should get kicked out). Our language is not harmless, brothers and sisters; let us, therefore, use it for the exaltation of God’s glory. His name is not a byword to throw around without thought. Neither are the terrifying realities of hell and damnation harmless vanities to roll off our tongues.
In fact, we should wisely consider the sound teaching from those who penned the Heidelberg Catechism:
Question 99: What is required in the third commandment?
Answer: That we must not by cursing, or by false swearing, nor yet by unnecessary oaths, profane or abuse the name of God; nor even by our silence and connivance be partakers of these horrible sins in others; and in sum, that we use the holy name of God no otherwise than with fear and reverence, so that He may be rightly confessed and worshipped by us, and be glorified in all our words and works.
The phrase words and works brings us to another means by which we may profane God’s name: through our deeds. To the Colossians, Paul wrote, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17). Our works may profane God’s name just as loudly as our words.
This is because we were created to image God, to reflect His nature. By walking in disobedience, therefore, we profane His name by bearing a false witness of His character. This becomes even more clear when we are called the body of Christ and said to be Jesus’ ambassadors upon the earth. Every action that we take, even things as mundane as eating and drinking, either hallows or profanes God’s name.
Yet how might we know that we are doing everything in Jesus’ name, even when many of our actions are not explicitly discussed in Scripture? As Paul said, thanksgiving is a key component. In general (and especially whenever our consciences are sensitive), we can test the uprightness of our actions through our ability to give God thanks during and after the event. For instance, if you notice that you are developing a dependency upon coffee, the guilt that you feel for drinking too much coffee will hinder your ability to truly give thanks to God for that beverage. We need be sensitive to these sorts of things because, as Paul also said, “whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Even something as mundane as eating either hallows the name of God or profanes it. May we, therefore, do all things in faith and with thanksgiving to God, glorying His name in word and deed.
HOW SHALL WE ESCAPE?
The second half of the Third Commandment provides us with a warning against disobedience: for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. In other words, blaspheme is not a small slip-up that God will overlook. Profaning God’s name is a rejection of His Godhood, of His divinity. For His name’s sake, God will bring just retribution upon all who dishonor His name.
But doesn’t Jesus bring to us grace and mercy now instead? For all who believe in Christ alone for salvation, this is gloriously true! Each one of us is an idolater and a blasphemer. Even as followers of Christ, we continue still in these sins. By the LORD’s grace, there ought to be evidence of our war and hatred against sin, but we will not reach sinlessness in this life. Our only hope, therefore, is to call upon the name of the LORD, the same name that we disgrace and profane with our words and actions, and cry out for salvation by the blood of Christ. Without the substitutionary atonement of Jesus, we are dead in our sins, justly doomed to the eternal fires. Yet by the cross and resurrection, Jesus has taken our chastisement and given us His righteousness. In Him, we are freed from the condemnation of our sin.
For those who reject Christ, however, the severity of their judgment is actually enhanced by having rejected God the Son. Jesus gives a parable to this effect:
And he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture:
“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away. (Mark 12:1-12)
In this parable, Jesus is emphasizing the persecution that has always come upon God’s servants. Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets were rejected and despised for proclaiming the Word of God, but two thousand years ago, God spoke to us not by another prophet but by His only Son (Hebrews 1:2). But as in the parable, people did not gladly receive Jesus; instead, they crucified Him. Or as Stephen summarized before the Sanhedrin:
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it. (Acts 7:51–53)
The author of Hebrews provides us with the proper words of warning for failing to hear Jesus:
Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? (Hebrews 2:1-3)
These are heavy words. Sodom and Gomorrah will receive a more bearable sentence on the day of judgment than those who reject Christ (Matthew 10:15). Jesus is the radiance of the Father’s glory (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus is the Word who was in the beginning with God and was God. The judgment for refusing Jesus is more severe because Christ is God in the flesh. Denying Jesus is the denial of God’s own Son, not an ordinary servant.
“Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23). We cannot honor and hallow God’s name without exalting and glorifying the name of Christ. Conversely, the refusal to worship Jesus is to profane God’s name. One day, when heaven and earth pass away as the transient and vain things that they are, Jesus will return as the triumphant king and at the mention of His name every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord to the glory of God the Father. We believe this reality. Everything less is blaspheme.