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Taking the Name of God in Vain - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

The Tract Series

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A look at the third commandment and how we often neglect it.

The third commandment is often the most memorable because we often hear people using the name of God in vain. We are reminded of the third commandment especially if we work in a secular environment, or we have relatives who show forth their rebellious nature without qualms in the language they use. But in looking closely at the third commandment we will find more than we bargained for. We as Christians break the third commandment more often than any pagan who may be screaming “God D_____t” or “Jesus Christ!”

What does the third commandment say? “Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who uses His name in vain.” What does this commandment principally teach? The third commandment forbids all profaning and abusing of anything whereby God makes Himself known. (Malachi 1:6-8; Lev. 20:3; 19:12; Matthew 5:34-37; Isa. 52:5.) It is not simply a matter of cursing or using the name God or Jesus vainly in that way. It is true that God’s name is not to be used in that manner. We are not to say “God bless you” frivolously when someone sneezes, or say “Oh my God” when we are excited or ecstatic. Truly, we use His name in vain when we say those kinds of things. But the use of God’s name is hardly restricted just to language. The commandment shows us how to worship God aright, as God designs the first four commandments in this way. The third commandment is rightly divided into two parts. The first part is the explicit command that we should not take His name in vain. That is obvious. The second part of the command is not so obvious. It is the practical implications of the right use of His name, namely, that we should honor and revere His name every time we use it.

What is this commandment primarily directed against? The commandment is primarily directed against the heart and the tongue. The heart is where a man’s actions come forth from. If our heart is irreverent towards God, then we will use His name in vain, or in an ignoble fashion. Remember, the heart controls the tongue. This commandment is a bridle for our tongues. It is the bit where God turns us onto His right path. The commandment is setting up a right attitude for the heart, and then consequently a right use for the tongue. So be warned, we are forbidden to use God’s name in any other way but in the right way.

What does it mean to use God’s name in vain? Simply, this means to misuse God’s name in any fashion. It is not just directed against cursing, though that is one way in which His name is dishonored by people and is used in vain. What are some ways people take God’s name in vain? There are many, but let us look at just a few.

The first way is when we profess God’s name but do not live answerably to it. It means we live hypocritically. Thomas Watson said, “pretended holiness is merely double wickedness.” Whenever we do not live up to the call of the Christian life, we take God’s name in vain. We are mirrors that should reflect the perfection of God. If the mirror claims to be Christ’s and reflects tendencies of hell, then we use the name of Christ in vain, and people see that.

Secondly, when we use God’s name in idle discourse we are vainly using His name; like telling a joke with God or Jesus in it. God is to be revered by us, not spoken of in a light and jesting manner. When we speak lightly of God we use His name in vain because God is not to be taken lightly by anyone.

Thirdly, when we worship with our lips and not our hearts we take His name in vain. We say we follow Him, and then worship Him in the secret place of our heart as the hypocrite. How many Sunday mornings have you come to church, worshipped, and then left the same as you entered? In doing this you take His name lightly, and use it in vain. God is a God of promises. When you are not changed by the hearing of the Word, or the worship given with the saints, you mock God and all His promises to the church. You take His name in vain.

Fourthly, when we pray to Him but do not believe Him we use His name in vain. How many prayers have you prayed in doubt? God promises to make good on all those prayers prayed in His will. Do you doubt His will? Do you doubt His promises? Do you doubt when you pray? If you do, you use His name in vain. This is not positive confession or the power of positive thinking. Rather, when you pray and doubt, God says you are like a double-minded man unstable in all his ways. You are like one who forgets his face after looking in a mirror just a second before. What God is saying is that when you pray and doubt, you are forgetting the God you are praying to, and thus, you take His name in vain.

Fifthly, when we, in any way, profane or abuse His Word, we are using God’s name in vain. Every theological error, misquoted Scripture, every jot and tittle not remembered in the right way is using God’s name in vain. God’s name is tightly bound to His Word. When we have bad theology we use His name in vain. When we misquote the Bible when a friend asks us to cite a verse or two, we use His name in vain. Imagine how many times we are theologically incorrect! Imagine how many times we have misquoted His perfect and precious Word! Imagine how many times, in this way alone, we have used His name in vain!

Sixthly, when we swear by God’s name falsely, we use it in vain. Whenever we make a promise and do not keep it, we are lying as a Christian and making a mockery of God’s name. When we make an oath to God and do not keep it we use His name in vain. When we make an oath to covenant with the body of believers, and then leave the church over some non-essential doctrine or ill-feeling, we are taking the Lord’s name in vain. Jesus even warned us in Matthew 5:33ff not to make false oaths in God’s name. The Pharisees tried to swear by other names-heaven, the earth, the city of Jerusalem, or by their own heads- so they would not directly swear by God’s name. They thought that by substituting one of these other “important” phrases that it would allow them to make oaths, and have a way of escape just in case they did not keep the oath because they did not formally swear by God’s name. Jesus sets them straight; heaven is God’s throne, the earth is God’s footstool, the city of Jerusalem is the city of the great King, and your own head is God’s. So there is no substitution. It all belongs to God and subsequently should not be used in a false oath. Making a promise and not keeping it can bring dire consequences when dealing with God. He commands that we do everything that comes out of our mouths when we make an oath. So when we make an oath to each other or to God and do not live up to it, we are using God’s name in vain because we are Christians who are to be honest always.

Seventhly, when we set God’s name next to any wicked action we use His name in vain. An example of this would be when we baptize a wicked person, or baptize someone in the wrong way. The wicked and heathen have no right to be baptized, only the saved are to be. And Matthew 28:19ff tells us we are to baptize people in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” We use their names in vain when we baptize those who ought not to be sealed with their name.

Eighthly, when we use our tongues in a way that dishonors God’s name we use His name in vain. This is when we curse and swear. It is when we say “O my God” or any such time when the Lord’s name is used in an irreverent way. Even when we are in prayer or praise to God and we continually repeat the name “Jesus” or “Father” irreverently through vain repetition, we use God’s name in vain. It is a sacred name and should be held in high esteem no matter when we invoke it. For invoking the name of God is a weighty matter and should not be taken lightly.

Ninthly, when we make rash vows we use God’s name in vain; like Jephthah’s vow in Judges 11:31. Jephthah rashly vowed to the Lord that if he came back victorious from the battle, he would sacrifice the first thing which came running out of his house; pig, cow, horse, whatever. When he returned from the battle victorious, his daughter ran out of the house to greet him, and he had to sacrifice her to keep his vow and so he did. Such a terrible evil twice over! Let us not make rash vows to God.

Tenthly, when we speak evil of God in a circumstance He is bringing us through we use His name in vain. How often do you grumble and complain against God? Do you find His ways hard? Is the path that He is leading you down weary to your feet? Do you want to hop over the fence into the plush meadow to comfort your aching bones? Do you gripe at the perfect, concise, eternal, unchangeable plan of God? If you do or if you have, then you have used God’s name in vain. God has the perfect plan laid out for you. When adverse circumstances come by you should praise Him as Job did, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21b) Do not grumble or gripe like Job’s wife who said “Curse God and die,” but be humble before Him knowing that everything He does for you is for your good. When we grumble against God in hard circumstances we give a bad witness and consequently use His name in vain.

Lastly, when we falsify a promise as if we were to do a thing if God does something for us, then we use His name in vain. When we barter with God to get something we act irreverently before Him and use His name in a way that does not glorify him. We say, “Oh God, if you would just take this or that away then I will never do such and such again.” But this is using His name in vain. We are not to barter with Him but accept His will as it stands.

This is a very short list of ways which we may use His name in vain. We are to be lights in the world bringing forth His name in purity and truth. We must not grumble, but be content. We must not vow rashly, but let our “yes be yes and our no be no.” We must reverently invoke God’s name in worship and prayer with an attitude of fear and trembling for it is a privilege to even have His name marked upon us. We are to take heed in our beliefs, so that we do not misrepresent Him and His name in our theology. There is much involved in keeping the third commandment and in keeping His name holy. For God says “I will not hold him guiltless who takes My name in vain.” How guilty are we?

Think about how many times in the past week you broke the third commandment? Christians do not go a day without breaking it in some fashion. This causes us to mourn our sinful condition. All our sin is not yet mortified. This causes us sorrow and rushes us to the the cross since we sin this way against our Lord and Christ. But we thank God for Christ. Thanks be to Christ who lived a perfect life! Thanks be to Christ who fulfilled the Law perfectly for His people and imputed to His people His righteous deeds which they did not deserve. Without His sacrifice we would be doomed to hell for just the sin of breaking the third commandment over and over.

Ponder upon the holiness and purity of Christ. He kept ALL the commandments perfectly. Every time He worshipped, He did it with His heart. Every promise He made He kept. Every time He invoked God’s name He used it with reverence and dignity. Never once did he break the third commandment. So let our eyes be open to see what the third commandment requires of us, and pray that the Lord would aid us to keep His name holy every day, and never use it in vain again.

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