Taking God's name in vain

Preaching and Worship Resources about Taking God's name in vain

Taking God's Name in vain occurs when we invoke the reputation and authority of God in order to bolster the reliability of something we are attempting to communicate. When we swear by God's Name to make people believe us more readily — and most egregiously when what we are asserting is, in fact, false — then we misuse God's holy Name for our own sinful ends and this, in turn, cheapens the reputation of God. God's holy Name does not exist as a tool or artifice for sinful human beings.

In Scripture

Wrongful use "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name" (Ex. 20:7).

I am the Lord "You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:11-12).

Anything more comes from the evil one "Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 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 one hair white or black. Let your word be `Yes, Yes' or `No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one" (Matt. 5:33-37).

Let your `Yes' be yes and your `No' be no "Above all, my beloved, 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).

Points to Ponder

Not Just Cussing: Many of us were raised in such a way that we associated the third commandment and the prohibition against misusing God's Name with coarse swearing or cussing. We were told that what the third commandment forbids is saying something like "Oh my God!" or using "Jesus Christ" as an expletive. And make no mistake: coarse use of God's various names and titles is wrong and should be shunned by believers who want to reserve God's names and titles for holy uses in worship, in prayer, and in witness. However, the primary thrust of the third commandment and other similar prohibitions elsewhere in Scripture ties in with the swearing of oaths in God's Name, tapping into God's reputation as a cheap and easy way to bolster your own words. Even when what we are swearing to is the truth, Scripture warns believers away from playing fast and loose with God's holy names and titles. And, of course, when oaths are sworn falsely by invoking the reputation and Name of God as a way to distract people from a lie, this is considered a grave sin — indeed, there are hints in the Bible that God regards such misuse of his Name as among the worst of all sins that people can commit.

Blasphemy: The horrible sin of blasphemy can take many forms, and not all of them involve taking God's Name in vain, per se. However, the misuse of the divine Name is a subset of blasphemous activity and is, for this very reason, considered a serious offense against Almighty God. Blasphemy is in its own way a kind of theft, stealing from God his Name, reputation, and the holy symbols by which God tries to convey love and mercy to the world. Blasphemy takes these holy things, turns them into something ugly, and thus at once damages God's reputation and makes it, therefore, that much more difficult for God to convey his message to the world. If the name/title of "Jesus Christ" becomes a flippantly used throw-away invective used to express anger and cursing, then "the Name above all names" that is supposed to convey the grace of the gospel loses its power to do that. When the Ku Klux Klan turns the cross from a symbol of God's mercy into a sign of hatred burned on the front lawns of black people as a way to intimidate and threaten them, then God loses another symbol of grace — the supreme symbol of God's sacrificial love becomes an emblem of division. Blasphemy inverts the holy and makes it profane. When this happens through taking God's Name in vain in false and flippant swearing and oath-taking, then God's holiness is blasphemed and God's Name is robbed of power, of beauty, of purity, and of holy righteousness.

"Do you swear to tell the truth . . . so help you God?" In church history, and particularly around the time of the Protestant Reformation, many theologians wrestled with the question of whether people of faith may ever swear out an oath in the Name of God or if all such oath-taking that invokes God is perforce a sin. Many thinkers made the conclusion that is reflected in one of the classic confessions of the Reformation era, The Heidelberg Catechism. In answer to the question of whether believers may ever swear an oath in court or some such place, the Catechism said "Yes, when the government demands it, or when necessity requires it, in order to maintain and promote truth and trustworthiness for God's glory and our neighbor's good" (Q&A 101). Even these required oaths, however, are never to be entered into lightly and there are some strands of the Christian faith in which believers claim a conscientious objection to placing their hands on a Bible and swearing an oath in God's Name.

G-D: Because the third commandment's prohibition against misuse of the divine Name is so strict and carries with it such dire penalties, the ancient Israelites and many Jewish believers to this day concluded that it would be safer never actually to speak or write God's Name at all, particularly the holiest of all names as revealed to Moses in Exodus 3; viz., the name that used to be rendered "Jehovah" but is now more commonly rendered "Yahweh." In Hebrew the Israelites substituted the more generic word for "lord" (Adonai) whenever the four-letter name for God (the so-called "tetragrammaton" of YHWH) was encountered. This Name was considered so sacred that when the Masoretes added vowel points to the Hebrew text to help non-native readers understand it, the word YHWH remained unpointed. To this day when some Jewish organizations take out ads in places like the New York Times, it is not unusual to see each reference to "God" rendered as "G-d" in order to protect the sacred name even in print. Many contemporary English translations of the Bible likewise signal the presence of the tetragrammaton YHWH by putting in the word "LORD" in all capital letters (and usually in a slightly smaller font than surrounding words), thus tying in with the old tradition of substituting Adonai/Lord for the sacred name. Think of some versions of Psalm 8: "O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth." Literally that is, "O Yahweh, our Adonai. . . ."


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.