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. (Exod. 20:7)
God is holy. To take God’s name in vain is to fail to acknowledge God for who he is. To take God’s name in vain is to treat God, his Word, or his work in the world in a way that demeans him and robs him of his infinite glory. In its answer to the question: “What is required in the third commandment?” the Heidelberg Catechism explains:
We are not to blaspheme or to abuse the Name of God by cursing, perjury, or unnecessary oaths, nor to share in such horrible sins by being silent bystanders. In short, we must use the holy Name of God only with fear and reverence, so that we may rightly confess Him, call upon Him, and praise Him in all our words and works. (Heidelberg Catechism 99)
There is a lot here, too much to go into in this brief essay. Instead, I want to deal with the heart of the matter—how our speech and actions relate to our love, or lack of love, for God.
We take God’s name in vain when we fail to love God with anything less than our entire heart. When Jesus encountered the religious leaders of his day, he saw past their attempts to keep God happy with made-up laws about how much one should give to the temple or how many steps one could take on a holy day. The religious leaders tried hard to understand God’s law and apply it correctly, but they failed where it counted most. They failed to love God. This made their attempts to keep the law vain.
You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Matt. 15:7–9)
The religious leaders had bound themselves to “unnecessary oaths.” Thus they had failed to “use the holy Name of God only with fear and reverence, so that we may rightly confess Him, call upon Him, and praise Him in all our words and works.” What Jesus said to the religious leaders applies to everyone. No one always perfectly loves God. So when people seek to honor God without perfect love, their attempts to obey God’s law become vain worship. Everyone, all the time, takes the name of the Lord in vain.
We take God’s name in vain when we talk about God in any way that hinders the truth. False doctrine—lies about God—is the worst kind of inappropriate speech that takes the name of the Lord in vain. The apostle Peter speaks to this:
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Pet. 2:1–3)
Most people think cursing is using dirty language. In the Bible, to “abuse the Name of God by cursing” is to speak blasphemy against God. Blasphemy, at its root, is to speak sacrilegiously against God, to treat him inappropriately or falsely.
When considering our doctrine or praises, we can begin to see human failure in both. Everyone takes the name of the Lord in vain whenever they say anything false about God, whether out loud or in their inner thoughts and feelings. Whenever anyone perceives God as less then all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful or whenever one questions God’s actions in the world, that person is taking God’s name in vain.
We take God’s name in vain when we misrepresent him through our actions. Whenever a person fails to live up to what God requires while claiming to be a disciple of Jesus, that person takes God’s name in vain. To treat holiness as unimportant, to have hateful thoughts, to fail to love others, to despise sermons or worship—these activities take God’s name in vain. Paul puts it well:
They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work. (Titus 1:16)
We are called to praise God, not only with our words but also with our lives. We are to “praise Him in all our words and works.” The third commandment—like all of God’s commandments—requires perfection, everywhere, always. I have tried to state this clearly, because too often people lower God’s standards and imagine that they keep his commandments—at least enough to get by—to make God happy with their performance. This too violates the third commandment.
Even though everyone takes the name of the Lord in vain in various ways, Jesus never did. Jesus kept the third commandment perfectly.
Jesus kept the third commandment in our place. Jesus loved God perfectly. He had a perfect regard for Scripture. Every time he prayed, it mattered. Moved by love, he honored God’s name in everything he did, thought, and felt. He taught the truth about God. He spoke it. He lived by it even to the point of death. He died for the truth.
Jesus did all things as a representative of anyone who would trust him for salvation. If people trust Christ for salvation, they can have confidence that—even though they fail to keep the third commandment perfectly—God still accepts them. In this life, Christians are free from the law’s condemnation. Christians are free to strive to honor God’s name.
In fact, Christians have more reason to honor God. They know the God who is merciful and gracious. The grace and mercy God grants to you because Jesus died in your place doesn’t in anyway give you a reason to disregard striving for obedience. Jesus promised that the Spirit would be a helper (John 14:16). The apostle Paul put it this way:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:8–10)
Saved by grace alone, God has set aside his people, Christians, to do good works. Through the Holy Spirit, we begin to obey—imperfectly, weakly, often failing. Regardless, we strive to love and obey God because “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). God did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves:
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8:3–4)
This is the good news of the gospel. This gospel will enable you to begin to honor and love God’s name because you know that God has a reputation worth keeping.