Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
The Misuse of God’s Name, Part 1
You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain… Exodus 20:7aNKJV
Today we begin to look at Question 113 of the Larger Catechism, which asks, “What are the sins forbidden in the third commandment?” The first part of the answer states, “The sins forbidden in the third commandment are, the not using of God’s name as is required; and the abuse of it in an ignorant, vain, irreverent, profane, superstitious, or wicked mentioning, or otherwise using his titles, attributes, ordinances, or works, by blasphemy, perjury.” Last week we considered how the third commandment requires us to actively keep God’s name holy. This week we begin to look at what it forbids.
Taking God’s name in vain is a serious sin because it disrespects the One who is supremely worthy of all respect. Disrespect begins when we do not treat a person with the honor he deserves. Here, the bad behavior consists in the absence of proper action. Thus, today’s Catechism’s answer begins with the sin of “not using” God’s name as required. There are many times in life that we are required to do something, so that if we do nothing we have done evil through a culpable neglect of the good.
The focus of today’s question, however, is on the commission of evil forbidden by this commandment. First, we see that God’s name is abused by us whenever we mention it in an “ignorant, vain, or irreverent manner”. Here we find the sin of many “good” people who mention God not purposely sacrilegiously but merely casually. Sayings like “God,” “Oh God,” “Jesus,” or “good lord,” etc., just peppered throughout one’s conversation can rise to the level of the sin of abusing God’s name vainly or irreverently. Surely those who speak this way would say they do not “intend” to disrespect God, or even better “but I don’t mean anything by it, it’s just something I like to say.” That is exactly the definition of the sin of taking God’s name in vain: to not mean anything by it; to just say it without thought or reverence. That is precisely what this commandment is here forbidding. God is so holy we cannot dare to mention His great name without meaning everything by it! Consider how often our culture breaks the commandment at this level: “Oh my God,” is now so common a saying it now has its own acronym and internet link: OMG.
Now we want to be careful here, because just as many people use God’s name, titles or attributes flippantly (like calling cows “holy”), some of these same phrases can be used by godly people in short, spoken prayers throughout their day. I have a few charismatic friends whose language is filled with vocalized prayers to God, and I do not believe they are being irreverent at all, but they are consciously calling upon God throughout their day. I wish I were so heavenly minded! Thus, someone saying “God,” “Oh God,” or “sweet Jesus,” etc., may be crying out to God to help them get through something, or to give Him praise, so we do not want to judge hearts. Nor are certain short vocalizations always sinful because sometimes they are! Each one of us should be focused on his own use of God’s name – am I truly seeking to honor God when I speak His name? If you know that you are, then ignore anyone who questions your heart when you utter God’s name. You do not owe such people any answers, and usually they are not really interested in getting them, only in condemning you!
Thus far, all of the ways of taking God’s name in vain, though sinful, do not rise to the level of intentional or presumptuous sin. It is wrong to utter God’s name and “not mean anything by it,” but it is incomparably worse to blaspheme God’s name by using it as a curse word. Throughout the 1980’s, it seems to me that in movies, in casual conversation, in arguments, people were constantly blaspheming the holy name of Jesus Christ by using it as a curse word. A man would hit his hand with a hammer and angrily yell out the name of our Lord, along with a few choice obscenities, or the hero in a movie would shout our dear Lord’s name as he was passionately arguing for some good cause. When God’s name is misused in this fashion we have crossed over from unthinking exclamations to wicked profanity. To profane God’s name is to actively disrespect and show irreverence for God. It is a terribly wicked sin. May God grant we would never profane or even flippantly misuse His name, for the name of our God is holy!