The Third Commandment – Letter and Spirit

Exodus 20:7

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. [NKJV]

The folks I work with know that I’m a disciple of Jesus Christ, but (being soldiers) they often swear, and refer to God by name in their speech without considering that the name refers to an actual living person who is present in the room with us. On occasion, when they mix my Lord Jesus’ name with other “colorful expletives” I will wince, or even cry out in pain. They’re decent folk and do their best not to swear or violate the third commandment in my presence, but sometimes they just do it unconsciously despite their good intentions. Yesterday, one of them asked me exactly what combinations of the word “God” and/or the name “Jesus” in combination with certain other words I would be comfortable with, and which I would not. Of course, I pointed out that it isn’t me, but God he should be trying to please. This particular workmate (having been raised as a Catholic) is well familiar with the text of the third commandment above, and I think he was genuinely interested in my opinion about exactly what the commandment means.

Traditionally, of course, we take this commandment to mean that we are not to utter any of God’s many names (including the name of Jesus) without actually intending to refer to our Lord God. Certainly, we should not do so. God commands it. The Bible tells us that God values His name above all things except His Word. Most Christians rarely, if ever, violate this limited sense of the fifth commandment. Yet I think the actual intent of the commandment is much broader. In answer to my young friend, I said that in my view, a good example of taking the Lord’s name in vain would be something like telling someone you will pray for them, and then not doing it.

When we become disciples of Christ, in a sense we take on the name of the Lord. We are betrothed to our Lord Jesus as His future bride. We will fully take His name as our own when we are wed to Him at the glorious wedding supper of the Lamb foretold in Revelation 19. In the meantime, we have certain obligations to our Lord which we took on when we accepted adoption into His family and bound ourselves to His holy name. Therefore, if I claim the name of the Lord as my own by adoption and betrothal, yet violate His other commandments, I have in fact taken the Lord’s name in vain. Consider, for example, the man who sits with his family in the church on Sunday, and partakes in the worship, prayer, and even the Lord’s supper, yet during the week commits adultery in betrayal of solemn vows he has made to God and his family, or conducts his business using deception for monetary gain. Such a person may have sincerely taken the name of Christ as his own, in the hope of gaining salvation by blood of Jesus. Yet he has taken God’s name in vain.

Galatians 5:19-21 lists some of the works of the flesh – adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries – and goes on to say the those who practice such things “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Thus, professing believers who do such things have taken the Lord’s name in vain. Not only that, purported Christians practicing them destroy what witness to the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ they might have had among non-believers, bringing not only their own salvation into question, but jeopardizing the hope of salvation for countless others as well.

Thus the third commandment not only applies to uttering the name of God without actually referring to Him, but also encompasses a condemnation of hypocrisy by those professing to be followers of Christ. Of course, all of us stumble daily, and struggle continuously with sin. Romans 3:10 says that, “There is none righteous, no, not one.” Thankfully, our gracious God who saves us by the blood of Jesus understands this, and forgives us without condemnation. Yet in assuming the name of God when we are born again into His family, we also take on a solemn duty to always earnestly endeavor to honor our new name in our lives as we await patiently our unification with Him.

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