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Are You Obeying the Third Commandment?

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Even if you’ve forgotten which number of the Ten Commandments it is, I’m sure you know that one of them says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” (It’s the third, by the way, found in Exod. 20:7.) When is the last time you’ve meditated on the meaning of this command? When is the last time you’ve given some introspection to your obedience/disobedience to this command?

What does it mean to take God’s name in vain? Vain has to do with what is “empty, frivolous, or insincere,” according to J. I. Packer. As we all know, this definition applies to using God’s name (or any of his names) as profanity, as an expletive for disgust or surprise, such as “God damn.” It’s difficult to write that phrase; I hope that it’s difficult to read it. It’s a doubly blasphemous phrase since it makes light of God’s name and his just damnation—maybe even triply blasphemous when such holy words and realities are stolen to express personal disgust or unrighteous anger.

I’m not expecting Christians to police this wicked world, rebuking every overheard blasphemy. We shouldn’t be surprised when unbelievers speak like it. But as for us, God’s covenant people, may it never be that we use God’s names in such overtly blasphemous ways.

More Than Just Profanity

If taking God’s name in vain means using it frivolously or insincerely, then the third commandment speaks to more than just overt profanity. It also applies to the more common, more culturally acceptable phrases like “Oh God!” or “Oh my God!” I sense that some of us have let down our guard. I suspect that some of us have let the world’s saturated use of these phrases shape us.

Granted, it is possible to speak the words “Oh God” or “Oh my God” and not sin. These words may begin a prayer at a moment of shocking tragedy. Imagine a mother finding her son with a near-fatal injury. She may look upward and cry “Oh my God!” as a pregnant prayer that implies a need for divine help. But surely that tragic scenario is a world away from today’s thoughtless, needless uses. These phrases litter the speech we hear. Surely “OMG!” are three of the most frequently typed letters on social media and in texts. These are useless, thoughtless fillers used for anything and everything that is barely amusing or surprising.

Let’s be clear, Christian: these common phrases are using God’s name emptily, frivolously, insincerely. It’s no surprise when the world steals from God’s honor, but as for us, these things ought not to be. We must not rationalize and say, “It’s just one word; God knows my heart; he knows I don’t mean anything blasphemous.” The third commandment is in fact about a word, a name. More than that, it is about God’s honor. God’s name isn’t empty, frivolous, or insincere; indeed, God isn’t empty, frivolous, or insincere. We must not treat him as such, whether in our hearts or in our speech.

This is not a point that good Christians can and do disagree on, like the use of alcohol, or celebrating Halloween, or using off-color words like crap. This one is more black and white than whether you should designate that receipt as a tax deduction or not. God reveals his holy names in the Bible, and we cannot borrow them for frivolous, useless speech.

Applied positively, the third commandment calls us to speak of and sing to God accurately, thoughtfully, descriptively, reverently, and worshipfully. Space won’t permit exploring those applications of the third commandment, but the mere mention of them should add weight to this whole discussion. They hopefully add depth and dimension to God’s own resolve: “I will be jealous for my holy name” (Ezek. 39:25). And praise God that the preceding words in that verse contain another divine resolve: “I will . . have mercy.” What hope for broken sinners: God rests his promise of mercy to us on his very name—his jealous, holy name.

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