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The Ten Commandments

The Misuse Of God’s Name

Erwin W. Lutzer | March 16, 1986

Selected highlights from this sermon

The reputation and name of God is to be protected and proclaimed. God clearly commands that we must not misuse His name. Yet many people carelessly invoke His name in oaths or in common conversation. Christians today even use the shorthand “OMG” without thinking about what it means.

Defiant or ignorant, humanity is well-trained in the art of demeaning the one true God. 

As Christians, are we upholding His reputation through our behavior? Are we minding what we are saying? Let us live up to that high standard so that we never take God’s name in vain.

What name do you think is used most often in America – the name most often on the lips of Americans? You say, “Well probably that of the president.” Well, I wish that were true but I doubt it. I think it’s the name of God.

A couple of weeks ago one of my daughters was with some of her friends and I was just amazed at how one of the girls of the group was just saying God in every other sentence – I suppose at least a half dozen times in five minutes. “Oh my God!” It’s amazing, isn’t it? And I was telling my wife that and she said, “Well, you know there are children in our neighborhood that are even younger than that (ages 6 and 7) who come from homes where the name of God is used routinely and interjected into the middle of almost every sentence, and the little children grow up saying, “Oh my God!”

It’s amazing, isn’t it, when God said so expressly in the third commandment, “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; the Lord will not hold him unpunished who takes his name in vain?” That’s very clear but think of all of the people that do! Some of you work with people like that, constantly using the name of God and Jesus Christ just simply as ways to vent their frustration or their anger, a serious breach of what God has expressly said.

So in this series of the Commandments we’ve come to the third: “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.” As I was thinking about this commandment and meditating on how I was going to treat it I decided that what I would do is answer the question “how.” How is the name of the Lord taken in vain by people? What different ways can it be taken in vain?

First of all, it can be taken in vain by careless oaths. Now of course, from the beginning of time almost, men have always brought God in to witness a very formal oath and there’s nothing wrong with that. We do that at weddings. We say, “In the presence of God and these witnesses.” What we’re saying is, “Remember it’s just not that there are witnesses present, but God is looking in on this and he is a silent witness to what is happening.

There are certain oaths that are taken where you raise your hand and you swear to God a certain thing. And there’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. Do you notice that passage in Deuteronomy? Perhaps you should turn to it. It’s in the tenth chapter where the Scripture talks about the greatness and the glory and the wonder of God who executes justice for the orphan and the widow and shows his love for the alien, but then it says in Deuteronomy 10:20, “You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear.” There’s nothing wrong with swearing by the name of God in taking a formal oath.

Remember the Apostle Paul said in Romans 9:1, “I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying.” That was almost like an oath. He’s saying, “I’m calling Christ to witness this.” Remember Jesus, in Matthew 26, standing before the high priest. The high priest said, “Are you the son of the living God? I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God,” and Jesus said, “I am,” or he said, “Thou has said it.”

So in a sense Jesus was responding to a formal oath: “I adjure you by the living God.” And we recognize that God is the one who knows all things. Therefore it is only proper than an oath should be taken in his name.

Parenthetically, I read somewhere some time ago that in Russia they are having problems with truth telling, and they do see it to be a disadvantage not to believe in God because, you see, God can never be brought as a witness in any kind of a swearing ceremony. Let’s suppose you are a witness to an accident and you are to swear to tell the truth and because there is no God to whom you’ll ever have to give an account, nor is there any God who is going to spy on you and know that you are lying, the incentive to tell the truth is somewhat mitigated under those circumstances.

But the problem with oath taking was this. During the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were taking an oath for everything and they wanted to take oaths that they could get out of. So what they did was they didn’t swear by God. They said, “I will swear by something less than God so that if I break my vow, it’s no big deal.” They said, “I will not swear by God. I will swear by the temple.” In fact, they had all kinds of little laws that said if you swear by the temple it’s really nothing, but if you swear by the gold that is in the temple that’s everything. If you swear by the altar, that’s nothing, but if you swear by the gift that is on the altar that’s very important. Then you are held to that. That’s a more important vow. And that’s why in Matthew 23, Jesus said to them, “Put all that aside for this reason. If you swear by the temple and you think you can get out of your commitment because it’s only the temple, remember you really are swearing by the God of the temple,” and he said, “If you swear by heaven you are swearing by the God who made the heaven, and if you swear by Jerusalem you are swearing by God because it is his footstool.”

So, in unmistakable language Jesus said, “Just let your yes be yes and your no be no.” In other words, why always swear by somebody in an attempt to get out of your commitment? If you have good character you can just simply say yes and that’s enough. That’s the end of it, and I would much rather have a promise made by a person of character because I know that promise will be kept than someone who would swear on a stack of Bibles that he’s going to do something and have bad character. So Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no, and don’t swear by anything.” If you’re going to swear and make an oath, swear by God but realize that that’s an important oath and God will not hold you guiltless if you violate it.

I was thinking about this and I thought how many times have you heard people say, “Well, by George, I’ll never do that?” I don’t know why George is the one that happens to be the target of the people saying, “By George.” It dawned on me that when you say, “By George” God would say you are really saying it by the creator of George, so don’t say, “By George.” Stew it! You don’t have to say, “You know I swear that the fish was three feet long.” Don’t bother. People won’t believe you anyway, so just say, “It was three feet long.” and let it go at that.

One way that we can take God’s name in vain undoubtedly is by careless oaths, bringing God into situations somewhat flippantly when we decide to make a promise or we make a remark that we think people won’t believe. But there’s a second way that we can take God’s name in vain and that is by careless speech. That’s the person who uses the name of God and he just throws it into conversations and over and over again says, “My God,” or “God,” and he does it oftentimes and there are two different categories of people here. One is the person who does it in defiance of God. It’s the person who knows right well what this commandment says but he wants God to know that he is standing up to God and he wants his friends to know that he’s really tough and nobody is going to tell him what to do so he can swear if he wants to swear. It’s something like a teenager who smokes in front of his parents for the first time. Up until that time he’s been smoking in the car. He smokes in the alley, but one day he comes in when they are in the living room and he sits down and lights a cigarette and he takes the biggest and the longest drag that he’s every taken and then he blows smoke out all the way from the couch to the kitchen door. And what he’s saying is, “Guess what, Mom and Dad. I don’t care what you say anymore. I’m my own person now. I can smoke if I feel like it, and just see if you can do anything.”

Now that’s the way some people swear. They use God’s name because they are defying him. They want everybody to know that they are standing against him and they could care less what the third commandment says. “I’ll say whatever I feel like.” That’s their attitude.

But there’s another category of those who swear, perhaps not deliberately and defiantly, but they swear flippantly. They’re the kind of people, who were perhaps brought up in a home where there was a lot of swearing, or they began to swear as teenagers, and it became such a part of their speech that constantly they are saying the name of God. Now whenever you talk to people like that, and I’ve done that, they will say this. They will say, “Well, you know, I’m not even aware of what I am doing. You mean to say I swear? I am not even aware of it. How could that be breaking the commandment when I’m doing it so innocently?” And do you know what I say to people like that (and you had better smile when you say this)? Say, “That is the ultimate insult to God.” I mean at least the person who swears defiantly, who swears because he wants God to know that he is standing in opposition to God, he at least is giving God enough respect to know that God exists and he knows what he’s doing. But just think of the person who rolls the word God off his lips constantly day in and day out, hour by hour, and isn’t even conscious of the fact that he is doing it. How low can you think about God to use his name like that and not give it any thought?

So you see we can’t get around it just because we say that we are doing it thoughtlessly. That certainly is using the name of the Lord your God in vain. There’s no question about it, and what an insult to the Almighty to say, “I’m doing it and I’m not even thinking about it.”

Even Marx was not an atheist. He believed in God but he hated the God he believed in, so he stood in opposition against God but he had enough respect for God to know that at least that he had to be stood up to. A person who flippantly uses the name of God doesn’t even give God that much credit.

Could I say parenthetically here that last night I decided to look in the dictionary? Did you know that the word gee has many meanings but one of the meanings is it is a euphemism for Jesus. Have you noticed that there are people who say, “Aw gee”? But one of the meanings is a euphemism. That means that instead of saying the real thing you use a substitute that is a little softer.

Then there’s the word gosh. The word gosh has only one meaning and that is a euphemism for God. So instead of saying God, some people say gosh and they don’t realize that that is just a substitute. It is a way of softening the hardness of saying God. Now if you are guilty of saying that and you say, “Well, I didn’t know that,” all right, I’ll accept your word for it, but guess what. You do now.
“Thou shall not take the name of thee Lord thy God in vain.” It can be done by careless vows. It can also be done by careless speech.

I’d like to suggest that there’s a third way that this can be done and that is by a careless life. What I mean by that is this. If we identify ourselves with God, we are really standing along with God. We say that we believe in God, we trust God, we love God, we serve God, and we are Christians. Then when we begin to live inconsistently with that, we not only take God’s name in vain because of our own lives, but usually we cause others to do the same.

Look at David in Second Samuel 12. Let’s turn to it. I want you to see this in the text of Scripture because this is a very, very important passage. The Bible says in Second Samuel 12:13-14, that when Nathan came to David, he said, “David, the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die.” What God is saying is, “David, because you live inconsistently with my name, you took my name. You are known as a man of God, and now because of your adultery and your murder you are acting in a way that dishonors me and you are causing the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme me.

You know if we had two pianos here you’d hit one middle C, and there would be another middle C that would resonate. And what he’s saying is, “Your life has impact and when you disobey God under the name of the authority of God, you cause others to drag the name of God into the dirt from the standpoint of humanity. You are causing them to blaspheme.”

Now that’s what can happen very easily. It’s when we ourselves take the name of God and say that we are Christians and then cause others to blaspheme because of the way we live.

Down in Dallas, Texas there’s a seminary and I happen to have graduated from it many years ago, and since that time there have been many other students and I’d like you to listen to the story of one of those students who wrote these words.

“While working as a salesman for a large company I met a girl named Liz who was in charge of phone solicitation. She was an attractive young woman but used profanity that would embarrass any sailor. She smoked one cigarette after another and lied to the customers. One day she stopped me and asked, ‘You go to Dallas Seminary, don’t you?’ I was shocked. Then she really dropped the bomb. She said, ‘I guess you are surprised that I would know about the seminary. Well, I’m a Christian too. I go to a Bible church and one of your professors is the pastor.’ By this time (he says) I was ready to be peeled off the floor. Then she said, ‘I guess you wonder why I don’t act like a Christian.’ I managed a low yes. She said, ‘The reason I don’t act like a Christian is because of the bad witness I would be if these people knew that I was a Christian. It is better that they not know that I am a Christian.’”

Well, you know we’re told in today’s society that you should always try to find some good in everybody. If you look long enough and hard enough you’ll find it, so we take our magnifying glass here and let’s take a look at Liz. There is something good about her. Yes, it’s true that her conduct is despicable and she might not even be a Christian (I mean to talk like that) but there is one good thing about her. It is quite true that it would be a very poor testimony if the employees around her knew that she was a Christian. If she is, it is indeed much better that they not know. With that we agree. She does have some insight.

You see if there’s somebody here today and you lie and you don’t tell the truth and you swear at work, don’t tell people that you are a Christian. Help us! Don’t say that you are a Christian, and if they ask you where you go to church, you know I mean if you’re lying already anyway add one more lie to your sin and say that you just don’t remember. Call it temporary amnesia. Say, “You know, sometime in the distant future (maybe in the next couple of years) it’ll come to me, but just at this moment I just can’t seem to get a handle on it.”

I know that many of you are the victims of divorce and you’ve gone through an awful lot of excruciating pain and guilt, and in no way do I want add any more to you, but I do want to quote the words of Charlie Tremendous Jones. Now Charlie Tremendous Jones is a man who gives speeches to Christian businessmen on motivation.

One day he was being interviewed on television and he said something that I wouldn’t say, but I quote it only because he had a point. He looked into the television camera and he said, “If any of you out there are trying or planning to get a divorce and you are a Christian, you could help the cause of Christ by telling your friends that you are an atheist.” Now, again, I wouldn’t say that, but I am quoting him. But you see the point that he was trying to make is when we live inconsistently by the name of God we actually cause the world to blaspheme.

Now it’s true of course that sometimes we can minister to other people effectively simply by the way in which we respond to circumstances that are just as tragic as those experienced by the world. That’s true, but the point is that we can dishonor the name of God. We can take the name of God in vain by saying, “I’m a Christian,” and then live in such a way that it is inconsistent with the name of God. We call his reputation into question.

Now let me ask you a question. How does God respond to taking his name in vain? Is this a little thing that he takes lightly? Well now I do want you to turn to Leviticus 24 where there’s a very interesting experience that took place in the life of the children of Israel. Leviticus 24:10 talks about an Israelite woman’s son whose father was an Egyptian, and he went out among the sons of Israel, and the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel struggled with each other within the camp. Do you see the situation? They are in a fight. They are angry at each other. Verse 11 says, “And the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name.” What name? My word, there is only one name and that is the name of the Lord. “The son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the name and cursed, so they brought him to Moses.” Verse 12-16 says, “And so they put him in custody so that the command of the Lord might be made clear to them. Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Bring the one who has cursed outside the camp and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and then let all the congregation stone him. And you shall speak to the people of Israel saying, “If anyone curses his God, then he shall bear his sin. Moreover, the one who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall certainly stone him. The alien, as well as the native, when he blasphemes the name shall be put to death.”’”

You say, “Surely God has changed his mind about this. I mean this was the Old Testament. We live in the New Testament era.” May I remind you that God has not changed his mind about this one iota – not one iota? The only reason that we don’t do that today, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, is because in today’s world God has allowed it, or designed it that the civil authorities are not responsible for inflicting the penalty, so today we do not stone people for all of these things but I want you to know that it is absolutely unthinkable and blasphemous to think that God has mellowed throughout the centuries. He has not changed his mind about this. And today, whether it is in the city of Chicago or wherever you may be from, in office buildings and in cars, and in various relationships, in factories, and wherever the name of God comes out of people’s mouths thoughtlessly, cursing either in anger or flippantly, God is monitoring those situations, and the Bible says he will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. No way has God changed his mind. He is just as insulted by it today as he was back then.

You say, “What is the answer then? We can curse God; we can take his name in vain by careless vows or a careless life. What is the answer?”

Do you know what I like about the Bible? It has the ability to go right to the heart of a matter because if you want to clean up your mouth and you were to go to some kind of a self-help seminar they would say, “You know what you do? Try not to say it, and whenever you do, tell yourself that you are going to give five dollars to charity, and if you do that long enough soon you are going to find out you are giving too much money away and that will help you to watch what comes out of your mouth, etc. etc.”

You know Jesus has a totally different explanation for the whole problem. You know what Jesus taught? He said that if you want to clean up your mouth there is a way to do it, and that is to clean up your heart. That’s what he said. Turn to Matthew 12 where Christ speaks specifically to this issue of good speech and what comes out of the human heart. Notice what he says in verse 33. He’s talking about making the tree good and its fruit good because he said that it is the tree that produces the fruit and you can’t solve the problem of a wrong tree bearing wrong fruit unless you deal with the tree specifically. Verse 35 says, “The good person out of his good treasure (of the heart) brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the Day of Judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned.”

Jesus said the real problem with wrong speech is the pollution of the human heart. An evil man, out of his evil heart, brings forth speech like that. May I say that the evil heart is in league actually with Satan and Satan wants to curse and blaspheme God? That’s why one of the symptoms of demon possession is a tremendous desire to curse and blaspheme. And that explains, incidentally, why there are children who at the age of one or two years curse with words they have never heard nor learned. They have never heard them and they are coming out of their mouths by the influence of spirits that are given over to cursing God. And sometimes there are people who say, “Well you know, sometimes I just blow up and I swear, but I just get it all out of my system.” My friend, that is so wrong. Even recent studies (not that we look to the recent studies to find the truth) of two or three years ago prove that that is completely false. Theories that were taught years ago about getting it out of your system are just wrong.

When you swear and blaspheme God you don’t get anything out of your system. It actually inflames your temper. It actually magnifies the problem. It never solves it because you are dealing here with a force that is really beyond the immediate situation. And so the text says that the evil person out of the evilness of his heart brings forth evil, but a good man brings forth that which is good.

You say, “Well, how can I have a good heart?” Well, that’s what Christ’s death was all about. The reason that Jesus Christ died on the cross is not only that we might be forgiven, though that certainly is a great part of the story but also it isn’t the whole story. The other part is that Jesus died on the cross that we might also be changed. “A new heart I will give you,” he predicted even in the Old Testament. He said, “I will take aside that heart of stone,” that heart that wants to stand against God, that heart that wants to speak against God, that heart that wants to blaspheme God. “I will take out that heart of stone” he says “and I will give you a heart of flesh, a heart that is sensitive towards God,” a heart that will be so sensitive that the minute an evil word comes out of your mouth you’ll be aware of it and you’ll confess it right on the spot because you’ll know that you said it in the presence of a holy God. That’s what Jesus is all about. He’s in the business of cleaning our hearts and changing them. That’s the good news of the Gospel.

My friend today I don’t care how bad your language is; you do not have to go that way. Of course, after you receive Christ as Savior and he cleanses your heart, there may still be times when these words - these bad habits - come out of your mouth, but the blessed Holy Spirit who is given to you will build into you such sensitivity that soon you will not be able to speak lightly of God, or for that matter other kinds of profane language, without being aware of it and without it defiling you within and bringing about the ability to say no to the thoughts of the intents of the heart that are distasteful to the Almighty. That’s what Christ is in the business of doing.

I want you to know today that I don’t think there’s a greater honor in the entire world than to be identified with the Almighty and to be identified with Christ. I mean what other honor could one ever suggest? I would rather be known as a man of God than anything else in this life, and I know that you feel the same way. You would rather be known as a woman of God or a man of God than any other designation that people could ever latch on to you. And my challenge to you today is to remember that along with the honor comes a tremendous responsibility because we can blaspheme and we can take the name of the Lord in vain in speech, but we can also do it in life. God wants our lives to be brought up to date with the character and the name that he has been willing to share with us. Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brothers, and I hope that we will act as if we are his brothers.

Do you remember that story of Alexander the Great, who was very upset with the soldier who was a coward and ran away in battle? And Alexander when up to him and chewed him out and told him a whole bunch of things that probably would not be good if we could know what they were. And finally Alexander was shouting at this coward and said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “My name is Alexander, Sir.” And Alexander became even more enraged and he took that man and he just shook him and he said, “Either change your character or change your name.”

That’s it! Who are you? You’re a Christian? That’s great. I hope everybody in your office knows it. You belong to God? You walk with the King? I’m glad that that’s true, but let us remember that along with it comes the awesome responsibility of representing the God that we claim to love and to serve by our speech and by our life, because the text says that God does not hold them guiltless who take his name in vain. Don’t easily, simply flippantly be associated with the name, because then you have the responsibility of living up to the name the text says. Either we should ask God to change our character or maybe we should change our name and not tell people that we belong to the King lest we cause the world to blaspheme.

Let’s pray.

Our Father today we think of the awesome responsibility that we have to bring out from the good treasure of our hearts that which speaks good and not evil. We think today, Father, of the cleansing that must take place in many hearts. Undoubtedly they are bowed in your presence and we pray, Father, that you will enable all of us to see that we can clean up our mouths by cleaning up our hearts, and that specifically you are the one that does it. Oh open us up to your presence.

We think particularly of those today whose hearts are closed to you. They’ve listened to this sermon and they’ve said, “One more,” and that’s about all. Oh Father, would you crush them gently but firmly? And we think, Father, today of those who have named the name of Christ that if the truth were known they’ve lived in such a way that they’ve taken his name in vain. Father, we’ve all done that on occasion. Cleanse us. Forgive us, Father, and enable us to live up to the name.

Now I say to you, whoever you might be, would you just pray to God for a moment? If you are a Christian you may need cleansing. If you are clean before the Lord then pray for others who perhaps need it. Some of you may not know Christ as your Savior. I want you to know that you can believe on him today and he will give you a clean heart and a new heart. There is no reason for you to have to live with guilt and defilement. None whatever! Jesus paid it all. Would you receive him?

Father, do whatever you have to do in everyone’s life that is bowed in your presence. Each need is different but we thank you that you are great enough to meet each one. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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