Lord’s Day 36, Chapter 3: With Fear and Reverence
This profanity can and does assume different forms. A very common and simple manifestation of profanity, to which we probably do not always call attention, is the thoughtless use of the name of God. By thoughtless use I mean any use of the name of the Lord that is not accompanied by and is not the true expression of a corresponding fear and reverence in the heart. We, for instance, often show this lack of fear and reverence in our prayers, especially in prayers which we offer in public. This is true not only of the vain repetitions of which the Lord speaks in , but is especially the case with the repeated and useless mention of the name of God in our prayers. The same is true often of our conversations, of our Bible discussions in our societies, and even of our preaching and hearing the Word of God. All such use of the name of Jehovah that finds no corresponding profound fear and reverence in our hearts is really profanity, reflecting upon the profanity in our sinful nature. When we shall be perfect, we shall never again thus lift up the name of God into vanity. In heaven we shall never be able to use the name of God coldly, as an object of discussion and debate. There our whole being, with all our heart and mind and soul, with all our intellect and will, shall spontaneously respond to the name of the Lord in fear and reverence.
Profanity it is, too, when men refuse to use the name of the Lord at all. In decent society in the world swearing and cursing is often avoided, and is even condemned. Public swearing is contraband, for different reasons. It is not good manners. It is not considered to be refined to use the name of God in vain. Does that mean that in such society the third commandment is kept, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain?” Certainly not: for God has not revealed His name in order to be passed by in silence. To do so nevertheless is just as much profanity as is cursing and swearing. The name of the Lord is simply forgotten, is intentionally avoided, is not mentioned at all. This is an insult, provoking the Lord our God. It is heaping contempt upon the name of the most high. For do not forget: the name of Jehovah is everywhere. It is in all the works of His hands. And it is, or should be, on the lips of every Christian who loves that name and glorifies it as it is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. Even when a man’s name is intentionally avoided where it ought to be mentioned, it is an insult to him. It means that he is ignored and slighted. And this is exactly what decent society, that avoids swearing and cursing, but at the same time never mentions the name of the most high, does in regard to the name of Jehovah. He is simply not mentioned. Contemptuously they pass by the glorious name of God. This also is profanity, and certainly a violation of the third commandment.
Finally, there is that direct and most terrible form of profanity that is called cursing and swearing. Even this may be done directly and openly, or indirectly and covertly. You can say, “My God,” and so use the name of God in vain; or you can express one of the attributes of God, and say, “My goodness,” or “Good gracious!” When you use the latter terms as exclamations of surprise or indignation or amazement, you refer to divine virtues, and therefore it is the same as if you had said, “My God!” Such expressions are camouflaged and indirect profanity, and are meant to be such. The same may be said of other expressions that are commonly used and certainly should be avoided by him that professes to be a Christian. Many people seem to imagine that they do not use profane language when, instead of using the name of God, they use expressions as “By heaven,” or similar expressions. But the Lord teaches us that heaven is the throne of God, and that to swear by heaven is the same thing as swearing by God Himself. The same is true of the thoughtless use of the word “hell”. People become disgusted, and express their disgust by exclaiming, “O hell,” and imagine that by using such expressions they do not violate the third commandment. Nevertheless, they are mistaken. Hell is the place of God’s wrath; and when you use the term hell in a vain and thoughtless sense, you mean to mock at the place where God’s wrath burns eternally. The regenerated and sanctified believer certainly does not use such terms, but is called to use a language of his own, in which he glorifies the God of his salvation. But finally, there is that most abominable expression of the sinner’s profanity that is known as cursing and swearing, and that consists in making a veritable plaything of the holy name of God, a vehicle for the expression of all kinds of corrupt emotions, of sinful wrath and anger, of bitterness and rebellion, of hatred and envy and malice, of mockery and contempt, and even of drunken revelry and dissipation. The name of God is used by the corrupt sinner as he would use no other name, and is dragged in the mud by him as no other name is ever humiliated, not even of his bitterest enemy. I do not have to elaborate upon this well-known and most terrible sin, which in some circles in the world,—notably our army and navy,—is so general and prevalent that it is well-nigh impossible for the child of God to move about in them. And why does the sinner so defile the name of God and take it in vain in the bitterness of his sinful soul? There is only one answer: the carnal mind is enmity against God!
The Catechism reminds us that there is no greater sin, or more provoking to God, than the profaning of His holy name, and that His wrath is kindled against those who do not endeavor, as much as in them lies, to prevent and forbid such cursing and swearing. Nor, it seems to us, is it difficult to understand how especially this sin must be God-provoking. Only let us think of ourselves. If there is any self-respect in a person, and they take his name to profane it, to make it a plaything and an object of mockery, will he not deeply resent that his name is thus trampled upon? And what is our name in relation to another man’s name, compared to God’s name in relation to us? Little specks of dust in the balance, drops of the bucket we are, in relation to the infinitely glorious God. And when that sinner presumes to make an attack upon the holiness of God’s name, the Lord assures us in His third commandment: “I will not hold him guiltless who taketh my name in vain.”
The Catechism also warns us that by connivance or silence we may not leave the impression upon those that use God’s name in vain that we either take this sin lightly or even agree with them, and thus become partakers of these horrible sins. In regard to this, we may remark, in the first place, that it is of course ‘Hir calling openly, and, if necessary, publicly, to condemn the sin of profanity, of cursing and swearing, wherever it is committed in our presence and within our hearing. We must let our light shine before men, that our Father in heaven may be glorified. Secondly, however, we must not forget that there comes a time when we had better cease either privately or publicly to condemn those that use the name of God in vain repeatedly. When we are obliged to live in close contact with men or women that swear and curse and generally use profane language, and we have given testimony against this horrible sin repeatedly, and our testimony is not heeded, it is better not to cast our pearls before swine any longer. Ursinus, in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism”, is of the opinion that it is possible to make an untimely and unseasonable confession of the truth: “By which men stir up and excite the enemies of religion either to contemn or revile the truth, or to bitterness and cruelty against the godly, without advancing the glory of God and the salvation of anyone, and without any necessity demanding a confession of the truth at the time and under the circumstances under which it was made. Such an untimely confession Christ prohibits when he says, ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine.’” And in the same paragraph the author concludes: “Hence, if anyone should make a mock of religion, or deride the doctrine of the gospel after it has been sufficiently declared and explained to him, and should ask a reason of our hope, we should not return an answer to him, but leave him to himself. So Christ himself after he had sufficiently confessed and confirmed his doctrine, made no, reply to the high priest and Pilate with reference to the false witnesses, and gave a reason of his silence, ‘If I tell you, ye will not believe.’ ” With this we agree, although, of course, this should never be a pretext to excuse or cover up spiritual cowardice. Besides, in all our walk and conversation we should glorify the name of God, of the God of our salvation in Christ, so that our entire life is a testimony against the ungodly and profane.
Of course, the third commandment does not only prohibit the vain use of the name Jehovah, but of any name of God and of Jesus Christ, and, in general, all profane use of and reference to holy things, such as, for instance, the Bible or any quotations from Scripture, or the doctrines contained in and based upon holy writ. Moreover, the third commandment does not only have a negative and prohibitive implication, but rather presupposes a positive meaning. To this the Heidelberg Catechism refers when it teaches us that the third commandment admonishes us “that we use the holy name of God no otherwise than with fear and reverence; so that he may be rightly confessed and worshipped by us, and be glorified in all our words and works.” This positive meaning of the third commandment covers a wide field, and implies that in all our walk and conversation we confess the name of the God of our salvation in Christ Jesus, and glorify our Father which is in heaven. It means that we develop and maintain and defend the truth of the Word of God over against all heresy; that we do so privately and individually in the midst of the world, and even over against the apostatizing church; and also that we maintain the truth over against all false doctrine in the preaching of the Word, as well as in our official confessions. It implies, moreover, that we instruct our children in the knowledge of Jehovah as the God of our salvation in Jesus Christ in our homes, in church, as well as in our schools, lower and higher, and that thus we fulfill the promise we made when we presented our children for baptism, “Whether you promise and intend to see these children, when come to the years of discretion, instructed and brought up in the aforesaid doctrine, or help or cause them to be instructed therein, to the utmost of your power?” And of course, it implies that all our walk and conversation are a clear testimony to the fact that we know and love the name of Jehovah our covenant God in Christ Jesus, and thus “glorify him in all our words and works.” It implies that whenever we use the name of our God, we shall do so in the consciousness that we stand in His holy presence and be filled with a sense of His glory, and that so being filled with the consciousness of His divine holiness, we shall at all times in our speech and in our prayer, in our confession and in our walk, ascribe glory and honor to the adorable name of the most high with thanksgiving.
In conclusion, let us ask the question: do we and can we keep this third commandment in all its implications perfectly? And the answer, according to Scripture, as well as according to the testimony of our own consciousness is: by no means. The Christian, the believer in Christ Jesus, has but a small beginning of the new obedience; and his old nature is still profane. And according to that old nature, we still frequently violate also this third commandment of the law. We hate it, and we are heartily sorry for it. But we do that which we hate, nevertheless. And therefore, in the first place, it is a good thing that we realize by faith that we are not under the law, but under grace, and that we may take the threat that is connected with this third commandment, “The Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain,” to the cross of Jesus Christ our Lord. In Him we know that we have the forgiveness of sins and everlasting righteousness. But in Him we are not only redeemed from the guilt of sin by the blood of the cross, but we are also in principle delivered from the power and dominion of corruption, so that we can truly confess from the heart: “O how love I thy law, it is my meditation all the day.” By the power of God’s marvelous grace in Christ Jesus we have been delivered from that horrible corruption that makes us swear and curse and trample underfoot the name of God, to drag it in the mire of sin. We stand on Mt. Zion, redeemed by the blood of Christ and delivered from the bondage of sin in principle, and instead of lifting up a presumptuous and rebellious fist in the face of the Holy One of Israel, we prostrate ourselves before him with reverence and holy fear, with the prayer which our Lord taught us upon our lips: “Hallowed be thy name.” And in that attitude, conscious too that we have but a small beginning of this new obedience and that sin, also the sin that is forbidden in this third commandment, still dwells in our flesh, we are eager to be instructed by God’s holy law, and ask: “Lord, what wilt Thou have us do?”
The law as a code of commandments enjoins us: “Do this, and thou shalt live.” This is for us, apart from Christ, an impossible commandment. By that injunction we can never live. But what is impossible with men is possible with God. Christ has fulfilled the law. Therefore we may not turn the injunction of the law about, and instead of living in the bondage of fear, the fear that we must first fulfill the law before we can ever live, we now know that God has established His eternal covenant with us, and by faith we confess: “We live: therefore we obey.”
Lord’s Day 37, Chapter 1: The Place of the Oath in the Kingdom
Q. 101 May we then swear religiously by the name of God?
A. Yes: either when the magistrates demand it of the subjects; or when necessity requires us thereby to confirm fidelity and truth to the glory of God, and the safety of our neighbor: for such an oath is founded on God’s word, and therefore was justly used by the saints, both in the Old and New Testament.
Q. 102 May we also swear by saints or any other creatures?
A. No; for a lawful oath is calling upon God, as, the only one who knows the heart, that he will bear witness to the truth, and punish me if I swear falsely; which honor is due to no creature.
This Lord’s Day is an appendix to Lord’s Day 36. It treats of one particular aspect of the third commandment, the oath.
An oath, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, is “calling upon God, as the only one who knows the heart, that he will bear witness to the truth, and punish me if I swear falsely.”
Now it may probably appear rather superfluous in our day to devote a separate chapter of our Heidelberg Catechism, and a special sermon, to the positive question whether we may swear an oath at all. It would seem that at the present time it may probably be proper to discuss the subject of a rash or unlawful or improper oath; but the question whether the oath may be sworn at all would appear to be rather void of practical significance and instruction. No one, it seems, could possibly have any scruples to swear an oath when the magistrates demand it of us, or even when it is necessary to confirm fidelity and truth to the glory of God and the well-being of our neighbor. Yet we will find it to be instructive to examine the question as to how and when and whether at all the Christian may use the oath. It may be doubted whether this is properly understood, especially in the light of the emphatic words of the Savior in : “Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all, neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth, for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” And again, we read in : “But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.” It is especially in the light of these Scriptural passages that we will try to answer the question: why is it possible and proper for the believer, and for him only, to swear an oath, or even to demand an oath of anyone?
This, we must understand from the outset, is the question.