Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 36
Q. 99. What is required in the third commandment?
A. That we, not only by cursing or perjury, but also by rash swearing, must not profane or abuse the name of God; nor by silence or connivance be partakers of these horrible sins in others; and, briefly, that we use the holy name of God no otherwise than with fear and reverence; so that He may be rightly confessed and worshiped by us, and be glorified in all our words and works.
Q. 100. Is then the profaning of God’s name by swearing and cursing so heinous a sin 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?
A. It undoubtedly is, for there is no sin greater or more provoking to God, than the profaning of His name; and therefore He has commanded this sin to be punished with death.
The Ten Commandments teach us not only what we should be and do, but also who and what God is. The first commandment teaches us that God is “one,” that He is God alone, and so demands our exclusive worship. The second commandment teaches us that God is Spirit, that He is invisible and altogether distinct from us, and so must be worshiped as He has distinctly commanded in His Word.
In the third commandment we learn that God is holy: in Himself, in His name, and in His revelation. Therefore, we are to treat with reverence all that is related to the holy name of God.
The wonderful name of God
The name of God refers to His person and character and all that He uses to reveal Himself to us.
It is common, in the Scriptures, to find that one is given a name that reflects his character or role. We can think of many examples of this: Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Samson, Joshua, Samuel, etc. In a similar way, the name of God tells us about His character of Being. However, in two important ways there is a difference: 1) God’s name is a perfect description and match to His character, and 2) God’s names are never sufficient to describe in human words His infinite Being.
Because of this, God is given many, many names in the Bible. These include not only His personal names and titles (such as God, Jehovah, Lord of Hosts, etc.), but also all His attributes (infinity, eternity, immutability, wisdom, omnipotence, holiness, justice, mercy, truth, love, etc.), and the many biblical descriptions and illustrations of His character (a Rock, a Shepherd, a Refuge, a High Tower, etc.). The totality of God’s revelation is His name.
This means, also, that Jesus Christ is the name of God. In Scripture He shares the names and titles of God, as for example, His being called “Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (). He is also said, in the New Testament, to receive a “name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:9), which points not only to the exaltation of His human nature, but also to the fact that He possesses the highest name, that is God’s own name. This, too, is why Christ is said to be the fullness of the revelation of God the Father ( and ff.).
Because God also reveals Himself in His creation and works, there is also a sense in which the entire creation is a revelation of the name and character of God. Recently, I watched a total eclipse of the sun and the words of the psalmist came to mind, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (). Hence, we read in Psalm 8 that God’s name is “excellent in all the earth.” We interact daily with this aspect of the name of God, His self-revelation in creation and providence, but so often and easily we forget He is speaking to us.
Perhaps the most wonderful thing about the name of God is that we can and do know it. “Canst thou by searching find out God?” (). “Is not God in the height of heaven?” ( ). “…the world by wisdom knew not God…” ( ). “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” ( ). “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehendeth it not” ( ). I quote all these verses, not only to show the natural ignorance of man, but also to highlight the wonder that we can and do know God at all. The explanation is not in us, but in the fact that God speaks savingly to us, to communicate Himself to us, and to open our hearts by the Spirit and the gospel.
Especially marvelous is that He makes us know His personal name, that is, He gives us to know Him not only by a title, but in person. This is the idea in Scripture of His revelation through Moses to Israel of His name, Jehovah (). A man may hold a public office and have a title, but to his children he is “father.” God, in the covenant, brings us to know Himself intimately and personally, not just to know about Him and His high position. This is accomplished, primarily, through the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, so that in Him we might behold the glory of the Father, and that through believing in Him we might be called the sons and daughters of the living God ( ). To us this revelation comes through the preaching of the gospel ( ).
God’s condescension, however, does not change who He is nor the infinite majesty of His character, and so our becoming familiar with God through His revelation ought not breed “familiarity” but reverence and awe.
A serious sin
To “take in vain” the name of God is to treat it lightly, to treat it as nothing, to use it without thought of the God whom the name represents. Because God’s name is His revelation, there are a variety of ways that one can fall into this sin.
The most obvious and blatant abuse of God’s name is by “cursing and swearing.” This involves a deliberate act of cutting down the name and honor of God. People often “damn” things in the name of God, or swear in the name of God when they are displeased with something or someone. Even more blatant is the ridiculing of God and the Bible by atheists and other unbelievers (for example, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins).
The careless use of God’s name is another way one breaks this commandment. This may be in unnecessary expletives that are “soft” references to the name of God (“Jeez” or “Gee” for Jesus, “Gosh” for God, etc.) or in “vain repetitions” of God’s name as filler in our prayers. We should not babble on like the pagans do as though this will attract the attention and pleasure of God, but should use and speak His name with meaning.
Another way that we may become guilty of this sin is by silently allowing others to treat God’s name with disrespect. How quickly we are offended when someone defames a national symbol such as a flag or a historical figure, but often little is said about the sin and offense of treating God’s name with disdain. Both our jealousy for the name of God and our concern for the one who commits such a grievous sin should move us to speak in defense of God’s name and in warning against such abusers.
Perhaps the worst sin against this commandment is the teaching and promoting of false doctrine. When one fabricates and presents as true something that is contrary to God’s own revelation of Himself, he not only misrepresents the name of God, but under the name of Christianity (in God’s name) despises the very name of God Himself in His revelation in Scripture. How careful we must be in our doctrine and teaching!
Unbelief is another way that one takes the name of God in vain. To hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and then to disobey the call to believe in Jesus is to say something different about Him than is true. It is also to deny God’s revelation about yourself as a sinner.
As Christians, we bear the name of God. This means that all hypocrisy is the taking of God’s name in vain. For example, when we confess one thing in worship, and then live privately in contradiction to that confession, we are using God’s name as a cloak for our sin.
It is important for us to think about all the possible ways that we might use God’s name in vain, for this is a most serious sin. Its seriousness comes out in the commandment and is stated very strongly in the catechism—“there is no sin greater or more provoking to God, than the profaning of His name; and therefore He has commanded this sin to be punished with death.” We must “endeavor” therefore to prevent and forbid this sin as much as we can.
This sin, which was punishable by death in the Old Testament, is a sin worthy of discipline and excommunication in the New Testament church. The greatest scandals in the church are not those sins that hurt us, but those that attack the name of God. As God is jealous of His name, so ought we to be. As John Calvin said,
It becomes us to regulate our minds and our tongues, so as never to think or speak of God and His mysteries without reverence and great soberness, and never, in estimating His works, to have any feeling toward Him but one of deep veneration.
A careful obedience
It is wrong to say, “Well, if God’s name is so holy, and if it is so easy to break this commandment, then I will not use the name of God at all.” This was what the Jews said when they refused to speak the name JHWH and instead said “Adonai.” Similarly, the Anabaptists refused to use God’s name in swearing an oath (we’ll come to this in the next Lord’s Day).
No, it is incumbent upon us to use God’s name. In fact, the Word of God demands this of us—“Let them praise thy great and terrible name; for it is holy” (Ps. 99:3). The holiness of God’s name demands that we use His name.
“…no otherwise than with fear and reverence…”
This indicates a careful obedience. We must rightly know, confess, and worship God’s holy name.
To treat God’s name as holy is, “first, rightly to know” God (Q&A 122). We know God from His abiding revelation in the Holy Scriptures. Our primary objective in studying God’s Word is to learn more about Him. The Scriptures are also the foundation for all other learning, so that everything else we learn is tested through the knowledge of God from His Word. This means that education has a greater purpose than learning how to live in this world (in job or career preparation). As we learn, we learn about God’s world and are never just learning for the sake of knowing.
We use God’s name especially in confession and worship. Confession is what we say to others. Worship is what we say to God. We are called to both, and both demand great care in the use of our words.warns those who go “to the house of God” against a rash and hasty use of God’s name and calls us to “be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools,” (which sacrifice is to speak without thinking, ). When it comes to matters of theology (the knowledge of God), we must not speak hastily as though we have all the answers, but rather have a teachable and humble spirit.
“And they that know thy name will put their trust in thee” (). The primary way to treat the name of God with reverence is to believe, that is, to put our faith in Jesus Christ who is the Word and revelation of God.
Do not say, “I don’t and can’t know God.” God has declared His name openly ().
Do you believe?
Questions for discussion
1. What is it to “take the name” of God? Is this limited to our speech, or are there other ways we take up the name of God?
2. What is included in “the name” of God?
3. Think of at least three names of God and find their meaning. Do the same with the attributes of God.
4. What does the name “Jehovah” mean and what is its special significance in Scripture and among all the other names of God?
5. How is Jesus, our Mediator, “the name” of God?
6. How does this commandment show to us the wonder of our knowing the name of God?
7. In what ways is the Bible related to this commandment?
8. How is false teaching a form of taking God’s name in vain?
9. What different types of bad language are forbidden by this commandment?
10. Since a Christian may not use immoral speech, how can he add strong emphasis to his speech when it is needed without sinning? Can you think of examples from Scripture?
11. When is it appropriate to speak out against the blasphemous use of God’s name? When might it not be appropriate? Do you speak up in defense of God’s name, or do you make excuses for your silence?
12. In what ways must we properly use the name of God?