Catechetical sermons preached in PCC Evening Worship Services, Feb 2013 to Dec 2017
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“Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
WSC 53. Which is the Third Commandment?
A. The Third Commandment is, thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain: for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.1
1 Ex 20:7.
WSC 54. What is required in the Third Commandment?
A. The Third Commandment requireth the holy and reverent use of God’s names,1 titles,2 attributes,3 ordinances,4 word 5 and works.6
1 Mt 6:9; Dt 28:58; 2 Ps 68:4; 3 Rev 15:3,4; 4 Mal 1:11,14; 5 Ps 138:1,2; 6 Job 36:24.
WSC 55. What is forbidden in the Third Commandment?
A. The Third Commandment forbiddeth all profaning or abusing of anything whereby God maketh Himself known.1
1 Mal 1:6,7,12; Mal 2:2; Mal 3:14.
WSC 56. What is the reason annexed to the Third Commandment?
A. The reason annexed to the Third Commandment is, That however the breakers of this commandment may escape punishment from men, yet the Lord our God will not suffer them to escape His righteous judgment.1
1 1 Sam 2:12,17,22,29; 1 Sam 3:13; Dt 28:58,59.
We have been studying the Ten Commandments as part of our series of messages based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
The Ten Commandments are, no doubt, in God’s mind, of paramount importance for mankind and especially for His people to know. The Ten Commandments alone were spoken by the LORD audibly in the hearing of His people as a whole. It alone was inscribed by the finger of God, not once but twice. It alone is kept in the ark of the covenant, which is placed in the Holy of Holies in the Holy Tabernacle of God.
Now, we must not think of the commandments as cold, inflexible law by a tyrant king. No, no; God as Creator and Redeemer would have His people obey Him out of love and gratitude for Him. When the Lord Jesus was asked by a scribe what was the greatest commandment, He replied:
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” (Mk 12:30).
He adds that “this is the first commandment.” Then He says: “And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Mk 12:31).
You will recall that the Lord is summarising the two tables of the Ten Commandments. The first table (Commandments 1-4) teaches us to love God with our entire being. The second table (Commandments 5-10) teaches us to love our neighbours as ourselves.
Thus, we cannot truly keep any of God’s commandments acceptably unless we keep them out of love and gratitude towards God. At the same time, we cannot claim to love God unless we keep His commandments!
So, love is central to the commandments. The First Commandment teaches us that we must love the being of God or God himself. The Second Commandment teaches us that we must love the worship of God. So, the Third Commandment, which we are now considering, teaches us that we must love the name of God.
The Third Commandment reads:
“Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”
The Jews understood that to take God’s name in vain is essentially to use God’s name dishonourably or irreverently. So, for example, they would not enunciate the name of God. The name of God is given in the Scripture in four letters: י, ה, ו, ה (Yod, He, Vav, He). There were no vowels in the original Hebrew manuscripts. Many scholars today believe that it should be pronounced as Yahweh, but the Jews would always read it as Adonai, which means ‘Lord.’ This is why it is translated as ‘Lord’ in the Septuagint and most English versions. Why do Jews read Adonai instead of Yahweh? Because they are afraid, they may take the name of God in vain in their lips!
But is this what the commandment is about? Well, no! The Second Commandment is not just about using images, but about the manner of worship. The Sixth Commandment is not only about murder, but about the preservation of life. The Seventh Commandment is not only about adultery, but about sexual purity.
Likewise, the Third Commandment is not only about the names ‘Jesus’ or ‘Jehovah’ or even ‘God’, ‘Lord’ and ‘Christ.’ Instead, as our Shorter Catechism, Q. 55, puts it, it is about everything “whereby God maketh Himself known.”
When we talk about a person’s name, we are not only referring to the names his parents gave him, or the name he is called by. Instead, we are talking about his reputation, and his reputation is stamped on everything that he has had his hand on: his family, his company, his inventions, his designs, his art pieces, his plays, etc.
The same is true with the LORD. His name is stamped not only on His names, titles and attributes, but also on His ordinance, words and works.
Thus, WSC 54 asks: “What is required in the Third Commandment?” Answer:
“The Third Commandment requireth the holy and reverent use of God’s names, titles, attributes, ordinances, word and works.”
Bearing this in mind, let’s consider how the Third Commandment is commonly violated so that we may guard ourselves against the same sin out of love for the Lord. Let me highlight ten ways, not in any particular order of importance, but making the acrostic “LORD’S NAMES.”
1. Lightly or Flippantly Making Oaths and Vows
What is an oath? The Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 102 informs us that…
“A lawful oath is a 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.”
In other words, when we take an oath, we are making a statement and saying that God can vouch for us that we are telling the truth. Vows are basically promissory oaths or promises made to God.
Now, oaths and vows are legitimate religious exercises permitted by the Scripture and our Confession.
We may use oaths and vows on occasions of moment and importance, such as in a court of law, when we are getting married, or when we become members of a church. We use oaths and vows in such circumstances to assure others that we are sincere and telling the truth.
Now, in approving the use of oaths and vows, God is condescending for us to use His name to secure the trust of others! God is pleased for you to do so if you are indeed sincere and telling the truth. But what if you know you are not telling the truth, yet you still swear in God’s name that it is true?
Clearly, then, you would have committed perjury and taken the name of God in vain. The LORD instructed the people through Moses: “Ye shall not swear by my name falsely, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD” (Lev 19:12).
Beloved brethren and youths, never take oaths and vows lightly. Never use God’s name to convince others of a lie. Never use God’s name to persuade others of your sincerity if you have no intention of keeping your promise. Perjury is a crime in most countries. How much more it is a grievous sin in the sight of God!
2. Obfuscating Evil Intent by Using God’s Name
Perjury is a very serious way of using God’s name to back up falsehood. But there is another way, which is more commonly practised, namely, using the name of God to support wrongful actions and impulses.
In Genesis 27, we read of how Isaac was going to bless Esau, and he asked him to go out to hunt a deer, cook it for him and then he would bless him. While he was out, Rebekah encouraged Jacob to trick Isaac into blessing him. They killed a goat, and Rebekah dressed it with Isaac’s favourite recipe. Then, she had Jacob bring the dish to Isaac. Isaac was surprised that Esau could have hunted a deer so quickly and asked: “How is it that thou hast found it so quickly, my son?” Jacob replied, “Because the LORD thy God brought it to me” (Gen 27:20). This lie violated not just the Ninth Commandment but the Third.
During the reign of David, Absalom, his son, was plotting to overthrow his father. To carry out his plan, he needed to go to Hebron. So he told David, “Let me go and pay my vow, which I have vowed unto the LORD, in Hebron” (2 Sam 15:7). Again, this was a lie violating not just the Ninth Commandment but the Third.
In the New Testament, we are told about the Jews who tried to excuse their obligations to their parents by telling them that they had dedicated to the Lord the things that they wanted to give to them. “They are Corban,” they say. You will realise that in this way, they are breaking not just the Fifth Commandment, but the Third as well. In fact, they are blaming God for having to break the Fifth Commandment. What could be a worse way of taking God’s name in vain?
There are many other examples in the Bible, but I think these should suffice. Remember, brethren and children, that when you use God’s name to support a sin, you break two commandments at the same time! And you break the Third Commandment grievously!
Therefore, never use the name of God to justify a sinful decision that you made or to obfuscate a sinful intention!
3. Repeating God’s Name Mindlessly in Prayer
We all pray in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. But do you realise that you can break the Third Commandment if you use the phrase “in Jesus’ Name” in a thoughtless or even superstitious way? Remember that praying in the name of Jesus Christ refers to praying through His authority and mediatorship. It does not mean that all our prayers should end with “In Jesus’ name.” So don’t use the phrase in a superstitious way, like using a charm.
But there is yet another way in which we break the Third Commandment during prayer. This is noted by Wilhemus à Brakel in his Christian’s Reasonable Service, namely, “using the Name of the Lord as a stopgap in the absence of verbal fluency.”
How true! When you pray, do you use the name of God, “Lord” or “Lord God” to break your sentences? Watch out. Ask someone to check for you—lest you break the Law of God in the name of piety. When you use the name of God in this way, you empty it of its content.
4. Discontent and Anger Respecting Providence
This is one of the most common subtle ways of blaspheming God. Many of us make plans. But when our plans are interrupted by a turn of providence, then our hearts are filled with indignation.
But when that happens, we break the Third Commandment, for God has stamped His name on creation and providence, too. Seeing He has assured us that all things are working together for good to those who love God, how can we fret and get flustered when things do not turn out how we want them to?
When the Lord teaches us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth,” one of the things He is teaching us to do is to pray for contentment. We must learn to be content not just in terms of material provision, but in how the Lord leads us by His providence.
When you are angry with providence, you are angry with God and, therefore, break the Third Commandment.
5. Serving and Worshipping God with a Wrong Spirit
There is such a thing as having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof. We can worship in the right way according to the Regulative Principle and yet worship in hypocrisy! What is hypocritical worship? Simply stated, it is worshipping with the body but not the heart.
When you worship God hypocritically or half-heartedly, you are breaking the Third Commandment. The Lord is charging the people for breaking the Third Commandment when He says through Isaiah:
“This people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me…” (Isa 29:13).
Remember, brethren and children, the Third Commandment is violated when you go through the motions in worship or when your thoughts wander during worship.
In the same way, when our prayers are mechanical and faithless, we break the Third Commandment. Do you sing psalms perfunctorily? You may be breaking the Third Commandment. Are you reading the Scripture flippantly? You are taking the name of God in vain. Are you half-asleep and disinterested when you come for worship? If so, you are breaking the Third Commandment. Thomas Watson is surely right when he says, “Pretended holiness is merely double wickedness.”
6. Naming God as the Author of What Is Absurd or Evil
Reformed believers recognise that God is sovereignly controlling every event in the universe. In chapter 5 of our Confession, we are told that this sovereignty “extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission” (WCF 5:4). But at the same time, we are told, “the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God.”
In other words, we must understand God is not the author of sin. Sin is sin only because man makes a moral choice to sin. Therefore, anyone who refuses to admit responsibility for his sin, but blames God for it, blasphemes God and violates the Third Commandment.
This applies not only to sin, but to absurd behaviour. Many years ago, there was a Charismatic group known as the Vineyard Movement. The worship of churches involved with this group was often characterised by hysterical laughters and animal behaviours. Some worshippers roared like lions, and others hopped like chickens, clucking about. How did they explain such weird behaviours? They say it is from the Holy Spirit!
The founder of the movement, Rodney Howard Brown, claimed to be the “Holy Spirit’s bartender.” If that is not blasphemy and a breaking of the Third Commandment, what is?
7. Attributing Glory to Man Rather Than to God
The sad reality is that many rapidly growing churches today grow because of their successful methodology. Think of the methods of evangelism employed in such churches. According to their philosophy, Christ needs our help. Preaching is not enough: we need to entice them to come; we need persuasive music; we need star appeal; we need to get the hearers to do something so that they take ownership of their decision; we need incentives. The result of such efforts is that when the people appear to make decisions for Christ, glory is given not to God but to men and their planning and effort. When that happens, not only is there a danger of filling the church with goats, but glory is given to men, and the Third Commandment is violated.
8. Making Sacrilegious Jokes
You may not believe it, but I do check out the comics page on yahoo.com. But recently, I have noticed that there are more and more cartoonists poking fun at God, at judgement and at heaven and hell.
Now, there is nothing wrong with humour. But let us make no mistake that humouring that which is holy is sacrilegious. À Brakel is undoubtedly correct when he reminds us that one of the ways of breaking the Third Commandment is by “making fun of Scriptural texts, using them to engender laughter and to appear humorous.”
Now, that was written in the Seventeenth Century! And we thought that making jokes out of Bible texts is a modern thing. Apparently not! Man’s heart has not changed. We are still tempted to take God’s name in vain by making fun of His Word.
But beloved brethren and young people. Do not succumb to this subtle way of breaking the Third Commandment. If you do, the devil can easily take advantage of it to tempt you to harden your heart against sin; for after all, it’s hard to take God’s word seriously when you are laughing at it!
9. Using the Names of God as Expletives
The name of God is the most sacred name ever to be known to man, and it is the name that God will guard jealously. He says, “I will not hold him guiltless that taketh my name in vain.” Yet, ironically, the name of God is the most abused name in the whole world today.
Today, you could be sued if you use the name of anyone you know pejoratively. But if you use the name of God as an expletive, as a curse, or as a swear word, you can get away with it. In fact, hardly anyone would even bat an eye. Turn on the television today, and you will know what I mean. Watch a movie, and you can hardly get through half an hour without having to hear the name of God being used blasphemously. I hope none of us are letting our children watch these programmes. May the Lord grant us the strength and grace to switch off or boycott any programme that blasphemes the name of our Lord so blatantly.
Indeed, I hope that none of us is unknowingly using the name of God as expletives. When you hear something surprising, do not say, “Oh my God” or “Good Lord!” If you do, the question is: Are you saying it as a prayer? Were you thinking of God when you said those words? If not, you could be subtly breaking the Third Commandment, only perhaps not as grievously as those who use the name of Christ as an expletive.
Now, some of us are more careful than to use the name of God explicitly as an expletive, but do you use euphemistic swearing: “Darn, Heck, Golly, Gosh, Goodness, goodness knows, etc!”
These may sound better, but do you realise you also break the Third Commandment when you swear this way? ‘Darn’ is just a nicer way of saying “Damn.” Who may damn but God? ‘Heck’ is a euphemism for ‘Hell.’ Golly, Gosh, etc., are all referring to God in disguise.
Brethren, boys and girls, you must avoid all forms of expletives. They are meaningless and displeasing to God because they almost always involve a violation of the Third Commandment.
10. Sinful Christian Testimony
King David had a good testimony. But he committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband. His sin became an occasion for whispering and blasphemy. So Nathan told him, “By this deed, thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme” (2 Sam 12:14). In the New Testament, Paul chides the Jews who dishonour God by breaking the law: “For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you,” He says (Rom 2:24).
Therefore, Christian brothers and sisters and children, since you bear Christ’s name, you must seek God’s grace to behave as Christians should. If your behaviour is not becoming Christian, you have blasphemed the name of Christ because you bear His name! Most non-Christians do not know much about the Christian faith. But they can recognise good behaviour when they see it. And they are experts at telling when a Christian is not behaving like a Christian!
Remember: your unbelieving friends, colleagues, classmates, or even unconverted children can see. And they will mock behind your back: “Look! And he calls himself a Christian! Why should I be a Christian if they are worse than I am?”
What will the world think when they see Christian bosses maltreat their subordinates? What will the world think when they hear a Christian couple quarrelling constantly? What will the world think when Christians backbite one another and refuse to talk with one another?
Are you, brethren and children, breaking the Third Commandment by a bad testimony? Remember that you bear the name of Christ, and the world is watching. May the Lord grant you the grace to repent and to keep his name holy!
We must conclude. The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives us a good summary of what is required and what is forbidden by the Third Commandment:
“WSC 54. What is required in the Third Commandment?
A. The Third Commandment requireth the holy and reverent use of God’s names, titles, attributes, ordinances, word and works.
WSC 55. What is forbidden in the Third Commandment?
A. The Third Commandment forbiddeth all profaning or abusing of anything.”
In this sermon, we have essentially enlarged on question 55 by listing ten ways we break the Third Commandment:
- Lightly or flippantly making oaths and vows
- Obfuscating evil intent by using God’s name
- Repeating God’s name mindlessly in prayer
- Discontent and anger respecting providence
- Serving and worshipping God with a wrong spirit.
- Naming God as the author of what is absurd or evil
- Attributing glory to man rather than to God
- Making sacrilegious jokes
- Expletives, especially those involving God’s name
- Sinful Christian testimony
But before we close, we must examine the reason annexed to the Third Commandment. It reads, “for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain.” What does this mean? Question 56 of our catechism is devoted to explaining it:
“WSC 56. What is the reason annexed to the Third Commandment?
A. The reason annexed to the Third Commandment is, that however the breakers of this commandment may escape punishment from men, yet the LORD our God will not suffer them to escape His righteous judgment.”
Man may take the name of God very lightly, and the world and many in the church may not even blink when God’s name is taken in vain or blasphemed. Indeed, it may not be possible for the church or the state to deal with severe violations of the Third Commandment. But let no man think that he may escape scot-free; for God considers all violations of the Third Commandment grave offences.
In the Old Testament, blasphemy was punishable by death. Today, we no longer stone blasphemers. But I trust that those of us who are believers desire to please God. And I trust that we have been sufficiently reminded about how seriously God takes His name.
But I wonder how many of us think that we have kept the Third Commandment or are capable of keeping it? Well, the reality is that we all fall short of its requirements. How many can say that we have kept our vows perfectly? How many of us can say we have worshipped with a pure desire for God’s glory? How many of us can say that our witness for Christ is always consistent? Thank God for his mercy in Christ! Had not Christ put His name on us and covered us with His righteousness, we shall perish as blasphemers! Thank God for forgiveness through the blood of Christ! Thank God for the Holy Spirit, who enables us to enjoy a degree of obedience even today as we look forward to the day when we will bear God’s name with nothing but perfect love and desire for His glory.
But if you are listening to this message and are still not a believer, I must tell you that you are a most serious violator of the Third Commandment, and God will not hold you guiltless. The word of God tells us that “there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12), but the name Jesus Christ, and “neither is there salvation in any other.”
Yes, dear friend, that name which is today despised and belittled is the only one by which men may be saved! One day, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth” (Phil 2:10). What kind of violation of the Third Commandment can be more severe than refusing to call upon this sacred name?
Without Christ, you will bow that day indeed, but not in reverent worship. You will bow in fear and trembling. And you will call upon the mountains and the rocks to fall upon you to hide yourself from the face of Christ, who will be appointed to judge the world.
Dear friend, if you are an unbeliever, the law is designed to expose your sin. Do you not see how far short you fall of the law of God, and how you stand under the wrath and condemnation of God? Do you not realise your own helplessness before the law of God? You need Christ to change you. Will you not call unto him to save you because He alone can save you? He can save you from all your sins, including your grievous sin of breaking the Third Commandment:
“Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”