What does it mean to take the Lord’s name in vain? In common understanding, the Commandment forbids using the word God as a profanity. And ultimately, this ends up being a legitimate concern, although I have come to believe that it misses the central point of the prohibition.
The challenge we have here is that the Bible doesn’t define taking the Lord’s name in vain. And there are several very reasonable alternatives as to what it might mean.
Here, I want to offer my understanding of this Commandment, with the biblical reasons for it.
The Ten Commandments (both in Exodus and Deuteronomy) form the core of God’s covenant with his chosen people. As his covenant people, they were to swear their loyalty to God and God alone: “It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear” (Deuteronomy 6:13).
By swearing their covenant allegiance to God, they became identified as the people of the Lord. The prophet Micah says it this way: “For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the LORD our God forever and ever” (Micah 4:5).
This means that the people of God bear his name. They have taken the name of their God. In this sense, “taking the name of the Lord” is not primarily about saying the name itself. It is rather a statement of identification.
The New Testament people of God also bear the name of the Lord. Just before his ascension, Jesus commanded his disciples to go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded them. In true Christian baptism, as we publicly swear our allegiance to the one true God, we take upon ourselves the Triune name. We bear the Lord’s name.
The question, then, is whether we bear the name in vain. We take the Lord’s name in vain, I believe, not simply by saying it lightly. We take the Lord’s name in vain when we, who claim to be his people, live in a way indistinguishable from those who do not bear the Lord’s name.
When we do this, we make God trivial in our churches and in our culture at large. When those who bear the name of the Lord seem essentially the same as those who don’t, who could blame people for coming to the conclusion that God himself is inconsequential?
Yes, there are other ways of making light of God, and using the Lord’s name as profanity is one of them. It is right, I believe, to consider such talk a violation of this Commandment.
But Christian, while you might be bothered by the flippant use of the Lord’s name by an unbeliever, the more pressing question is this: how are you bearing the Lord’s name? You, not the unbeliever, bear the name of the Father and Son and Spirit. Are you bearing that name in vain?