Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Taking the LORD's name in vain

One of the Ten Commandments concerns not taking the name of the LORD your God in vain. What could this possibly mean? What does it mean to take his name in vain?

The prophet Moses receiving
the Law from God
Most people, it seems to me, understand this prohibition as referring to inappropriate mention or use of the name of God in colloquial and formal contexts. I remember when I was a kid, being afraid to say "Oh my God" or "I swear to God" out of fear of breaking this commandment. Still others use God's name in curses and swears, which is even more common here in Romania than in America. Whereas I wonder about the sinfulness of saying "Oh my God," there is no doubt in my mind about the sinfulness of the easy and irreverent invocation of God's name in malicious uses of language. Still, I think that the prohibition against taking God's name in vain goes further than that.

I want to bring to your attention a few verses from the Sermon on the Mount which I believe function as a kind of commentary on this commandment. Consider:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers” (Mt 7:21-3). 
Notice what Jesus is getting across in this passage. A religious vocabulary is not enough to save one from the exclusion from God's kingdom at the judgment. It's not enough to have assumed a properly reverent tone towards God. In spite of all these things, you may nevertheless be lost! Indeed, there is a risk of self-deception for many of us who grew up in Christian contexts in this regard. Being around other Christians, you try to use the right words and talk the right way about God, even though in reality you are far away from him and are speaking about foreign realities, not familiar ones. The religious-pious façade of your speech acts as a cover for your irreligious interior, to save you from the shame of not belonging to God with all your heart. Your language will not save you; calling him "Lord, Lord" will not keep him from making the painful admission that he never knew you.

Of course, falsely religious language is not enough to make a person fit in. What's necessary is an appropriate and impressive religious activity. So we read that these unfortunate souls also engaged in various, relatively noteworthy endeavors: they prophesied and cast out demons and did many deeds of power. These persons, in other words, worked as hard as they could to convince themselves and others that things were alright, strengthening the effect of their religious language with hardcore participation in public, respected ministries. Yet even then, it was not enough for them to be saved!

The final judgment
The problem with these persons is that they took the Lord's name in vain. They spoke and did all the right things in the name of the Lord, i.e. they associated themselves with Christ. They took on the name of Christian and tied their own reputations with the name and reputation of Jesus himself. But they did this all in vain, in other words to no benefit whatsoever, because they were workers of lawlessness. This was their great downfall: they assumed the title of Christian but went on living in sin. In this way, despite their pious language and impressive ministry work, they sullied the reputation of Jesus through their sinful lives. I don't need to mention the various television evangelists and other famous Christians have done exactly this—may the Lord have mercy on them, and on me who am far worse.

Taking the name of the LORD in vain, then, is simply this: associating yourself with the reputation and name of God, but to no avail because of your sinfulness. Now why is this sin so grave?

It seems to me that this is a grave sin because God has chosen, in his wisdom and mercy, largely to accomplish the salvation of others through us, imperfect though we are. Dumitru Stăniloae emphasizes that every person comes to faith because of the example and preaching of another who believes. No one simply wakes up finding themselves believing; rather, through the mediation of you and me, God seeks to bring one person to faith through the faith of another. This is a great honor given to humankind, to be used as instruments of righteousness (cf. Rom 6:13) for accomplishing the purposes of God's salvation. But when you take the name of the LORD in vain, i.e. when you associate yourself with God but continue in sin, in this way sullying the reputation of God among people, you damn two people: first, you damn yourself through your sins; and second, you damn those persons who now refuse to believe in God because you've turned them off to the idea for good. That's why this sin is so grave, in the end. It's because it affects both you and the other person, whom God intended you to save through your word and example but who now is lost.

Paul writes that the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you (Rom 2:24). What a dreadful thing to hear! But that is what happens if we take the name of the LORD in vain. God forbid any of us from doing that.

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