Luther’s explanation, “We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”
I don’t know about you, but growing up as I thought about this commandment, I would be ever conscious about using God’s name as a swear word, and I still do. It irks me when my buddies on Xbox Live use Jesus’ name in vain. Even though they all know I’m studying to be a pastor, they’re so impertinent that they don’t think to watch their mouths as we’re playing video games together. Jesus Christ is not a swear word; He is Lord and Saviour. However, using God’s name as a swear word is not the only way in which we misuse His name. As Luther says:
“It is a misuse of God’s name if we call upon the LORD God in any way whatsoever to support falsehood or wrong of any kind.” What this commandment forbids, therefore, is appealing to God’s name falsely or taking His name upon our lips when our heart knows or should know that the facts are otherwise—for example, when taking oaths in court and one party lies about the other. God’s name cannot be abused more flagrantly than when it is used to lie and deceive. (LC, Part 1, 51-52.)
What he’s essentially saying is that we also violate this command when we claim something to be the truth in God’s name that is in fact not the truth according to His Word. For example, the Westboro Baptist Church. This cult claims God hates gay people and even soldiers. They take their own hatred for others and use God’s name to perpetuate their hate. God does not hate any of these people. It is the truth when we say, “God hates the sin, but loves the sinner.” Scripture doesn’t explicitly say this, but the truth can nevertheless be found throughout all of Scripture. God hates sin because of its corruption and open rebellion against His will, but He loves the sinner because He gave His only begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). This goes for all people, not only certain people who fool themselves into thinking they’re righteous and holy by their own expense. Rather, we receive righteousness through Christ alone (Romans 3:22), but that becomes null in self-righteousness—when we seek human righteousness, which is outside of God’s will. There is nothing we can do to become righteous; Jesus makes us righteous.
Luther said, “Lying and deceiving are themselves great sins, but they become much more serious when we try to justify and confirm them by invoking God’s name and thus make it into a cloak to hide our shame [1 Peter 2:16]. Thus one lie becomes two—indeed, a whole pack of lies” (LC, Part 1, 56). Making a false claim in God’s name is not only a lie, but also false doctrine—a major offence. False doctrines create not one lie, but a plethora of lies. Luther sums up how we take God’s name in vain:
- We use His name simply for purposes of falsehood.
- We assert in God’s name something that is untrue.
- We curse, swear, use spells, and, in short, practise whatever wickedness we may. (LC, Part 1, 62.)
Purposes of Falsehood
Numbers 1 and 2 are similar, but also distinct. Think of number one as a legalistic religion—a Christianity that asserts God’s Law and leaves out the Gospel. We could liken this to the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), but let’s save that for number two. There are certain individual churches who are guilty of this legalism. Sometimes, as individual Christians, we are guilty of this too. In doing this, we assert lies as the truth—we claim something to be the truth, but underneath it all, they are lies. It’s fun to proclaim the Law—to point out the fault in others. Why is it that we are so eager to point out the fault in others but fail to point out the faults in ourselves? At the core, it is because we are hypocritical, which is precisely why Jesus exhorts us to examine ourselves first before we attempt to remove the fault in another person (see Matthew 7:1-5). (In essence, this is Jesus’ illustration on how to judge righteously. For a full reading on the subject, read my article with Geeks Under Grace, titled, “Judge Not, That Ye Be Not Judged.”) The Law properly condemns us in our sin, and the Gospel properly reveals the forgiveness offered through Christ. It is purely falsehood to say God condemns you to Hell without even showing them the remedy to the damnation. Yes, God will condemn you to Hell, but only if you do not believe. There is truth, but underneath that “truth” are lies—the truth that God will condemn you, but with the lying presupposition that this is your unalterable condition.
If we are under oath before God and we lie, whether in a courtroom or in marriage, we misuse God’s name. Perjury is a breach of that oath as is adultery. False teachings are a misuse of God’s name. These could include legalism as described above, double predestination, decision theology, the Lord’s Supper merely as a sign and not forgiveness of sins, etc. Blaming God for the evil in the world is also a misuse of His holy name, or asking Him to harm another person.
We obviously know the wrong way, so what is the right way? Luther says, “We are commanded to use [God’s holy name] in the service of truth and of all that is good—for example, when we swear properly where it is necessary and required, or also when we teach properly, or, again, when we call on God’s name in time of need, or thank and praise Him in time of prosperity, etc.” (LC, Part 1, 64). When we swear in a court room before God to tell the truth, and we do, we use His name in truth rather than falsity. When we honour our marriage vows, we use His name in truth. When we teach true doctrine, we use His name in truth. When we call upon God’s name for our personal needs and those who are in need, and when we thank Him in prayer and praise Him in worship, we use His name in truth.
Concerning taking oaths, Luther comments, “The explanation is briefly this: We are not to swear in support of evil (that is, to a falsehood) or unnecessarily; but in support of the good and for the advantage of our neighbour we are to swear” (LC, Part 1, 66). Luther continues to speak on breaking oaths as leading to inevitable misery. There is a lot of truth in this. When you break an oath (i.e. a promise) to a friend, that friendship suffers hardship and often you lose that friend. When you break your marriage oath, it goes without saying that leads to misery. “The proper way to honour God’s name is to look to it for all consolation and therefore to call upon it” (LC, Part 1, 70).
Asserting in God’s Name Something that is Untrue
This is where the foolhardiness of the WBC comes in. They proclaim that God hates gay people and hates soldiers and whomever else falls victim to their evil. While properly recognising that homosexuality is a sin, they totally miss the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. Jesus commands the sinner to repent and forsake their sins. After forgiving the sinful woman, Jesus said, “Go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11). In her repentance, Jesus forgave her and commanded that she sin no more. Gay marriage proponents often argue that Jesus preached messages of love, which makes gay marriage legitimate. They’re right, He did preach messages of love, but it’s not the kind of love they’re thinking of. Their idea of love is accepting a person for who they are even if that means never changing all the bad things about them (their sin). Jesus preaches a love where He demands that we forsake the bad things about us (our sin) in response to His forgiveness. The greatest message of His love was Him dying on the cross for these sins, setting all believers free from their sin. If we still continue in a particular sin, though, how are we free from it? Asserting God’s name in the truth is preaching this message of forgiveness in Christ, who calls us to turn away from our sins (for “repentance” in the Greek literally means “to turn away from”). Asserting God’s name in the truth is to make known that even though you’re a sinner, God loves you, and because He loves you He desires that you come to Christ and repent. Asserting in God’s name something that’s untrue is the WBC pastime—declaring God hates someone because of this-or-that thing we disapprove of.
Atheists are infamous for asserting falsehoods in God’s name as well. For example, they’ll either say God is hateful, unloving, or indifferent because there’s suffering in the world. However, we can only know what God has revealed. He has revealed that suffering, like all tragedies, is the curse of sin wreaking havoc in His creation (Genesis 3:16-19). He has revealed that tragedies are the creation groaning with the pain of sin (Romans 8:19-22). We cannot equate God’s permitting to God’s causing; God doesn’t cause evil to happen and it is illogical to say that permitting is equal to causing when they are entirely different. While it remains hidden as to why God allows such suffering to occur, God has revealed His salvation in Jesus. We cannot know why God permits suffering, yet we know God has eternally resolved suffering through the cross of Christ. Where there is suffering, however, there is an opportunity for Christ to be known. One may say, “This isn’t comforting.” It’s not meant to be comforting; it’s meant to show reality exactly as it is in a world tainted with sin. There are many other examples of atheistic falsities, but for the sake of brevity I cannot discuss them all here.
Instead, we ought to assert in God’s name something true. We do this when we comfort someone that God loves them, or that God forgives them. If you’ve read any of my devotions, those are essentially asserting God’s name with something that is true because my words are based on Scripture. Whatever is true of the nature of God is what we must assert in His name.
Using God’s Name as a Swear Word or to Pronounce a Curse
As I said earlier, people using God’s name as a swear word irks me. It is probably my biggest pet peeve. While non-Christians demand that we respect them for their beliefs, they refuse to reciprocate that standard to us as they use our Lord’s name in vain. I often think on why it is that people feel the need to use His name as a swear word. I was in the Army, so it doesn’t bother me when people use a plethora of other swear words in their arsenal like the “F” word, but using my God’s name in vain like that is a personal insult and is inexcusable. In all seriousness, why is it that people feel the need to use His name as a swear word? Feel free to comment with your thoughts. The closest thing I can come to is Luke 6:45, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” I have to confess: sometimes when I’m extremely angry, I use the Lord’s name in vain and when I do, I immediately hate myself for it and repent. I only use His name in vain at these times because in my anger, evil is within my heart, not goodness. So when people use Jesus’ name like it’s just an ordinary curse word, all I can think of why they do so is because evil is deep within their heart. This might be an unfair judgement, but let me know what you think in the comments.
It’s not as common (at least I hope), but sometimes people use God’s name to curse people. Not a curse like we see on TV shows where someone creepily speaks in Latin or some weird religious nut jargon as they curse someone. But a curse that goes more like, “I hope to God you die” or whatever negative outcome we wish for. I don’t think it’s as common, but it does happen. Whether it’s serious or in a joking manner doesn’t matter. We shouldn’t joke with God’s name like this, and we certainly shouldn’t use His holy name to invoke a curse on someone. It’s not that it will work (because it won’t), but it’s simply because we are misusing His name.
We also misuse God’s name when we use it in the satanic arts and spells. Of course, this isn’t common today, at least depending on where you live. It is more common in remote parts of third world countries than it is in western society. Luther mentioned these as ways to misuse God’s name not just because His Word prohibits it, but also because the satanic arts and casting spells were still prevalent in his time. So, beware of those few areas that use God’s name in the satanic arts and all sorts of pagan spells. They might be using God’s name, but the force that really comes through is one that’s demonic.
Instead, we should use Jesus’ name to advance the Gospel and to invoke blessings on people. “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). Blessing people with our words is properly invoking the name of Christ, even as people are reviling us. Our natural inclination is to offend when others offend us, but Christ tells us to turn the other cheek and bless when we are cursed. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
Misusing the Lord’s name goes beyond using it as a curse word. While that is the most common method, we also misuse His name when we break oaths made before Him, preach legalism and other false teachings, when we tell lies that do not align with His Word and accurately testify of His character, when we use it to curse people, and when we use it in the satanic arts and a variety of pagan spells. Instead, to use His name properly is when we keep our oaths made before Him, remember to preach the Gospel along with the Law, ensure our teachings align with His Word, use His name to teach the truth of His love and mercy, and when we use His name to bless others. The sooner we learn this, the sooner we learn how to revere our Lord.