“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”Exodus 20:7
In Exodus 20, God famously gave Moses the ten commandments, a simple yet powerful high level moral law to govern and guide God’s people. The third of these ten laws is easily summed up with the statement, “Do not use the Lord’s name in vain.” When most consider this command by God, they immediately interpret it as a prohibition on using God’s name as an explitive or curse word. Certainly, that is the plain reading of the text and is true, believers ought never degrade the precious name of God by uttering it as a curse word. To speak in such a way of God would be to reveal a deep fissure inside one’s proclaimd worship of God. Yet, there is much further depth to this command than simply avoiding God’s name when uttering foul mouthed statements.
The term “vanity” carries with it the weight of falsity, fraudulence, and deceit. To ‘take the Lord’s name in vain’ is not only to use the name of God in foul speech, but more deeply it is to proclaim oneself underneath the name of God while living in such a way that blatantly contradicts the majesty of that name. It is to proclaim Jesus as your Lord and take the family name of God, yet carry on a lifestyle that rejects His Lordship. Were one to behave in such a way it would be as if they were trampling the name of Christ through the mud.
The Christian’s testimony of transformation, while a story of true conversion, is also a story of progression. The moment we repent of our sin and rebellion to God, and place our full trust in Jesus’s substitionary atonement on the cross, we are fully forgiven of our debt to God and begin life anew. This new life, as we have seen, stems from an entirely new nature. Whereas once we were slaves to sin (Romans 6:6), we are now freed from that slavery and declared children of God (Romans 8:15). Yet, even with this new nature, we are prone to fall back into our old ways and continue to commit the very sins our new nature despises so much. The great hope is that once God has begun this new work in us through our conversion, He will bring it to completion (Philippians 1:8) and will empower us progressively as we mature in our faith to truly put an end to sinful habits and desires. This side of heaven, no one will reach the perfect standard of Christ, but our new nature demands that evident fruit of transformation will be seen over time in authentic believer’s lives (Galatians 5:22-23).
In the next section we will evaluate the historic legacy that Christianity has left upon the Earth. That legacy is a wonder to behold, and is evidence of the truthfulness of Christianity’s claims. Yet we must acknowledge that while Christianity has left a grand trail of justice, joy, and prosperity wherever the Kingdom has expanded, there are also many accounts of those who have tragically “used the Lord’s name in vain,” and trampled the name of Jesus through the mud by carrying out vile actions that directly contradict God’s stated moral standard. Some incorrectly assess the history of Christianity as introducing more evil than good. This is a foolish and deeply uninformed reading of history. Yet, all Christians can and must readily recognize where evils have been done in the name of Jesus. Unjust wars have been fought, entire people groups have been enslaved, and tyrants have built their own kingdoms, all while claiming to do so in the name of Jesus.
In response to this historic reality, Christians can stand confidently on two key premises. First, in one way we recognize that all of us fall short of the standard we wish we could live up to. In varying ways and degrees we all “take the Lord’s name in vain.” The Christian must always be quick to see the log in our own eye before pointing out the splinter in others (Matthew 7:3-5). Hypocricy begins in our own hearts. Whenever and wherever we see this in our own lives we must be quick to repent and demonstrate the grace of God to forgive sinners like us.
Secondly, we must recognize that when critics of Christianity utilize the failures committed throughout history by those who have assumed the name of Christ, in order to demonstrate the falsity of Christianity, they are measuring Christianity incorrectly. The veracity of Christianity ought not be measured by the fools who have dragged the name of Jesus through the mud, but rather by those who lived in accordance with the model and standard prescribed through Scripture. It is worthwhile to note that when Christianity’s critics condemn historic evils done in the name of Jesus, the standard of condemnation they most often use is the standard of true Christianity. In other words, if an atheist accuses Christianity as false because “Christians” around the globe supported human-chattel-slavery, they are in fact condemning Christianity by Christianity’s own standard not by their own. It is the standard of Christianity that demands that kidnapping and selling a human being is not only evil and wicked, but is punishable by death (Exodus 21:16). When the atheist condemns Christians in the past who participated in such a wicked system, they are borrowing from the Christian worldview which provides the grounds for condemning such a wicked practice, and not standing on their own worldview which has no actual moral grounding to make a similar condemnation. In other words, the atheist and agnostic have no grounds other than their own opinion for the morally objective statement that man-stealing is universally wrong. It is the Christian who has that kind of confidence.
I do not aim to whitewash over the stains of those who have taken the name of the Lord in vain throughout history in catastrophic ways. The aim is in fact to do the opposite. It is to expose those evils for what they really are. They are wicked and evil ideas, acts, and institutions that are rightly condemned. But they are not the measurement we ought to use when evaluating the veracity of a worldview for they are not failures of authentic Christianity, but rather failures of the fools who took it upon themselves to drag the name of Jesus through the mud.