March 3, 2024

Usurping Sin

I can't even begin to count the number of times that I’ve heard fellow Christians say something about how they feel when they hear someone “take the Lord’s name in vain.” We all know exactly what they are referring to: a particular bit of foul language that begins by saying “god” and ends with a word that sounds like the fruits of a beaver’s labor.

All misguided attempts at dad jokes aside, I know there are Christians out there who are sincerely bothered, even offended, by hearing the word in question. While “g-d” is considered by most people (even non-believers) to be one of the two biggest, or most intense, swear words (the other being the dreaded f-bomb), it has become almost ubiquitous in its usage in the entertainment industry and in the vocabulary which some people use commonly in their own personal conversations.

The Bible clearly says, “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.” This prohibition is important enough to be stated twice in the Old Testament: Exodus 20:7 and Deuteronomy 5:11. These verses are, in fact, the Third of the Ten Commandments!

Taking the Lord’s name in vain is a serious offense, as the text indicates that anyone who does so will not be held guiltless. Being held guiltless is a longer way of saying being forgiven, which in the context of Christianity equates to salvation; for only the saved are forgiven of their sins. In light of the New Testament, we now understand this to mean that anyone who takes the name of the Lord in vain shall not be saved by the atoning death of Christ on the cross. Clearly, it behooves us to understand exactly what act merits such a drastic outcome. As it turns out, an alarming number of Christians completely misunderstand this sin.

In order to correctly understand the Third Commandment, we must first know what it means to take the name of the Lord. Simply put, to take someone’s name means to become part of their family. Most commonly today, at least here in the US, we think of that in terms of marriage: women traditionally give up their maiden names and take the names of their husbands. There are far more Bible verses than I have room to list which compare the relationship between the believer and God to a marriage. Both Testaments use this kind of language, and Jesus even refers to Himself as the bridegroom in many of His parables. The Song of Solomon is an entire book predicated on this comparison!

What could it mean, then, to take the name of the Lord in vain?

The book of Ecclesiastes uses the following refrain a great many times: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” The word vanity in these verses could be replaced by words like worthless or meaningless. The great lesson of Ecclesiastes is that nothing on planet Earth really matters, except for knowing God and doing His work.

“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all...” Ecclesiastes 12:13

Therefore, if one takes the name of the Lord in vain, they are claiming to be part of the family of God, yet that claim is meaningless because they are bringing nothing of worth to the relationship. They are, in a sense, parasites which expect to receive all of the benefits of the family name while supplying nothing of value in return. They expect blessings and salvation, yet they withhold the one thing which matters: their heart; their innermost being given freely to God, willing to submit to any circumstance for the glory of God, eager to yield to his Hand in shaping their lives, and obedient without expectation of anything other than His presence in return. In the worst cases, it is nothing short of an attempt to usurp the position of those who are counted as heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, but without the associated suffering.

It is important to understand that only a person who has claimed the name of the Lord, meaning one who professes with their mouth that they believe in the God of the Bible, can be guilty of taking the name of the Lord in vain. It is impossible, by definition, for any self-proclaimed atheist to be guilty of this sin. That is not to say that God will overlook the sins of non-believers (other sins are a different matter entirely); it is merely a clarification of a specific Law given to a specific people for a specific time. This particular sin cannot be committed unless one has first claimed to be a child of God. The Ten Commandments, after all, were originally given only to God’s chosen people: the Hebrews who became known as the people of Israel in the Old Testament.

The First Commandment establishes God as their God, not because they chose to worship Him, but because He, as the almighty creator of the universe, claimed them as His own. The Second Commandment underscores the First by explicitly forbidding the worship of any other god. The Third, then, makes it clear that no human being can masquerade as one who accepts inclusion into God’s family via the First while secretly holding on to any allegiance with gods forbidden by the Second.

So then, what about using the word “g-d”? Is that actually the same as taking the Lord’s name in vain? We have established that an atheist is one who refuses to take the name of the Lord at all (meaning they actively reject becoming part of the family of God), yet they can clearly say the word in question. We have also seen that only people who do claim to take the name of the Lord can do so in vain, while never once even considering the use of that word. Can we really continue to believe that saying “g-d” equates to breaking the Third Commandment?

The answer is a resounding, “No.”

Saying “g-d” is not an example of taking the name of the Lord in vain. So, does that mean it’s ok for Christians to suddenly start using the most foul of profanities?

The answer is a resounding, “No!”

Christians are warned repeatedly about the use of our tongues, but the most applicable verse for this question comes from the book of Colossians…

“But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.” Colossians 3:8

All profanity qualifies as filthy language, and Christians are explicitly commanded to avoid using it. Even staunch non-believers may refer to profanity as bad words which are not appropriate for children to say, because those words oppose and contradict the very innocence of childhood. Furthermore, they are very quick to point out that Christians who “cuss” are hypocrites, and that’s a pretty fair description, honestly. While it hurts to say or hear it, every living Christian is going to be guilty of hypocrisy from time to time. We don’t want to be, and we try hard not to be, but in the end, we all fall short of the glory of God.

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us... If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” 1 John 1:8,10

Taking the name of the Lord in vain is a far more serious offense than saying some bad words. It is an instance of laying claim to the name, the character, the power, and authority of God the Father as a joint heir with Christ when one has no right to do so. One who commits this sin is an imposter. A usurper. A flat-out liar.

The cliché, “fake Christian,” comes to mind.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope in all of this. While taking the Lord’s name in vain is indeed a serious sin, there is little reason to believe that it is an irreversible condition, assuming the perpetrator realizes their error, repents, and prays for forgiveness before it is too late to do so. After all, the sacrificial system of the Old Testament was provided within the Law in order to give sinners a way to atone for any of their sins which were enumerated by the Law. Christ's death on the cross ultimately fulfilled the need for a sacrifice for all who would place their belief in Him.

Moreover, 1 John 1:9 states, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” It is through repentance and submission to God’s will that one may finally release their allegiance to other gods and enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, ultimately fulfilling the demands of the Third Commandment.


Parts two and three of this series will investigate two topics that arose during my research for this article: the unpardonable sin and unknown sins. I wasn’t expecting to write a multi-part essay when I started this, but the more I read, the more it became apparent that the topics were related. As we continue into the next two installments, we will uncover some uncomfortable implications with potentially dire consequences.

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