Apostasy and the Third Commandment

Step One: Making Light of the LORD – Breaking the Third Commandment

Exodus 20:7 – 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.

The third commandment is easily misunderstood in today’s culture. Many unbelievers, and even believers, read “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain” and believe that command to only mean you should not cuss using His name, or you cannot get mad and use His name in vain because you slammed your thumb with a hammer while you were driving a nail into your wall. But it is extremely important – not only with just the third commandment, but with all of the Law – to understand the Law in the way the LORD intended; meaning that we are to look deeper into the text by itself. Many translations do a poor job of translating the exact meaning of texts from the original Hebrew. The following are a few more literal translations of the third commandment that may make it easier to understand:

  • You shall not misuse the name of the LORD[1]
  • You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God[2]
  • You must not lift up the name of the LORD your God frivolously/falsely[3]

It is important when coming to the practical side of theology to understand how this command is played out.  It is not merely taking the LORD’s name in vain, and not only saying His name meaninglessly, but it is the misuse of His name in all of the everyday life.  Brian Edwards deals best with the practical theology behind the blasphemy in breaking the third commandment. He describes eight common ways in which one does so:

  • A common swear word (Leviticus 24:11)
  • Misusing His name in false worship (Psalm 24:4; Judges 17:2-3; Deuteronomy 12:4,8,13; John 14:6 & Acts 12)
  • Misusing the name of the Lord in careless worship (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2; Numbers 26:61; Deuteronomy 12:48 & John 14:14)
  • Using the name of the Lord to support a lie (Leviticus 19:12; 1Kings 13:18 & Acts 5)
  • Mocking God (Isaiah 52:5; 2 Samuel 12:14 & Romans 2:23-24)
  • Using the name of the Lord in idle oaths (Numbers 30:2 & Matthew 5:33-37)
  • Using the name of the Lord in complaint and unbelief (Malachi 3:13-14; Numbers 14:27 & 1Corinthians 10:10)
  • In mishandling His word (Example: Matthew 8:5-13 was a homosexual slave)[4]

The issue behind these common actions among humanity is that the name of the LORD is carelessly thrown around, and His character is belittled.  But what is even worse is when the actions are commonly done in and by the church – that is, among so-called believers of the gospel.  If the believer of the gospel properly understood that the squandering of God’s name is to really say that their God is of no noteworthy value, the beginnings of apostasy would never exist; for doing this is the very beginning of leaving the central gospel truths, is making less of who God is, and using His name meaninglessly.  The way the believer talks about God – the way he talks about the One in whom he claims relationship with – can begin a pathway to apostasy.

To make light of His name, to make fun of His being, to speak loosely of His character, to joke about His Word, to laugh at His nature, to allow His name to be misused, to constantly gain a tolerance for the misuse of God Himself,  then claim that one is in right relationship with Him is thoroughly hypocritical.  Yet this is where it is most typical to begin falling away from Christ and leave the gospel, if one does not fully understand or know the importance of the third commandment.  They put to waste the LORD’s name, and make light of Him as if He is like any other human being. But how does that lead to apostasy? Simply put, it is this command that the LORD’s people are asked to keep, and yet they allow themselves to fall short, and in most cases allow the way of the culture to decide for them what is acceptable and what is not. To some it is just a name or perhaps just a little joke… no biggie, just something to swear by in order to sound right… make a promise in His name because that is what people do. It is these acts which draw the individual away from the gospel truths, and it is in these acts that the individual starts to leave that which God has asked of His people.

If one breaks the third commandment of the Decalogue, does that make him an apostate?  Is not an apostate one who departs from the gospel?  Though it does not make one an apostate directly, this here – the misuse of the LORD’s name – is where apostasy easily begins.  Disrespecting the LORD’s name is only the beginning of the act of apostatizing.  It is here where one loses their respect for the name of the LORD and begins their path of leaving either what they had claimed to believe, or what they were taught about the gospel. But how can the believer of the gospel keep from a constant breaking of the third commandment?

The believer must see and fully understand that the use of the LORD’s name a privilege for them to use.  Edwards speaks to this when dealing with the third commandment in relation to us today:

“It is our privilege to use the ‘name’ of our triune God-the Father, Son and Holy Spirit-both in worship and in witness. But we must use it carefully. There are few things more wonderful than to use the name of our God and Saviour-and nothing more dangerous than to abuse it.”[5]

This is how the Law is love to the believer: not that it is restricting us from the things our nature wants to do, but it lays the principles in which we can enjoy the gospel fully.  It is in this that one can continue to focus in happiness, being able to speak of God as his God.


[1] Brian Edwards, The Ten Commandments for Today, p. 97.

[2] R. Kendall Soulen, “The Blessing of God’s Name,” in The Ten Commandments: For Jews, Christians, and Others, ed. Roger E. Van Harn,(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), p. 47.

[3] Herber B. Huffmon, “The Fundamental Code Illustrated: The Third Commandment,” in The Ten Commandments: The Reciprocity of Faithless, ed. William P. Brown (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), p. 207.

[4] Edwards, The Ten Commandments for Today, p. 97-113.

[5] Edwards, The Ten Commandments for Today, p. 115.

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