Heidelberg 99–100: Sanctifying The Lord’s Name

soto-omg-cultureIn 2013 there was a court case in Miami in which a teen-ager was sentenced to 30 days for showing disrespect to a judge and to the court. The defendant did not seem to be able to comprehend that she was in a court of law. The very idea of sanctity has been difficult for Americans in post-Jacksonian America where powerful, seemingly relentless democratizing forces erode level every distinction. Talk show hosts ask presidential candidates about their under garments and everyone laughs. Today, presidents appear willingly in bizarre YouTube videos, pardon turkeys both metaphorical and literal, and roll easter eggs. The spirit of our age is to make everything common or profane, to dirty up everything. Everything is fodder for comedy. Nothing is revered. As Americans we struggle with the very idea of dignity because  there’s a strong democratizing streak in our culture, in our attitude and most of the time we are not even aware of it. We laugh at and applaud comedians who take down a peg politicians and other public figures. Perhaps that’s our right as Americans but there are some authorities that cannot be “dissed” at least not without the gravest of consequences. The judge in Miami sentenced that young person to 30 days. Yahweh Elohim‘s final judgment will be immutable. No president shall be able to commute that sentence nor issue a pardon.

The third commandment says:

You shall not take the name of the Yahweh your Elohim (God) in vain; for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain (Ex 20:7).

How do we understand this commandment? In Heidelberg Catechism 99 we say:

That we must not by cursing, or by false swearing, nor yet by unnecessary oaths, profane or abuse the name of God; nor even by our silence and connivance be partakers of these horrible sins in others; and in sum, that we use the Holy Name of God in no other way than with fear and reverence, so that He may be rightly confessed and worshipped by us, and be glorified in all our words and works.

The first thing we need to say about the name of the Lord, Yahweh Elohim, is that it, like the Lord himself, is holy. It is unique. It is clean. It is pure. It is undefiled. It is set apart. It is not common or ordinary. Believers are obligated to treat that name accordingly.

In Scripture God’s name is who he is and who and what he is to us. There is the closest relationship between God’s name and God. In fact, we do not really understand how close that relationship is. In our time, in our culture, in late-modern North America we tend to assume that names are arbitrary or sentimental. My name is Scott. I was not named because we have a strong Scots heritage. Rather, like a lot of other parents in that era, my parents liked that name. Names are not generally arbitrary in Scripture, where there is a close relation between the name and thing named. Esau is classic example. It means “red and hairy” and he was named Esau because he was red and hairy. Our Savior was named Jesus, which means “Yahweh saves” because, as Matthew 1:21 says, “he shall save his people.”  So, the names, God, Lord, Almighty, Yahweh, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Father, these names are all intimately related to what God is and what and who he is to us.

In Genesis 15:7 God said to Abraham, “And he said to him, ‘I am Yahweh who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.'” Yahweh is God’s covenant name. He is the God who is and the God who has entered into a gracious relationship with Abraham, who has made promises to Abraham—promises that Abraham did not and could not have deserved. That is why we speak of a “covenant of grace” or a “gracious covenant.” Grace means “unconditional favor.” Yahweh did not enter into a covenant with Abraham because Abraham was good or deserving but because Yahweh is good and gracious to sinners.

In Exodus 3:13–15 Scripture says,

Then Moses said to Elohim, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The Elohim of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

Notice how closely related to his name is God’s relationship to us. He is our covenant-making and covenant-keeping God. Further, behind that relationship is his immutable nature. The God who entered into covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who made covenant with Moses and Israel, is the God who just is. The gods of the nations are contingent. They are idols. The God of history and salvation just is. The idols might be or they might not be but God is.

Sometimes Scripture refers simply to God as “the name.” Modern Hebrew reflects this idea that God’s name is holy. They use the expression, “Ha Shem” (the name) for God. This is probably going beyond Scripture since it uses the words Elohim, and Yahweh (assuming the vowel points), El Shaddai etc. The name of Jesus is equally holy and it is used many times in Scripture so it is not as if we cannot say it but we should say it with reverence.

Leviticus is the book of holiness and in it Yahweh himself instituted ceremonies to point to Christ and to illustrate his holiness. Leviticus 19:12 illustrates this when it says, “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am Yahweh” (or “the Lord”). When you see the name LORD in small capital letters in your English Bible that is the signal that the Hebrew text says Yahweh, God’s covenant name.

This is not an easy thing, particularly in a culture that seems to regard it as a duty to rubbish any sacred thing as soon as it’s discovered. Second, in order for us to be able to begin to obey this commandment is to distinguish between that which is common, which we used to call “secular” and that which is holy, that which is pure. It is one thing to make fun of a football team or a pop culture figure. God’s name, however, belongs to another order. This is why we do not use God’s holy name as a curse word. God’s name is pure and cursing is common and even dirty. The two things do not belong together. The government requires us to swear oaths and sometimes to invoke the name of God. We must do that carefully. Our Lord Jesus said, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matt 5:37). James 5:12 says the same thing.

Our catechism says that we should not stand by when others abuse God’s holy name. This is a perhaps one of the more difficult applications of the law in the catechism since we live in a world in which the Lord’s name is abused almost constantly. There are a few things to consider here. First, When this commandment was given to Israel at Sinai, it was given to her as Yahweh‘s national people. Under the Old Covenant law blaspheming the name of God was a capital offense (Lev 24). There are no more national peoples of God. That relationship ended at the cross. Now God’s people are found among every tribe, tongue, and nation.

Second, when the catechism was written the situation was a little like that in which the moral law was given. The European states saw themselves as God’s national people. Virtually everyone was regarded as a Christian, thus, when someone blasphemed and another corrected him, he was correcting another professing Christian.  We see this context in the last part of the answer, when it says, “so that He may be rightly confessed and worshipped by us, and be glorified in all our words and works.”

Third, we have no evidence that, in the first-century, the Christians went around correcting (and certainly not stoning) the pagans by whom they were surrounded. The pagans around them invoked the gods constantly. Paul teased them about it in his speech in Athens at the Areopagus (Acts 16). Arguably, when pagans use the word God loosely they are not abusing the covenant name, Yahweh. We who believe, who profess the Christian faith, however, ought to be distinct from the pagans around us. Here is something Christians can stop saying: “OMG” and the words for which that stands.

Again, the underlying principle here is to learn to be able to distinguish between that which is sacred and that which is common.

As believers, as Christians, we’re obligated to set aside the holy name of God, the covenant name of the Lord who saved us, who sent his only begotten Son because that is his name. The name Jesus means Yahweh saves. Jesus’ name is Yahweh. The God who spoke at Sinai, who gave his holy law, was God the Son. He is the revealer of God. He is the Word and that Word became incarnate. So, when we or another believer or perhaps anyone else uses the holy name of Jesus carelessly or as a curse word, they are making common (profaning) the name of the Lord who thundered at Sinai and the Savior, who became incarnate for sinners such as you and I.

The catechism continues:

100. Is the profaning of God’s name, by swearing and cursing, so grievous a sin, that His wrath is kindled against those also who do not help as much as they can to hinder and forbid the same?

Yes truly, for no sin is greater and more provoking to God than the profaning of His name; wherefore He even commanded it to be punished with death.

It was a capital crime under the old covenant to abuse the holy name of God (Lev 24:16). It was called “blasphemy.” The catechism reminds us of this fact to drive home how much we, who know God in Christ, who’ve been given new life by the Holy Spirit, should value the name of God.

This gets us back to the distinction between that which is sacred and that which is common. If there really are things are that not common, that really are set apart, that really are pure, clean, and good, then they are worth defending. When we do this, however, we should do it graciously and patiently. When a brother or sister abuses the Lord’s name, perhaps the best thing to say is, “I suppose that you did not mean to do it but are you aware of how you just used the name of our Lord?”

The distinction between sacred and common (secular) also helps us to know how to handle those situations where were are likely in the midst of those who do not profess faith in Christ. For example, you are standing in line in the bank. Should you correct the person next to you who abuses the Lord’s name? I suppose opinions on this will differ but I have given some reasons why we should perhaps distinguish between how we regard what professing Christians do and what we expect of unbelievers or those who make no profession of faith. The Apostle Paul instructed Christians when they were and were not free to eat meat offered to idols (1 Cor chapters 8 and 10) but he did not instruct the pagans. Those who believed it was wrong to eat meat offered to idols were free not to eat it but those who believed it was permitted were free to eat. Perhaps this is a guide to responding to abuses of the Lord’s name in the public square.

If you are convicted that you should speak to unbelievers about their abuse of God’s name, one way to approach them is to say something like, “I understand that you do not believe the Christian faith but I do and I would be grateful if you would respect the Christian conviction that God’s name is to be treated with reverence. In our understanding, it is a great sin to abuse his name.” I imagine that might be a first for him.

Whatever the pagans do and however they use God’s name, they will have to give an account to God. Believers who have been saved from the wrath of God by the Holy Son of God, who have been baptized into his triune name, however, ought to revere it ought of gratitude and holy fear.

One place where Christians swear properly by God’s name is when we take membership vows. Those are sacred oaths. When Christians, who have professed the faith, stand before God and the congregation, and swear an oath to be faithful in response to God’s grace and then abandon the visible church, that is a violation of the 3rd commandment (and the 5th too but we will come to that later). You have broken your word, your promise made over the holy name of God. That is why church membership was so difficult to obtain in the ancient church. Perhaps, in view of the sacred oath that is sworn, might do well to make it a little more difficult in our day.

In our age little is held as sacred except perhaps our sovereign identity and our all-important feelings. God is holy and he demands that his name be treated with reverence, as something that is holy. As we contemplate how we ourselves have profaned God’s beautiful name we may be thankful that we have a Savior, who so revered his Father’s name that he never profaned it even once and his perfect obedience is imputed to all who believe as if we had never violated the 3rd commandment. The Holy Spirit who sustained him through his trials and who raised him from the dead is at work in us helping us to learn to pray, “Hallowed by your name” in true faith.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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4 comments

  1. The sad thing about the example you used above is that, if memory serves me correctly, the judge later revised his sentence in a much more lenient direction. One of the reasons why reverence and respect for authority are so rare, and why trashing the sacred and despising authority so common, is that in our uber-permissive culture one rarely, if ever, sees any real consequences to such rebellious, brazenly-disrepectful behavior.

  2. Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to jump for a taped interview by a Sweedish TV personality always struck me as a powerful counterexample of the trend of leaders (political and otherwise) to posture in ridiculous and contrived photo-ops in order to look “folksy” and “relatable”. The same trend can be seen in pastors and “leaders” within the Christian community who go out of the way to make belabored pop culture refrences in order to show one’s “common man” bonafides. While much of this may come from good intentions, it has been my experience that many who give outward displays of evermanisms and self-efacing humor, do so as a cover for deep pride and a lack of genuine humility and reverence for whatever station or office that leader happens to be assigned.

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