Exodus 20:7

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain:
for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
[preached on Sunday afternoon 28 April 1765]
The foundation of true religion is laid in a right knowledge of God and ourselves.  How deficient we are in each of these, how far fallen from original righteousness, is strongly implied in this prohibition which would be altogether unnecessary, were we not altogether sunk in stupidity and wickedness.  That such worms should be liable to trifle with the Majesty whose presence fills heaven and earth, before whom the angels hide their faces – that such frail, dependent creatures have need to be cautioned that we do not profane the name of the God in whom we live, move and have our being, is a striking instance of our depravity, as our daring to break through this caution, and slighting the awful threatenings with which it is closed, is a dreadful aggravation of our guilt.
These words were first delivered in flames and thunder etc.  Such a scene or rather infinitely more dreadful shall hereafter take place when the Lord shall again descend, be revealed in flaming fire to take vengeance.  Then shall sinners be convinced, not only of their ungodly deeds, but their hard speeches – and shall know the meaning of that terrible exception I have read: He will not hold them guiltless.
  1. Explain the terms and general meaning.
  2. Point out some of the many ways in which this command is customarily and carelessly broken.
  3. Add a word of application.
1. [the terms and general meaning]
  1.1 The Most High God, unsearchable in himself, farther than as he is pleased to make himself known; whatever he reveals of himself to his creatures may be called a part of his name. How he is pleased to disclose himself in the world of spirits, must be a secret to us till we mingle with them. To us a twofold revelation:
    1.1.1 By his works
These proclaim him, yet not understood by fallen man – where this is alone, men live and die regardless and ignorant of him as the ground they tread on.  Therefore a farther discovery;
    1.1.2 By his word
Here he shines forth Great, Glorious, Gracious.  What we thus learn or may learn concerning him, is his holy and venerable name.
  1.2 We may be said to take this name, to lift or bear it as the original imports, not only when we make mention of it in our lips, but when we entertain it in our thoughts and especially when we call upon it in our prayers, or call ourselves by it when in the profession we make of being his people.  And:
  1.3 We do this in vain – when we use it falsely or profanely, inconsiderately, without due reverence, or unprofitably without suitable occasion.
  1.4 The sanction has a meaning and emphasis beyond what is expressed – a manner of speech frequent in Scripture. Deuteronomy 29:20; [1] 2 Peter 2:4. [2]  It implies two things:
    1.4.1 That God has appointed a day to call sinners to account for their words as well as actions.
    1.4.2 That whatever shall become of others, those who have dared to take his name in vain have their doom determined.  Whoever shall escape they shall surely perish.  Whoever he acquits he will surely condemn them.  He will not hold them guiltless.
2. Having premised this application, it will be far more easy than agreeable to enlarge on the next point:  in what ways this command is broken.  Perhaps we shall find it reach farther than some of you think.  The law is spiritual.
  2.1 The first and most direct way is perjury.  When he is appealed to in confirmation of what is false, or when engagements are made as in his name and presence, which are not strictly complied with.  I need not spend time to prove this a sin of a deep dye in itself, and of peculiar aggravation under the Gospel.  It will be allowed.  I wish it were more difficult to prove the frequency of it amongst us, but this likewise is plain as the light.  I have sometimes heard it said that though we are bad enough we are not worse than other countries.  I am content to wave the parallel in other things, but with respect to perjury I fear we are worse than any other nation now under the sun, or than perhaps ever existed.  I am afraid there are more and more daring barefaced instances of this wickedness amongst us than in all the rest of Europe.  By a fatal kind of necessity it is interwoven as it were in the very constitution of the body politic, and diffuses itself like a fatal deadly contagion among all orders and ranks of people.  Oaths are so excessively multiplied and so generally neglected that it is equally difficult and rare for a person to engage through a course of years in any kind of employ either civil or commercial (O that it stopped even here) without being ensnared.  Some are so expressed that it is morally impossible to comply with them, others so circumstanced, that they are usually swallowed without the remotest design of regarding them either in whole or in part.  If here and there a few make conscience of their engagements and are desirous to perform to the Lord their oaths, or to decline taking such as open a door either to honour or profit, so strong is the torrent the other way, that it is well if they escape the charge of singularity and preciseness.  This is perhaps peculiarly and eminently our national sin, and I tremble to think it so, for it gives too just ground to fear the approach of national judgments.
  2.2 And though the matter of an oath be strictly true, yet if it is not transacted with a real sense of the importance of the thing and a serious acknowledgement and homage of that divine being to whom appeal is made, such an oath, however lawful and necessary it may be in itself, is with regard to such triflers no better [than] taking the name of God in vain.  It cannot but be grievous to every serious mind to observe the little reverence and solemnity or rather the total want of common decency which too frequently prevails amongst us in this respect, and it is not easy sometimes to say, whether those tender the oath, or those who take it seem least in earnest.  To this it is to be feared much of the perjury amongst us is partly owing.  If those who are authorised to require or receive these solemn appeals, were themselves impressed with a due reverence of his awful majesty, power and purity, and were solicitous to inspire such as came before them with the same sentiments, and set before them (especially before all who appear very positive and unguarded) the impiety and danger of swearing falsely, it is possible many mischiefs would be prevented, and some persons would tremble and start back from the first temptation to this wickedness, and some would be deterred from persisting in it, who for want of such admonitions and examples, and because they never saw any solemnity observed, have rushed precipitately upon this enormous evil, and perhaps been at length given up to a dreadful habit of wilful and corrupt perjury.
  2.3 If an oath lawful and necessary may thus become criminal, what shall we say of the throng of profane swearers, who wound our ears and pollute our language by a horrid mixture of execrations and blasphemies in their common conversation.  Their throats are an open sepulchre – their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness, the poison of asps is under their lips. [3]  The Lord will not hold them guiltless.  In vain their thoughtless plea, ‘they mean no harm’.  In vain their presumptuous comparison of themselves with others – as though these were trivial escapes that did not affect the peace of society.  If these were small sins singly, their frequency would make a vast amount.  But is it a small sin, to rush against the bosses of God’s buckler, [4] to despise so terrible a threatening as this!  A habit of swearing is a sure sign not only of an unsanctified heart, but of a conscience hardened, and as it were seared with a hot iron, callous and insensible.  May the Lord awaken such.
  2.4 Some persons who scruple expressly to mention the names of God, swear by the creatures, etc, but that this likewise is a direct violation of the law, and exposes to the same penalties we are assured by him who best knows how to explain his own commands Matthew 5:34-36 [5] and 23:18-22. [6]  Will any that live in a Christian land and have the Bible at hand plead ignorance of this in the great day?  Surely no!
  2.5 If I should stop here some would applaud themselves, and perhaps not be displeased with me for what I have hitherto said.  Some who think themselves clear thus far, will join me in saying, Because of swearing the Lord mourns.  But are there no other ways of taking God’s name in vain?  Yes, many do it as often as they pray.  See Matthew 15:8.[1]  Do you ask what you do not desire and confess what you do not feel, etc?  Is not this to take the name of God in vain?  Does not it prove that you think him altogether such a one as yourselves, nay, more easily imposed on, more safely to be trifled with than a poor fallible mortal?  Strange it is to think that many not only content themselves with this lip service, but make it the meritorious ground of their hope, and conceit[fancy] themselves religious because they come so often to church to mock the power that made them.  But hardly can any wickedness be imagined more daring and provoking to the Most High than such a religion as this.  Farther,
  2.6 As many of you as choose to be called Christians and live in the allowed practice of known sin, your whole lives may be considered as one continual breach of this command.  In all you say and do you blaspheme that holy name by which you are called – and still more so if you are professed friends and favourers of the Gospel.   By your means the ways of truth are evil spoken of.  You give occasion to those offences of which it is said, Wo to that man by whom the offence cometh.  You injure the cause, stumble the weak, grieve the Lord’s people and make his enemies rejoice.  Better it would be never to have known the way of righteousness, than thus to abuse your knowledge.  Your case is awfully dangerous indeed.  But it is time:
3. To make a few inferences by way of improvement.
  3.1 See how true is that [text]: Every mouth shall be stopped. [8]  Who in this assembly is clear of every part of this charge?  Must we not all plead guilty?  What can you do:
    3.1.1 to repair the dishonour offered to the D[Divine] Majesty, or
    3.1.2 the effects of your ill example?
  3.2 See the necessity and value of the Gospel.  How else can you escape the sanction?  If you refuse this, there remains no other sacrifice for sin.  But if you humble yourself – apply to Jesus, there is yet hope.  He died for sinners, the chief of sinners and the greatest of sins.  For his sake all manner of sin and blasphemy is pardonable.  He is able to save, but he must do the whole, and have all the glory.  Believe, pray – repent and forsake.
  3.3 Believers, praise the grace and mercy that saved.  Look back and rejoice with trembling!  Why have others been cut off in these sins and you spared?  Let your future lives be devoted to him who loved you.

 [1] Deuteronomy 29:20 The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven.
[2] 2 Peter 2:4 For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment;
[3] Romans 3:13 Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips:
[4] Job 15:26 He runneth upon him, even on his neck, upon the thick bosses of his bucklers:
[5] Matthew 5:34–36 But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.
[6] Matthew 23:18–22 And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.
[7] Matthew 15:8 This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.
[8] Romans 3:19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.

Cowper & Newton Museum, John Newton's notebook N2