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 (Exod 20:7).
“My walk is a public one. My business is in the world; and I must mix in the assemblies of men, or quit the post which Providence seems to have assigned me.”2 Such were the words of William Wilberforce, the English parliamentarian who, more than any other, was responsible for the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of slaves in England. They are also the words of one who had deeply imbibed the spirit of the third commandment.
The Hebrew word translated above as “take” more literally means “to bear.” To bear the name of God in vain can mean one of two things. It can mean to bear the name of the Lord to no purpose, which is consistent with our understanding of vanity as that which is fleeting and meaningless. Or it can mean to bear the name of the Lord falsely, which suggests bearing the name of the Lord in a manner that is false to His character. This is precisely the hypocrisy for which Paul rebuked the Jews, charging that “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom 2:24). That the people of God bear His name is a given. The question is not whether we will bear His name but rather how we will bear His name.
So how is the life of William Wilberforce an example of faithfulness to the third commandment?
In what is surely among the most famous personal mission statements in history, Wilberforce wrote that “God Almighty has placed before me two great Objects, the Suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.”3 For Wilberforce, his political advocacy on behalf of enslaved peoples was a direct response to the call of God upon his life. His prayers are clear: “If it please God to honor me so far, may I be the instrument of stopping such a course of wickedness and cruelty as never before disgraced a Christian country.” It is worth noting that it was John Newton, Anglican minister and former slaver trader himself, who helped Wilberforce see that defending the slaves as a public servant was God’s calling upon his life.
One of the ways the world seeks to silence the Church is to draw a boundary around our witness. In America, for example, we insist on a bright line between the sacred and the secular, and specifically between religion and politics, expressed in a particular understanding of “the separation of church and state” that suggests God has no place in public affairs. In the matter of abortion, this means we can publicly argue abortion is wrong because the DNA of a child is complete at conception but not because the child is created in the image of God. It means that foundational truths are ruled out as publicly inadmissible, such as that God created everything good, that sex is meant for marriage and appropriately leads to pregnancy, and that God does not turn a blind eye to the shedding of innocent blood. In the end, apart from God, public opposition to abortion amounts to “we don’t think you should do it.” And abortion persists.
Bearing the image of God faithfully in our day means at least two things. It means being clear that the Lord reigns over the affairs of men, that He loves the fatherless and the widow, that He will call to account those who tolerate the shedding of innocent blood, and that He is willing to forgive all manner of sin, including abortion, in Christ Jesus. It also means that our lives reflect the character of God toward the vulnerable—that we are known for our homes being open to the pregnant and homeless mother, f or our finances being available to those who need help in a difficult time, for adopting children who would otherwise be aborted or abandoned, and for extending Christian love and community to mothers and fathers and children in crisis, holding out Christ, not only as the One who forgives sin, but also as One who is near to all who call upon Him. In this the Church faithfully bears the name of Christ. On the other hand, a silent and complacent Church not only fails to carry out the calling of God but also bears false witness, implicitly declaring that the Lord is not, in the end, overly concerned with the widow and the fatherless, thereby making Him appear different than He really is. Therefore the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain. In the words of Bonhoeffer, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless…”
2 Os Guinness, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 29
3 Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 85.