“I swear to God!” (in vain)

As I committed to reading through Calvin’s Institutes with a friend, in honour of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, I thought it would be worth jotting down some bits that I found particularly interesting. The quote today refers to commandment 3 of the 10 Commandments, which runs like this:

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

Exodus 20:7

(You might have heard this in another translation as “not taking the Lord’s name in vain”) But what does it actually mean? You might have heard this as “not taking the Lord’s name in vain” before.

However, most people seem to think that misusing the name of the Lord just means saying “Oh my God!” when they’re surprised. Of course, this isn’t a good use of God’s name, but there’s more to the commandment than this. Calvin’s thoughts on this are actually quite helpful:

God’s name is rendered cheap and common when it is used in true but needless oaths. For it is then also taken in vain. Thus it does not suffice for us to refrain from perjury, unless at the same time we remember that oath-taking was permitted and established not for the sake of lust or desire, but because of necessity.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2, 8.25

So Calvin talks here of taking a small trifling issue and using God’s name to make it sound truer. It’s probably usually in movies that you hear the phrase “I swear to God, it’s true!”. But it’s around more than this—have you ever used (or heard someone use) God’s name to convince someone to vote for a certain political party? Have you ever pronounced what God would say about a certain situation (not mentioned in the Bible)?

Of course, it’s great to discuss with Christians how God reveals himself in the Bible and how we might best honour him in what we do and say. It’s another thing to invoke God’s name to strengthen everything you say, that it might somehow be “more true” than if you didn’t use his name. So if you’re tempted to say “I swear to God”, or even “God thinks/told me to…”, just be careful that you’re not using this for a “needless oath”. God’s name is a great one—let’s treat it as such!


Malcolm Purdey is a Christian, husband, father, student minister and science nerd. He completed a PhD in Chemistry and worked as a research scientist before making the jump into ministry in early 2017. He has been married for 5 years and has two daughters aged 3 and 1.

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