This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(110) Q. What does God forbid in the eighth commandment?
A. He forbids not only outright theft and robbery, which governing authorities punish, but in God’s sight theft also includes all evil tricks and schemes designed to get our neighbor’s goods for ourselves, whether by force or means that appear legitimate, such as inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume; fraudulent merchandising; counterfeit money; excessive interest; or any other means forbidden by God. In addition God forbids all greed and pointless squandering of his gifts.
(111) Q. What does God require of you in this commandment?
A. That I do whatever I can and may for my neighbor’s good, that I treat others as I would like them to treat me, and that I work faithfully so that I may help the needy in their hardship.
As with some of the other commandments, we might imagine the eighth commandment addressing only others. Christians don’t steal, right? But the eighth commandment does not only prohibit “outright theft and robbery, which governing authorities punish.” Some immorality is not illegal. God condemns sinful intent regardless of its extent.
The eighth commandment regulates how we do our jobs and use our possessions as part of how we glorify God by loving our neighbors.
The Logic of the Eighth Commandment
The following four principles help interpret the eighth commandment.
Ownership is a sacred trust.
The eighth commandment is tied to the creation mandate (Gen. 1:26–29). “To subdue the earth is our human calling. This is the basis of property ownership. In this commandment, the apportioning of the earth among humanity is sanctioned by God.”[i] God distributed property to each of the tribes and families of Israel (Joshua 13–21). For this reason Naboth valiantly defended his land against the king’s advances (1 Kings 21). Peter assured Ananias that both his property and the profits from its sale were in his control (Acts 5:3). New Testament believers “had all things in common” (Acts 2:44) only in the sense that they shared “their possessions and belongings” among the needy (Acts 2:45). Ownership and profits are not the same as greed. Wealth acquisition is not shameful so long as our wealth does not hinder us from faithfully following Christ, which can happen (Matt. 19:16–29).
Theft violates the sacred trust of ownership.
To steal is to reduce the prosperity of a person created in God’s image. “What every man possesses has not come to him by mere chance, but by the distribution of the supreme Lord of all. For this reason, we cannot by evil devices deprive anyone of his possessions without fraudulently setting aside God’s dispensation.”[ii] What God has given to another we must not take away unjustly, even when such theft is not a civil crime. It’s because of God’s goodness that he despises injustice.
God requires that we manage our possessions wisely.
God commands us to maintain his resources for his glory. God owns everything. What we possess we hold as caretakers. We are responsible, as far as in us lies, to support ourselves and those who depend upon us through honest means. Whether rich or poor we must also share with others part of what God has given us (Eph. 4:28). To do so requires a wisely-managed estate. Regardless of the size of our trust, each of us will give account for our stewardship (Matt. 25:14–31); this includes how we have acquired, saved, spent, given, and invested.
How we handle resources reveals our hearts.
You can tell a lot about what a person values by how he handles money; where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt. 6:21). You can also tell something about his god. God wants his people to represent his character even in financial matters (Rom. 2:24). God is amazingly generous. The thief and the greedy person better resemble Satan than Jesus. We should not “be deceived: neither … thieves, nor the greedy … nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9–10).
How do we put these principles into practice?
Resolutions toward Biblical Stewardship
Rest in Jesus.
The eighth commandment drives greedy thieves like us to Jesus. We steal from each other and from God. We squander his resources and withhold his tithes. And we don’t have the power to stop stealing. Jesus is the anti-thief. He says, “Though I have stolen nothing, I still must restore it” (Ps. 69:4). Jesus’s active obedience more than satisfies our debt of righteousness to God. He also willingly suffered the penalty demanded by our thievery. In his incarnation, he became poor so that we through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). Union with Christ also changes our affections so that we set our hopes not on “the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17).
Greed happens when the love of money clouds over better judgment. “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils”—by loving money “some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Tim. 6:9–10). Have you ever made a decision that felt financially prudent, but was morally foolish? Have you ever demanded to have immediately what God in his providence had not given? We must resist greed, believing that wealth can ever bring contentment.
Refuse unjust gain.
Obviously we should never acquire goods by “outright theft and robbery.” But we should also never use trickery to our financial advantage; don’t say the car “runs great” if you know it doesn’t. Scripture also warns against charging “excessive interest” (Deut. 23:19–20, Exod. 22:25). Whether or not that applies to you directly, we must be careful not to take advantage of another’s neediness.
Resolve to “work faithfully.”
Working faithfully is not the same as busyness. We can be frantic with activity and accomplish very little. Scripture describes such people as busybodies (2 Thess. 3:11). Constantly ask yourself, “What is the best thing I can be doing right now?”
But don’t sell yourself as a slave to work. Remember, Israel received the eighth commandment after having been freed from slavery. Even during busy seasons, God commanded his people to rest (Exod. 34:21). Those who will not rest choose to be slaves.
Rule your belongings well.
God forbids the “pointless squandering of his gifts.” Because of God’s ultimate ownership, we may not abuse or waste our possessions.
But we must also avoid the opposite error of hoarding. God contrasts stealing with generosity. “The righteous is generous and gives” (Ps. 37:21). One of the most basic demonstrations of generosity is the tithe, through which the godly provide for the gospel ministry and care for the poor. Scripture says that non-tithers rob from God (Mal. 3:8). New covenant believers give cheerfully (2 Cor. 9:6–8), believing God’s promise to pour down blessings from heaven’s open windows “until there is no more need” (Mal. 3:10).
“Render to all what is due them” (Rom. 13:7 NKJ).
The eighth commandment is the negative way of saying the same thing as the golden rule: “As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31). This isn’t the way of thieves, but it is the way of Jesus and all who have been born again in him.
Loving your neighbor as yourself is more than a feeling. It comes right down to matters as practical as managing your personal finances consistently with the gospel.
[i] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics, 2.458.
[ii] John Calvin, Institutes, 2.8.45.