Thou Shalt Not Steal

Author’s note: In July’s Mid-Atlantic Reformation Society—Delaware’s dinner and presentation at Rudy’s Diner, I gave a presentation on the Eighth Commandment. The audio for that lecture can be found here. The following post is a summary of some of those thoughts.

The Ten Commandments and the Moral Law of God

Whenever we begin to discuss the commandments of God, we would do well to ask ourselves the following question: Who is required to obey said laws? The Westminster Confession states: “The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof.” This is certainly true. Romans 2:12-16 reminds us that God has revealed himself sufficiently to all men and there is no one who has an excuse for disobeying God’s Law. Therefore, every single person is required to obey God’s Law. In other words, God’s Law is not simply for Christians. In fact, the Apostle Paul points out that the Law is specifically for the ungodly (1 Timothy 1:8-11).

The Gospel does not lessen man’s responsibility to obey God’s Law. Jesus did not come to free men from their duty and obligation to obey God’s Law. He came to die for sinners that their sins might be forgiven and then that they might be given new power to obey God’s Law. As it relates to the Eighth Commandment, Jesus did not come to allow men to steal from their neighbors. He did not come to promote and propagate theft and injustice in the world. He came to establish righteousness and justice. Romans 1:5 makes it clear that one of the great ends of the Gospel is to bring about “the obedience of the faith…among all nations.” The New Hampshire Confession of Faith (the confession of the church I am currently a member of) reiterates this important point:

We believe that the Law of God is the eternal and unchangeable rule of his moral government; that it is holy, just, and good; and that the inability which the Scriptures ascribe to fallen men to fulfill its precepts arises entirely from their love of sin; to deliver them from which, and to restore them through a Mediator to unfeigned obedience to the holy Law, is one great end of the Gospel, and of the means of grace connected with the establishment of the visible Church.

The Gospel is not opposed to the Law of God. Rather, it brings about obedience to God’s Law. As we consider the Eighth Commandment, we must keep this in mind.

The Eighth Commandment Applied to the Individual

The Eighth Commandment is: “Thou shalt not steal.” As the Westminster Divines noted in the Larger Catechism, this law, and all others in the Decalogue, has two aspects: the positive (duties required) and negative (sins forbidden). The sins forbidden in this commandment include basic theft (Exodus 20:15), man-stealing (Exodus 21:16), using false weights and measures (Deuteronomy 25:13-15), and removing landmarks (Deuteronomy 19:14). All of these sins (and there are others) are explanations of what it means to “not steal.” The general command is given in the phrase, “Thou shalt not steal,” but the command is elucidated and expounded throughout all of Scripture (included the case laws). With this commandment concerning theft, God is declaring that the individual has a right to his property. Man is to have dominion over his property. When someone steals from another, the thief is robbing the victim of his ability to take dominion over the earth. Individuals are called to work to support their families, care for the needy, and support the work of the Gospel. When someone robs someone, they are neglecting their responsibility and taking from one who has fulfilled his responsibility. The Parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19 illustrates the just penalty for theft as it relates to one’s failure to be a good steward and take dominion (more on this below).

In addition to the sins forbidden, the Larger Catechism also notes the “duties required” in this law. We are to further “the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.” One example of this (which may help us to see how God’s Law clearly runs through all of Scripture) is found in the command to give and lend freely. The Westminster Divines correctly noted that the Eighth Commandment includes the requirement to give freely, noting that we are required to “give and lend freely according to our abilities and necessities of others.” They cite Leviticus 25:35 as a proof-text. Leviticus 25:35 reads: “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you.” This sounds very familiar to a passage in the New Testament. 1 John 3:17 says, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” We see here a great example of how the New Testament in no way introduces a new law or abolishes an old one. Rather the New Testament affirms the Law of God. It also expands it in that it grants the ability to obey and widens the scope of obedience. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is another great example. All the principles in the New Testament are latent in the Old—Jesus came to live them out and enable his followers to do the same!

People steal because they are lazy. That might sound simplistic, but, generally speaking, it is true. Thieves are unwilling to work to earn their own bread. Instead, they take from another man’s labor. In fact, the Westminster Divines saw idleness and laziness as a sin forbidden by the Eighth Commandment. Given the fact that it is our duty to further our estate and the estate of others so that God’s rule may be extended throughout the earth, being lazy is a direct violation of this law. Proverbs 28:19 (which is incidentally cited in the Larger Catechism) says: “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty.”

The Case Laws are Applications of the Moral Law of God

As I have mentioned, the moral law against theft is explained and applied throughout Scripture. The case laws are excellent expositions on the Law of God, showing us what the commandments mean. After giving the Ten Commandments, God further applied the Moral Law with various case laws, showing how the Moral Law ought to be applied to society.

The moral law encompasses all the moral instruction that God has revealed to man in the Bible…Therefore, the law of God is not only declared in the more formal law codes of the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:1-17) and the Book of the Covenant (Exod. 20:22-23:33), but God’s moral law is also revealed in the context of the case laws, historical narrative, prophecy, psalms, proverbs, gospels, and epistles…The Ten Commandments summarize the essential principles of the moral law, but these principles are developed, explained, illustrated, and applied throughout the rest of Scripture. (William Einwechter, Walking in the Law of the Lord, p. 39)

The case laws, therefore, show us the Moral Law applied to society. The role of civil magistrates is to punish evil (Romans 13:3; 1 Peter 2:14). Therefore they must look to God’s standards of good and evil as revealed in the Moral Law and applied in the case laws. The Law of God is summarized in the Ten Commandments, but the Ten Commandments are even further summarized by Christ. What does he say? Love God and love your neighbor (cf. Matthew 22:36-40; see also Galatians 5:14). On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. So, if we want to love our neighbor, we will apply the Law of God in our society.

Let us now consider the Eighth Commandment applied to society. Exodus 22:1-4 gives one of the most straightforward case laws in the Bible. The key element in the case law is restitution (with extra being required beyond the value of the original item stolen). If unable to make restitution, the criminal shall be forced to work (that is, he is “sold”) to pay the victim.

The Blessing of Applying God’s Law and the Curse of Disregarding It

When God’s Law is followed, there is justice and protection of the weak (and strong). Impartiality is one of the key elements in the Law of God (see Leviticus 19:15).  O.C.S. Wallace, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Baltimore in the early 1900’s, wrote a commentary on the New Hampshire Confession of Faith. In that book he notes the following:

Apply the law of God wherever you will, and the result will be the removal of injustice just as far as that law is applied…Let the law of God be obeyed and at once there will be an end to a thousand troubles that are now menacing the peace of communities and nations.

God’s Word calls us to correct oppression and seek justice (Isaiah 1:17). (In fact, oppression was listed by the Westminster Divines as one of the sins forbidden by the Eighth Commandment.) When the law concerning theft is followed, there is justice and equity in the land.

When God’s Law is not followed, there is injustice and further theft. When a society abandons God’s Law, they are leaving the safety and security of walking in the ways of the Lord. Sadly, many Christians seem to think there is a better way to deal with theft than the way God prescribes in his Word. When a society disregards the general equity of the case laws, there will not be blessing for that land. Righteousness (i.e. conformity to God’s Law) exalts a nation, but sin (transgressing the Law) is a reproach to any people.

The rise of secular humanism and the disengagement of Christians from the society has led to great injustice in our land concerning theft. Because humanistic and secular philosophy has gained ground, and the church has for the most part acquiesced, the duty of determining justice in our land has been handed over to humanists. We need look no further than our own land to see the consequences for abandoning God’s Law.

Let’s say someone steals your $30,000 car from you. The thief ends up destroying your car. Here is what will likely happen: The person will be fined and possibly sent to jail. Any fines will undoubtedly go to the government, not to you, the victim of the crime. You will have to pay your insurance deductible to fix your car. To top it off, you will have to pay for the criminal to have three meals, a warm bed, and cable television in prison (where he will learn to be a better thief). This is humanistic “justice.” Someone steals from you and you have to pay for them to be lazy and get free food in jail.

There is a better option. It is following God’s Law. It would take work to apply this and there may be difficulties, but that does not stop Christians from applying others commands. If someone steals your car, they should be forced to pay back fourfold (if the car is destroyed). If the car is not damaged, the thief should have to return the car and then pay you the value of the car. That way, you get an extra car out of the deal. This demonstrates God’s justice. Remember the Parable of the Ten Minas? The principle of the faithful gaining more and the one who has been unfaithful losing what he has is evident in this case law and in the Parable of the Ten Minas. God sees fit that a thief (who is unwilling to be a faithful steward) should have what little he does have taken from him and given to the victim (even if the victim has more). The victim is then enabled to take more dominion with his new resources. One simple why this could begin to be applied is wage garnishment similar to child support. A thief will have a portion of his wages confiscated until his debt is paid. The victim can forgive the debt at any time, but the state cannot. After all, it was not the state that the thief committed the crime against, but the individual. If the victim cannot pay, he has his freedom taken from him and he is forced to work for another to make payment. This is drastically different from our current, unbiblical prison system which encourages laziness and injustice.

When God’s Law, in this case concerning theft, is applied to society, there is justice, peace, and righteousness. The Gospel not only brings forgiveness but it also brings the obedience to God’s Law that is so desperately needed in this world.

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