You Shall Not Steal

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One of John Bunyan’s lesser-nown works is titled The Life and Death of Mr. Badman. In it, Bunyan tells a tale about an individual who was “rotten to the core” from his youth. Even in his childhood, he was the “ring-leading sinner” among the other children. He was much given to stealing, beginning with small acts such as robbing orchards. However, small sins unattended inevitably grow larger. So it was with Mr. Badman.

After some time, Mr. Badman decided that he wanted a wife, or more specifically, her money. Following the wicked counsel of his godless companions, he feigned religiosity and won the hand of a maid who was both godly and wealthy. Creditors swiftly came upon him for their money. With his godly wife’s money, he paid them for the goods he had lavishly bought for his illicit lovers. His wife died broken-hearted, but resting in Christ her Savior. However, Mr. Badman continued down the pathway to destruction.

The eighth commandment—“You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15)—seems straightforward on the surface. Most people will confidently declare, “I haven’t robbed a bank, so I’m good on this one.” However, the inspired Word of the God who knows the depth of our sinful hearts paints a much more extensive picture of what is forbidden and required in this commandment. This was the insight of the Westminster divines (pastors and theologians), who knew the capabilities of their sin-tainted hearts.

The foundation for this commandment is the divine right of property: that the Creator “so constituted man that he desires and needs [the] right of the exclusive possession and use of certain things. … [This] is the only security for the individual or for society” (Charles Hodge). Thus, the commandment forbids us from unlawfully taking anything that is not our own. Stealing can take many forms, including robbery (Mark 10:19), kidnapping (Ex. 21:16), human trafficking (1 Tim. 1:10), receiving stolen goods (Prov. 29:24), fraudulent business dealings (1 Tim. 3:8), using false weights and measures (Prov. 20:10), trespassing property boundaries (Deut. 19:14), injustice in contracts (Deut. 24:15), extortion (Ps. 62:10), unethical loan arrangements (Ps. 37:21), borrowing without returning (Ex. 22:14), unjust lawsuits (1 Cor. 6:7), plagiarism, and so on (see WLC 142). Stealing involves not just tangible property but reputations and ideas as well. Our modern, technologically advanced time has opened up myriad ways for the sinful, scheming heart to obtain what it does not lawfully own.

In the great city of Ephesus, Paul ministered for three years on his third missionary journey. He spent two of those years in the lecture hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9–10). After lec- turing during the day and spending time with his students, Paul likely occupied himself with his tent-making labors in the morning and evening. It is not surprising, then, that in the epistle to the Ephesians he says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Eph. 4:28). In short, he condemns thievery and commends industry.

This naturally leads to a consideration of the duties required in the eighth commandment, namely, “the lawful procuring and furthering the wealth and outward estate of ourselves and others” (WSC 74). We are given the opportunity and privilege to work so that we might find satisfaction and fulfillment in it, so that we might be able to lawfully support ourselves and our families, and so that we might be able to charitably and generously relieve the legitimate needs of others. As such, our work should be done diligently and cheerfully, realizing that ultimately we are serving the Lord Christ (Col. 3:23–24). Paul bluntly said to the Thessalonian believers: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). He spoke of this as a command (vv. 10, 12), not a suggestion. When the end of the day comes, after we have labored hard and honestly (and cheerfully) and have reaped the fruit of our efforts, we must recognize that all that we have is from God’s good and gracious hand. He has chosen to bless us, and what we have received from Him has not been given to us to waste, misuse, or lose. “He also that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster” (Prov. 18:9 KJV).

Whatever came of Mr. Badman? He came to the end of his life, diseased in his body and as hopelessly lost as the unrepentant thief at Calvary. Lest we smugly think that we are not kin to him or his thieving ways, we must be reminded that we are all lawbreakers. Our first parents stole from the forbidden tree, and all of their progeny have been thieves ever since. Thieves and all other violators of God’s law must be washed, sanctified, and justified by divine intervention (1 Cor. 6:10–11). However, living as forgiven sinners who have been washed in the blood of Christ does not render us exempt from the temptation to steal. We must closely and constantly guard our hearts and maintain a sensitivity to the subtleties of sin and the cleverness of the tempter. Let us strive to live above reproach so that none could have the slightest suspicion that we are the kin of Mr. Badman.

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