The Eighth Commandment
“You shall not steal.”- Deuteronomy 5:19
People may deny the existence of objective truth with their mouths, but try to steal from them and you will soon see how furious they become that you do not believe theft is objectively wrong. All human beings have an instinctive awareness of God’s law because they are made in His image (Gen. 1:26–27; Rom. 1:18–32), but some statutes are reflected more in human societies than others. The eighth commandment, which prohibits theft (Deut. 5:19), is one of these commandments. We can find countless societies throughout the world that violate the command against idols, but we would be hard-pressed to find a culture that approves of outright theft.
As we consider the eighth commandment as it is exposited in question and answer 110 of the Heidelberg Catechism, we must know what the law assumes. First, this commandment is irrelevant unless the Lord has established a right to private property. I can steal from someone else only if that someone has belongings that are rightfully his. If everything is owned in common, I am not stealing from you when I take something that you claim as your own because I am simply claiming my share of what we own in common. Consequently, the eighth commandment assumes that human beings can lawfully own things that belong specifically to them. Economic systems that mandate communal ownership and deny the right to private property are therefore unjust.
Second, the prohibition against theft assumes that wealth can be a positive good. Too often, politicians and others in our society, even professing Christians, speak as if being wealthy is inherently evil or otherwise not the best way to live. Presidential candidates speak of a point when someone “has earned enough money,” a point that these candidates determine, of course. Some believers think they are doing God’s will by voting money out of one group’s pockets in order to put it in the pockets of another group. Scripture, however, never endorses such views. In fact, some of the greatest saints in the Bible, including Abraham (Gen. 13:2) and Joseph of Arimathea (Matt. 27:57), were wealthy. It is not a sin to be rich; it is sinful only to put our hope in our wealth (Luke 12:13–21; 1 Tim. 6:10)—and the poor can trust in money as much as anyone else.
Human beings have no right to the property of others. Therefore, it is a grievous sin to steal, even when the government legally sanctions it.
As we will see tomorrow, there are a multitude of ways we can steal from others. Many of these are government-sanctioned, which is why it is important for us to understand what God’s Word says about theft. If we follow cultural norms, we can break God’s law despite believing that we are doing His will. Let us carefully study God’s definition of right and wrong so that we might not break His commandments even as others around us violate His law.
Passages for Further Study
1 Corinthians 6:9–10
1 Peter 4:15