Have you read a social media post and later found it was another’s used without permission or credit given? Or worse, have you ever listened to a sermon and later found out that it was stolen from online? I have, sadly, several times. How can one commend insights by infringement? How can one plagiarize to publicize righteousness?
Sadly, even professing Christians steal and find ways to justify stealing, especially in less obvious forms.
Breaking the Eighth Commandment
Question 142 and its answer in the Westminster Catechism captures well the many and subtle ways we break the eighth commandment today:
Q. What are the sins forbidden in the eighth commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the eighth commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, theft, robbery, manstealing, and receiving anything that is stolen; fraudulent dealing, false weights and measures, removing landmarks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man, or in matters of trust; oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, unjust enclosures and depopulations; engrossing commodities to enhance the price; unlawful callings, and all other unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him, or of enriching ourselves; covetousness; inordinate prizing and affecting worldly goods; distrustful and distracting cares and studies in getting, keeping, and using them; envying at the prosperity of others; as likewise idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming; and all other ways whereby we do unduly prejudice our own outward estate, and defrauding ourselves of the due use and comfort of that estate which God hath given us.
“You shall not steal,” the eighth command to God’s first-covenant people, holds true for God’s new-covenant people, in a sense, even more seriously than it did those of the first. God loathes and prohibits looting among his covenant people in every age. Although people at times may justify stealing under mitigating circumstances (Proverbs 6:30; 30:9), stealing is always condemned in Scripture.
You shall not steal. (Exodus 20:15; Leviticus 19:11; Deuteronomy 5:19)
Let the thief no longer steal. (Ephesians 4:28)
The apostle Paul warned the church that if robbers do not repent, God will rob them of the pleasure of robbery by withholding the kingdom from them forever (1 Corinthians 6:9–10). Looters will soon greet looming eternal destruction — unless they repent.
Robbery robs us of real and eternal joy (Jeremiah 2:26). Even though Scripture forbids stealing, any heart in love with the world will still be inclined to it. Sinners love forbidden fruit. The woman of folly rightly says to those she seduces, “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Proverbs 9:17). Water in this context likely refers to sexual intimacy (Proverbs 5:15). Touching the adulteress and watching the porn star may seem sweeter than celebrating sexual intimacy in its proper context, but Scripture reveals that the sweet water is deadly. “Bread gained by deceit is sweet to a man, but afterward his mouth will be full of gravel” (Proverbs 20:17).
Why God Cares About Stealing
We must ask the question, why does stealing kill and damn us?
“When laziness and selfishness drive us to steal, we forfeit the opportunity to share in God’s character.”
Stealing conflicts with the character of God, whose image we bear. Our God is infinitely rich, and not because he stole from another to enrich himself. “Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it” (Deuteronomy 10:14). He owns the heavens of heavens because he made them.
God’s image-bearers must work hard, doing honest work, and then further reflect their Creator by being generous with what they earn. God creates, owns, and shares. He cares about stealing because he cares about his glory. When laziness and selfishness drive us to steal, we forfeit the opportunity to share in God’s righteous character and reflect him to the world.
Paul 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” (Ephesians 4:28). Labor can kill looting. Hard work can kill hacking into what belongs to others. Honest hard work hinders dishonest gain. We kill the temptation to steal the spouse of another by doing the hard work of maintaining romance in our marriages (or, for singles, doing the hard and rewarding work of maintaining purity for the glory of God). We defeat plagiarism by “cutting off the hand” that wants to copy and paste, by doing the hard work of careful thought and articulation, while giving credit where it is due. We fight dishonesty with faithful exertion, as we meditate on the wondrous works of God.
Our Worship Problem
Stealing is a theological and doxological problem. Our understanding and admiration of God (or lack thereof) determine our disposition in life. Reverence of God makes war on robbery, and robbery reveals our objects of reverence. Our way of life cannot be unlinked from our views of God.
We may know factually that God is Lord over all and sees all, but when we steal, we are not acting like it. None of us truly owns anything; believers and unbelievers alike are mere stewards of God’s property. Acceptable reverence toward God robs us of the misappropriation of what is his, whether entrusted to us or others. To steal from a steward is to wrong his Master.
The presumed secrecy of stealing despises the all-seeing eye of God. No secret sin is hidden from him. We may steal stealthily, but we do not evade his sight (Psalm 90:8). Theology is meant to increase our knowledge and change our lives. If we feel comfortable illegally downloading goods or services online, as God-knowers, then the truth in our head has not yet reached down into our hearts to produce the disposition that hates theft and values God and others.
Our Love Problem
What is the fruit that the knowledge of God is supposed to produce? Love. Shoplifting is a love affair problem. All of God’s commandments, including “you shall not steal,” are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:8–9). To steal is to hate. To loot is to loathe, because love does not loot.
Love is patient; it does not pilfer. Love is kind; it does not harm to get. Love does not envy; it enjoys the protection of the neighbor’s good. Love does not boast; it does not take pride in possession. Love is not arrogant; it does not think it deserves what belongs to others. Love is the end of looting. Love does not steal from its neighbor, so Christian love is the fulfillment of the eighth commandment (Romans 13:10).
Our Trust Problem
Stealing reveals a lack of love for God and neighbor, and it also reveals a lack of trust in God, “who gives generously to all without reproach” (James 1:5). Theft flagrantly disregards God’s generosity and that of others. Stealing assumes that God is not a provider; it fends for itself out of lack of trust in his sovereign power and fatherly care.
“Kill theft on your knees, asking, seeking, knocking, with the assurance that God will supply your needs.”
Stealing is even worse for us than it was for Israel. The cross shouts with a voice so loud and clear that God is a generous God. In Christ God has blessed us with incalculable spiritual blessings in the heavenlies (Ephesians 1:3), promised us that we will be heirs of the world (Romans 4:13), and sealed these promises by killing his Son in our stead (2 Corinthians 1:20; Romans 8:32). If he has so blessed us and promised us such riches untold, how can we not trust him to provide our daily, temporal, ephemeral needs?
Trust in God’s generosity should drive out the thought of stealing from our minds. Kill theft on your knees, asking, seeking, knocking, with the assurance that God will supply your needs as he sees fit (Matthew 7:7–11; Philippians 4:19). God has provided for us so richly in the cross of Christ. He will not withhold any needful good from you whose plans are free of pilfering (Psalm 84:11).
Glorify the Generous God
“You shall not steal” means “You shall imitate God.” God is generous. God is hardworking. God is love. Satan is the first thief, who attempted to steal God’s throne. The serpent became the ruler of this world by stealing God’s people and bringing them into the kingdom of darkness. Because God now has stripped the thief of his power and delivered us in Christ, we must not walk in the serpent’s footsteps. We must rather imitate the one who lovingly created all things for our enjoyment and his glory, and who promises to share the world and his throne with us when we reign with Christ forever.
So, let the thief no longer steal. Let the plagiarist no longer plagiarize. Let the pirate no longer pirate. Let the illegal downloader no longer download illegally. Let the adulterer no longer steal the spouse of another. Let the porn addict not enjoy the body they have not labored to love in marriage. Work hard, love all, trust entirely, obey wholeheartedly, and reflect purely, though dimly, the generous God you revere.