What does my stealing say about my soul? Stealing manifests in a lot of different forms. It could be looting, or shoplifting, or cutting corners at work, or fudging on tax forms. But what does this impulse to steal, this urge inside us, say about us? That was the question Pastor John took up in a 1986 sermon on Ephesians 4:28, a text where Paul writes this: “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.” That word was given to Christians in a local church — yes, to Christians who were members of the local church in Ephesus. Here’s Pastor John to explain.
In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted by the devil. Do you remember what he said? The devil said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” because you’re hungry (Matthew 4:2–3). What he really said was, “Look, why don’t you just short-circuit the way of the cross? Why don’t you just do an end run around self-denial and hard, suffering work? I mean, you have the power; it would be easy.”
And Satan comes to you, and he says, “Look, why don’t you just take it? Why don’t you just run an end run around hard work and honesty and labor? Just take it. You can have it; nobody would know.”
- Satan tempts us to steal from our employees with unjust wages.
- He tempts us to steal from our employers with shoddy work and with long coffee breaks.
- He tempts you to shoplift at the store.
- He tempts you not to report all your income for your income tax.
Where does stealing come from? Jesus said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19). That’s where it comes from: It comes right out of the heart. It didn’t come from the moon; it came from my heart. That’s why I steal: my heart is corrupt. And why is it corrupt? My desires are bad. And why are my desires bad? Because I’m blinded and hardened in my sin, and Satan has free access, and he deceives me about what is valuable in the world, so that I really believe it is more valuable to have this little pleasure and security than to have a clear conscience and to obey God and to love people.
There is awesome deceit in the world. If we could see things clearly, we wouldn’t steal. That’s the first thing we can say about stealing: it’s part of the old deceived self.
New Kind of Person
Stealing, brothers and sisters, can be forgiven; it’s so plain here in Ephesians 4:28: “Let the thief no longer steal.” He’s talking to thieves at Ephesus. There are thieves in the church at Ephesus. There are thieves sitting in the pews, listening to this letter being read by the elders at Ephesus. And he’s saying, “Now, guys, ladies, don’t do that anymore!” Which clearly implies, “You’re saved. You’re forgiven. You don’t have to go on stealing. There’s a possibility of being a new kind of person now.”
“You’re forgiven. You don’t have to go on stealing.”
And I can imagine an old, recent convert from a life of debauchery and thievery standing up in the service and saying, “Wait a minute, elder. All my life I’ve stolen. And I think it’s too late for me; I can’t shake it. I can’t get it out of my conscience. I find it almost impossible to resist in the stores and marketplaces. I think it’s too late for me.”
And do you know what that elder is going to say to him? He’s going to say, “Don’t you remember the story the apostle told us when he came through here just a few weeks ago, about what happened to Jesus on the cross at the end? There was this thief. All his life he’d been a rotten thief, and he got killed for it; he got hung for it. And in the last breath of his life, he looks over to him and he says, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (Luke 23:42). And in the twinkling of an eye, by the authority of God and the power of his cross, Jesus says, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43). It isn’t too late; thieves can be forgiven in the eleventh hour.”
Faith That Defeats Stealing
Stealing must be conquered not by your own willpower merely; that makes Pharisees: people who boast, who rise up above sinners and say, “God, I thank you that I am not like . . . this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). Pharisees are produced by willpower. Broken and humble saints are produced by grace through faith.
Now, what truth must you have faith in to conquer stealing? You could tell me the promises that will kill stealing in your heart. Listen to this one from Hebrews 13:5–6:
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said [and here comes the truth you must believe to conquer the stealing], “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say,
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not fear;
what can man do to me?”
Now, do you realize what this text says? This text says that every time you steal, you are an unbeliever in this promise. The Lord of lords and King of kings, who is strong enough to rule the world, wise enough to design DNA and the Milky Way, and sovereign enough to govern the drop of every dead bird in Bangladesh, has said to every one of his children, “I will never leave you. I will never fail you. I will never forsake you.”
Can you believe that and steal? No, you have to be a disbeliever in the promises of God to steal. That’s why it’s so horrid; that’s why Paul said thieves do not enter into the kingdom: because they don’t believe God in their day-to-day walk; they don’t believe his promises (1 Corinthians 6:9–10).
God Won the Victory
Now, let me give you an illustration of how this week I was tempted to steal very genuinely, and how I fought the fight of faith. In mid-September, I got in the mail a bill from the Minneapolis waterworks and sewer department. And the bill was $84.20. And at the bottom in a little box, it said, “After September 30, pay gross.” And then it said $88.41 — $4.21 more. And I said I’ve got to pay that, and I laid it in a pile and forgot about it until Friday, October 3.
“Broken and humble saints are produced by grace through faith.”
I was writing my checks for all these bills that I had to pay, and I got to this one and almost just listened to the voice that was saying, “You always pay your bills; you’re a good citizen. If you date your check September 30, they’ll let it go; they won’t give a hoot. You won’t lose four of God’s dollars.”
And then another little voice, the new John Piper who struggles to stay alive and fights for his breath at these times, said, “It’s your fault for not sending it. And it’s not unjust of them to require more for delinquent payments. And the Spirit of Christ is always submissive to the governing authorities when no sin is involved (Romans 13:1; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13). And a clear conscience is more valuable than $4. And your Master has bidden you not to steal (Ephesians 4:28), and he ‘will never leave you nor forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5). And he will work all things together for your good (Romans 8:28).” And the thought came to my mind as a specific illustration of that: if God thought it were good for you, he could heal the cavity in your tooth and save you $40 anyway. There are a thousand ways God can take care of his children when they’re honest and obedient. And a thousand ways he won’t if they’re not.
So, I fought what I believe is the typical fight of every day of our life: the fight to believe the promises of God. Will he take care of me if I do right? Will he make my life better if I give up $4, instead of keeping $4? Of course he will; he’s God. And God won the victory, and I feel good and clean about that now. Two days’ worth of a clean conscience is worth $4.