Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 42
Question 110. What doth God forbid in the eighth commandment?
Answer. God forbids not only those thefts and robberies which are punishable by the magistrate; but He comprehends under the name of theft all wicked tricks and devices whereby we design to appropriate to ourselves the goods which belong to our neighbor, whether it be by force, or under the appearance of right, as by unjust weights, ells, measures, fraudulent merchandise, false coins, usury, or by any other way forbidden by God; as also all covetousness, all abuse and waste of His gifts.
Question 111. But what doth God require in this commandment?
Answer. That I promote the advantage of my neighbor in every instance I can or may, and deal with him as I desire to be dealt with by others; further also that I faithfully labor, so that I may be able to relieve the needy.
“Thou shalt not steal.”
This brief commandment speaks to two things: first, to my love for the neighbor by respecting the possessions that God has given to him; and second, to the proper use of the things that God has given to me, which I call my possessions. It addresses our day-to-day life in the world of commerce and personal finances. It deals with work and income and spending.
Behind this commandment are several important principles.
First, God is the owner of all things, because He has created all things (Ps. 24:1–2). This includes money (Hag. 2:8). This principle should have a profound, life-changing effect on our view of the material world and of our place and purpose in this world.
Second, since God is the owner, we are to consider ourselves as appointed stewards and caretakers of God’s things. In all our financial responsibilities we answer to God. Financial records and decisions are a telling spiritual biography. There is nothing hidden from the eyes of God. Not only does He see what we do, but He also perceives all our desires.
Third, God is the distributor of wealth. Proverbs 22:2 says of the rich and the poor that the Lord is the Maker of them both. First Samuel 2:7 tells us that He makes rich and He makes poor. First Corinthians 4:7 says that anything we have, we have received from God. This means that our wealth and possession are not achieved or attained by our own strength and ability. Rather, God gives to us the opportunities, talents, privileges and education by which we are able to acquire these things. We must not squander those opportunities that God gives to us. But, in the end, God is the One who makes rich and who makes poor. This principle puts faithfulness above financial success and it teaches us to trust God’s provision.
Fourth, God’s purpose with our earthly possessions is not our happiness or prosperity but His own glory. You must ask yourself: Why do I work? Is it merely for money, for food and for health? Is it for my advancement, success, and pleasure? Is it so that I can build barns, take it easy, and eat, drink and be merry? “Thou fool!” (Luke 12:20). A fool does things without reference to God. God the Creator has redeemed me through the blood of His Son so that I, with all that He has given, might glorify Him. “Of him, and through him, and to him, are all things” (Rom. 11:36).
Those are the grand biblical principles that stand behind the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.” There are many other financial principles in the Word of God, but the main thing is that we live before God; that we remember Him; that we honor Him with what He has given; that we understand that He owns all things; that He is the distributor of wealth; and that His glory is the ultimate purpose of our existence and of our possessions.
A heart sin
“The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10).
While this commandment certainly addresses identifiable, external sins that are punishable by the law of the land, the real application of it for the believer is internal; it addresses heart issues. Forbidden are embezzlement, corporate money laundering, fraudulent marketing over the Internet, burglary, theft and shoplifting, all sins that God hates; but the greater sin is in the heart of man and his love of money.
Before this commandment we must examine our own hearts. There is what man sees and there is what God sees, and God’s eyes discover thieves and robbers who appear to others to be honest citizens. God sees greed and covetousness. God observes manipulation and dishonesty. God watches over commerce and sees the seller trying to trick the buyer or the buyer trying to deceive the seller. He sees how the rich deal with the poor and what the poor will do to get money out of the rich. He observes what goes on in the workplace—the employee extending his lunch break, manipulating his working hours; the employer who does not deal fairly with his employees. “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3).
We need to be aware of the many, many areas in our life in which we can fall into the sin of theft. All of them come back to this: selfishness, covetousness, greed, and thus the sins that are in our heart. Wherever this ugly sin of putting self first shows up, we will do anything to steal from others, to steal their honor, joy, praise, or possessions. There is theft that is punishable by the law, but there is also theft in our hearts whenever we put ourselves first.
Not abusing His gifts
We may be very honest in the way we obtain our material things, through hard work without greed or deception, but still sin against this commandment in the way we use what God gives, either by wasting His good gifts, or by being miserly and overly protective of our stuff. Every dollar, every opportunity, every talent, and every relationship is given of God. Even when our wallet is empty, God has still given us many things: home, food, family, friends, abilities, and more.
We steal from God when we do not use these gifts properly. In Proverbs 18:9 we read: “He also that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster.” We see here that theft includes wasting and that theft includes laziness and abuse of the things and the opportunities that God has given. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, how often are we not wasteful and thoughtless in the use of our God-given resources?
Here is stewardship, to use everything as best we can in the love and service of God. “Honor the Lord with thy substance” (Prov. 3:9). That, really, is the sum of Christian living. That we are stewards means we are accountable. Too often, in the area of money, we want to be free. We are very private, and we want nobody in our business. Perhaps this is the impact of affluence, that we have not learned to be good stewards, we know this, and so we want no scrutiny or accountability. This privacy gives us our desired freedom to spend, to waste, and to consume on our own lusts, forgetting that what we have belongs to God and that we must answer to Him.
The positive requirements
“Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Eph. 4:28). This verse, perhaps as no other in Scripture, sums up the positive requirement of this commandment, as also the Catechism reflects in its answer.
There are two things here, working and giving, and the two go together. Perhaps we can think of them as two steps of obedience. You can stand on the lower step of working with your hands. Then you might say, “Well, I’m obeying this commandment. I’m acquiring my possessions in the God-appointed way. I’m not stealing from others.” Certainly, that is obedience. God has ordained work as a way for man to acquire the possessions and the necessities of this life. Work is not a curse. God put man on the earth to work, to multiply and replenish and subdue the earth. But, why do you work? Do you work in order to live, or do you work in order to give? That is the second step of obedience. The expression of real stewardship of what God has given to us is generosity in heart and in action.
God has given me possessions and money, not for me (that would be self-love), but for me to love Him and to love my neighbor. That is the Christian purpose in working. I do not work to get ahead myself or to make sure that my children have a good position and education, but I labor as a Christian in order to alleviate the cry of the needy. In a world where it is “each for himself,” and all trying to get ahead (of the pack), this is revolutionary thinking. The Christian motivation for work is not greed but grace. It is because the believer has experienced grace that he labors so that he may be gracious.
This was the purpose of Jesus Christ in His work, was it not? He came into this world to work, and that work was motivated by grace, by generosity towards you and me who are sinners and thieves. Zacchaeus had been a thief, and Jesus came, graciously, to bring salvation to his house. So also, crucified between two thieves, He guaranteed the believing one a place in His kingdom. “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
This is God’s world. He puts us in it as stewards and calls us to work, and to do that for His glory and out of love for Him. That love comes to expression in this, that we give cheerfully for the kingdom and with generosity to our neighbor in need. May God so guide us as we live as Christians in the midst of a material world.
Questions for discussion
1. Why is it important to understand that God is the Owner of all things (Hag. 2:8)?
2. How does the truth that God is the One who makes rich and poor affect your outlook on life?
3. What does stewardship mean? What does it involve for us?
4. How can you better use all that you have for the glory of God?
5. What are some forms of theft punishable by the magistrate? Are these still punished today?
6. What are the main heart sins related to this commandment? Which of these are a struggle for you?
7. How do these passages relate to this commandment? What application is there here for you?
a. Colossians 3:5
b. Hebrews 13:5
c. Matthew 6:25-34
d. Proverbs 3:9-10
e. Luke 12:13-21
8. How does our spending reflect our spiritual priorities? Are you willing to share your spending record (check log or credit card statement) with others for their input? How would God evaluate your spending?
9. What are some ways we might abuse God’s gifts? Is there a proper concern we should have for the environment? Why/why not?
10. Is work a curse, or a part of God’s original purpose for man in His creation? Can you prove your answer from the Bible? What is it that makes us averse to hard work?
11. What is God’s purpose for work (there are several answers given in different parts of Scripture)?