Heidelberg 110–111: You Shall Not Steal

OGHamburglarThe eighth commandment says: “You shall not steal” (Exod 20:15). I recall following Mom down the grocery aisle and picking grapes as a I went. I was probably 5 or 6. I saw the grapes. They looked good and I wanted some. They were right there so I took them. I got caught. I had to apologize. I remember the more clearly the humiliation of being scolded by the grocer and by Mom than I do the taste of the grapes but clearly that is not what I was thinking about, if I thought at all, when I took those grapes. Why did I have to apologize? Why was I scolded? Because I took something that did not belong to me. My mother had not paid for those grapes and until she did, they belonged to the grocer. Whatever Rousseau said about fences being arbitrary and whatever others may tell us about property being bourgeois privilege the reality is that, in the world as God has ordered it, there is a difference between what is yours and what is mine. What is yours does not belong to me. The recognition of “yours” and “mine” is not arbitrary. It is grounded in the nature of things. We know it intuitively. People enjoy theorizing about giving away other people’s belongings but rarely do they legislate the redistribution of their own (often gated) property. Still less often do they actually give away their own wealth as freely as they give away that of others. The theoretical redistributionist who lives in a gated community, with private security rolling by every hour, recognizes implicitly that there is a difference between “his” and “mine.” He also recognizes that we live after the fall, in which we broke the eighth commandment:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate (Gen 3:6; ESV).

The woman saw, she desired, she took, she ate. That fruit did not belong to our first parents. It belonged to God. He had not authorized them or us to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Satan promised that if we stole and ate we would be blessed. Theft did not bring the promised happiness. It brought death and shame.

Obviously theft is as old as humanity and there are as many ways to steal as there are humans. Absalom stole the hearts of the men Israel away from King David, his father (2 Sam 15:6). Theft is so commonplace that our Lord took it as a given that thieves break in and steal (Matt 67:19). To use an anachronism, Jesus was not a Pelagian. He did not think that people were basically good but misguided or corrupted by their environment. He knew that the prophet Jeremiah tells the truth when he says “The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt: who can know it?” (Jer 17:9; ASV). Surely people steal out of hunger but our prisons are not bursting because people do not have enough food. Our first parents did not steal because they had been corrupted by their environment. Infants and children do not take the toys of their playmates because they have been corrupted by materialism and greed. It is not what goes into a child but what comes out of his little heart that corrupts him (Matt 15:1).

We confess:

110. What does God forbid in the eighth Commandment?

God forbids not only such theft and robbery as are punished by this magistrate, but God views as theft also all wicked tricks and devices, whereby we seek to get our neighbor’s goods, whether by force or by deceit, such as unjust weights, ells, measures, goods, coins usury, or by any means forbidden of God; also a covetousness and the misuse and waste of His gifts (Heidelberg Catechism).1

Since the fall theft has always been with us but it has perhaps never been so easy. The development of the internet has created the false impression, especially for those who have grown up with it, that most things should be free. Newspapers began experimenting with the web by posting their product online for free. Now, with the impending death of news print papers, they struggle to convince the market that what was free should become a subscription (again). Musicians struggle to persuade consumers to pay for their product. The courts have ruled that it its theft to download songs from the Internet without paying for them and some folk are indignant! I have been using the web since before Al Gore invented it and I like free stuff too, but just because it is technically possible (and easy) to steal other people’s property electronically does not make it right.

Calvin says on the 8th commandment:

God will not neglect to judge as a thief anyone who has taken advantage of a simple man, or who as has sold him goods in an underhanded way, seeing that he has outwitted him through a fault of judgement. Anyone who also overcharges and illiterate person is equally a thief. Moreover, if an artisan makes a faulty good and the buyer cannot perceive the flaw, or especially if someone takes whatever he can and sells what unquestionably doesn’t belong to him (justifying it on that basis) that he is dealing with a rich man who has a full purse, it’s all the same. Therefore if a man engages in any of these practices—although he may be able to get away with it in the world’s eyes—the judgement of God will nevertheless run its course (John Calvin’s Sermons on the Ten Commandments, trans. Benjamin W. Farley (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980)).

Electronic theft of various sorts (credit card fraud etc) is so pervasive, so much a part of daily life today, that we might forget how God regards theft:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10; ESV).

Theft is classed with other gross sins: sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, greed, drunkenness, reviling, and swindling.

The root of theft and swindling is dissatisfaction with God’s providence. It is what Paul calls “the love of money,” which, he say, “is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Tim 6:10). The love of money, the insatiable desire to have more and more has caused some to abandon the faith. Here it’s hard not to think that the Apostle is reflecting on Judas, who “had the money bag” (John 13:9 and who betrayed our Lord for “thirty pieces of silver” (Matt 27:3) and who hanged himself and who “burst open in the middle…” (Acts 1:16).

Laziness is another root of theft. Why go to all the trouble of translating and analyzing a passage when all one must do is to download a world-class sermon from a gifted and famous preacher? In the internet age we have seen a dramatic rise in plagiarism among preachers and students. I know of at least three cases where preachers have been dismissed or lost their pulpits due to plagiarism. Teachers across the country are faced with a flood of plagiarized student essays, as students can easily buy, sell, and trade them with a single click. Plagiarism is, in short, presenting someone else’s work as your own. That is why, in the modern period, we have developed footnotes: to give credit to sources. If you are preaching someone else’s sermon, without giving them appropriate credit, you are a thief. Stop it. You are cheating yourself, your source, your congregation, and your ordination vows.

The eighth commandment has a positive purpose.

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; ESV).

Instead of coveting and stealing believers are charged to work and give.

111. But what does God require of you in this commandment?

That I further my neighbor’s good where I can and may, deal with him as I would have others deal with me, and labor faithfully, so that I may be able to help the poor in their need (Heidelberg Catechism).

Vocation is the antithesis. Each of us has a vocation, a divine calling, in God’s world. We do not work only to accumulate stuff. We work to serve God and our neighbor, thereby showing God’s love. Our corrupt culture is utterly Narcissistic but Christians are called to think of others first. Parents work to care for their children. We work so that we can contribute to the diaconal offering and thus to relief the suffering of brothers and sisters in the congregation. We work hard and well to fulfill our vocation in this world and thus to bring glory to God by reflecting the image of God. We were created to be prophets, priests, and kings. In Christ, we are being renewed in Christ’s image. We provide services and goods at a fair market price (Paul did not give away his tents and Joseph made a living as a carpenter), thereby serving our neighbor. We ought to fulfill our calling in this world, to be the very best butcher, baker or candlestick maker we can to God’s glory but the getting of wealth for its own sake is idolatry. There is a higher purpose for money.

You know that you can’t take it with you, but we are so easily taken captive by the empty promises of the TV and movies. Let us turn again to our Savior who became poor for our sakes, so that we might become rich with his righteousness.

There is salvation for thieves (λῃσταί): “Then two thieves were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left…” (Matt 27:38). One of those thieves mocked Jesus but the other recognized the greatness of his sin and misery and turned in faith to the Savior who justifies and saves thieves. There is also new life for thieves that does not include theft. Paul says, “and such were some of you” (1 Cor 6:11).

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.


1. An “ell” was an antique measure of length, said in the 16th century to be approx. 45 inches.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. I’ve seen so much plagiarism and cheating among university students that later enter professional careers. And to make things worse, many lie and attribute work to themselves in resumes that they never did. I’ve encountered working engineers that have told me with ease how they have lied and attributed work to themselves, all with a big smile and a seemingly nonexistent conscience. Most people I’ve spoken to about resumes, none Christian that I know of, have mentioned the lies they have told; their excuse is that everyone does it. They don’t seem to care that those who try to stay honest end up having a harder time looking for a job because there are not as many impressive lies on their resumes.

    Sometimes outward success is not merely a function of how hard you work, but also of how good you cheat and steal. That is why contentment is an important thing to have, because a desire for more will lead us to steal in ways that are not so apparent at times.

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