Volume 41 - Issue 1

The Eighth Commandment as the Moral Foundation for Property Rights, Human Flourishing, and Careers in Business

By Wayne Grudem


The Eighth Commandment, “You shall not steal,” has massive implications for human life on earth. Exodus 20:15 provides the necessary foundation for system of private ownership of property, of stewardship and accountability, and of an expectation of human flourishing. This article also argues that “business as mission” is a legitimate calling and that founding and running a profitable and ethical business glorifies God.

Is it right to send missionaries to start businesses that make a profit in other countries?1 For centuries, Christians have sent doctors and dentists and nurses as medical missionaries, and have sent teachers as educational missionaries. The medical missionaries don’t just pretend to heal people’s bodies—they really do heal people’s bodies. The educational missionaries don’t just pretend to teach in schools—they actually do teach people to read and write and pursue advanced subjects. But is it the same for business missionaries? Is “business as mission” a legitimate calling? And should these businesses make money, like a real business, or should they just be charades that are pretending to be a business but are actually a disguise for evangelism?

I’m going to argue in what follows that “business as mission” is a legitimate calling, and that founding a business that actually makes a profit is something that in itself glorifies God. Starting a business that earns a profit is a good thing in God’s sight in addition to the God-glorifying salvation of people who come to know Christ through the personal witness of the Christians in the business. Just as God is pleased when medical missionaries heal people’s bodies, and God is pleased when educational missionaries heal people’s minds, so God is pleased when business missionaries help to heal a country’s economy.

In this regard, I want to focus on just one verse, Exodus 20:15: “You shall not steal.” This verse has massive implications for human life on earth, and for careers in business, and for thinking about business as mission.

Extended reflection on the words of the Bible will often yield deeper insight than what is evident on a first reading. This should not be surprising. If we believe that the Bible is the product of the infinite wisdom of God, we will naturally expect that the Bible contains more wisdom than human minds will ever fully understand.

This is certainly true with regard to the Eighth Commandment,2 “You shall not steal” (Exod 20:15). Our first impression is that the commandment is quite simple, consisting of only four words in English and only two in Hebrew: לֹא תִּגְנֹב. It tells us we should not take something that does not belong to us. What part of that do we not understand?

On deeper reflection, however, we will discover that this commandment provides the necessary foundation for all human flourishing on the face of the earth. Governments and cultural traditions violate the Eighth Commandment at their peril, for wherever this commandment is ignored, entire nations remain trapped in poverty forever. When that happens, they tragically fail to achieve many of God’s purposes for them on the earth.

1. Not Stealing Implies Private Property

The command, “You shall not steal,” assumes that there is something to steal—something that belongs to someone else and not to me. I should not steal your ox or your donkey—or your car, your cell phone, or your wallet—because it belongs to you and not to me. Therefore, the command, “You shall not steal,” assumes private ownership of property.

Other passages in the Old Testament also show that God was concerned to protect the private ownership of property. Property was to be owned by individuals, not by the government or by society as a whole. For instance, God told the people of Israel that when the Year of Jubilee came, “It shall be a jubilee for you when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan (Lev 25:10).” There were many other laws that defined punishments for stealing and appropriate restitution for damage of another person’s farm animals or agricultural fields (see, for example, Exod 21:28–36; 22:1–15; Deut 22:1–4; 23:24–25).

The Old Testament also shows an awareness that governments could wrongly use their immense power to disregard property rights and steal what they should not have. At the urging of wicked Queen Jezebel, King Ahab wrongfully stole Naboth’s vineyard, and had Naboth killed in the process (1 Kings 21). And the prophet Samuel warned the people of Israel of the evils of a king who would “take” and “take” and “take”:

So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day” (1 Sam 8:10–18).

Sometimes people claim that the early church practiced a form of “early communism” because it says in Acts, “All who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44). But this situation was far different from communism for two reasons.3 First, the giving was voluntary and not compelled by the government. Second, people didn’t give away everything because they still had personal possessions and owned property—they still met in “their homes” (Acts 2:46), and many other Christians after this time still owned homes. For example, 1 Corinthians 16:19 says, “Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord.”4 Peter even told Ananias and Sapphira that they did not have to feel any obligation to sell their property and give away the money (see Acts 5:4).5

Now consider how important the Eighth Commandment is. If the Eighth Commandment implies private ownership of property, then its focus is different from the other nine commandments. The Eighth Commandment covers an entire range of human activity that is not the purpose of these other commandments. Commandments 1–4 (Exod 20:3–11) focus primarily on our relationship to God and the duties we owe to God. Commandment 5 protects family (“Honor your father and your mother,” Exod 20:12). Commandment 6 protects life (“You shall not murder,” Exod 20:13). Commandment 7 protects marriage (“You shall not commit adultery,” Exod 20:14). Commandment 9 protects truth (“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” Exod 20:16). Commandment 10 requires purity of heart (“You shall not covet,” Exod 20:17).

Therefore, the Eighth Commandment is unique. It protects property and possessions. By implication, we are also right to think it protects another person’s time and talents and opportunities—everything over which people have been given stewardship.

Without the Eighth Commandment, therefore, the Ten Commandments would not cover all the major areas of human life. We would have God’s instructions protecting worship, life, marriage, family and truth. But where would the Ten Commandments tell us what we should do with our possessions and our talents and opportunities? Yes, the first four commandments would instruct us in the worship of God, but beyond such worship, would we be expected to achieve anything beyond mere subsistence living? Would we be expected just to act as the animal kingdom does: eat, sleep, bear offspring, and die, with no other achievements to show the excellence of the human race created in the image of God?

But the Eighth Commandment implies that we have property to care for. Therefore, it is the Eighth Commandment that sets us apart from the animal kingdom as property owners and those who have been given stewardship of possessions. In that way the Eighth Commandment relates to most of our work activity for most of our earthly lifetimes.

Now I must say one more thing about the Ten Commandments. I realize that they are part of the Mosaic covenant, and the Mosaic covenant has been terminated with the completion of Christ’s work of redemption and the establishment of the new covenant (see Luke 22:20; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 9:1–10:39). However, the New Testament affirms in several places that the command “you shall not steal” applies to new covenant believers (see Rom 13:9; 1 Cor 6:10; Eph 4:28; Tit 2:10; Jas 5:4; Rev 9:21). So we can safely conclude that the substance of this commandment is still morally binding on us today.

2. Private Property Implies Stewardship

If human beings were all alone in the universe, without any accountability to any God, then people might assume that “society” or government should take the property away and they (the rulers) should decide how to use it. This is the view of Communist societies.

But if God himself has commanded, “You shall not steal,” and if in that commandment God himself establishes a system of private property, then it immediately follows that we are accountable to him for how we use that property. Scripture views us as stewards who will have to give an account of our stewardship. This is because, ultimately, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all those who dwell therein” (Ps 24:1).

Once I realize that God commands others not to steal my land or my ox or my donkey, or my car or my laptop, then I realize that I have an individual responsibility for how those things are used. I have been entrusted with these things by the God who created the universe, and I must act as a faithful “steward” to manage what he has entrusted to me.

This idea of stewardship includes much more than merely physical possessions and land. God has also entrusted us with time, talents and opportunities. We have these things as a stewardship from God as well, and we are accountable for how we use them.

Here we see the dehumanizing evil of Communism. Karl Marx said in the Communist Manifesto, “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in a single sentence: Abolition of private property.”6 If government takes away the right to own property, then I am no longer free to act as a steward in deciding how that property is to be used, for I can no longer control the use of that property. Governments that prohibit or severely restrict the ownership of private property trapped their nations in poverty forever. We saw this in the Soviet Union until it fell in 1991, and we see it today in Cuba and North Korea. We also saw this in China under decades of communism until economic reforms began in the late 1970s. And we see it in Native American reservations in the United States and in a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa where traditions of tribal ownership of property persist and entire populations remain trapped in desperate poverty.

Christians normally associate “stewardship” with giving to the work of the church and to the needs of the poor. That is a proper instinct, because faithful stewardship before God certainly includes generous giving. But does God want us to give it all away? Or does stewardship also include a realization that God expects us to use some of it with enjoyment and thanksgiving to him? It seems to me that when we enjoy some of God’s gifts with thanksgiving, we also glorify him. Let me explain.

3. Stewardship Implies that God Expects Human Flourishing

If God entrusts me with something, then he expects me to do something with it, something worthwhile, something that he finds valuable. This is evident from the very beginning when God placed Adam and Eve on the earth. He said:

Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion … over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:26–28).

The Hebrew word translated “subdue” (כבשׁ) means to make the earth useful for human beings’ benefit and enjoyment—to “develop it” wisely. God was entrusting Adam and Eve, and by implication the entire human race, with stewardship over the earth. And God wanted them to create useful products from the earth, for their benefit and enjoyment. (That’s what “subdue the earth” implies.)

After Adam and Eve sinned, the task became harder, of course, because God placed a curse on the earth so that it would begin to bring forth “thorns and thistles” (Gen 3:18) and in many other ways it would become dangerous and difficult, but the responsibility to subdue the earth and make useful products from it would remain a primary purpose of the human race, a purpose given by God.

This command implies that God wanted Adam and Eve to discover and create and invent products from the earth—at first, perhaps, simple structures in which to live and store food, and later, more complex forms of transportation such as carts and wagons, then eventually modern homes and office buildings and factories, as well as cars and airplanes—the entire range of useful products that could be made from the earth.

This is immensely significant. God gave to human beings something he did not impart to the plant kingdom or the animal kingdom—the ability to create value in world that didn’t exist before.

Just imagine for a moment that we had a time machine and we could transport Adam and Eve to be here with us today. We would give them appropriate clothing, of course, and then they would begin to look around.

“What’s that?” they might say as they pointed to the electric lights in the ceiling. “How do those bright shining things allow you to meet indoors without light from the sun and still see one another? Where did you get those?”

“We made them,” you may respond.

“From what?”

“From things in the earth.”

“Wow! You mean that God put things in the earth that would enable you to make those bright lights, and then gave you the wisdom and skill to discover those things and make the lights?”

“Yes,” you would reply.

“Praise God!” they would say. “What a great and amazing God we have!”

“And where did you get that?” they would say, pointing to the plastic bottle of water here in my hand. “Do you mean you can drink from it without walking half a mile to the nearest stream to bend down and get water?”

“Yes,” you would reply, we also made that clear plastic bottle from things that God put in the earth.

“Praise God!” they would exclaim. “What a great and good and wise God we have!”

So it would go with all the ordinary things of our life. Their hearts would be overflowing with praise and thanksgiving to God for his goodness.

Not far from my home there’s a shop that sells small plastic disks. They are clear and slightly concave, and probably contain about five cents’ worth of plastic. I’m not sure what one of these disks could be used for, as it is. I suppose it could serve as a small ashtray if I smoked, but I don’t smoke, so I’m not sure that I would have any use for it at all. But when I went into the shop a man took one of these plastic disks, put it in a machine, and pushed a button. Soon the disk came out the other end of the machine, and there was a $100 lens for my glasses. Then he put another disk in and out came another $100 lens for my other eye.

Every time he put a disk in the machine, he created $100 worth of new value in the world that never existed before. He added $100 of value to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the United States. That ability—the amazing, God-like ability to create new value that did not exist before, belongs only to human beings out of the entire creation that God has made. It is part of being made in the image of God, it reflects God’s creativity and wisdom and skill in many other attributes, and it is part of the way in which we glorify God.

The man who makes the glasses is in business to make a profit. Of course he has costs beyond the price of the raw plastic. If his total cost of making the lens is $80 (the cost of the plastic plus the complex machine, plus paying his employees, plus rent and utilities for his shop), and he sells the lens for $100, he makes a $20 profit. When I pay him $100 for the lens, it shows that I think he has added $20 worth of value to all the inputs that went into making the lens. His profit measures the value he has added to his product, and I think that profit is a morally good thing.

The same thing is true of a woman in a poor country who takes a $3 piece of cloth and sews it into a shirt that she sells in a market for $13. She has a profit of $10, and it shows that she has added $10 of value to the raw materials that she worked with.

Now stewardship of the earth implies this kind of productivity. Our stewardship of the earth’s resources implies God’s expectation of human achievement & human flourishing. When God entrusts us with something, he expects us to do something worthwhile with it. This is reaffirmed famously in the Parable of Talents (Matt 25:14–30).

Therefore, the Eighth Commandment contributes to human flourishing in the following three ways. First, it presents the opportunity for human achievement by entrusting property to us. Second, it expects human achievement by making us accountable stewards. Third, this command expects human beings to enjoy the products made from the earth and respond by thanking God (just as a human father feels joy when his child enjoys the gifts the father has given, and enjoys them with thanksgiving to that human father). God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17). I do not believe that God wanted us to create all these things from the earth merely as temptations to be avoided, but as products to be enjoyed!

I want to make clear that human flourishing includes more than material inventions—it includes art and music and literature, and the complex and wonderful relationships we find in home and church and community. But all of those activities still depend in some measure on products produced from the earth—food to sustain life, construction materials to build houses and buildings with, furnaces and air conditioners to make the buildings comfortable, and cars and airplanes to travel and enjoy fellowship with friends and family, and a computer-driven email network to arrange where and when to meet!

And so God gave human beings an innate desire, a drive to understand and to create from the earth. This drive is amazingly powerful and it is unlimited. Rabbits and squirrels, birds and deer, are content to live in the same kinds of homes and eat the same kinds of food for thousands of generations. But human beings have an innate desire to explore, to discover, to understand, to invent, to create, to produce—and then to enjoy the products that can be made from the earth. This innate human drive to subdue the earth has never been satisfied throughout the entire history of mankind. This is because God created us not merely to survive on the earth but to flourish.

God has created us with very limited needs (food, clothing, shelter) for our physical survival. If we have food, clothing, and shelter, we could live for decades in a prison camp or on a desert island. But God’s goal for us is not merely to survive like animals. Therefore, he created us not only with limited needs but also with unlimited wants for new and improved products that we will enjoy.

Consider cell phones, for example. For many centuries, human beings did not know that they wanted cell phones, because such things did not exist. I lived quite happily without a cell phone for about 40 years of my life, but now I have one. It’s very useful—but it’s also enjoyable! I think it is included in 1 Timothy 6:17, where Paul says that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” I think the “everything” includes cell phones.

The same is true of electric light bulbs, plastic water bottles, gas furnaces, air conditioners, automobiles, computers and airplane travel. For thousands of years, human beings did not know they wanted these things, because nobody knew they could be made. But human achievement continues to progress, and thereby human beings give more and more evidence of the glory of our creation in the image of God. With such inventions we demonstrate creativity, wisdom, knowledge, skill in use of resources, care for others who are distant (through use of a telephone or by email), and many other God-like qualities. And I think we should enjoy these inventions and give thanks to God for them!

When the airplane took off recently to fly me from Arizona to Minnesota, I didn’t think for a second that I should pray, “Forgive me, Lord, for being a sinful materialist and using all these resources from your earth.” Instead, my heart attitude was, “Thank you, Lord, for this amazing invention, this airplane—and thank you for putting petroleum in the earth that could be made into jet fuel to power this airplane—this is amazing, Lord! Thank you, thank you!” And often when an airplane takes off I think, “This is so much fun!” Never for a moment do I think, “Lord, please forgive me for enjoying this too much.”

What is driving this insatiable human desire to invent and create and develop and flourish on the earth? I don’t think we should just dismiss this drive as greedy materialism or sin. It can be distorted by selfishness and sin, but the drive to create and produce and enjoy useful products ultimately comes from a morally good, God-given instinct that he placed within the human race before there was any sin in the world at all, when he commanded us to fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over all of it.

In addition, ownership of property motivates people to create, invent, and produce, because they have hope of keeping and enjoying what they earn. Therefore, the ownership of property which is implied by the Eighth Commandment is essential for human flourishing. Where there is no ownership of property, inventors and producers lack the motivation that comes from the hope of enjoying what they produce, and human flourishing shrivels up.

Scottish professor of moral philosophy Adam Smith, in 1776, explained why the hope of enjoying the fruits of one’s labor inspires people to be productive and lifts entire nations out of poverty:

That security which the laws in Great Britain give to every man that he shall enjoy the fruits of his own labour, is alone sufficient to make any country flourish.…The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition, when suffered to exert itself with freedom and security, is so powerful a principle, that it is alone, and without any assistance … capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity.7

Plants and animals show a measure of God’s glory by merely surviving and repeating the same activities for thousands of years, while human beings glorify God by achieving much more than mere survival. We glorify God by understanding and ruling over the creation and then producing more and more wonderful goods from it, for our enjoyment, and with thanksgiving to God. God is the one who “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17). It does not say that God provided us with these things so that we could ask forgiveness for enjoying them! No, he intends us to enjoy these things with his blessing!

Now here’s the application to business: Businesses make all this human flourishing possible. More than families, churches, governments, schools, hospitals, clubs, or any other organizations, new and better products are invented and produced by businesses. Businesses are the main social structure that bring about human economic flourishing on the earth.

Therefore if you are thinking of going to a foreign country to be a business missionary, then produce a good product and sell it and make a profit. And enjoy some of that profit! Yes, certainly you must bear witness for Christ in your words and your conduct. And yes, you should give generously from your profit to the work of the church and the work of missions. But also you should make a profit and enjoy some of that profit that God has enabled you to earn. “The plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop” (1 Cor 9:10).

Christians involved in a business should remember that they are making, distributing, or selling products that help other people. These products may help others to eat and sleep and be healthy, or to learn and communicate, or to enjoy family and friends and the many wonderful resources of God’s amazing earth.

In other words, if you work in a business, your work is doing good for other people. You are doing “good works,” and after we are saved, the Bible tells us that we are to do good works: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10).

That is why working in business is an honorable, spiritual calling, by which God will give lifelong blessing not only to you but to all those who enjoy the products you produce or help to distribute. That is why working in a business as a Christian is serving God: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col 3:23–24).

Over the centuries, often those who have been most successful in business have been those who saw a human need and invented a way to meet that need, and so by working diligently in the business world they were obedient to Jesus’s command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39).

4. The Dangers of Materialism and Asceticism

Now I want to mention two mistakes—two dangers—to avoid. In talking about business and material prosperity, we must never forget that the Bible gives warnings against loving material things too much:

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Heb 13:5)

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money 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 6:9–10)

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matt 6:24)

And so I strongly disagree with the “health and wealth gospel” that teaches if you have enough faith—or if you just give enough money to a certain ministry—then God will make you prosperous. Jesus was poor and Paul was poor and Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you” when he healed the man lame from birth (Acts 3:6). And James said, “has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” (Jas 2:5). I’m certainly not saying that if you are faithful Christian God will make you rich. Often he will not.8

There is an opposite danger to materialism, and that is the danger of asceticism. I want to make clear that I am also not saying that prosperity is in itself evil. It brings temptations and dangers, but I think it is still basically a good thing, and in itself it is part of what God intended for us as creatures made in his image. In warning about the dangers of prosperity, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Paul warned about the opposite of materialism—a false asceticism, promoted by people who constantly opposed the enjoyment of material things that God has placed in this world:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Col 2:20–23)

I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Phil 4:12–13)

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share. (1 Tim 6:17–18)

And so I think that the command “You shall not steal,” when viewed in the context of the entire Bible’s teachings on stewardship, implies that God created us not merely to survive but to achieve much and to flourish on the earth—and to flourish with enjoyment, abounding in thanksgiving to God.

5. A Christian Worldview Will Enable Poor Nations to Prosper

When I speak about the goodness of producing and enjoying cell phones and cars and airplanes and air conditioning, another question arises: what about the poor nations of the earth, where people do not have the opportunity to enjoy these things?

In the nations of the world where the Bible has been the main influence on people’s moral values, and where people have believed in private property and the rule of law, and in the moral goodness of developing the resources of the earth, poverty is less common.9 In addition, people in these nations have more income, which enables them to be healthier and better educated, take better care of the environment, and have more choices of where they work, where they live, and where they travel.

And this is exactly why “business as mission” is so important: We send Christian books and teachers to train church leaders in poor countries. We send medical missionaries to heal people’s physical bodies. We send educational missionaries to help build schools to educate people’s minds. And we should send business missionaries to heal the economic productivity and economic systems of poor nations, by word and by deed.

6. The Immense Challenge of the Eighth Commandment

Now I close with one broader application: obeying the Eighth Commandment rightly is immensely challenging. Only someone made in the image of God can obey it, and even those redeemed by Christ never obey it perfectly in this age.

Someone might think, “I’m not a shoplifter, or an embezzler or a thief. I don’t cheat on my taxes. I think I have been obeying the commandment, ‘You shall not steal.’” But have we been faithful stewards? Faithful stewardship of what God entrusts to us requires wise use of all of our possessions and time and talents and opportunities. Faithful stewardship requires immense wisdom and mature judgment in the complex balancing of multiple factors such as love of neighbor, care for one’s family, wise planning for the future, fear of God, desire to advance God’s kingdom, and a desire to subdue the earth to the glory of God.

Grateful stewardship in obedience to the Eighth Commandment also requires avoiding the temptations and sins connected with possessions, such as gluttony, greed, selfishness, materialism, and waste. It also requires that we avoid laziness, apathy and false asceticism. While self interest is acceptable in biblical ethics, selfishness and greed are not acceptable, but are distortions of rightful self interest.

Further, the stewardship requirements implied by the Eighth Commandment are life-long. They begin in childhood, with the responsibility to care for one’s toys and small responsibilities, and they continue until the day of one’s death, when a person must make wise choices regarding the disposition of any goods that are left behind.

Therefore, who among us can say from his heart, “I know that I have always made right stewardship decisions. I know that God is pleased with how I’ve managed my resources. I’ve made judicious allocations of funds between giving to others, investing, saving, and using for my own present enjoyment. I have been a wise steward of all the intellectual, creative, artistic, and managerial opportunities and abilities that God entrusted to me. My talent has made five talents more”? I doubt any living person could honestly say that today, for, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Therefore, the challenge of the Eighth Commandment is immense. The immensity of the challenge should not discourage us, however. It should excite us that God has entrusted such a great challenge to us. It should excite us to know that God fills us with joy and delight as we seek by his power to accomplish these tasks.

Hidden within the simple words, “You shall not steal,” we discover the infinite wisdom of God. Through these words, God laid the foundation for a system of private ownership of property, of stewardship and accountability, and of an expectation that we would achieve much and flourish as we live on the face of the earth and enjoy its abundant resources.

[1] This article revises a sermon preached to Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN on October 17, 2015.

[2] The command against stealing is the eighth commandment according to the traditional Protestant system for numbering the Ten Commandments. It is the seventh commandment in Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions, because they combine the command against other gods and the command against carved images together as the first commandment, and then they separate the command against coveting your neighbor’s wife from the command against coveting your neighbor’s goods, thus making these the ninth and tenth commandments. While no explicit numbering system is present in Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5, the (non-Lutheran) Protestant tradition appears to be preferable to the Roman Catholic and Lutheran system, because it seems artificial to separate the command not to covet your neighbor’s house from the command not to covet your neighbor’s wife. The ideas are closely related and belong together under one commandment that prohibits coveting. In fact, the first sentence of the commandment differs between Exodus and Deuteronomy: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,” (Exod. 20:17), but “And you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. And you shall not covet your neighbor’s house” (Deut. 5:21).

In addition, it seems better to separate the commandment against having other gods from the command against making a carved image or worshipping it, and seeing these as two commands. Bruce Waltke rightly observes: “Separating the first two commandments distinguishes between worshipping either Canaanite or foreign deities, who were thought of as powers that rule aspects of nature, and misrepresenting the character of true Deity. According to this second command, God cannot be compared to anything that exists. These are distinct notions” (Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007], 411).

[3] For additional discussion of this remarkable early sharing of possessions in Acts, see Craig L. Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 160–67.

[4] See other examples of Christians owning homes in Acts 12:12; 17:5; 18:7; 20:20; 21:8; 21:16; Rom 16:5; Col 4:15; Philem 2; 2 John 10.

[5] The previous paragraph was adapted from Wayne Grudem, ed., The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 2085 (note on Acts 2:44).

[6] Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party, ed. Frederick Engels (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1909), 34.

[7] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776; repr., New York: Modern Library, 1994), 581.

[8] See also Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus, The Poverty of Nations (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 321–22; Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor—and Yourself (Chicago: Moody, 2009), 69–70.

[9] For more data supporting this statement, see Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus, The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable Solution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 318–25.

Wayne Grudem

Wayne Grudem is research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary in Phoenix, Arizona.

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