Scripture Reference: Exodus 20:15, Malachi 3:8-10, Luke 23:32-43, James 5:4-6
Playing By The RulesDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | May 25, 1986
Selected highlights from this sermon
Humanity is proficient at theft. We have devised many ingenious means to hide and obscure our habit of stealing. While grand theft gets all the headlines, other forms continue unchecked.
Employers need to pay fair wages. Employees need to put in a full day’s work. Everyone needs to repay loans and return what has been “borrowed” or stolen.
Worst of all, we have all stolen from God. So how do we repay what we’ve stolen?
Karl Marx was born in the Rhineland of Germany, and baptized as a Christian at the age of six, though born into a Jewish home. As a teenager he said some very beautiful things about Jesus Christ, and then later in life met Engels and wrote the Communist Manifesto there on the continent. And then Marx went over to Great Britain and spent a great deal of time in the British Museum, and it is there that he wrote Capital or in German, Das Kapital. Today he rules over more than one half of the world from his grave.
But it was Marx who believed that the root of all evil was ownership, the possession of property. He believed that if there were ever a time when people would give all of their property and all that they possessed to the State, why then indeed the State would be in a position to bring about equality and justice and equity in a world that seemed to be so diverse economically. Marx, of course, was quite right in saying that economics plays a great part in the history of nations. He was wrong in believing that it was actually the pivotal point upon which all nations and class struggles are built. And he was very naïve to think that somehow once poverty was in the hands of the State that from then on justice, equity and utopia would be brought about.
Karl Marx believed that the possession of private property was indeed the root of all evil, but it’s interesting that the Bible says, in the words of God, “Thou shalt not steal.” By implication God is giving His sanction to private property. As a matter of fact, in Exodus 22 the Lord is talking about if someone steals your ox or steals your sheep this is what should happen because God is not opposed to people owning something. And of course, Marx didn’t see that when ownership was in the hands of the State the repression that would follow, and the seizure of land forcibly, and that the revolution that would bring it about would be bloody and awful, and would eventually destroy the very fabric of society and whole countries.
But it is God who says, “Thou shalt not steal.” Now there are four ways in which you can get legitimately rich. You can get rich by work. That, incidentally, is the best way. The Bible says, “He that doesn’t work, don’t let him eat.” One of the greatest blessings that you can have is to work, and if you can work, do it. Try it. You’ll like it.
Second, you can also receive money by a gift. If you have someone who loves you enough to give you money, why then indeed consider yourself fortunate and receive it with gratitude and give half of it to the Lord’s work, because it is legitimate to receive money by a gift. And all of us sometimes wish that we had wealthy friends who would remember us in times of need.
Thirdly, inheritance; there may be some problems regarding those who inherit an awful lot of money. It is a curse that comes upon children who are born into wealthy families where they never have to do any work, where everything is simply given to them. That is not a healthy situation, but it is legitimate to receive money by inheritance.
And then fourthly, by investment. You know what to do with your money in such a way that you can legitimately put it into a bank, or put it into some kind of an investment that will give you money. That, too, is a way to acquire property or to acquire money. But one way that is illegitimate is stealing. “Thou shalt not steal.” Stealing is not a way to get rich.
Now what I’d like to do today is to delineate for us the various ways that this commandment can be broken. And incidentally you might like to turn to Exodus 20. Even though my message today will be topical I’ll be asking you to turn to a few passages of Scripture, but in Exodus 20:15 where God is giving the Ten Commandments, He says, “Thou shalt not steal.” In listing them it is the eighth commandment in order.
What are the various ways in which we can break this commandment? How can this commandment be broken?
First of all, it can be broken by what you take. Here we are thinking of someone who has the intention of actually taking something that belongs to somebody else, and just going ahead and being a burglar and doing whatever is necessary to get it in his own possession. There is such a thing as grand theft. That’s where you steal a lot of money in perhaps a burglary or in embezzlement. As you know, Wall Street has been shaken recently by a man who was high up in its organization who embezzled $12 million, and if he had not been found out would have gone for more because there is something in the human heart that is incurably greedy, and the more you get the more you want. Grand theft is one way to do it.
Another way, of course, is petty theft. This is what takes place in offices. If you work in a garage it means taking oil home that belongs to the service station. Or if you are in an office it means using the Xerox machine without paying for it, or doing other things on company time. If you work in a factory perhaps it means taking some things home with you that don’t belong to you that you are going to use for a few weeks but then you never return. That, of course, also comes under the prohibition here of what you take. Theft!
A hotel in New York City said that in one year’s time it lost 38,000 spoons, 355 silver coffee pots, 15,000 finger bowls, and 100 Bibles. Wouldn’t you know it? That was all in one single year. Seventy-five percent of all insurance claims are at least in some way fraudulent. When it comes time to fill out one of those forms there is something within people that just snaps and says, “This is my chance to make a buck. Everybody ought to have at least one opportunity in life to get something, and this is mine.” So seventy-five percent of all claims may not be totally fraudulent, but at least in some sense they are. The damage or whatever is overdrawn because everyone wants to make money on insurance companies.
Some of you know that for many years I attended a local university. Some of the best universities in the nation are here in the Chicago area, and of course, you would think that attending a university leads people to become responsible members of society. Right? You wouldn’t believe the problem that we had, or that the university had, with books that were being stolen from the library. They had to devise all kinds of ways to figure out who was taking them and eventually discovered that an honor student, one of their brightest students who studied philosophy morning and evening and all day, stole more than 70 books. They found the books on his shelves.
Isn’t it interesting that education is supposed to make you better? Listen; unless education is also combined by the regeneration of the heart, it only makes you craftier. It makes you to be a smarter devil. That’s all that education really does. It makes you to be brilliant in your ability. You don’t get caught as easily after you are educated. So one way that you can, of course, break the commandment is by what you take. It means taking that which belongs to someone else, and there are numerous ways that that can be done.
But there’s a second way in which this commandment can be broken, and that is by what you do. I’m thinking, for example, of employers who do not pay an adequate wage to their employees. They are misusing labor. Turn with me in your Bibles to James 5:4. He has a very harsh word to say to those who get people to work for them and then don’t pay. Notice what he says. He’s speaking to the rich now. Don’t think that stealing just pertains to the poor. It also pertains to the rich. He says, in James 5:1 “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.” And he says, “Your riches have rotted.” It’s a figure of speech to show that God is causing even those things that seemingly last forever such as gold and silver to become decayed. But notice verse 4. “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” Here are some rich people who hired others to work in the field for them and then when evening came they didn’t pay them, and God says, “I’m taking note of that. I am keeping record. The cry of those who did the mowing and the harvesting has reached my ears.”
But you find today that employers are sometimes interested in making a lot of money. And we should be thankful for the labor movement in the United States which has helped laborers get a fair hearing in terms of the responsibility of employers to pay employees well. Now I know, having said that, that somebody is going to come up to me afterwards and say, “Don’t you listen to the news? Aren’t you acquainted with what’s happening to the teamsters these days?” Yes, I listen to the news, but the point still is that laborers have a right to a decent wage. And so God says that if you are an employer and you withhold money, and you don’t pay adequately, He is taking note of that because that basically is theft.
Now those of you who are employees, you are about to shout amen, but now it’s your turn. You employees can steal from your boss not only because of what you take home at night, but you can steal from your boss because you are not giving a good day’s work for what you expect at the end of the day, namely a good day’s pay. That’s stealing too. You know it is said that you are supposed to work eight hours and you are supposed to sleep eight hours. The problem is that for some people it’s the same eight hours. That’s the difficulty. You say, “Well, I’m not being paid adequately.” That does not justify it. It does not justify you to cheat your employer simply because he isn’t fair with you, because actually you are working for Jesus Christ to whom you are going to give an account for all of the hours that you have worked. He is your employer and if your employer who is paying you on earth is being dishonest with you, God is going to have to rectify that in the Day of Judgment. The text says in James 5:4 that He is taking note of it, and the outcry of those who have been misused has reached His ears.
There is so much that could be said. I must hurry on. You can steal by what you do – employer/employee relationships. While I am into this let me also say a word about customers – the way you treat customers. I think, for example, of going into a garage these days. If you are from outside of the state of Illinois I suggest that you try to get home with the car that you’ve got rather than have it fixed here in this state because I am told that when you drive into a garage one of the first things that they do is look at the license. If you are from out of state it’s a great opportunity to fleece the person who comes in. And we all have stories to tell about how we took our car to the garage for one minor thing and discovered that there was so much wrong with it and ended up with bills of five or six hundred dollars. That’s stealing. That’s literally highway robbery.
Can you imagine what would happen here in the United States if God simply took the lid off and all of the cheating and the stealing in business across the line, and all of the aspects of larceny, whether it has to do with payoffs or whatever, were suddenly all exposed? It would be incredible.
Okay, you can break this commandment by what you take. You can break the commandment by what you do, and now hang on to your seat belts. You can also break the commandment by what you win, and here I am speaking about the lottery and other forms of gambling. Shall I quickly go on to number four? There’s a fourth way. My dear folks once our society has come to the point where they must sustain their educational programs by a state lottery, the people that are bearing the burden of that expense are the least able people to do so. It has to do with poor people somehow thinking that by buying these tickets they are going to get rich quick and that this is going to be their hope. And you have people taking money that should be spent for clothing and for children and for food, and they are giving it to the lottery, hoping that they will be able to win someone else’s money. That’s thievery. And furthermore, seldom, of course, do they win someone else’s money, but that money, even though legalized and even though protected by the law, is not yours and it is not mine. It is a legal means by which people are trying to take someone else’s money. And of course it has a state sanction.
Now, of course, I know someone is going to say to me, “Well, all of life is a gamble.” Well, there’s a certain way in which we can say that certain risks are involved in all investments, but the problem with gambling and the lottery is it is totally dependent upon blind chance. It has nothing to do with sensible investments with the possibility of receiving a return based on what we might call reasonable risk. And incidentally, if you read the newspapers, you notice that there are some churches here in the Chicago area that make their money by gambling, and that’s a reminder of the fact that sometimes Christendom can actually sink to the point where people are so desperate to prop up what is called God’s work that they must have these kinds of forms of fund raising, even within the confines of the Church.
Well, I told you I should hurry on, so I will. You can break it by what you take, by what you do, by what you win, but also by what you keep. Here I want to speak about three areas in which we may keep money that legitimately belongs to someone else, and God would say that is stealing. An example is your relationship with friends - money that you borrow from them but you don’t give back. The Bible says in Psalm 37:21, “The wicked borrows but does not return again.” The wicked is the person who says, “I need the money.” You give it to him, you lend it to him and even after he has money whereby he could pay the debt, he still doesn’t do it because he thinks he needs it worse than his neighbor or his friend. The Bible says that if you do that you are wicked. You are withholding that which belongs to someone else, and that is stealing. And don’t tell me about the fact that it happened 20 years ago. Just because a debt is 20 years old doesn’t mean it isn’t still a debt. It doesn’t make it right just because a lot of time has passed, nor does it make it right because the person to whom you owe the money has more than you do. That has absolutely nothing to do with it. The Bible says, “Thou shalt not steal,” and it is the wicked that borrow and do not return. So you can keep that which belongs to a friend, and that’s stealing too.
You can keep that which belongs to the government. I guess it’s true to say that none of us enjoys paying taxes. You’ve seen the little sign that says, “They told me to pay taxes with a smile, and I tried it but they wanted my money anyway.” It’s very difficult sometimes. I said to my wife one time, “After you fill out your income tax form you have a good feeling and know then how a cow must feel after she has been milked,” and we know that we don’t necessarily delight in paying money to our government. But I want to say this to you. If you are dishonest on your income tax form, you are being dishonest in the presence of God who says, “Thou shalt not steal.” And God holds us accountable for our accuracy and our honesty when it comes to the government. If we are not accountable we are thieves.
But you know, you can steal from a friend, you can steal from the government, but also you can steal from God. Turn with me to the book of Malachi. Notice what God says here in Malachi 3:8. He asks this question. “Will a man rob God?” I can imagine someone here saying, “Well of course I would never rob God.” He says, “Yet you are robbing Me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’” I don’t remember breaking into God’s vault and taking money. The answer is in tithes and contributions. “You are cursed with a curse for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you,” God says.
Now we here at the Moody Church do not lay tithing on people as a requirement. We recognize that giving is a private matter between you and God. But can you imagine God? It is He who gives us the ability to get wealth. It is He who gives us the clothes that are on our back. It is He who gives us health and strength and money, and He gives all of it to us freely because really it is His. And then there are people who are stingy at giving God any kind of recognition in what they have received and they hog it all for themselves and they insult God because the text says that they are robbing Him. It is actually all His. We do not even really technically possess what we claim we own. We are God’s stewards. We are God’s representatives. He gives it to us and He expects to be remembered and to be worshipped and to be honored by our giving. God says, “You’ve robbed me.”
Not only do people rob God from the standpoint of money but they also rob Him of time. He gives us time – 168 hours a week, and some people don’t give Him the time of day. If you really want to insult God how do you think you can do it? Just ignore Him! There are many people who have no recognition of God. They do not allow God to invade their lives at all. They just simply ignore God and God says, “You are robbing Me. It is I who have created you. You ought to have an allegiance to Me.” Many people want God out of their lives, and God says, “You are breaking the eighth commandment. You are stealing.”
Do you know what God required in the Old Testament of thieves? He always said that you have to pay back. Not all sins are sins for which restitution can be made. Stealing is one that can be. Restitution can be made for stealing. That’s why God, in the Old Testament, says, “Pay back fourfold.” And in the New Testament when Zacchaeus was up in the tree he said, “If I have defrauded any man, I will pay him back fourfold.” Zacchaeus was the IRS man of his day, the tax collector who would go around and he, of course, chiseled the accounts in such a way that he got more money than he was supposed to.
When a revival came to Western Canada that swept over hundreds of churches in the early seventies, one of the early indications that it was a movement of God was that people were returning things that they had stolen from stores, and they were making up for the time that they had cheated their employers out of. They were sending money to the government. Because of what was happening the secular press picked up on it and wrote stories about it. You know that the officials on the border between Canada and the United States knew that there was a revival in progress because many people from Winnipeg and Regina and other cities went to the border officials and told them they lied when they crossed the border and they wanted to make it right. They said they brought goods over that they didn’t declare. That’s what happens when people really get right with God.
I think of a man in Detroit who worked for Ford Company and he would go to work and take his lunch bucket and fill it with lunch, of course, in the morning and take it to work and eat his lunch, and then on his way home he would fill his lunch bucket with tools and pieces of tools and then put them together at home. And one day as a Christian man he began to pray and he really wanted to pray seriously before God. He wanted his children to grow up to love the Lord, and it was as if God said to him, “Don’t bother praying.” Why does God tell people not to bother? What good is praying when you have things in your possession? What good is praying if in your basement you have a tool with a Ford insignia on it? Why bother? What you have to do is you have to restore. That’s what God requires before you as a Christian can be in fellowship with Him.
If there is someone here today who has a problem with stealing I can tell you how to overcome stealing so quickly it’s just amazing. Here’s what you do. First of all, make a list of all of the things that you have stolen in your life and go back and restore all the things that you have taken. That’s the first thing. The second thing is to get a job working with your hands. That’s what it says in Ephesians 5 you remember. Get a job working with your hands and give to them who have need the text says. Become very generous. Give a lot of money away. That will take care of that covetous heart that brought about theft.
You know, a number of years ago when that revival was there in Canada, my sister-in-law had gone through a super market and on the bottom of the cart was a ninety-nine cent bag of potatoes but the cashier didn’t see the potatoes, and she perhaps thought to herself, “Well, I guess everybody needs a break. I won’t mention it to the cashier.” So she let that super market cart go through with that bag of potatoes on the bottom. Isn’t it amazing that for years there was a slight twinge in her conscience that she had taken it – a ninety-nine cent bag of potatoes? And then when God began to speak very directly to people and when the Holy Spirit began to bring to mind the things the people had even forgotten about in their lives to make right, she realized that she had to make something right. And so she made an appointment with the manager of the store and told him the story of how she owed him some money because of that bag of potatoes, and he said, “Either something is happening in this town or it’s my lucky day because you are the second person who has come to me today to make something right.” And she assured him that something was indeed happening in the town. And he became visibly shaken, she said, as she told him about the spiritual awakening that was happening.
You see, there are many people out in the world whose closets are filled with all sorts of sin and defrauding and dishonesty, but when they begin to see righteousness they get convicted.
I think of one man I interviewed in the city of Saskatoon. He said to me, “Revival cost me $5,000.” He said, “I went to the bank and I had to borrow $5,000.” I said, “Why?” He said, “I am a builder and I would build houses and other buildings and sometimes I would put into them inferior quality materials, and I charged them for the better materials, and God made me see that I could never be fully right with Him until I went back and made all those things right.”
God says, “Thou shalt not steal,” and you can steal in dozens of different ways.
One day I was speaking about this in another church, and there was a young man sitting there in the audience who realized that he had stolen something from American Airlines. It was actually some silverware that they had had. Most of it in the planes today I suppose is plastic, but he had some silverware, and he made a trip to O’Hare Airport. He didn’t know who to give it to or who to see. They don’t know quite what to do with a guy like this. I mean what are you going to do with somebody who is actually getting so conscientious that something as small as silverware has to be returned. It’s small but when you are desperate to get right with God it can become big.
I remember a young man who told me that he was in the army and had stolen $250 worth of goods from the government and as a result of hearing me speak on this topic he took it and returned it, because God says, “Thou shalt not steal,” and He takes note of all the thievery that is going on in the whole city of Chicago, and throughout Illinois and the whole United States, and He sees it and He keeps track of it all.
Now I want to say a word to those of you who are here today that think that the only kind of thievery that God is interested in is the external kind. I want us to know that when it comes to this commandment, as I’ve already shown, actually all of us are guilty. And I find it interesting that when Jesus died he was crucified between two thieves. Turn with me to Luke 23. Jesus was dying and he was crucified there between two thieves, the Bible says. Now my translation in Luke 23:39 says he was between two criminals but we know that they were thieves that were dying. In those days there was a heavy penalty for thievery, but I want you to notice that it says that one of the criminals who was hanging there was hurling abuses at Him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us,” but the other, rebuking him, said, “Do you not even fear God since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly are receiving what we deserve for our deeds but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he (the penitent thief) was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you shall be with Me in paradise.”
I look at this passage of Scripture and I find it interesting that both of these thieves were guilty of breaking the eighth commandment. One of them went to hell. The other went to heaven. Jesus, you see, was dying there on the cross, and humanly speaking he looked no better than either one of these two thieves. He seemed to be as weak. The blood was running from Him. He was breathing heavily amid all of the pain that He was going through. Actually, if you just saw a picture of the three men on the crosses, you wouldn’t know that the man in the middle was special. What interests us about this thief who looked upon Jesus is that he had enough faith to look beyond the common way in which Jesus was dying, and somehow (and we don’t know how) this thief knew that Jesus Christ was more than a man because what was happening (which was not visible to the external eye) was that Jesus Christ was actually dying for this thief’s sin. The Bible teaches that when Jesus Christ died on the cross His death was a substitutionary death. It was a sacrifice for sin. He died in our place because none of us is able to keep all of the commandments. None of us is able to come to God on the basis of our own works and be received. We are all sinners. One of the reasons that the Law was given was that we might realize that we are condemned and helpless before God. And when we place our confidence in Christ who died for us we can be cleansed, and we can be forgiven, welcomed and received into God’s family forever. That’s tremendously good news for thieves and other sinners.
Now I want to be very clear in saying that nobody ever yet became a Christian by confessing his or her sins. Some people think that just by going through and mentally confessing their sins that they are receiving Christ as Savior. It could happen but not necessarily. It is not the confession of sins that gives eternal life. It is in looking to Jesus who died for us and in our place, and putting our confidence in Him. That’s the way then that we are forgiven for all of our sins, even the ones that we cannot remember. That is what makes us children of God and makes us welcome into God’s family forever. You see Jesus died for sinners. He died for thieves. He died for adulterers. He died for those who covet. He died for liars, as we will see next week. Christ’s death is for sinners and every one of us can be saved if we put our trust in Him. I’ve done it. I know that members of the staff have done it. I know that there are hundreds of you out here today who know what it is to have put your faith and trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, but there are others of you who have never done that. Will you do that today? Like this thief who looked at Christ who was dying and appeared weak, but could see beyond it to know that He was Christ, the Savior, why don’t you receive Him as yours right now? Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Our Father, we thank You today that Jesus died for sinners. We thank You that we can come just as we are, and we pray today for those who do not know Him personally. We pray that You might enable them to see that Christ’s death was for them. May they receive what He did on the cross, that they might be received into Your presence and kingdom. And for those of us who know You as Savior we pray dear Father that You will keep us from stealing. Help us to be scrupulously honest, that we might be a good witness for Christ and His kingdom. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.