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15. The Christian Work Ethic (Ephesians 4:28)


Few will challenge my qualifications to speak on the subject of stealing. Only this week, a friend dropped by with a present, a “slim jim.” This is a device for getting into a locked car. It is a significant improvement over the clothes hanger I have used for years. Over the years I have helped many get into their cars, after they have locked themselves out. On one occasion, I did so after the locksmith left in shame. On another, I had to ask a policeman to step aside and let me do the task.

Stealing is a major problem in our nation. Many businesses suffer economically from theft by employees. I heard of a man in New York whose car stalled in the middle of traffic. The man got out of his car and lifted the hood. As he did, another man ran up and said something like this: “You get the battery, and I’ll get the radio.”

Prisons themselves have a problem with theft. Some years ago I spoke in a prison where the number one problem in that institution was theft, not by the inmates, but by the guards. Prisons are not very successful at solving the problem of stealing, either. In a prison where I taught years ago, an inmate confided in me that he was going to give up stealing … sort of. While he was in prison, he would learn as much about theft as he could. He would be tutored by the pro’s, the best in their field, so that he became an expert in a variety of crimes. And when he got out, he planned to sell his services to less gifted thieves, as a consultant. He would engineer the crime, and they would execute it. And then he would receive a fee for his services.

This passage illustrates the dramatic change which faith in Jesus Christ should produce in an individual’s thinking and conduct. Our text is not just for thieves. It is the declaration of a Christian “work ethic” which every true believer should apply in the realm of their employment. Let us listen well to these words, seeking to understand and apply them to the glory of God, to the edification of the church, and for our own good. Stop Stealing! Let him who steals steal no longer …

There are several significant elements of this command which we must take into account. First, the Apostle Paul is speaking to Christians. He has laid down the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith in chapters 1-3. Second, in Ephesians chapter 4, Paul writes to Christians concerning that conduct which is befitting their calling (see 4:1). The commands given in verses 25-32 are addressed to true believers in Jesus Christ.

Having noted that the command of verse 28 is addressed to Christians, let us secondly recognize that Paul speaks to those who have not yet given up their practice of stealing. Paul writes in the present tense: “Let him who steals steal no longer …” He does not write in the past tense: “Let him who stole steal no longer …” Strange as it may seem, Paul believed that there were those who continued to practice their former lifestyle as thieves as Christians.

Third, it is apparent that Paul believes that the thief is not beyond the power of God and His gospel. Thieves can be saved, and Paul assumes that they have been saved. Remember that those who were crucified beside our Lord were thieves, and one of these became a believer (Luke 23:39-43). There are no sinners too lost for God to save through the shed blood of Christ:

9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

Fourth, Paul does not believe that salvation automatically or instantly changes a man’s thinking or conduct. I believe that in His grace God sometimes delivers sinners from specific sins at the time of their conversion. I have heard the testimony of those whose lives have been radically changed at conversion. Some, addicted to alcohol or drugs, have told of an immediate release from their addictions. This is not true of all saints. And even those whom I know who have been delivered from a specific sin would claim to have been delivered from all sin. As I understand the consistent teaching of Scripture, coming to faith in Christ does not end our struggle with sin, it commences it (see Romans 6 and 7). If every Christian were instantly delivered from sin, the command of Paul here would be meaningless.

Fifth, Paul does not believe that there is a general, once for all, life transforming event in the life of the Christian, which instantly changes him from a sinner to a sinless saint. In short, Paul does not believe in perfectionism. There are those who teach that we can have complete victory over sin in this life. They would not claim that this victory comes at the time of our salvation, but through a second, life-transforming, experience. By whatever means, they speak of a quantum leap in our spiritual life, an instant and total victory over sin. If this were so, Paul would here be calling for Christians to enter into this experience, rather than to be dealing with sins individually and specifically.

This is not to say that Paul rejects the concept of watershed changes of heart and commitment:

12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, 13 and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. 14 For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace (Romans 6:12-14).

1 I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).

It is to say that while we may make life-long commitments, we must also expect a life-long struggle with sin. The sins which are woven into the fabric of my nature and character will dog my heels all my life. And in those times when I think victory has come, I will find their ugly head raised once again, to deal with anew. The struggle with sin is life-long, and total victory over sin comes only when we are transformed into the likeness of our Lord in His coming kingdom.

Sixth, let us note that Paul understands the gospel and true Christian conversion to require a radically different way of thinking and behaving. There are some things that need no change—indeed, should not change—when we come to faith in Christ. For example, our station in life need not change (see 1 Corinthians 7:17-24). But our former way of thinking and behaving must be set aside:

This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Ephesians 4:17-24).

The Many Faces of Stealing

Most of us approach the subject of stealing with a narrow mental picture of this evil. In our mind’s eye we see a man with a gun in his hand, with a mask over his face, forcibly taking the property of another. Stealing has many more forms than this. Let us seek to explore some of the many forms which stealing takes, and thus to broaden the range of practices which fall under the general label of stealing. What we will find is that the church has more thieves among its members than one might first suppose. And what we will also discover is that many forms of stealing persist in the lives of those who profess Christ as Savior. Consider the following categories of stealing.

(1) Desperation Stealing. There are those who steal out of need. It is not that such stealing is in any way justified, but it is at least understandable.

Men do not despise a thief if he steals To satisfy himself when he is hungry; But when he is found, he must repay sevenfold; He must give all the substance of his house (Proverbs 6:30-31).

Keep deception and lies far from me, Give me neither poverty nor riches; Feed me with the food that is my portion, Lest I be full and deny {Thee} and say, “Who is the Lord?” Or lest I be in want and steal, And profane the name of my God (Proverbs 30:8-9).

(2) Thrill-seeking Stealing. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the one who steals, not out of need, but out of sheer pleasure in doing evil. The adulteress appeals to the excitement of immorality: “Stolen water is sweet; And bread {eaten} in secret is pleasant” (Proverbs 9:17). But worse yet is the thief who robs for the pleasure of causing pain an injury to another:

“My son, if sinners entice you, Do not consent. If they say, “Come with us, Let us lie in wait for blood, Let us ambush the innocent without cause; Let us swallow them alive like Sheol, Even whole, as those who go down to the pit; We shall find all {kinds} of precious wealth, We shall fill our houses with spoil; Throw in your lot with us, We shall all have one purse,” My son, do not walk in the way with them. Keep your feet from their path, For their feet run to evil, And they hasten to shed blood. Indeed, it is useless to spread the net In the eyes of any bird; But they lie in wait for their own blood; They ambush their own lives. So are the ways of everyone who gains by violence; It takes away the life of its possessors (Proverbs 1:10-19).

(3) Deceptive Stealing. Deceptive stealing does not happen by force, but by deception.

1 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “When a person sins and acts unfaithfully against the Lord, and deceives his companion in regard to a deposit or a security entrusted {to him}, or through robbery, or {if} he has extorted from his companion, 3 or has found what was lost and lied about it and sworn falsely, so that he sins in regard to any one of the things a man may do; 4 then it shall be, when he sins and becomes guilty, that he shall restore what he took by robbery, or what he got by extortion, or the deposit which was entrusted to him, or the lost thing which he found, 5 or anything about which he swore falsely; he shall make restitution for it in full, and add to it one-fifth more. He shall give it to the one to whom it belongs on the day {he presents} his guilt offering (Leviticus 6:1-5).

Jacob “robbed” his brother of his birthright by deceiving his father into thinking that he was Esau. He gained possession of the birthright in a way that neither his father nor his brother would have allowed if they had been aware of what was being done (see Genesis 27). Rachel also deceived her father Laban about the family gods she stole from him (Genesis 31).

The way some people conduct their business involves theft by deceit.76 The Bible speaks of “unjust balances,” weights which are deceptive, thus giving the customer less than he thinks he is getting. “Differing weights and differing measures, Both of them are abominable to the LORD” (Proverbs 20:10; see also 11:1; 20:23; Micah 6:11). Some employees falsify their expense reports, so that they are reimburses for expenses that do not exist. Others bill several customers for the same expense.

(4) Stealing by omission or delay. Some employers steal from their employees or their creditors by delaying the payment of what they owe. This enables them to have the use of monies which are not rightfully theirs, and thus to gain by it at the expense of others. Others steal when they fail to return something lost or borrowed to its owner.

(5) Stealing from God. Men have devised numerous ways of stealing from God. Men may fail to give God all or a portion of what their offerings or sacrifices. They may offer sacrifices which are inferior, defective, or second class. An animal that wouldn’t sell at auction may well be offered up at the temple. Some are even so bold as to offer that which they have stolen:

For I, the Lord, love justice, I hate robbery in the burnt offering; And I will faithfully give them their recompense, And I will make an everlasting covenant with them (Isaiah 61:8).

11 “For from the rising of the sun, even to its setting, My name {will be} great among the nations, and in every place incense is going to be offered to My name, and a grain offering {that is} pure; for My name {will be} great among the nations,” says the Lord of hosts. 12 “But you are profaning it, in that you say, ‘The table of the Lord is defiled, and as for its fruit, its food is to be despised.’ 13 “You also say, ‘My, how tiresome it is!’ And you disdainfully sniff at it,” says the Lord of hosts, “and you bring what was taken by robbery, and {what is} lame or sick; so you bring the offering! Should I receive that from your hand?” says the Lord. 14 “But cursed be the swindler who has a male in his flock, and vows it, but sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord, for I am a great King,” says the Lord of hosts, “and My name is feared among the nations” (Malachi 1:11-14).

8 “Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed Thee?’ In tithes and offerings. 9 “You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation {of you}! 10 “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven, and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows” (Malachi 3:8-10).

(6) Stealing by oppression. This kind of stealing takes place by means of the misuse of power. In its crudest form, a robber arms himself with a handgun, automatic rifle, or even a bomb, threatening to injure or kill if his demands are not met. But there are much more subtle forms of robbery, which are oppressive. The Old Testament prophets spoke out against this kind of robbery:

O house of David, thus says the Lord: “Administer justice every morning; And deliver the person who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor, That My wrath may not go forth like fire And burn with none to extinguish it, Because of the evil of their deeds (Jeremiah 21:12).

2 and say, ‘Hear the word of the Lord, O king of Judah, who sits on David’s throne, you and your servants and your people who enter these gates. 3 ‘Thus says the Lord, “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of {his} oppressor. Also do not mistreat {or} do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place. 4 “For if you men will indeed perform this thing, then kings will enter the gates of this house, sitting in David’s place on his throne, riding in chariots and on horses, {even the king} himself and his servants and his people. 5 “But if you will not obey these words, I swear by Myself,” declares the Lord, “that this house will become a desolation (Jeremiah 22:2-5).”’”

“The people of the land have practiced oppression and committed robbery, and they have wronged the poor and needy and have oppressed the sojourner without justice” (Ezekiel 22:29).

In robbery by oppression, the powerful abuse their power. Rather than using it to protect the powerless (especially the widows, orphans, and strangers), they use it to prey upon them. These oppressors prosper at the expense of the poor.

John the Baptist condemned oppressive robbery as a part of his prophetic ministry:

10 And the multitudes were questioning him, saying, “Then what shall we do?” 11 And he would answer and say to them, “Let the man who has two tunics share with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise.” 12 And some tax-gatherers also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” 14 And some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse {anyone} falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:10-14).

Tax collectors had the power of government behind them. They abused this power by increasing taxes to include a healthy profit for themselves. Those who resisted or refused to pay these inflated taxes placed themselves against the government. Soldiers often abused their power to forcibly take the property of others and make it their own. Who could resist them? When one is robbed by a bandit, they can call upon the police for help, but who does one call on for help when robbed by the police?

Some of the most despicable oppressive robbery is done by religious leaders. This was condemned in the Old Testament, and in the New:

2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord God,” Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? 3 “You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat {sheep} without feeding the flock. 4 “Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them. 5 “And they were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered. 6 “My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill, and My flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth; and there was no one to search or seek for them”’” (Ezekiel 34:2-6).

And as raiders wait for a man, So a band of priests murder on the way to Shechem; Surely they have committed crime (Hosea 6:9).

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence (Matthew 23:25).

14 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, even while for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you shall receive greater condemnation (Matthew 23:14).77

Jesus implies that those who have come before Him were thieves, whose intention was to rob the sheep. He, on the other hand, came as the Good Shepherd, who had come to give His life for the sheep. Some of these “thieves” may have claimed to be the Messiah, but many of them may simply have been Jewish religious leaders, whose task was to shepherd the flock. The Jewish leaders abused their power. They took advantage of the foreigners who came to worship at the temple (Matthew 21:11-12) and they somehow used their position and power to acquire the houses of widows (Matthew 23:14). The very ones they were to protect they victimized. Many of the religious leaders were thieves.

(7) “Good deal” stealing. There is another kind of stealing which is but a variety of oppressive stealing. I have chosen to refer to it as a separate category because of its importance and prominence. I believe that Satan commends himself for his best work when he can persuade men to commit a sin, but in a way that gains men’s praise, rather than their disapproval.78

No one gets more pleasure out of finding a “good deal” than I. When I find something of value, and I am able to buy it at a fraction of its true value, I pat myself on the back for having done so well. I often brag about my “great buy” to my family and friends. I have even had people say this in response to one of my bargains: “Man, you didn’t buy that; you stole it.”

I used to think this was a compliment. Now, I must consider the possibility that it is really an indictment. Did I knowingly or unknowingly gain at someone else’s expense? Did I buy something at an extremely low price because the seller was vulnerable? Did I avoid paying a fair price because I had power (money) and the other party was powerless (in desperate need)? One of the broad terms which the Bible uses as a synonym for stealing is “unjust gain.” A “just gain” is one where both parties—the buyer and the seller—gain. An unjust gain is one in which one takes advantage of the other. Let us beware that our “good buy’s” are not a “steal.”

The Christian Work Ethic

Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need.

If Paul’s first command is addressed to Christian thieves, the remainder of the verse applies to everyone. It sets down a work ethic which is diametrically opposed to that of the thief, and which is the standard for every Christian. Let us consider this work ethic phrase by phrase.

“But Rather Let Him Labor”

It is self-evident that stealing is not a noble occupation, certainly not so for the Christian. Paul’s words indicate that stealing should be replaced by sweating. The inference is clearly made that stealing is the opposite of hard work. There are those who may sincerely wish to work, but cannot find it, and thereby feel “compelled” to steal. For most thieves, however, stealing is the lazy way out. Years ago I regularly visited a young man who was a three-time felon. When he talked about getting out, he told me that he would much rather break into a couple of coin operated machines than to work as a laborer for unattractive wages. Stealing for him was much easier than work.

Stealing is not just avoiding work, it is an attempt to avoid the curse. God gave Adam and Eve work to do in the Garden of Eden (see Genesis 2:15). This work was not drudgery, but a delight. But after the fall, the curse made those things which were once a pleasure, a pain. Women were to bear children in pain (“labor” pains). And men were sentenced to a lifetime of toil:

17 Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’; Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. 18 “Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you shall eat the plants of the field; 19 By the sweat of your face You shall eat bread, Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17-19).

When men seek to live off of the toil of others, they seek to overturn the consequences of the fall.

“Performing With His Own Hands What Is Good”

The expression, “with his own hands,” may well be addressing the evil of stealing, which parasitically lives off the work of others. The toil which is described is that which “works up a sweat.” It is also work which one performs with his own hands. While I do not think this verse condemns or forbids white collar “desk jobs,” I do believe that it gives dignity to blue collar work. There is nothing wrong with manual labor. In fact, it is here advocated as good therapy for thieves.

A Christian work ethic requires more than just hard work, as important as that is. It also requires a worthwhile enterprise. We are commanded to perform with our own hand “what is good.” In this context, I believe that the word “good” refers to that which is useful and beneficial. There are many jobs in this world, and most of them require hard work. But some jobs do not produce anything of value. With such useless work, the community in which we live is not benefited. We should not only feel good after a day’s work because we have worked hard, but also because we have done something worthwhile.

“In Order That He May Have Something To Share With Him Who Has Need”

There are a number of reasons for work. One reason is so that we may not become a burden to others (see 2 Thessalonians 3:8). Another is so that we may care for our family, so that they do not become a burden on others (see 1 Timothy 5:3-8, 16). Here, Paul commands us to work hard so that we will have the means to help those who are truly in need.

Here is a mindset that is foreign to the thief, but is to be a way of thinking for the Christian. The criminal mind must be put off, as a part of the old man. And in its place we must have our minds renewed, so that we think and act Christianity. The criminal mind is really no different than the fleshly mindset of the unbeliever. The criminal simply takes his self-centeredness outside the bounds of what society accepts. The corrupt mind focuses on selfish “needs” or desires. If someone else has what I want, I take it. It is not necessary to work for what you want, but only to find someone who has worked and who has what you want, and then to take it. The Christian mind thinks in exactly the opposite way. It works on the principle of grace, not greed. It works hard, setting aside resources so that it will be able to meet the needs of others. The corrupt mind uses its strength to steal from the weak; the Christian mind uses its strength to serve the weak. The corrupt mind seeks to gain at the expense of others. The Christian mind seeks the good of others, at our expense.


It should not come as news to us that robbery is wrong. It seeks to avoid the toil of work, and thus to overturn the curse. It forces others to sacrifice to serve our own self-interest. It is the opposite of grace, which seeks to give at our expense. And it is rebellion against the sovereignty of God in the way He has distributed material things. It is also unbelief, a failure to trust in God79 to provide for our needs.

Our text suggests that there are far more thieves among Christians than we might wish to believe. It also indicates that conversion alone does not eradicate this sin from our lives. It is an evil which must be acknowledged and put aside. If we are to put off stealing, we are to put on hard work, producing what is good and useful, and to earn money which we can use to minister to others.

If Paul’s words teach us anything, it is that being born again is no insignificant event in the life of an individual. It is a radical change of life. It is a turning from trusting in our own righteousness to trusting only in the righteousness of Christ. In terms of our text, it is a dramatically different way of thinking and behaving. Rather than seeking to gain at the expense of others, Christians are to give at their expense. They are to willingly accept the toil of work as God’s will, and as a way of earning the means by which they can minister to the needs of others.

While our text, along with others, teaches the necessity of hard work, let us be perfectly clear that our works in no way contribute to our salvation. It is only by the work of Christ on the cross of Calvary that we are saved. It is God’s work that saves us, not our own. The gospel is the good news of salvation apart from works. It is a message of grace. And just as we are saved by grace, we are to serve God and man in a way that manifests grace. And so it is that we work so that we may give to others, freely. Once we have experienced God’s grace, we are obliged to express it to others. The gospel turns crooks into caring Christians, and takers into givers.

76 Corrupt businessmen have found many ways of stealing, and deceit is but one of many forms of business theft.

77 See also John 10:1-1.

78 For example, the Bible condemns the “sluggard.” The Book of Proverbs has a great deal to say about the sluggard, and none of it is good. The sluggard is not one who never works; he is one who works hard to avoid the “work” he dislikes. I believe that many “workaholics” are really sluggards. They immerse themselves with their work, so that they can escape their responsibilities elsewhere, such as in the home and in the church. And because they “work so hard” society (and even the church) commends them for it, without recognizing the evil behind it all.

79 Notice that robbery is misplaced trust according to this psalm: “Do not trust in oppression, And do not vainly hope in robbery; If riches increase, do not set your heart upon them” (Psalm 62:10).

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