[A20] The Right of Private Property (The Small Catechism)

“God puts His emphasis on the primary things, where it belongs; but he is not unmindful of anything that concerns his people. He says: ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness;’ but at the right time and with becoming eagerness, we may also seek the creature things, which, if used aright, will help us on our heavenward way, though they be but the perishing things of the earth. God created us with physical needs. He created this wonderful world in just such a way as to meet our physical needs and furnish us the opportunity of working out our Divinely appointed destiny. As God’s children we are to use God’s gifts for the purposes for which He has given them, and in accordance with the principles He has laid down.”

Table of Contents

20. The Right Of Private Property

“Thou shalt not steal.” — Exodus 20:15.

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of Lights.” — James 1:17.

The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment." In these words Christ makes an appeal to his disciples to be concerned about the supreme things, life, character: the things which help us on toward complete manhood and womanhood. To all people these should be of chief concern. For the sake of the inner life, the mind, the soul, and the things which are exclusively the property of the inner life, honor, truth, faith, and the like, men ought to be willing, and many have been willing, to sacrifice the life of the body. This does not mean that the body is of no importance, and to be given no attention. It is of much importance. It is the instrument of the soul. It is the means whereby the spirit comes into touch with, and uses for its purposes, the things of the material world. The body is of much more importance than any or all of our external possessions, such as houses, lands, or merchandise. And we should use all reasonable care to keep it healthy and pure.

All this is very strongly emphasized, in an indirect way, by the divinely given order of the commandments. We have considered six of them, all dealing with the supreme blessing — life: the inner life and the outer life. The First Table, which tells us of God, our relation to Him, and our worship of Him. points out the first of all human duties — soul cure and soul culture. The next three deal with human relations which involve life itself, and, from one point of view or another, each emphasizes its sacredness, and the care with which it should be safeguarded and developed.

God puts His emphasis on the primary things, where it belongs; but he is not unmindful of anything that concerns his people. He says: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness;” but at the right time and with becoming eagerness, we may also seek the creature things, which, if used aright, will help us on our heaven ward way, though they be but the perishing things of the earth. God created us with physical needs. He created this wonderful world in just such a way as to meet our physical needs and furnish us the opportunity of working out our Divinely appointed destiny. As God’s children we are to use God’s gifts for the purposes for which He has given them, and in accordance with the principles He has laid down.

We call these gifts of God our goods, our pos sessions, our property. The problem of getting into right relationship to these material things, of righteously acquiring a portion of them, of using them aright when we get them, of recognizing and respecting the rights of others to their share of them, is a difficult one for men to learn; but its importance is great. We shall defer to another time the prohibition of the commandment, and treat today of the underlying thought — The Right of Private Property.

There are two leading thoughts under which this subject may be treated: The right of private property is grounded in nature, for every good gift conies from God as giver; the relationship of man to the gift and the giver is that of a steward, which implies accountability.

1. God is the giver of all good.

But this origin of the right to property is not universally recognized. Indeed, the right of private property; that is, the right of the individual to acquire such of the things of this earth as he can honestly get, and use it exclusively as his own, is generally taken for granted; but in most instances, probably, with out much thought of how this right came to be. But it is a matter about which there has been much discussion on the part of those who have thought about it. and for the explanation of which many theories have been advanced.

The irreligious, materialistic theory of property, whether formulated in words or not, is that might makes right; that the strongest are the best, and are therefore entitled to take and keep what they can get. This theory is one which has largely prevailed in the world in later years. It has not always been proclaimed as a working theory; very many, nevertheless, have been acting on it in a quiet way as a principle of conduct.

Another view of the right of private property is that it is a creation of human law. This is the view usually set forth by jurists. Their statement of the case is that it was found expedient that men should be allowed the exclusive possession and use of the products of their own efforts, subject, however, to certain demands for the public good. And thus, in the course of time, laws were enacted guaranteeing to them their accumulated possessions. This unquestionably correctly states a series of historical facts. But it does not go back to the ultimate ground of the right of private property. The right of man to any legitimately acquired property antedates the enactment of any laws guaranteeing to him the undisturbed possession of it. Man’s right to a fair proportion of the things of the earth, which men have not produced, and to the fruits of the investment of his own skill and industry, is a right founded in nature. It is a Divine right. This is implied in the Seventh Commandment itself. God has the right to impose laws respecting the use and treatment of property because He is the giver of it.

Man is a creature related to two worlds, the material universe and the world of spirit. On the one side of his nature he is raised above the limitations of the material world; on the other side he is dependent on it. The God who created man placed him here in the material world as the owner and master of it. It was given to him for the purpose of meeting his physical needs, and as a means of furthering his own and others’ spiritual necessities. In this way, primarily, man came to have a right in property and power over it. It is a God-given right. Human laws were called for and enacted only because many men, as a result of sin, no longer respected or even recognized the originally implanted laws of God.

Property was given to man first of all to satisfy the needs of the nature God had given to him. But it serves other purposes besides those represented by the need of food and clothing. The acquisition and control of property is one of the disciplines of life, by which character is developed and strengthened. In this sphere, as in few others, do we get to see the real manner of man one is. We often get a better insight into a man’s character when we see him at his work or in his place of business than we do by seeing him in church. In the latter place he has on his Sunday clothes and Sunday manners. In the shop or place of business, he is more likely to show himself as he really is. In the effort man puts forth to get food, clothing and habitation for himself and those dependent on him; in what he spends for the education of himself and family, for his own and their culture and amusement; in the way he dispenses hospitality and contributes for purposes of benevolence; in the measure of interest he takes and the efforts he is willing to invest for the general good of society; in his willingness or lack of willingness to consecrate his possessions to the furtherance of the higher good for himself and others, — in these things there is given to us one of the best portraits that can be drawn of the real nature of a man.

Property has still other functions to serve be sides those of affording man the necessities of life, and giving him a needful training as he strives for it. Every man has particular duties to perform. These duties have to do with his calling, his station in life, the rearing and nurture of those dependent upon him, and his relation to the general society of which he is a member. To meet these obligations he must have means which are his own, which he can use as the necessities of these demands re quire. Property, therefore, is not given merely as a means of self-gratification; it is not intended simply as something in the getting and control of which man is given the opportunity of exhibiting his mastery of things material; it is a God-given means through the proper use of which man is to reach his Divinely appointed destiny.

There are those who deny the right of man as an individual to hold property. Not all agree as to the degree in which this right is to be relinquished. The theories run all the way from belief in the public ownership of public utilities, to this that man has no right to any portion even of the product of his own labor; that even marriage should be abolished and the children of promiscuous desire be reared as the wards of the state.

There are certain things, advocated by some adherents of socialistic theories, upon which many of us Christian people look with favor. We believe that the general government could operate the rail road and steamship lines, the telegraph and telephone service, and perhaps other public utilities, as well as the mail service, to the advantage of the general public. Our cities could keep their railway, electric light, and other franchises, and operate them in the interest of the general public, to whom they should rightfully belong. We would get better service at cheaper rates. If the laboring people of all classes would stand together, they could carry on many co-operative enterprises to the benefit of all concerned, and correct many abuses which now exist. Undeniably many laws are enacted by the influence of the rich and powerful which inure to the benefit of the privileged few at the expense of the laboring people and the small property holders. But as long as political parties are able to throw dust into the eyes of the people, and lead them about by the noses, matters will not be appreciably improved. We must get rid of our prejudices, become better acquainted with these problems, and co-operate. Experience, however, has proven that communistic, or extreme socialistic, principles are impractical. They have been advocated in all ages, and tried in many; but never with success. For them to succeed there would have to be such a degree of disinterestedness, such integrity of purpose, such a spirit of altruism, as has never been attained on earth. From this point of view, common ownership of property would be a splendid ideal at which to aim. But the moral qualities necessary to the attainment of the ideal have never been seriously considered by the radical advocates of socialistic theories. On the other hand, their measures have been prompted by materialism gone mad. These advocates have generally been atheists, who believe that this life is all, and that they must, therefore, get all that ever is to be gotten out of this life.

The right of private property has not only been proven by experience to give impetus to the spirit of progress, but — a consideration far above this and every other — it is the teaching of God’s Word in both Testaments. The patriarchs had their own property. When the children of Israel came to the promised land God had it divided and distributed, not only to the different tribes, but to the families. In the first Christian congregation at Jerusalem, under the spur of their first love, communistic principles with respect to property were practiced. They were not commanded, nor were they tried elsewhere in the Apostolic church. And communistic practice did not last long in Jerusalem. Hypocrites broke it up, among whom Ananias and his wife were the first and most flagrant. In this very narrative we have the proof of the right of private property. St. Peter said to Ananias concerning the property he had sold: “Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?” (Acts 5:4). Everywhere in Scripture the right of a man to the product of his own skill and labor is taken for granted. No Christian, who has inherited property or by industry or thrift has accumulated something beyond the daily needs of himself and his dependents, need feel that he is acting contrary to the holy will of God.

We Christians recognize that the real title to all things rests in God. He is the absolute owner. He brought all things into existence. He gave to each created thing its peculiar nature. He controls it all. “All the earth is mine,” said the Lord to his chosen Israel (Exod. 19:5). And through his servant David He says: “If I were hungry, I would not tell thee; for the world is mine, and the fulness thereof” (Ps. 50:12). This statement is repeated for us of the New Testament by the pen of St. Paul: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof” (1 Cor. 10:26). And our text from St. James tells us that every good gift, temporal as well as spiritual, comes from the Heavenly Father.

This is not the way the natural human mind is prone to look at the matter. With the unregenerate man the personal element, the I, is always emphasized. I have done this. My good judgment, my industry, my economy, have brought me these things. This is the usual language of all those who have not learned to know how absolutely all things depend on the power and goodness of God. Our life, our place in life, strength of mind and body by which we are enabled to play a man’s or a woman’s part in the world, all comes from God. In Him we live and move and have our being. Let us count up all that we have, let us consider all that we so fondly consider our contribution toward the acquisition of it — and then, that all unrighteous pride, all self-vaunting, may be dissipated, let us hear the words of the Master, which apply to every possession of man: “What hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now, if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).

This presents another thought needing enlargement and emphasis, namely, not only do all things come from God as the great original provider, but He still rules when it comes to the distribution of His bounty. “The Lord maketh poor, and maketh rich; He bringeth low, and lifteth up” (1 Sam. 2:7). There are many practical difficulties in connection with this subject which we, because of our sin-weakened condition, are not able to explain. It is well for all of us to recognize this disability, and not make things worse by attempting explanations that, perhaps, do not explain. One thing which often disturbs us is this, Why does God often allow wicked men, in wicked ways, to accumulate much property and enjoy so many of the good things of this world? We cannot explain it, at least not in detail. The other side is just as perplexing. Why does God often allow those who are devout and, at the same time, industrious and honest to be unfortunate so far as the things of this present world are concerned? We cannot explain this by specific reasons. But we do have a general explanation for it, a sense in which the secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him. We know that God does all things well, that He overrules all things for the ultimate good of those who love Him. If He allows us to be deprived of a temporary good, it is only to shield us from some worse evil, or prepare the way for a greater good. Let us do our full duty also in our temporal affairs, as God gives us light to see it and strength to perform it, and then let us trust God also in these things completely. God is God; He provides for our bodies and rules over our temporal affairs just as surely as He does in the sphere of spiritual things. And all that He does or allows to occur is right and for our good.

2. Men are but stewards of God’s good gifts.

From what has been said, it is clear that we can but hold in trust that which, in reality, belongs to God. We have our human titles and laws, in the light of which we may properly speak of that which is our own. So far as the use of it is concerned, within the limits of right, it is our own. And over against those who might wish to disturb us in our possession or deprive us of the things we possess, they are ours. But whatever the source from which our property came, whether by inheritance, labor, or purchase; whatever the nature of the title by which we hold it, we Christians recognize God’s prior and inalienable title to it all. We own ourselves but His stewards. And what we acknowledge is true of all men. Many will not own it, but the denial, in either word or act, does not change the fact. Men may flaunt their abstracts and guaranteed titles as much as they choose; they are but stewards still, and will have to give an account of their stewardship to the great Householder.

This, then, clearly indicates that we cannot do just as we please with what we have in keeping. If we are to hear at the close of our stewardship the words of commendation, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant,” we must make use of God’s gifts in conformity with God’s will. It cannot be used in a way to injure God’s workmanship or detract from the glory of the giver. It must all be used in a way to further God’s benevolent plans for the world. This includes our own physical as well as spiritual well-being, for time as well as for eternity.

To be careless, indifferent, lazy, is not the right attitude of one who is a steward. Work is one of the elements which makes for man’s redemption in a physical and social sense. And God has ordained “that if any will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). God requires diligence, and promises that it shall not go unrewarded (Prov. 12:24; 13:4; 22:29). There are many who would like to have and to spend, but they dislike the effort which it takes to get property and to improve it. It shows neither faith nor appreciation of God’s bounty to approach, in any degree, the condition of the slothful man so strikingly pictured by Solo mon: “I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the man void of understanding; and, lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was broken down. Then I saw, and considered it well; I looked upon it and received instruction. Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep. So shall thy poverty come as one that travaileth, and thy want as an armed man” (Prov. 24:30-34). Not infrequently those who do the most complaining about the fickleness of fortune and the general unfairness of the distribution of things generally in this world, are the ones who have done the least to make a success of life.

There are honest and unavoidable misfortunes. There are people who, in spite of their best efforts, do not seem able to make things go, as we say. When such is the case, the true child of God is never really hurt. God overrules it all for the good of his children. Let us beware of the misfortune which comes because the doors and windows are standing wide open, inviting it to enter. But when unavoidable adversity comes, let us remember that God still rules; and that all these things must serve as stepping stones for God’s people to mount to higher blessings.

Since we are stewards, not only of the gifts of mind and heart with which God has endowed us, but of every penny coming into our possession; and since we shall have to give an account of every far thing to the Master who once sat in the treasury of the Temple and observed what the people did with their money, down to the very widow’s mite, how careful we should be of the things entrusted to us by God. That He does not want us to waste it is shown in the parable in which Jesus commanded the disciples to gather up the fragments, that nothing be lost. He wants us to use His gifts so that there will be a proper increase (St. Matt. 25:14 ff). He does not want us to squander our patrimony, as did the prodigal son. Such squandering may be in the form of senseless luxury, as well as the way of actual transgression. We are living in an extravagant age. Many are spending for naught that which in the hands of our thrifty forbears would have been saved for the emergencies of life and secured to them a competency in old age. Most of us are living beyond our means. This, more than anything else, is responsible for the present prohibitive prices and the general restlessness and dissatisfaction of our people.

The constant consciousness of our stewardship of God’s gifts will, on the other hand, preserve us from the sin of covetousness, which is idolatry (Col. 3:5). As it is wrong to waste God’s material gifts, so is it wrong to refuse to use them as God re quires. As it is wrong to lack appreciation of these gifts of God, so is it wrong to make gods of them, and thus give to the creature the honor which belongs only to the Creator. We sometimes read of misguided creatures who live a squalid life — in rags and filth, denying themselves proper food and clothing, and all other things which contribute to the higher life; they sit and gloat over their possessions, their eyes dilate and their breath comes faster as they behold their bags of gold and silver. These are extreme cases, but there are many who are affected with milder forms of the same disease. Let us, by all means, take proper care of what God gives us. If we can discharge our duty to ourselves and those whom God has given to us as objects of our care, and still lay up something for the proverbial rainy day, let us do it. That is much better than to waste what God has given us, and then be dependent on others the moment some accident occurs or old age comes creeping upon us. However, the other extreme also must be guarded against. We must not love money, or any kind of property, for its own sake. We are to possess our property, and not be possessed by it. It is valuable only for what good can be done through it. What would a million dollars be worth if there were no food to be bought, none of the necessities of life to be secured? The only real good of any of these material gifts is the contribution which they make to life; the furtherance, the beautification, the enrichment of life.

There is a greediness which overreaches itself. As we have seen, God rules also in the distribution of earthly things. And as there is a kind of liberality which brings rich returns (St. Luke 6:38), so also is there a withholding which tendeth to poverty. “He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord” (Prov. 19:17). And God’s bank pays the best interest. Jesus Himself says: “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness” (St. Luke 16:9). This means that we are to use the things so frequently employed for unrighteous purposes in such a way that our use of them will make us friends, on earth and in heaven. And this is one of the best investments against a day of want.

God has given us all these good gifts to serve us on our heavenward way. We have many needs, and God has abundantly provided for all our legitimate ones. We have need not only of food and clothing; we have intellectual, moral and spiritual needs. God’s gifts are to help us in providing for all these. For the advancement, the betterment, the enrichment of life, all material things are to be used; and this not for our own individual life only, but for the lives of those whom God has given to us as objects of love and care; in fact, so far as possible, for the good of all our fellowmen. In other words, all the material things of this world have been given, and are to be used, for the furtherance of God’s Kingdom; that means to the glory of God’s holy name.

This address may seem to some to have a rather secular tone. It is so in seeming rather than in reality. It deals chiefly with material things, but it is a plea for the presence and operation of spiritual principles in our dealing with material things. It takes no small degree of spiritual mindedness to live and act on this lofty plane. One must have much of the mind of Christ, and be filled and ruled by His spirit.

Too many people make the mistake of trying to separate the religious from the secular life. They want to be religious on Sunday and festival occasions, and then they put their religion aside with their Sunday clothes while, during the week, they attend to their business affairs. The duties of every day life, whether in the home, office, store or factory, require strenuous application. Men have not the time to always be talking religion; but they do always have the time to live it. We must learn to do our work, to handle our wages or our profits, as God’s children. The principles of our religion are to be so completely a part of our lives that we daily in all things practice them. The Lord says: “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). This is the correct relation of the secular and religious life. If this could be fully realized in the lives of men we would no longer need the Seventh Commandment. May the truths here presented be of service to us in helping us to a better recognition of God’s hand in every good thing we receive, lead us to appropriate thanksgiving, and to such use of God’s gifts as will glorify the Giver.

By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.

Luther’s Small Catechism: Series A – The Ten Commandments

Publication Information

  • Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
  • Title: “The Ten Commandments”
  • Originally Published: 1915 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2019
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0