Text: Genesis 4:1-15
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” so says the Holy Spirit in the book of Hebrews. “By [faith] the people of old received their commendation…By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through faith, though he died, he still speaks.” (Hebrews 1 English Standard Version) Often, when we hear the account of Cain and Abel we hear it in connection with the Fifth Commandment. Cain was the first to break the Fifth Commandment when he murdered his brother Abel. In the words from Hebrews 11 that I just read, though, the Holy Spirit provides us with another lesson to be learned – the difference between a righteousness of works and the righteousness that comes by faith.
Over the course of the lesson, we heard how both Cain and Abel offered sacrifices to God. Cain offered fruits of the field and Abel, fruits of the flock. Yet, only one was accepted by God – the sacrifice that was offered in faith and thanksgiving to God. The other offered a sacrifice not out of faith, but only as a work to be done to appease a vengeful God. That sacrifice was rejected because it did not come from faith. The Scriptures say that whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. It was out of jealousy and hatred, then, that the one brother rose up against the other. The one who insisted on a righteousness of works persecuted and killed the one who held to the righteousness that is by faith. This is the story of history, and even ourselves. Today, we confess that, by faith, Abel offered a better sacrifice. God receives those who look to Him in faith.
Our text this morning takes place sometime after our first parents were removed from the Garden of Eden. As punishment for their disbelief and disobedience toward God, they were driven from the Garden to toil and labor for their daily bread. However, this command from God was still in force: Adam and Eve were to be “fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” (Gen. 1:28) This command from God included both the procreation of children and their instruction in the Word of the Lord. The family was and remains God’s original institution to raise up faithful Christians. So, in time, Adam “knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain…and again, she bore his brother Abel.” (Gen. 4:1-2) Blessed with the gift of children, Adam saw to it that they each were raised according to God’s Word.
As the brothers grew older, they took to different vocations. Cain, the firstborn, learned the trade of his father and became a “worker of the ground;” Abel was a “keeper of sheep.” (v. 2) In the course of time, they both brought offerings to the Lord – Cain from the fruit of the ground and Abel from the “firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions.” (v. 4) The Lord received Abel’s sacrifice, but He had no regard for Cain’s. In response, Cain lured his brother Abel out into the field. While they were there, “Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.” (v. 8) Between that sad verse and the following conversation between God and Cain, we see what effects the Fall had on the heart of man – even only one generation from the Garden. In Cain’s heart resided jealousy, hatred, and violence. We must confess that these dwell in our hearts by nature, also.
When Martin Luther preached on this text, he explored this question: Why did God accept Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s? In history, some suggested that God preferred sacrifices of blood over other types, but that doesn’t ring true because grain offerings of all sorts are commanded by and pleasing to God throughout the Old Testament. No, Luther took from the words of the Holy Spirit in Hebrews that Abel’s offering was made in faith. In thanksgiving to God and trusting in His promise of the mercy to be revealed in Christ, Abel offered up the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. In contrast, Cain’s offering was offered only to appease a God of wrath. As firstborn, Cain prided himself on his own standing in life and concluded that he would be righteous if only he obeyed God’s command according to the letter. His retort to God about being brother’s keeper and Cain’s distress over his punishment betray that Cain felt he had been wronged by God – that he was righteous and did what was right only to be shunned. This, then, was the motive for the killing: Cain, who held that he could be righteous by his own work, killed Abel, who trusted in the Lord as his righteousness.
Now, it may not be as outwardly drastic, but we have the same conflict going on within ourselves. We have heard God’s Word, that true righteousness is a gift of God through faith. The righteousness which endures to eternal life is not one of our own, but Christ’s righteousness counted to us by faith. And yet, each of us thinks to ourselves that we are, all things considered, good people. We expect that our lives should be good, both in their course and end, because we are good people. We expect reward from God based on our good conduct in this life. We have all been to funerals, and sometimes we have contributed, where the sentiment is that the deceased was a good person and, therefore, was surely in heaven. This all is textbook righteousness by works. To be short, it was the faith of Cain that he could be square with God through his own effort.
Lest we should feel this way, let’s consider our righteousness according to the Fifth Commandment which is, You Shall not Murder. Now, we know from our Lord that this commandment not only directs against outward violence but also the inward violence of the heart. If, by the grace of God we have been kept from murdering someone, we have not kept the Commandment if we have at any time become angry in our hearts. If we have wished someone harm – even for a split second – we have broken this Commandment. If we have been pleased, even for a moment, at someone’s pain we have broken this Commandment. If we have thought or spoken poorly of another human based on the color of their skin or their national origin, we have broken both the Fifth and Eighth Commandments and more. If we find ourselves ignoring all these things, then we are behaving like Cain, who held that as long as the outward actions are done, righteousness is upheld. But what do the Scriptures say? “The wages of sin is death.” By the way, the word “sin” there is singular. The wage of one sin is death.
Therefore, we should not believe like Cain, whose sacrifice was rejected by God, that we can be righteous by works. Instead, we should beat our chests like the tax collector – and Abel before him – confessing that we are the most wretched of sinners. We have sinned in thought, word, and deed; we have justly offended our God with our many iniquities. Instead of thinking of ourselves as righteous, let us throw ourselves before the mercy of God. As Jesus said, it is in that way that we return from here justified. When we confess to God that we are sinners, He speaks to us that He is merciful. When we confess to God that we have failed to do what is right, He comforts us with the fact that all good things have already been done on our behalf. Jesus has already secured for us the salvation of our souls by His death for us and by His rising again. The forgiveness He procured, He gives freely, not to those who think they don’t need it, but only to those who confess they stand in great need – like the tax collector, like Abel, and like us.
Let us learn from this text, then, that God receives those who look to Him in faith. He takes no pleasure in the death of sinners, but that we turn to Him and live. He works in us by His Holy Spirit, leading us to confess our sins and trust that Christ’s blood avails for you and me. Strengthened and led by this faith, we then offer to God the true good works. In the Lutheran Church we do not forbid good works; we do them. We believe that faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, which are produced in our lives by the Holy Spirit Himself. These are pleasing to God because, like Abel’s sacrifice, they are produced by faith. May the Lord grant us ever to rightly hear His Word, that we might confess our sins and be strengthened by Christ’s work for us. May He work in us through His Holy Spirit, that we be kept in this true faith and, by faith, offer acceptable sacrifices to our Lord and God. Amen.