This is the third post in a series responding to a sermon given by a local Purpose Driven pastor. The first examined the astonishing claim that ‘Faith is giving when I don’t have it’. The second corrected a gross misinterpretation of Hebrews 11:4 that taught works righteousness and justification by tithing.
With the understanding gained from the previous two posts, we now turn to the Genesis 4 account of Cain and Abel. We shall see so clearly there the contrast between faith and works.
First though, here is a longer extract from the Purpose Driven sermon we have been examining, showing the wider context of the errors previously refuted:
The fourth attribute of faith is this: faith is giving when I don’t have it.
Now you’re discovering why the pastors are so uptight.
‘Now by faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith, he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings.’
Both offerings were acceptable. They were the first fruits of the land for Cain. And the first fruits of the flock for Abel. They were good offerings. But what made them acceptable to God was the way in which they were given: one man giving out of a sense of duty; one man giving out of a sense of the love that he had for his God.
[Anecdote about a boy with his hand stuck in a vase because he will not let go of the coin within.]
You see, all too often that is our attitude as well. We cling to the riches of the world. I’m sure that many of you tithe to the church. And that’s great. But when faith is exercised, our attitude shifts from being like the attitude of Cain, who gave out of a sense of duty – give 10%, it’s your tithe, forget it. We want to see faith giving, like Abel, that is generous, that is of the heart, because we want to invest in what God is doing. We want to be like the widow who gave when she had nothing. And sometimes when we hold the riches of the world in our hands, we are just like the little boy [of the previous anecdote]. We’re trapped. But when we let go, we can experience true freedom.
From time-to-time, you probably hear Jonathan [the lead pastor] – most of the time you’ll probably hear Jonathan – harping on about tithing. And that’s a good thing. So he should.
But Abel offered the first fruits. He gave the best of what he had to God. And it was credited to him as righteousness. You see, tithing is not about impressing your friends. It’s not about satisfying some form of guilt. Tithing is about giving the best of what you have to a God who sees that as righteous. As credible.
We can encourage faith giving. Let’s not even call it tithing. Let’s give from our faith. That is what generosity really is.
It is a wonderful thing for Christians to give willingly. ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Cor. 9:7). ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35). But Christians are under no duty to tithe, let alone to give what they do not have. True Christian giving is voluntary, arising from a pure Gospel motivation: we love much because we have been loved so greatly. Yet there was no Gospel in this sermon. Nothing at all about Christ and His loving work for us.
My intent, though, is not to focus on the burdensome exhortations to giving evidenced here and sadly predominating throughout the last third of the sermon. (The seeker-sensitive mute the Law and veil the Gospel for fear of giving offence, yet they are nevertheless proud to solicit money through the most guileful of means. Those who cite the widow who gave all she had would do well also to recall Jesus’ immediately preceding words concerning those who devour widows’ houses.)
Rather, the purpose of this post is to see what we can learn from the account of Cain and Abel’s offerings. Is it true that Cain gave ‘out of a sense of duty’, whereas Abel ‘out of a sense of the love that he had for his God’? Is giving-out-of-duty versus giving-out-of-love really the distinction taught by Genesis 4?
Let us look at the text and then make a number of observations.
1 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, “I have acquired a man from the LORD.” 2 Then she bore again, this time his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. 3 And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the LORD. 4 Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the LORD respected Abel and his offering, 5 but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
6 So the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.”
8 Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
A few verses prior to our passage, we have the first Gospel recorded in the Bible. The Lord pronounces judgment upon the serpent (my emphasis):
Because you have done this,
You are cursed more than all cattle,
And more than every beast of the field;
On your belly you shall go,
And you shall eat dust
All the days of your life.
And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel.
This Seed is mentioned again in God’s promise to Abraham (cf. Gen. 12:7; 13:15; 24:7):
In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice. Gen. 22:18
Who is the Seed? Paul tells the Galatians:
Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ. Gal. 3:16
The promised Seed of Gen. 3:15 is Christ. He shall crush the head of the Serpent and destroy his works (1 John 3:8).
We can infer from this first Gospel promise that Cain and Abel would have had some understanding of the Messiah who was to come. Adam and Eve had also experienced the benevolent lovingkindness of God, both before and after the Fall. Their sons would surely have known that God is loving and merciful and, to borrow from Hebrews 11:6, a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him, trusting in His promise.
There is no hint whatsoever in the text of our passage that either Cain or Abel’s offerings were required or commanded by God.
(Some commentators, including Luther and Calvin, believe that God had commanded the offerings. But they reach their conclusion not from the text of Gen. 4, but from inference based on general principles they observe elsewhere in Scripture.)
Notice that in vv. 1–5a, the order of mentions is Cain (first born)–Abel, Abel–Cain, Cain–Abel, Abel–Cain. Not merely a literary device, this chiastic chain of reversals draws our attention to the importance of ordering as we seek to understand the text.
In vv. 3–4, we are first told of Cain’s offering, and only afterwards about Abel’s. Consequently, the text does not lead us to think that Cain saw Abel giving his offering and then felt obliged to do likewise.
Bearing in mind the two previous points, there is no textual basis for asserting that Cain brought his offering out of a sense of duty. Rather, these seem to be free-will offerings from both Cain and Abel.
‘And the Lord respected Abel and his offering’ (v. 4b).
Note that the text carefully states first that God had regard for Abel. Only then are we told that the Lord also had regard for Abel’s offering.
Heb. 11:4 explains that Abel’s offering was acceptable because Abel had faith: that is, a trust in God’s promise and goodwill towards those who diligently seek Him. God declared Abel righteous through his faith. Abel’s offering was subsequently accepted as evidence of that righteousness-through-faith.
The Lord ‘did not respect Cain and his offering’ (v. 5a).
We infer from Heb. 11:4, and from our observation of Cain’s interaction with God, that this was because Cain lacked faith.
Again, notice that the text is careful first to state that the Lord had no regard for Cain himself, and only after that neither did God regard Cain’s offering.
Thus, our preacher’s claim that ‘Both offerings were acceptable. … They were good offerings. But what made them acceptable to God…’ is false, for God did not accept Cain’s offering.
Perhaps the pastor misspoke. Yet he says nothing that indicates he is even aware that neither Cain nor his offering were regarded by God. Rather, he seems to think merely that Abel’s offering was ‘better’ (as Heb. 11:4 states in the NIV translation he quotes). It is therefore entirely conceivable that he did not read the Genesis 4 account itself during his sermon preparation, but only Hebrews 11:4, relying on his memory or imagination to flesh out the details. This would also explain his claims that Cain brought ‘the first fruits of the land’, that Cain ‘gave out of a sense of duty’, and that Cain’s offering was a tithe – none of which is taught by either text.
The passage therefore gives us no reason to believe that there was anything intrinsic to the materials of the sacrifices that made one acceptable and not the other. On the contrary, God looked first upon the persons, and only then did he consider their sacrifices.
Luther states the matter clearly (emphasis mine):
If you look at the work itself, you cannot prefer Abel to Cain. The Jews, in their folly, have a silly idea when they dream that Cain did not offer selected grain but chaff, and that for this reason he was rejected by God. From them this is to be expected, for they act as judges and pay attention only to works.
But the verdict of the Epistle to the Hebrews is different; it declares that because of his faith Abel brought the more excellent offering (Heb. 11:4). And so the fault lay not in the materials which were offered but in the person of him who brought the offering. The faith of the individual was the weight which added value to Abel’s offering, but Cain spoiled his offering. Abel believes that God is good and merciful. For this reason his sacrifice is pleasing to God.
Cain, on the contrary, puts his trust in the prestige of his primogeniture; but he despises his brother as an insignificant and worthless being.
What, then, is God’s decision? He gives to the first-born the position of one born later, and to the one born later He gives the position of the first-born. He looks toward Abel’s offering and shows that the sacrifice of this priest pleases Him, but that Cain does not please Him and is not a true priest.
Luther’s Works, Vol. 1: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5 (ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan et al.; Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), Gen. 4:4
Cain is angry when God does not accept his offering. Why?
The text does not expressly tell us, but Cain’s reaction of anger strongly suggests that he expected something from God that he did not receive, namely God’s approval and favour. This is shown from God’s words to Cain in v. 7: ‘If you do well, will you not be accepted?’ The clear implication is that Cain is not doing well. There is a fault; not with Cain’s sacrifice, but in his person.
Put another way, Cain willingly gave his offering, but with the expectation of God’s favour in return. He thought that favour and right-standing before God could be purchased, and was angry when the Lord did not deliver what Cain thought he was owed. To give motivated by the expectation of selfish reward in this life is therefore to follow the example of Cain, not Abel. Such giving does not please God. (Word-Faith teachers with their promises of God’s blessing in return for ‘seed offerings’ ought to heed this lesson.)
Someone might object that Cain was angry simply because God had regard for neither him nor his offering – after all, no one likes to be rejected. But this interpretation amounts to very much the same thing. For, if we come to God in humility by faith, acknowledging that we have no merit of our own before Him, we expect nothing from Him on our own account and are subsequently astonished by the grace and mercy shown to us. However, the one who comes with pride in his own person or works, thinking that he thereby deserves God’s favour, is very angry when he does not receive it.
Luther comments: ‘God wants to crush the arrogance and pride which has been implanted, as it were, into man’s heart by sin. But we are so constituted that we can endure nothing less readily than this crushing of our pride.’
Jesus illustrates the humility of true faith with his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector:
Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Thus, whereas Abel is the poster child of faith, Cain presents to us the folly of works-righteousness.
God’s response to Cain is the same as to all sinful man’s attempts to earn His favour through works: rejection.
We are sinful, by nature children of God’s wrath. Nothing we do can earn God’s favour, not even giving away all the goods that we have. Our right standing before God can only only ever come through faith – a trust in God’s promise of forgiveness and justification in Christ.
Those who so believe are declared righteous for Christ’s sake, apart from their works. (Though, of course, good works will nevertheless follow in those who are regenerate.) We are acceptable to God only through the faith in us that receives the gift of Christ’s life, death and resurrection for us. If our works were considered at all with respect to our justification, the only possible pronouncement upon us would be ‘unrighteous’.
Even as God rejects Cain and His offering, He is nevertheless merciful, calling Cain to repentance (v. 7). And when Cain subsequently complains at his punishment for murdering Abel, God graciously places a protective mark upon Cain, ‘lest anyone finding him should kill him’ (Gen. 4:15).
Luther translates v. 7 (which commentators agree presents difficulties) like this:
‘If you do well, will there not be forgiveness? But if you do not do well, sin lies at the door.’
He goes on to interpret the passage for us, giving the sense as this:
‘If you did well, or if you were good, that is, if you believed, you would have a gracious God and there would be a true lifting-up, that is, forgiveness of sins. But because I see that God had no regard for you, it assuredly follows that you are not good and are not freed from your sin; but your sin remains.’
This understanding of the text has much to commend it, focusing as it does upon faith and forgiveness, emphasizing the means by which forgiveness comes: ‘if you [had] believed, you would have a gracious God … [and] forgiveness of sins’.
Like Abel’s offering, which materially was no better than Cain’s, our works are acceptable to God only because God has already accepted us in Christ through the faith given us by the Holy Spirit through the hearing of His word.
Moreover, as He was with Abel, God is pleased to accept and reward our good works – not for their own sake, seeing as they are beset with many sinful weaknesses and imperfections, but for the sake of His Son. God’s acceptance of our works and His counting of them as good is thus an act of His kindness and grace toward us in Christ. We must never think that God accepts us on the basis of our works; He accepts us despite them, because of His great grace toward us in Christ.
Both the Lutheran and Reformed confessions are extremely clear on these points. Here is the Confessional Lutheran position, for example:
Nor is there a controversy about how and why the good works of believers are pleasing and acceptable to God (although in this flesh they are impure and incomplete). They are acceptable for the sake of the Lord Christ, through faith, because the person is acceptable to God.
There are works that apply to maintaining of external discipline. These are also done by, and required of, the unbelieving and unconverted. These works are commendable before the world and rewarded by God in this world with temporal blessings. Nevertheless, they do not come from true faith. Therefore, in God’s sight they are sins, that is, stained with sin, and are regarded by God as sins and impure because of the corrupt nature and because the person is not reconciled with God. “A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit” [Matthew 7:18], as it is also written, “for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). A person must first be accepted by God, for the sake of Christ alone, if that person’s works are to please Him.
Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, IV. Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (ed. Paul Timothy McCain; St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 547-48
As the Westminster Confession of Faith also says (together with the 1689 London Baptist Confession, which repeats Westminster on this almost verbatim):
We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from His Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.
Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreproveable in God’s sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.
Westminster Confession of Faith, XVI
(I wish, however, that the Westminster Divines had instead written ‘that which arises from faith’ there, rather than ‘that which is sincere’.)
Those who are in Christ can thus be cheerful in this confidence: not only are their sins washed away by the blood of Christ, not only do they stand before the Father clothed in the perfect righteousness of Christ put to their account, but even their imperfect works, stained as they are by sin, are nonetheless now pleasing to God for the sake of His son.
How great a salvation we have that, like Abel, both we and our works should be accepted by our loving heavenly Father, who spared not even His own dear Son that we might be reconciled to Him!
We thus find our Genesis 4 pericope to be a wonderful passage from which to teach Law and Gospel, faith and works. We see contrasted the futility of works-righteousness and the glory of God’s grace to those who believe His promise.
The preacher’s assertion concerning the distinction between Cain and Abel might at first have seemed innocuous enough, notwithstanding his other errors. However, having considered the text, we find even that to be deeply problematic. Rather than correctly identifying the difference between Cain and Abel as being between the absence and presence of faith, he distinguished between giving-out-of-duty and giving-out-of-love.
But that is entirely the wrong distinction to make – indeed, hardly a distinction at all – because both duty and love fall under the category of Law. Rom. 13:10: ‘love is the fulfillment of the law’.
In other words, rather than correctly interpreting the Gen. 4 account in terms of works righteousness (what I do) versus faith (trust in God’s promise to me in Christ), the preacher made it about our grudging works versus our loving works. Instead of Law (what we must do) and Gospel (what Christ has done), he gave us Law and Law.
Thus, the point of both Gen. 4 and Heb. 11 was missed. The Gospel languished unproclaimed. Faith and works were utterly confused. Tithing was elevated to a means of justification.
Flee such teaching, save your lives! Run from those who would direct your trust not toward Christ crucified, but to yourself and your own works. Diligently seek out instead those faithful pastors who rightly divide the word of truth – those who preach the Law in all its severity and the Gospel in all its sweetness. Though their congregations may be small, these men feed the sheep in their charge with the true Bread of Life. They show themselves worthy of double honour. Honour them, therefore. Appreciate them. Encourage them. Pray for them.
And pray too for those who teach falsely. Pray that God may open their eyes and grant them repentance and faith in the merits of Christ alone. Pray likewise for those in their charge, that the Lord might rescue them and deliver them into safer hands.
Postscript: Luther on Cain and Abel
It is always wise to check our interpretations of Scripture with the great theologians of the past. Truly, only the wilfully foolish would refuse to listen to their wisdom. Here, then, is Luther on our text:
This is an outstanding passage. Therefore it must be carefully taken note of and methodically studied. It would be sufficient if the New Testament had a statement praising the trust in God’s mercy over against the trust in works as clearly as it is praised here at the beginning of the world. When Moses says: “The Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering,” does he not clearly indicate that God is wont to look at the individual rather than at the work, to see what sort of individual he is? If, then, the individual is good, his work also pleases Him; but if the individual is not good, his work displeases Him.
This observation that God has regard for the individual and only accepts works from those he considers righteous is key to understanding the text. Luther continues:
This is the essence of our teaching. We teach and confess that a person rather than his work is accepted by God and that a person does not become righteous as a result of a righteous work, but that a work becomes righteous and good as a result of a righteous and good person, just as the text here proves. Because God has regard for Abel, He has regard also for his offering; and because He has no regard for Cain, He has no regard for his offering either. The text gives clear support to this conclusion, and this cannot be denied by our opponents. Moreover, there follows from these words the very clear and very valid conclusion that Abel, rather than his work, was righteous and that the work pleases because of the person, not the person because of his work. The latter is what our adversaries maintain when they teach that a man is justified through his works and not by faith alone.
Thus the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has looked at this passage with pure and clear eyes when he says (Heb. 11:4): “By faith Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God bearing witness concerning his gifts.” Cain also brings an offering, and indeed first; but when he brings his offering, he is puffed up by the glory which was his by birth, and he hopes that the sacrifice will please God because it is brought by the first-born. Thus he comes without faith, without any confession of sin, without any supplication for grace, without trust in God’s mercy, without any prayer for the forgiveness of his sins. He comes in the hope that he will please God by nothing else than that he is the first-born. All the work-righteous do the same thing even now. They are concerned only with their own work, and so they hope that they will please God because of it; they do not trust in God’s mercy, and they do not hope that God will pardon their sins because of Christ. Cain, too, was such a person, for he could not have displeased God if he had had faith.
Abel, on the other hand, acknowledges that he is an unworthy and poor sinner. Therefore he takes refuge in God’s mercy and believes that God is gracious and willing to show compassion. And so God, who looks at the heart, judges between the two brothers who are bringing their offerings at the same time. He rejects Cain, not because his sacrifice was inferior (for if he had brought the shell of a nut in faith as a sacrifice, it would have been pleasing to God), but because his person was evil, without faith, and full of pride and conceit. By contrast, He has regard for Abel’s sacrifice because He is pleased with the person. Accordingly, the text distinctly adds that first He had regard for Abel and then for his sacrifice. For when a person pleases, the things he does also please, while, on the contrary, all things are displeasing if you dislike the person who does them.
Therefore this passage is an outstanding and clear proof that God does not have regard for either the size or the quantity or even for the value of the work, but simply for the faith of the individual. Similarly, by contrast, God does not despise the smallness, the lack of value, or the lowly nature of a work, but only a person’s lack of faith.
Luther’s Works, Vol. 1: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5 ( ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan et al.;Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), Gen. 4:5
To which I simply say, ‘Amen’.
For an independent review of the sermon I have been examining here, see the final post in this series, A Second Opinion on that ‘Justification by Tithing’ Sermon. Chris Rosebrough was kind enough to review this same sermon on his Fighting for the Faith programme. There is very little overlap between my posts and that review, so readers may profit from both.