Hebrews 11:4, 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 his faith, though he died, he still speaks.
Why was Abel’s sacrifice more acceptable to God than Cain’s? This is the biggest question in the “story” of Cain and Abel. According to Hebrews, Abel offered his sacrifice by faith, which means Cain offered his by his works. God does not justify us by our works, but rather by faith in Him (Romans 5:1). As we look at all these examples of faith, we have to keep in mind what I believe to be the hub of Hebrews 11 in verse 6, “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.” Without faith, it is impossible to please God in the literal sense. Since God was pleased with Abel’s offering and not Cain’s, it is clear Abel had faith in God and Cain had faith in his own works. Whereas Abel thought, “God has given me a good harvest in His faithfulness,” Cain thought, “My efforts and work provided my good harvest,” and so Abel’s faith in God was acceptable and Cain’s faith in himself was rejected. So God accepted Abel’s offering and by this, his faith was counted to him as righteousness, just like Abraham.
Although Abel has died, and brutally so, his faith still speaks to us today. So, what can we learn from his faith in the 21st century? Certainly it does not mean we are justified by our good works. Rather, it means God delights in our good works when we perform them with faith in Him:
In this life the good works of believers are imperfect and impure because of sin in the flesh, nevertheless they are acceptable and well pleasing to God. However, the Law does not teach how and why the good works of believers are acceptable. It demands a completely perfect, pure obedience if it is to please God. But the Gospel teaches that our spiritual offerings are acceptable to God through faith for Christ’s sake. (FC SD VII, 22.)
Furthermore, Romans 12:1 says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” What in the world does this mean? In Old Testament Israel, animals were sacrificed for sins by putting them to death because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) and their deaths took their place to cover their sins. Christ replaced the need for such sacrifices, for He was the ultimate sacrifice by taking our place on the cross as He took God’s wrath upon Himself so that we don’t have to experience God’s wrath. Here, Paul is talking about dedicating our lives to God not just when we’re at church, but in all aspects of our lives when we walk outside the church doors. God isn’t interested in people who only go halfway. Offering your whole life to God is a sacrifice and therefore an act of worship. By faith, we sacrifice ourselves in that we trust God to use our lives to bring His good into the world; we can only perform good works because His goodness makes our works good. Continuing into verse 2, God’s thoughts transform our thoughts and our mind is made anew. We begin to seek the things pertaining to God.
A true and not a false putting to death [mortification] happens through the cross and troubles, by which God exercises us… They are the spiritual exercises of fear and faith. In addition to this putting to death, which happens through the cross, there is also a necessary, voluntary exercise. (Ap XV, 45-46.)
It is impossible for our lives to please God without faith. When an atheist gives to the poor, God is not pleased because he does not have faith in Him—his hope and faith are not set in Christ. When a Christian gives to the poor, we do so out of a spiritual sacrifice to God in faith that is received from Christ, which pleases God. Because of faith, we are holy and acceptable to God, and He makes our works good. By faith, God moves us to desire to do good works for the benefit of our neighbor (sanctification). Like Abel, let us make proper spiritual sacrifices before God by doing good works in faith. This is done not by performing them to please ourselves, and not even for the purpose of pleasing God since the performance of them in faith please Him in and of themselves, but rather for the benefit of our neighbour as Christ has called us to live (i.e. sanctification/baptismal regeneration). When we give to the poor, are kind to others, and so on, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:31-40). When we perform good works in faith, it is as if we are doing them to Christ Himself, which pleases God.
Stay tuned for next time when we look at our second example of faith: Enoch.
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