Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden because of their disobedience. They left in shame, blaming God for their sin. But as Genesis 4 begins, some time has passed and they have repented (changed). They have believed the promise God made in the midst of their punishment – that He would send a Savior to save them (and all those who would trust in the Savior alone for their salvation) from their sin.
Adam and Eve had two children (initially), Cain and Abel. Cain was a farmer, and Abel was a shepherd. These were both honorable professions. There is nothing said here or in the rest of the Bible to suggest one job was more noble than the other. In fact, we see the opposite: from the beginning, humans are told to care for the whole Creation, to work the land, and care for the animals.
Both Cain and Abel offered a sacrifice of worship to God. Clearly Adam and Eve had taught their children who God is and that He is to be worshiped. They had been restored before God, and they were raising their children in the faith that was given to them by God. Cain offered up a grain offering, and Abel offered up the firstborn of his flocks. And God received Abel’s offering, but He rejected Cain’s. Why?
We are not explicitly told. Yet, we can draw a reasonable conclusion from this passage in Hebrews:
“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. … And without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:4, 6).
We can draw the conclusion that Cain’s offering – his sacrifice – was not made in faith, and God knew that, and that is why God rejected it. Cain may have done everything right as far as preparing and offering the sacrifice was concerned. It might have been a perfect sacrifice, according to the book, but God knew it was not offered in faith, so God was not pleased, and God did not accept it. Cain wanted to have the benefits of being right with God, without truly giving his heart to God. Sin is wanting to live my life my own way without God. We want to come to relationship with God on our own terms. We kinda want to treat God they way a lot of teenagers treat their parents – do the minimum amount necessary to avoid any adverse consequences with the parents, but live however they want when the parents aren’t around. We want to give lip-service to obedience, but not really go all-in. Of course, while this shell game does sometimes work with parents, it never works with God because he knows the true condition of our heart.
Understand this truth: we cannot become right with God by our works. No matter what we do – if we give generously to the poor, attend church, keep all the commandments (if that were even possible) – if we do everything we believe is right and everything we believe we ought to do, but don’t have faith, God will not be pleased with our “sacrifice” either. You may be a very nice person. As people go, perhaps you are the best! But you aren’t good enough to earn God’s favor, and neither am I.
It’s not that we shouldn’t do good things. But we ought to do them as a response to the faith we have been given. We respond to faith in Christ by doing the good works He has prepared for us to do. (Look up Ephesians 2:8-10)
Cain was, of course, angry – just like a lot of other people are at the suggestion that “doing the right thing” isn’t good enough for God. Check out God’s answer:
The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)
Essentially, God’s response is, “Really? You’re angry with me? Your worship was just a duty to you. If it had been offered in faith, I would have accepted it, but it was not. And if you do not come to me in faith, sin is waiting for you, and it will drag you down to a place from which you cannot return. So, repent of your sin – reject it – and come to me in faith.”
Again, back to Romans:
“He will render to each one according to his works, to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:6-11).
Or check out what the prophet Samuel says later in the Old Testament:
“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (I Samuel 15:22).
Going through the motions is still just going through the motions. God is not pleased when we do everything right and don’t believe Him. In fact, God’s wrath is against all those, whether they do right or not, who do not believe in His Savior for salvation.
So, in a fit of rage, Cain murders his brother. Remember what God said? “…sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
The apostle John later referred to this event in warning the church that righteous living would incite persecution: “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (I John 3:12).
Cain’s indifferent response to God’s asking him about his brother show’s how calloused Cain’s heart has become:
Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)
God judged Cain harshly for his sin, but also showed mercy to him:
And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. (Genesis 4:10-16)
God is always both perfectly just and perfectly merciful.
What is our motivation for doing the right thing? Some people would say that we should do the right thing simply because it’s right. Some people say we should do the right thing because it will benefit us. Some people say we should do the right thing because we want to avoid pain and punishment. But there is a specifically Christian reason we should do what’s right. A Christian’s motivation for doing the right thing is that it is an act of worship. The Christian seeks to do what is right out of love for God and the desire to bring glory to the name of Christ. The Christian does what is right as a response to God’s love and salvation through Jesus.
Does that make sense? We may have other reasons as well – respect for the government, not wanting to suffer, etc. – but our primary reason to do what is right is that we have been saved through faith alone, by grace alone, by Jesus alone, so we desire to obey Him.
The author of Hebrews said that the blood of Abel called out his righteousness to God, but he also said this: “…Jesus [is] the mediator of a new covenant, and [we come] to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24).
Abel’s blood cried out his righteousness through the faith he had in God and in the promised Savior. We, however, look to a shed blood that is greater than that of Abel’s – to the blood of Jesus that was shed on the cross two thousand years ago for the sins of all those who would believe in Him alone for salvation. When you trust that Jesus is that promised Redeemer – the only one who can deliver you from your sin and God’s wrath – then you are saved – you are forgiven – you are made right with God – something you could never accomplish for yourself through being a good person or doing good things. This is the gospel, and the most important truth ever communicated.