Cain and Abel and Their Offerings

by Glenn Conjurske

Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, stamped upon the movement which he brought forth a strong tendency to antinomianism. Luther himself was not nearly so antinomian as most of Fundamentalism and Brethrenism are today, but his doctrines stamped the whole of Protestantism with inveterate tendencies in that direction, and wherever a one-sided emphasis upon grace prevails (as it certainly does in Fundamentalism and Brethrenism) those antinomian tendencies strongly assert themselves. Those tendencies blind many good men to the real content of Scripture. They read the text as others do, but fail to see what is there. What the text actually says gives way in their minds to their preconceived notions of what it ought to say, in order that it may square with their own theology.

Concerning Cain and Abel, and their offerings, the Bible says the following:

“And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering, but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect.” (Gen. 4:3-5).

This would seem clear enough, but the antinomian atmosphere which has long prevailed in the church has put the text as it were into the fog, and men fail to see what it actually contains, while they imagine they see other things, which are not there at all. Thus the good C. H. Mackintosh writes on this scripture,

“…Abel was not distinguished from his brother Cain by anything natural. The distinction between them was not grounded upon aught in their nature or circumstances, for, as to these, ‘there was no difference.’ What, therefore, made the vast difference? The answer is as simple as the gospel of the grace of God can make it. The difference was not in themselves, in their nature or circumstances; it lay entirely in their sacrifices.”

But this, we are bold to say, is as false as it is clear. It is a mixture of obvious truth and subtle error. It gives the lie to the text itself. ‘Tis true enough that the difference between Cain and Abel “was not grounded upon aught in their nature or circumstances,” but it is false that there was therefore no difference between them. There was certainly a spiritual difference, a difference in character, as much as there is between light and darkness, and this difference was most certainly “in themselves.” Abel was righteous, and Cain was wicked. “Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous.” (I John 3:12). This was a difference in themselves, intrinsic and substantial. It is fallacy to suppose that because there was no natural difference between them, there was therefore no difference at all. What! was there no difference in themselves between “righteous Abel” and the murderer who took his life? There was a difference, and that difference certainly did not lie entirely in their sacrifices. It lay in their works. Cain’s works were wicked. Abel’s works were righteous. The word is plural, and refers to all that they said and did, all that they thought and purposed, all of their lives in general, and not merely to the offerings which they offered. And the difference in their works was the manifestation of the difference in their character. Cain’s works were wicked, and his brother’s works righteous, precisely because Cain himself was wicked, and Abel righteous. This is a very great difference, and “entirely” in themselves.

And what saith our text in Genesis? Does the fourth chapter of Genesis give any countenance to the notion that the difference between Cain and Abel lay entirely in their sacrifices? None whatsoever, for the text says, “And the LORD had respect unto Abel—-AND to his offering. But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect.” We are not told merely that God had respect to Abel’s offering, and therefore to Abel, but that first he had respect unto Abel himself. “The Lord had respect unto Abel.” This is clear enough, and this was certainly not merely because of his offering. “To this man will I look,” saith the Lord, “even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.” (Is. 66:2). This is something in the man’s character, not merely in his offering.

Upon this point Matthew Henry, universally revered as a commentator on Holy Scripture, writes most soundly, “There was a difference in the characters of the persons offering. Cain was a wicked man, led a bad life, under the reigning power of the world and the flesh; and therefore his sacrifice was an abomination to the Lord (Prov. xv.8), a vain oblation, Isa. i.13. God had no respect to Cain himself, and therefore no respect to his offering, as the manner of expression intimates. But Abel was a righteous man; he is called righteous Abel (Matt. xxiii.35); his heart was upright and his life was pious; he was one of those whom God’s countenance beholds (Ps. xi.7) and whose prayer is therefore his delight, Prov. xv.8. God had respect to him as a holy man, and therefore to his offering as a holy offering.”

Henry of course recognizes the difference in the nature of their offerings, but at the same time most forcefully denies that this was the only difference between them.

The respected commentator Matthew Poole stands on exactly the same ground. In commenting on the words The Lord had respect, he says, “Unto Abel’s person, who was a truly good man; and then to his sacrifice, which was offered with faith in God’s mercy and in the promised Mediator.” This is no more than doing justice to the text.

Here are the facts. Abel, being a righteous man, offered a proper sacrifice. Cain, being a wicked man, offered an improper sacrifice. But the question remains, What if Cain, wicked and unbelieving as he was, had offered a proper sacrifice? Would he then have been accepted? Spurred on by their antinomian notions, men assume that he would have been, but this assumption is certainly false. Such an assumption prevails because it appears to honor faith, and grace, and the sacrifice of Christ. But in fact is dishonors holiness, and holy Scripture also, and is in reality nothing more than rank antinomianism. We hold that if Cain, remaining wicked and unbelieving as he was, had offered the proper sacrifice, God certainly would not have “had respect unto” him, nor to his offering either, and he certainly would not have been accepted. The proof of this is abundant throughout the Bible.

As a matter of fact, all the Jews of later times offered blood sacrifices, the same as Abel had done. Their offerings were acceptable enough, but themselves were not, and both themselves and their sacrifices were rejected of God. “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord” to those Jews: “I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats.” (Is. 1:11). Why not? These offerings were as acceptable as Abel’s. They were the offerings which God had prescribed, the same sort of offering as Abel had offered, yet the Lord had no respect unto them, and would neither accept them nor the persons who offered them. Why not? Why did the Lord not have respect unto those Jews, and unto their offerings? In verses 15-20 we read, “And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” And that being done, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land, but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword”—-and this in spite of all your blood sacrifices. When you cease to do evil, and learn to do well, then God will have respect both unto you and unto your offerings. Till then, he will have no respect to either.

The plain fact is this: God will have no respect whatever to the right sort of sacrifice when it is offered by the wrong sort of person.

But some will say, “But we are all sinners. We must come to God as sinners, on the sole basis of the sacrifice of Christ, and all who so come will be received.” Why then were those Jews not received, who offered that multitude of bloody sacrifices to God? God never receives any sinner whatsoever, regardless of his trust in the sacrifice of Christ, except penitent sinners, who “repent, and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance,” as Paul preached in Acts 28:20.

Those Jews offered all the right sacrifices, which were ordained by God himself, and which were types of the sacrifice of Christ himself, yet God rejected them all, and had no more respect to their offerings than he had to themselves. Very far from it. He looked at all their proper sacrifices and said, “He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man; he that sacrificeth a lamb, as if he cut off a dog’s neck; he that offereth an oblation, as if he offered swine’s blood; he that burneth incense, as if he blessed an idol.” Why so? Because “they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations. I also will choose their delusions, and will bring their fears upon them; because when I called, none did answer; when I spake, they did not hear: but they did evil before mine eyes, and chose that in which I delighted not.” (Is. 66:3-4).

There was nothing wrong with their offerings. Nor does God speak one word of any defect in their faith. It was their works which he abhorred. They all offered the proper offerings, as much as ever Abel did, and doubtless trusted in them too, but they had none of the character of Abel, and God says they might as well have offered a dog, or swine’s blood. He had no respect to their offerings because he could have no respect to themselves. They had chosen their own ways, and delighted in abominations, and in their hands the right sacrifices were as offensive to God as they were vain and useless. And so exactly it will be with every ungodly sinner who thinks to stand before God on the basis of the blood of Christ, while he chooses his own ways and delights in his abominations. God will have no respect to him, regardless of the sacrifice in which he trusts.

But I return to C. H. Mackintosh, who writes further, “The eleventh chapter of Hebrews sets the whole subject before us in the most distinct and comprehensive way,—-‘By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice [pleiona qusian] than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God bearing witness [marturountoV] to his gifts; and by it he being dead yet speaketh.’ Here we are taught that it was in nowise a question as to the men, but only as to their ‘sacrifice’—-it was not a question as to the offerer, but as to his offering. Here lay the grand distinction between Cain and Abel. My reader cannot be too simple in his apprehension of this point, for therein lies involved the truth as to any sinner’s standing before God.”

This we hold to be certainly false, and directly in the teeth of Isaiah, as quoted above, and not of Isaiah only, but of David also, and Solomon, and Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, and John the Baptist, and Peter, and Paul, and John, and Christ himself—-directly in the teeth, to be short, of the whole Bible, from one end to the other.

Not that we would impute to C. H. M. the antinomianism which his one-sided statements seem to countenance, any more than we would to Martin Luther. The fact is, it was a statement of C. H. Mackintosh which gave the first check to my own antinomianism, a third of a century ago. There are many good men who advance antinomian sentiments doctrinally, who would utterly abhor the practical antinomianism which might legitimately be drawn from them. We believe that the good C. H. M. was such a man. But we believe also that his statements which savor of antinomianism are certainly false, and dangerously so, too. And we believe further that if he, in the midst of the glories of heaven, has any occasion or ability to take notice of the affairs of the church on earth, none will be so happy as himself to see those noxious plants, which he unwittingly sowed, unceremoniously uprooted.

On this Alfred Edersheim speaks much more soundly than “C. H. M.” Referring to the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, he says, “Scripture here takes us up, as it were, to the highest point in the lives of the two brotherstheir sacrifice—-and tells us of the presence of faith in the one, and of its absence in the other. This showed itself alike in the manner and in the kind of their sacrifice. But the faith which prompted the sacrifice of Abel, and the want of faith which characterised that of Cain, must, of course, have existed and appeared long before. Hence St. John also says that Cain ‘was of that wicked one,’ meaning that he had all along yielded himself to the power of that tempter who had ruined our first parents.”

This is the undoubted truth, while it is the truth also that “righteous Abel” was righteous according to God’s own view of the matter, namely, “He that doeth righteousness is righteous.” (I John 3:7). Cain was “of the wicked one.” “His own works were wicked, and his brother’s righteous.” Therefore “The LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering. But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect.”

Glenn Conjurske