Lessons from Cain and Abel

Big Idea

Religion versus faith.

Genuine faith requires an appreciation of our fallen state and the recognition that there is nothing in me that can make me right with God.

Romans 7:18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but [how] to perform what is good I do not find.

Bible reading

  1. Genesis chapter 4 the story of Cain and Abel.
  2. Hebrews chapter 11
  3. Romans chapter 5

A summary

The first two children of Adam and Eve are born, outside of Eden, into a world where the ground is cursed.

Genesis 3:17-19 Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return."

  • Both sons are farmers, each toiling to grow things.
  • Cain is a horticulturalist: he grows vegetables and perhaps grain.
  • Abel is a shepherd: he keeps domesticated animals - sheep or cattle.
  • Both see a need to bring an offering to the Lord.
  • Cain brings the fruit of the earth.
  • Abel brings a dead animal, whose blood has been spilt.
  • God accepts Abel's offering but rejects Cain's offering.
  • God warns Cain that he will sin grievously unless he rules over his life.
  • Cain in a fit of rage kills his brother Cain.
  • Cain is sent into the world where he builds cities and makes things of iron and bronze.
  • A litany of sin flow in the generation of Cain.
  • The entire generation of Cain is destroyed by God in the flood

Some Questions

  • One could ask why Cain did not have his offering accepted.
  • Why did God not respect (or accept with favour) Cain (verse 5)?
  • Hadn't Cain toiled long and hard to prepare the soil, sow the crop then wait a season before harvesting the crop?
  • Hadn't he prepared the produce and brought them before the Lord in an act of worship?
  • Abel had merely watch his flock breed and killed the first born. Hadn't Cain worked much harder than Abel to please the Lord?
  • Perhaps we can feel sorry for Cain. What had Cain done wrong not to be accepted by God?
  • We perhaps could even question God. Does God have a right to be partial in his dealings with man, when he tries so hard to please God?
  • Or was there something that Abel had that Cain didn't? Was there something good in Abel, which he was born with, that Cain did not have?
  • Does this picture apply to me? If I toil long and hard for the work of the Lord am I not going to please Him?
  • Or does this suggest that there are some ways of worship, in approaching God, which are acceptable and some which are not?
  • How are we to know the difference?

Further explanation in the New Testament

Hebrews 11:4 By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks.

What does this speak of?

Two aspects of the men's doings need clarification:

  1. What was the heart attitude of each man when he made the offing?
  2. And what was the inherit nature of the offering in relation to their standing before God?

Hebrews 11 tells us:

That Abel offered by faith. Cain did no such thing.

It was by faith. Sin separated Abel from God and hence only by faith could he deal with this impenetrable barrier. His heart was focused on the bridging the crevasse found between man and God. Cain focused on the action - the religious need to sacrifice.

Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice. Note that the sacrifice was more excellent not the most excellent - the reason why will be seen a little later.

The Picture

The story of Cain and Abel is a stark reminder of where we stand before God.

The Bible states that Abel:

  • Offered a more excellent sacrifice (Heb 11:4).
  • Was counted with the prophets (Luke 11:51).
  • His offering was called the "blood of righteousness" (Matt 23:35).
  • Had righteous works (1 John 3:12).

On the other hand it is said of Cain:

  • That he was wicked, a murder and was full of evil works - that is his heart was far from God. He did not pursue godliness (1 John 3:12).
  • That we are not to follow the way of Cain, who is mirrored as a brute beast who corrupted himself (compare with Jude)

Here we have a picture of the world today, and in particular Christendom. Cain represents the religious man of the world. Abel the genuine man of faith walking on the cursed earth..

Compare their natural state

There is a great temptation to feel sorry for Cain. We ask in puzzlement, "What had Cain done to be so out of favour with God?" To answer this we often assume that Abel had something that Cain didn't.

Comparing the two, in the sense of the natural:

  • Both were sons of Adam.
  • Both were sons of a fallen man and both inherited the fallen nature.

Ephesians 2:1-3And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.

  • Neither were innocent

Rom 3:23 All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

  • There were both partakes of the nature of their father.

That is they had fallen, were ruined, with an irredeemable nature - see John 3.

  • Both men were lost.

They could not work their way back to God.

Rom 5:19 By one man's disobedience many were made sinners.

Rom 5:12-21 Sin entered the world through one man.

1 Cor 15:47-48 The first man was of the dust.

  • Abel was not distinguished from his brother Cain by anything natural.

Therefore, we conclude if it was not the men themselves, it must have been the sacrifice.

The story of Cain and Able tells the story of the difference between religious men and men of faith. It tells the story of religious worship and worship in truth and in spirit. God did not choose Abel because there was some good in him.

Compare the source of their offering

Examine the words carefully. Hebrew 11:4 focuses on the offering. It was the offering God saw, before He accepted or rejected the man. Now compare the offerings.

  • Cain's sacrifice was of the cursed earth.
  • Abel offered the first born of the flock.
  • Cain's sacrifice was covered with the cursed soil of the earth. This was not dealt with.
  • Abel dealt with the curse in the only known way - by the shedding of blood.
  • Cain saw no need to deal with the curse.

Cain sourced his offering with no regard as to its acceptance. It was based on human intellectual thought. Abel could only see sin between him and God and sourced his sacrifice accordingly.

This is worship in spirit and in truth. Not of the type we know, for we live in the time of grace. We have the Comforter. We have no excuse not to worship in truth.

Compare their minds

  • Cain brought an unbloody sacrifice to the Lord. Cain had not one iota of thought of what the sacrifice was suppose to mean. It was a means to an end. It satisfied the heart. His conscience was not listened to even if it did attempt to jolt his memory of the need to deal with sin.
  • Abel entered the truth by faith. There was no toiling on the face of the earth. He gave up the best and the first. He shed the blood and by faith he understood that the sin was dealt with.
  • The thought of sin did not enter the mind of Cain.
  • Abel had faith. It was by faith Abel offered God a more excellent sacrifice.
  • The need for sin to be dealt with was foremost on Abel's mind.

Faith: Justifies the soul (Rom 5:1).

Purifies the heart (Acts 15:9).

Works by love (Gal 5:6).

Overcomes the world (1 John 5:4).

Faith pleases God (Heb 11:6).

Compare their offerings

Note that God looked upon the offering and the person was accepted or rejected.

God cannot look upon us. For if He did He would blot us out (For no man hast seen the Father, John 6:46). We were like Cain, but for some now it can be said:

But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.

  • Washed, sanctified and justified - how - by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • God looks upon the offering and we are accepted.
  • Abel shed blood. Cain offered the fruit of the cursed earth.
  • Abel through faith knew that without the shedding of blood there was no remission. He could not approach God.
  • Cain's offering is that of religion. It was the toil of man in this wicked earth that he presents to God.
  • His offering is that of the prayer of the Pharisee who with great words exonerated himself before God, while the sinner uttered one line: 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' (See Luke 18:10).
  • Cain brought the toil of his hands to the Lord and was mightily displease when the Lord not look favourably upon it.
  • You see, he had not learnt a very important lesson. We by the toil of our own hands can never deal with the sin that separates us from God.
  • Cain never dealt with the separation of himself from God. His final separation was death. He and his family were removed from the face of the earth.
  • Abel sees the consequence of sin, and brings a dead animal to the Lord after the shedding of blood.
  • Death is the due reward, recognised by every convicted sinner.
  • Cain is the true representation of Christendom today. We see men strutting around clothed with fabulous cloths sitting at the most important places of society, speaking great swelling words of emptiness (2 Peter 2). They are wells without water and offer empty worship.
  • Cain is the religious church. The great cathedrals of the world. Empty stone full of dogma and ritual and men's interpretations and the evil tradition of men. Cain is epitomised by the papist system and all those other systems that have never broken from the bond of that woman Jezebel.
  • These are men who do not know the requirements of the Lord:

Jeremiah 5:4I thought, "These are only the poor; they are foolish, for they do not know the way of the LORD, the requirements of their God.

But Cain can be you or I: Those who don't understand that God is not worshiped with mens' hands as though He needed something. Cain is the worship of the unconverted soul.

The fruits of false worship

  • Cain had no peace after his sacrifice.
  • We have peace after the offering of Christ. It is the gospel of peace that is preached.
  • The proper fruit of false worship is death. Cain knew not God and went from his presence.
  • Note what Cain did next.

Genesis 4:16-26

He and his generations built cities - he became busy - very busy. The conscious can be overburdened so that it need not think upon God, because it is too busy.

Invented things to make life tolerable.

Declined to a society of violence, defiance, murder, lust and vice.

He works with iron and brass an inferior class of materials. God works with Gold - purity.

Isaiah 60:17 From brass I will Gold, for iron I will bring Silver.

This is the fruit of false worship.

What does this say to us

Are we merely religious?

  • We need to ask: Are were merely religious, or do we have pure religion?
  • Where do we stand before God?
  • What place does godliness occupy in our inner person?
  • More than in the head?
  • More than in lips?
  • More than in feelings?
  • Does it reign in our heart - does godliness hold the rein of our life.

This will influence the choices and decisions we make:

It will determine our conscience recognition that we are pleasing God.

It will lead the will.

It will direct the tastes, the attitudes the responses.

Godliness directs:

  • Our attitude toward sin.
  • Our attitude toward Christ.
  • Godly behaviour is the response of our fear of the Lord

Michah 6:8 He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?

Our worship

In Abel we have a spiritual mind who brings true worship to the Lord.

John 4:23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."

In Cain we have the religious man, too inward looking to see the need for salvation and brings what is natural - the toil of his labour.

Re 3:17 "Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing' --and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked--

Indeed his life ended in toil of iron of brass - the crude things of this world not the pure:

Re 3:18 "I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire"

Gold in Scripture is always purity. There is nothing wrong with iron and brass but it is not the desire of the Lord's heart. Gold is. Our life needs to deal with gold - the pure things.

Php 4:8 Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things [are] noble, whatever things [are] just, whatever things [are] pure, whatever things [are] lovely, whatever things [are] of good report, if [there is] any virtue and if [there is] anything praiseworthy--meditate on these things.

This is the real practical sense of being an Abel.

Our lives certainly touch the cursed earth, but our minds need to mediate on things above.

  • Of men and women who attend "church" each week out of superstitious need to remain "right" with God, yet are as distant from him as ever could be.
  • Of the men and women who have no sweet aroma of prayers ascending to heaven.
  • Who believe that at least a small iota of good dwells within them.
  • That by their own hands they can appease God.

Abel is the Christian, spiritual, walking with the Lord.

Cain is full of dogma and false doctrine. Labours long and hard to create a system that is an utter and dismal failure.

How do we approach God

Are we fully cognisant of our true wretched state?

Do we think something good dwells in us? That there is something we think we can do to appease God? For if we do we follow after the path of Cain.

Do you fall before Christ in true repentance and believe that He is able to take all and make us righteous.

Do we quietly wait for the Bridegroom?

Romans 8:25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.

We are called to die daily.

This is an actual activity which takes mental energy to perform. Every morning upon rising, we have to literally say to ourselves, today I am putting off self and today I will put on Christ. Of course this cannot be done alone. We pray, we ask the Father to place us in Christ. We replenish the soul by reading the Word.

Does this mean we don't toil?

By no means.

You may ask, if Cain's sacrifice was not acceptable, why was the fruit of the earth acceptable in the Mosaic law. You will find, for instance in the feast of the Tabernacles the command to bring a grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil. What of this? Well, one needs to read Scripture carefully - line upon line, precept upon precept. Before any fruit of the earth is brought sin must be dealt with. The first thing the priests did at the Feast of the Tabernacles was to offer a burnt offering - 13 bulls, 2 rams and 14 lambs had to be sacrificed.

The essence of all worship is dealing with sin first. Piously tending to Scriptures as many of our forefathers did, did not make them "religious". But knowledge without faith is dead. Pure religion is clearly defined in Scripture. What is it:

James 12:7 Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.

We are to busy ourselves - keeping our hands out of idle mischief.


The story of Cain and Abel tells of the necessity of understanding worship in truth and compares it with religious worship. This understanding comes by realisation of the predicament man is in - by sin he is lost. By Christ he is saved, through faith.

All the effort in the world will not overcome the sin of the world. Only by accepting Christ can God see us righteous.

Abel is a godly man. Cain is a worldly man.

Abel had faith. He knew sin separated him from God and he acted responsibly in dealing with the sin.

This passage shows that man in his natural state cannot work his way back to God. Only Christ can do this.

Beware, the way of Cain will easily be followed by the error of Balaam.


Hebrews 11:6 Without faith it is impossible to please God
Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.


David Simon, 2002, 2012
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