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by Arnold Valentin Wallenkampf

11. Cain and Abel

When we think of Cain, our thoughts almost instantly focus on his murder of his brother, Abel. In one sense, that is unfortunate. Apart from that, in his industriousness Cain must have been a very respectable, commendable, and admirable person. He was a "tiller of the ground" (Gen. 4:2). He had chosen the backbreaking occupation of farming. He did not shrink from hard work in making a living. A person with the qualities he had up to the time of the murder of his brother probably could obtain membership in any present-day church.

Both Cain and Abel had grown up in a God-fearing home. Both had participated in family worship and seen their father, Adam, offer lambs to God. When the boys grew up and began to bring their own sacrifices, Abel brought lambs as his father had done. "Through the shed blood he [Abel] looked to the future sacrifice, Christ dying on the cross of Calvary; and trusting in the atonement that was there to be made, he had the witness that he was righteous, and his offering accepted."1 Cain, with self-justified pride, brought products of the land, reasoning that such fruit, produced through his arduous toil, was as good an offering as his brother’s lambs. But "his [Cain’s] gift expressed no penitence for sin. He felt, as many now feel, that it would be an acknowledgment of weakness to follow the exact plan marked out by God, of trusting his salvation wholly to the atonement of the promised Saviour."2

But the record reads: "And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?’ " (Gen. 4:4-6). Cain might have retorted, "What do You mean, do well? Have I not been working day after day in the sweat of my brow to produce this fruit and grain? Have I not struggled painfully with thorns and thistles and the stubborn soil? When You put my parents in the garden, did You not tell them to dress it and keep it? I have faithfully followed the directions You gave them, even though we are no longer in Eden. Besides, Lord, it is not my fault that I am a sinner. It is my father’s fault that I am in this predicament. And I am not going to bring You a lamb, I am going to give You a gift of my hard labor. If You don’t like it, that’s too bad. Besides, did I not produce this fruit and grain with Your help and by the goodness and skill You imparted to me? These are Your fruit and grain, Lord! Even that which you asked of me."

In like manner, many Christians may at times be prone to commend themselves before God by referring to the Christlike characters they are developing. They may say, "Has not the Lord asked us to bear much fruit through the transformation of character and thus glorify our Father in heaven? Is not God’s righteousness revealed in them who walk after the Spirit?" It would appear that God should indeed have respect unto such an offering of developed Christlikeness and accept it gladly.

Cain must have reasoned in that way: "That lazy brother of mine. He has just been sitting, watching the sheep, without a care in the world, while I have been working hard to produce this grain and fruit. He simply took a lamb from his flock and presented it to God; whereas I have worked for my offering." To this self-justifying attitude, God’s answer might come in the words of Paul: "And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness" (Rom. 4:5).

Abraham counted himself ungodly. Paul asked, "What then shall we say about Abraham. . . ? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God" (Rom. 4:1, 2).

In contrast to Abraham, Cain thought himself righteous and came to God with a thank offering only. "He made no confession of sin, and acknowledged no need of mercy. But Abel came with the blood that pointed to the Lamb of God. He came as a sinner, confessing himself lost; his only hope was the unmerited love of God."3 Cain refused to accept God’s plan of salvation by grace and relied on his own good works for salvation. Cain genuinely wanted God to be pleased with what he did instead of seeking to do what would please God. He laid down the conditions under which he would like to honor and worship God.

God did not consider Cain’s works of goodness as a basis for acceptance; we note with sorrow that the record reads: "Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord" (Gen. 4:16). It would have filled both God and us with joy if it had read: "And Cain gladly followed God’s plan and went out and returned with a lamb as an offering." The lamb would have been an acknowledgment that his acceptance by God depended solely on the goodness and grace of God through Christ’s death for him rather than on his own good works. Then in addition to the lamb, Cain could have brought his fruit from the field as a thank offering to God for His gracious salvation through Christ, symbolized by the blood of the Lamb.

"He [Cain] chose the course of self-dependence. He would come in his own merits. He would not bring the lamb, and mingle its blood with his offering, but would present his fruits, the products of his labor. He presented his offering as a favor done to God, through which he expected to secure the divine approval. Cain obeyed in building an altar, obeyed in bringing a sacrifice; but he rendered only a partial obedience. The essential part, the recognition of the need of a Redeemer, was left out."4 Thus his efforts were all in vain. Like Abel, Cain should have come before God through the blood of Christ, symbolized by the slain lamb. Then he should have added the fruit from his field and garden as a thank offering to God, even as we present the fruit of the Spirit in our lives as a thank offering. Abel was determined to worship God according to the directions God had given. Cain insisted on doing it his own way, invoking God’s displeasure.

"He [Cain] thought that his plans were best, and that the Lord would come to his terms. Cain in his offering did not acknowledge his dependence upon Christ. He thought that his father Adam had been treated harshly in being expelled from Eden. The idea of keeping that sin ever before the mind, and offering the blood of the slain lamb as a confession of entire dependence upon a power outside of himself, was torture to the high spirit of Cain."5

We can approach God only through the blood of Jesus. Through faith in the coming Lamb of God, Abel found favor with God. You and I are not to come before God depending even partly on our own moral and ethical attainments of goodness for salvation, but we are to approach God by virtue of the shed blood of Jesus for our sins. We must constantly remember that salvation is a gift of God. There is no other possible and acceptable way for a sinner to approach a righteous God. Then as a thank offering, we are to bring the fruit of a transformed life as we daily dedicate our lives to God and live for Him.

Both Jesus our Saviour and the fruit of the Spirit, manifested in a transformed life, are gifts of God to us. One is the pattern; the other is the resemblance. One is the substance; the other is the shadow. One is infinite righteousness, for "the life of Christ reveals an infinitely perfect character;"6 the other is finite. Speaking about Jesus, Paul says in Colossians 1:14: "In whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." Our redemption rests on the work Christ did for us. "There is great need that Christ should be preached as the only hope and salvation."7

We should remember constantly that it is only through the merits of Jesus that our transgressions can be pardoned and our lives transformed into His likeness. "Those who feel no need of the blood of Christ, who feel that without divine grace they can by their own works secure the approval of God, are making the same mistake as did Cain."8 Cain brought the fruit of his own efforts, hoping God would accept him because of his good works. But this was all in vain.

Never for one moment should we think that our hope of salvation rests on our own perfection, however honed and refined it may be. The Pharisee in the Temple judged his character by comparing it with the character of other men (see Luke 18:11) and thus felt no conviction of sin. The publican, on the other hand, did not compare himself with others but looked solely to Jesus for saving mercy (see Luke 18:13). He knew there was nothing he could do that could atone for his sins. In the same way, only the blood of Christ can pay for our sins.

"Cain and Abel represent two classes that will exist in the world till the close of time. One class avail themselves of the appointed sacrifice for sin; the other venture to depend upon their own merits; theirs is a sacrifice without the virtue of divine mediation, and thus it is not able to bring man into favor with God. It is only through the merits of Jesus that our transgressions can be pardoned. Those who feel no need of the blood of Christ, who feel that without divine grace they can by their own works secure the approval of God, are making the same mistake as did Cain. If they do not accept the cleansing blood, they are under condemnation. There is no other provision made whereby they can be released from the thralldom of sin."9

The true Christian’s hope will be centered only in Christ, as Paul expressed it in Galatians 6:14: "But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." Our "sense of need, the recognition of our poverty and sin, is the very first condition of acceptance with God."10

In Hebrews 11:4 the inspired writer declares: "By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain." "Abel grasped the great principles of redemption. He saw himself a sinner, and he saw sin and its penalty, death, standing between his soul and communion with God. He brought the slain victim, the sacrificed life, thus acknowledging the claims of the law that had been transgressed. Through the shed blood he looked to the future sacrifice, Christ dying on the cross of Calvary; and trusting in the atonement that was there to be made, he had the witness that he was righteous, and his offering accepted."11

By stepping into the footsteps of Abel and looking to Jesus as the only atonement for our sins, we too may receive the witness of God that we are righteous.


1 White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 72. [back]

2 Ibid. [back]

3 __________, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 152. [back]

4 __________, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 72. [back]

5 __________, Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 77, 78. [back]

6 __________, Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 60. [back]

7 __________, Selected Messages, book 1, p.360. [back]

8 __________, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 73. [back]

9 Ibid., pp. 72, 73. [back]

10 __________, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 152. [back]

11__________, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 72. [back]

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