“By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead” ( Hebrews 11:4 )
By reading the account of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, it is easy to be confused about why Abel’s sacrifice was accepted and Cain’s was not. However, this passage in Hebrews clarifies it, telling us that Abel offered his sacrifice in faith, Cain on the other hand did not. The result is that God commended Abel as a righteous man and accepted his offering.
To understand this, we must first look back at Genesis 4. Although not much detail is given about the instructions God gave to them when bringing their sacrifices, we see that Cain brought the fruit of the ground to God and Abel brought an animal sacrifice. God looked favorably on Abel’s sacrifice. When Cain’s was rejected God said to him, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” ( Genesis 4:6-7 ). The first thing we see is that Cain did not do what was right, which is why he was rejected.
The reason was because he brought the toil of his labor to God as an offering. This was wrong was because God had cursed the ground at the fall of mankind. “To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life” ( Genesis 3:17 ). Cain brought to God what he grew from the cursed ground, this was approaching God in self-righteousness and on that basis we are never accepted. Isaiah tells us that all of our righteous acts are as filthy rags ( Isaiah 64:6 ), not our unrighteousness but our righteousness. All of the things we do to be acceptable to God are as soiled dirty rags. This is why we are never accepted when we approach Him in this manner.
Abel, on the other hand, brought to God a covering that had been provided for him. Abel, by faith, accepted what God did and on that basis he was accepted. He took God’s righteousness as a gift which made him acceptable. God was so pleased with Abel that He wrote about it in Hebrews 11 so we could still celebrate his faith.
This same truth rings loud and clear for us today. When we rely on what Jesus did for us to make us righteous, then we are always accepted. This takes faith, but that faith commends us as righteous before God and like Abel speaks a good word on our behalf.