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Acceptable Worship (2): Cain and Abel

What was the difference between Cain and Abel’s offerings that caused God to accept one and reject the other?

This may be the wrong question. This question focuses on the sacrifice that each brought. Should the emphasis instead be on the hearts of the two worshippers? This way, the question would be, “What was the difference between Cain and Abel that caused God to accept worship from one and reject worship from the other?”

Before we answer this question, let us go to the word and to the testimony.

The only chapter in the Old Testament that mentions either of these men is Genesis 4. The New Testament names one or both in six verses, two of which are in the Synoptic Gospels with a similar “saying” of Jesus, but differing contexts.

The Offerings of Cain and Able (Genesis 4:3-16)

Cain and Abel were the first two sons born to Adam and Eve. When they grew up, Cain tilled the soil and Abel was a shepherd. In the course of time, each brought of the fruits of his labors as an offering to God. Cain brought fruit of the soil; “Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” (vv. 3-4)

Next we read that God accepted one of these but not the other. “The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.” God looked at the men and their sacrifices. On the basis of what He saw, He accepted one and rejected the other.

On the face of things, if we knew nothing more than this, we would be mystified. Each of the men brought an offering of what he had. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 8:12 states this principle: “For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.” This is a principle that resonates with our sense of justice and fair play. IF this principle applies to Cain and Able, we will still wonder about the criteria the LORD used to accept one man and his offering, but not the other. Perhaps the rest of the story will give some hint to the answer.

Cain reacted with anger, “and his face was downcast” (vv. 4b-5). Cain was angry and upset, so God talked 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. – verses 6-7.

There is no record of what, if anything, Cain said in reply to the LORD. The LORD’s challenge to Cain focused on doing what is right. His implication is that Cain had no reason to be angry and downcast in face because the LORD’s rejection was based on Cain himself.

What Cain did next was murderous. He invited Abel to go with him into the field. There, Cain attacked Abel and killed him. Murder was in his heart before it was in his action. His anger and downcast face revealed a rage in his heart that bore fruit in the field. Not only was he a murderer, Cain was also a liar. When God ask him where his brother was, Cain replied, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?

God then pronounced sentence on Cain. He was under a curse even harsher than that God placed on Adam when He threw Adam from the Garden of Eden. The earth that received Abel’s blood would no longer yield crops for Cain who would now become a restless wanderer on the earth. Yet, God protected Cain from those whom Cain said would kill him.

So, what was the difference in these two men? The story hints, but does not state, that the problem with Cain was in Cain himself. Let’s look at what the New Testament says to see if we can learn more.

New Testament Judgment of Cain and Able

Six verses in the New Testament mention these two brothers.

Speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus said,

I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” – Matthew 23:34-35. See also a similar passage in Luke 11:49-51.

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.

You have come … to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. – Hebrews 12:230-24.

Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. – 1 John 3:12.

Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion. – Jude 11.

That is the sum of the testimony of the Scriptures concerning the first siblings.

What does this teach us about why God accepted one and his sacrifice and rejected the other? Many different opinions exist as to why God did what He did.

  • God commanded a blood offering, but Cain offered fruit. [Yet, the Scripture does not say so. We may assume it, but if God so commanded, we have no record of it.]
  • Able offered the best, the first-born and the fat from the flocks, whereas Cain only offered some of the fruit of the field, not even the first fruit. [If so, no mention is made of this, either by God in his comments to Cain or by the writers of the New Testament who spoke of the two men.]
  • Able made a sin-offering, but Cain only made a thank-offering of fruit. [Again, the Scripture does not say so. Could those who think this read into Genesis 4 the commandments given to Israel in Leviticus?]

These explanations look at the sacrifice each brought. The comments of the New Covenant writers, and of God Himself, look at the contrasting hearts of the two men.

Jesus called Able “righteous,” as do the writers of Hebrews and 1 John. The blood of Abel, as it cried out from the ground, was the cry of a righteous man asking for judgment on the one who abused him. He was one who made his offering “by faith.”

Does this last fact mean God told him what offering to bring? Many believe so, but they assume much. God may have told Adam and his sons what sacrifices to bring, but we have no record of it.

Everything that does not come from faith is sin.” This quotation from Romans 14:23 is in a chapter that speaks of “disputable matters.” In fact, the earlier part of that verse addresses those who have qualms about some action: “The man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” This is not a matter of God’s revelation, but of our perception of what God requires. If I believe eating meat is sinful, but eat anyway (thus violating my conscience), this passage tells me that I sin against God, because I have done something I believe is sin. I sin when I act against what I believe God expects of me.

What do the New Testament writers say of Cain? Jude joins him to Baalam – who counseled Balak to tempt Israel to sin by worshipping Baal – and Korah, who led a rebellion against Moses. 1 John says Cain belonged to the evil one, that is the Devil. He, like the Serpent, was a murderer and his deeds were evil while his brother’s deeds were righteous.

God Himself spoke of Cain’s sinful heart and of sin crouching at the door seeking to master him. This is like the Devil who walks about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (see 1 Peter 5:8).


The sum of what Scripture says, as opposed to what we might assume, is that Cain had an evil heart of unbelief while Able acted righteously through faith. What is in the Scriptures about these two speaks of their hearts. Nothing is said there about the type or quality of their sacrifices. Their hearts made one accepted and the other rejected.

It is the same with us today, as it ever has been. When we come to God in faith with humble hearts, listening to Him, honoring Him – He will receive us. When we come with evil hearts, prone to anger that leads to murder (whether of  literal murder or of character assassination), He will not receive us.

Acceptable worship is worship that comes from a heart of faith that leads to righteousness. Our next post will discuss this principle as it appears in the prophets of Israel.

NEXT (3) – Acceptable Worship in the Old Testament Prophets

PREVIOUS (1) – Acceptable Worship: Awe Before God

Series Index


One Response

  1. […] jealousy led to the murder of Abel by his older brother. ( I discuss the nature of Cain’s sin here.) As a result, God banished him from the family of Adam and Eve and made him a wanderer and […]

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