The Power of Sin and the Grace of God
Topic: Default Passage: Genesis 4:1–4:16
Hello, if you have your Bibles, open them to Genesis 4, verses 1 through 16. Where we will be looking at the story of Cain and Abel. Now, this is a story that is all too familiar to us. Even if you did not grow up in church, this is a story that seems to transcend Christianity and is well known by most people. I mean, it’s right here at the very beginning of the Bible, and really, after here the familiarity of stories kind of drops off a bit.
Now, in our familiarity, we can miss some of the gravity of this story. If you were to move through these first four chapters of Genesis, slowly and carefully, you would be confronted with a striking story. You see, a creation that is good, good, very good. Then, you see God creating man and woman in such a beautiful way that the man, Adam, cries out in poetry! Man and woman dwelling together in unity with their God.
However, then things take a big turn. Man and woman reject their God in sin. God comes to them and curses the ground and the serpent. Then, the man and woman are cast out of the garden, out of the presence of God. It is in this setting that the story of Cain and Abel begins. The vertical relationship with God and man is fractured, and in this story, we see just how deeply this world has become broken: the horizontal is fractured - Cain kills Abel.
The fact that Cain and Abel are brothers is mentioned 7 times in the text, emphasizing how horrifying of an act Cain’s murder truly is. A brother murders his brother in the presence of the Lord. The movement from the very good of the creation a few pages earlier to here is haunting, and the reason is sin. Sin has ruptured the very fabric of this world. Cain’s relationship to his brother revealed something about his nature and it reveals something about us: we are sinful.
We know this in our own lives today. Think specifically just on your relationship with your siblings if you have them or your parents or your coworkers. We’ve seen sin in our own hearts lead to hatred and jealousy. We’ve seen sin in our own hearts make us do what we don’t want to do. The story of Cain and Abel is haunting, but we are susceptible to the same sin that caused Cain to murder. This nature that drives Cain to murder is the same nature that is in us.
Consider our own hearts. Are we not prone to lacking heartfelt worship? Are we not prone to anger and jealousy? So, the question that remains is what the heck are we to do? If sin is so powerful to compromise our worship and our hearts, then what hope do we have?
In Genesis 4:1-16, Moses, writing to the people of Israel soon to enter the Promised Land, reminds them and reminds us of sin’s powerful presence, but he also reminds us of God’s graciousness. Cain and Abel reminds us that because sin has rendered us helpless before God, we must place our faith in God alone. We will see this in three ways today: first, Cain’s offering, second, Cain’s sin, and third, Cain’s judgement.
First, Cain’s offering.
In contrast to the rest of chapter 4 of Genesis, the story of Cain and Abel starts off with a glimmer of hope. Adam and Eve have a son, which leads Eve to proclaim, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” The reason this birth brings so much hope with it is because of all that happens in the previous chapter.
You see, chapter 3 and chapter 4 are tied together by their common language and to be read together, and when seen together, the birth of Cain would seem like the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15, where God proclaims, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Seen in this light, Cain’s birth marks the start of the offspring of promise that will ultimately defeat evil. What hope and what joy accompanies his birth! In comparison, Abel’s birth in verse 2 is an afterthought.
However, as we know, things quickly begin to turn. Cain and Abel both bring offerings to the Lord, and we read, “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” The Lord accepts the offering of Abel, and he does not even acknowledge the offering of Cain. Now, why is that?
There has been much made of the offerings of Cain and Abel, seeking to offer explanations for why Abel’s was superior to Cain’s. A popular suggestion has been that Abel’s offering was acceptable because his was a blood sacrifice from the animals of the flock, while Cain’s was from the ground that God had cursed. Others have suggested that it is ultimately unknowable, and the explanation is unimportant.
But notice here, while it isn’t overt, we do get a hint. Little things, little statements in the Bible can show up in big ways. The key is that Abel offered “the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions,” as those would have been the best he had to offer. Recently I was eating some brisket from a 4 Rivers, and as people are going in front of me, I notice that they are picking around to get the piece that’s the least fatty. My wife is from Memphis, the land of BBQ, but even she doesn’t want any fat if she can help it. Now, I am going through the line, and I am doing the complete opposite. I am going for the fattiest, most unhealthy piece in there. I am from Mississippi after all. Why? Because that’s where all the flavor is. The fat portions are the best portions. Abel is giving from his best!
Here’s what we must see: Cain’s rejection is not arbitrary. The Lord does not simply reject Cain to reject Cain. We know this because he graciously comes to Cain, and he says, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” Cain has offended God with his offering. Cain is not accepted because Cain has not done well. Why?
Here’s why: the writer of Hebrews 11:4 tell us, “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts.” Abel’s sacrifice is accepted because he offered it by faith. He gave of his best because he trusted in the Lord. But Cain does not.
Cain’s heart was not a heart of faith. The difference between Cain and Abel’s sacrifice was not obvious, but God could see what we cannot see. Sin was present in his worship. God could see that in Cain’s heart his religious ritual had become a substitute for true obedience and holy living. This is proved by Cain’s anger boiling over to the point where he murders his brother. So, what are we supposed to take away from this?
Even if we think that we are worshipping the Lord, worship that only pays lip service to God is not worship at all. Worship that appears true and heartfelt on Sunday morning but fails to lead us to put away our anger, our lust, or any other sin is not true worship. Indeed, just as Cain killed Abel, false Christianity opposes real Christianity because it lies to the world. And the world sees this. The world can see when our lives don’t match our worship.
Jesus himself says that the Father is seeking those who worship and spirit and in truth. Various church traditions struggle with one or the other, but especially in the Reformed Church we are susceptible to worshipping God in truth, paying so close attention to how scripture guides our worship, and failing to worship in spirit, with our hearts and allowing it to transform us. As a church, this is something we must ask ourselves. What defines our worship?
The famous poet T.S. Elliot published a play in 1935 called Murder in the Cathedral, a title that appropriately applies to the story of Cain and Abel. The play concerns Thomas Becket, the Bishop of Canterbury in the Middle Ages, whose conflict with the King of England has left him knowing that the King will soon have him murdered. It is here that 4 tempters come and offer various ways of escape. The first three correspond to the temptations of Jesus: one offers him the ability to flee, the second offers him fame and safety, and the third offers him power to overthrow the king. But, the final tempter appeals to his pride and tells him to pursue martyrdom so that he might rule in glory and control the King that way.
Becket rejects them all, but pay attention to what he says, “Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain: temptation shall not come in this kind again. The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” The greatest treason to God, the utmost rejection of him, is to do the right deed for the sake of oneself, not God. In other words, idolatry. This is Cain’s worship, and this is how our worship is prone to be. Sin corrupts even our motives for worship. So, what are we to do?
The Lord’s caution to Cain is his caution to us, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” But, what does it mean to do well? The answer is seen in Abel’s offering. As we read earlier, Abel’s offering is accepted because he offers it by faith. He offers the best of his flock and the fat portions. Abel rests in God’s provision for life by not holding anything back. Worship that is acceptable to God is a worship that recognizes its own inability to bring life and relies totally on God’s graciousness for life. Worship that is acceptable to God is worship that is being done by faith.
If our right theology or our leadership or our giving or our disciplined lives is a substitute for the obedience of love and faith, then even these acts that we render to God are done as the right deed for the wrong reason. They are filthy rags to the Lord. But you see, the Lord pursues Cain – despite Cain’s offense to God – and he calls him to have faith. And he calls to us through this text to rely solely on him for life, to put away the improper motives that sin causes within us. In this, by faith we will pursue holy living, and we will worship God rightly.
But this is really a heart level issue. Sin corrupts our worship because sin has corrupted our heart.
This leads us to our second point: Cain’s sin.
So, despite Cain’s sinful offering, God pursues Cain, and he warns him. Genesis 4:6-7 say, “The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.’” God comes to him and fingers the issue immediately: there is sin in Cain’s heart. God says three things about this sin that I want us to look at.
One, God tells him that sin is crouching at the door. The image he is calling to our minds is one of a lion waiting to pounce. If you have seen the Lion King, the new one or the old one (preferably the old one), then you might can remember early in the movie Mufasa is teaching Simba to hunt, and Simba crouches down, slowly approaches, and pounces on Zazu. It’s funny and playful, and you don’t feel any danger. Later in the movie, Pumba is eating, and you see adult Nala, crouched, coming toward Pumba, and you feel, okay there is real danger here for Pumba. However, if you were in a safari, and you looked over and saw behind your friend a real lion, crouched, approaching then you would be freaking out. Why? Because you know there is danger. You know lions are dangerous, and they will kill and consume you. And what’s more frightening than the lion you see crouching? The lion you don’t see. God is pointing out the lion creeping behind Cain, crouching, waiting to pounce.
God is pointing out the lion creeping behind Cain, crouching, waiting to pounce. It is interesting that when Cain’s offering is rejected, it says that he was very angry, and his face fell. The phrase “his face fell” connotes not simply sadness but depression. Cain is furious and significantly let down by his rejection – which is interesting. It is interesting because as we have seen, Cain’s worship was not worship by faith, but a worship corrupted by sin, yet, despite improper motives, he feels slighted.
And although God points him to the sin seeking to consume him, Cain sees his problem being his brother, Abel. So, he kills him. This is what sin does: it causes us to shift blame or seek excuses for the things that we do. Sin crouches, and it causes to see others as the reason for our problems rather than the sin in our hearts. If only my child behaved better, I wouldn’t get so angry at them. If only my boss recognized how hard I worked, I wouldn’t gossip about them. If my spouse wasn’t such a jerk, I wouldn’t struggle with anger. Sin turns our eyes away from the danger in our hearts and towards everyone else, and in doing so it pounces and conquers us.
Two, God tells him that sin’s desire is contrary to him. You see, sin promises to make life easier – to be for us. Cain kills Abel because that is act is for Cain. It sets Cain ahead. It removes that which is holding him back. To the Israelites that Moses is writing this to, preparing to enter the Promised Land, their temptation would have been to enter the land and make treaties and intermarry with the inhabitants of the land because that is what would make them secure, that would help their cause more than anything, but God expressly tells them not to do those things because it would be a failure to rely on God’s provision and lead the Israelites to abandon God – which is exactly what happens. Though their sinful desires promised to set them ahead, it is ultimately contrary to them.
Sin promises to be for us, but it will always be contrary to us. How does lust promise to be for us? It promises immediate pleasure. What about anger? It promises to remove all barriers from before us. Half-hearted worship promises to allow us to be Christians and live however want.
You see, it’s the fact that sin is contrary to us that so divides us from others when we are consumed by it. Sin tells us that no matter who is in our way, whether they deserve it or not, they must be moved, used, or abused to get whatever we want. And this is flowing from the fact that we don’t think that God will provide for us whatever we need ourselves. Because if we believed that God was for us, then we wouldn’t need to take matters into our own hands.
This frustration with God leads us a fracturing of relationships with others. This is how John appropriates this story in the New Testament, writing, “ For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous.” When we give into sin, it divides us. It is contrary to us. It keeps us from brotherly love. It is no surprise that in Genesis 3 we see God and man’s relationship broken, and then the first story we get following this is a story of mean’s relationship being broken in the craziest way possibly. Sin promises to be for us, but it’s desire will always be contrary to us.
Three, God tells him that he must rule over it. But given the power and presence of sin, how can we rule over sin? I’m sure there are some of us in this room that have worked tirelessly for years hoping to rid ourselves of a besetting sin, a thorn in the flesh as Paul calls it.
In Romans 8:13, Paul himself writes, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” We can only rule over sin by faith. Disciplining ourselves is good, but if we are only trying to rule over sin by our own ability then it will conquer us. We must place our faith in God to rule over it.
In C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce there is a scene where one of the ghosts that is headed for the heavenly mountain is approached by an angel. The ghost has this lizard on his shoulder, representing lust, that whispers in his ear and causes him to give up his pursuit of the heavenly mountain. However, the angel offers to kill the lizard.
The ghostly man definitely wants him to kill the lizard, but he then begins to offer excuses. First, he claims the lizard is just going to sleep, so no need to kill it. Then, he doesn’t want it to be killed immediately, but maybe he can gradually kill it. Then, he wants to seek his doctors opinion before it is killed. But then he finally cries out for the angel to kill it, and the angel reaches out and kills it. Immediately, the man who was a ghost becomes solid, and he is transported to Heavenly mountain. However, it took divine help for the sin to finally be crushed.
Later in the book, the guide who is leading the narrator to the heavenly city remarks that it is not the most noble or the best they can be who get to go to the mountain. Rather, they must experience a type of death where their sin is killed. And he finally observes, “there are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”
For us to rule over our sin, as God tells Cain to do here, we must look to God and say, “Thy will be done.” Only by faith are we able to put to death sin because in faith we are relying totally on his strength to do what we cannot. You see, here’s the thing: sin’s desire is contrary to us, but by saying that, God is implying that he is for us. God is for our happiness. God is for our life. God wants best for us more than we want what’s best for us. Because he is for us, we can rest assured if we place our faith in him for power over sin, then we will rule over sin.
To seek our own path for ruling over sin is a path of destruction, in which our will is done. Sin is near in our hearts, and it is seeks to consume us. By faith, God gives us the strength to rule over.
However, while sin itself is a dangerous threat to us, the greatest threat it poses is the judgement it brings with it.
Third, Cain’s judgement.
Even though the Lord graciously comes to Cain to warn him of the sin in his worship and the danger of sin in his heart, Cain murders his brother. It’s here that we see truly how far the world has fallen. The Lord calls out to Cain and asks him where his brother is, and Cain sarcastically refuses to even acknowledge the wrong that he has done. In light of all other biblical evidence when the Lord confronts someone in their sin, Cain has the audacity to get some lip with the Lord. Sin has pounced and rules his heart. So, where does this leave him?
It leaves him under justice. In verse 10, the Lord tells Cain that Abel’s blood is crying out to him from the ground, and it cries out for justice. An innocent image bearer of God has been killed, and that cannot go unpunished. Justice must be done!
So, the Lord punishes him. Verses 11-12 read, “And now you are cursed from the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” The final verse of the section we are looking at today reads, “Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.”
The curse from the Garden, when sin initially enters the world is furthered here on Cain. While in Genesis 3, the ground is cursed and Adam must work it while it does not yield itself easily, Cain is cursed from the ground altogether. Moreover, while in the Garden, man and God dwelt together, Cain is cursed to be a fugitive and a wanderer on the Earth away from the presence of the Lord. By driving him from the presence of the Lord, he is being driven from the source of life and all that is good. There is truly no greater curse in the world. The reason he receives this curse is sin. Sin brings judgment because where sin is committed justice must be done.
You see, Cain did not simply kill his brother, Cain rejected the Lord as his ruler and his God. Cain decided that he would take matters into his own hands in his worship by not offering faithful worship. Cain decided that he would take matters into his own hands in his heart by not ruling over sin and killing his brother. Cain is brought under judgement because he has rejected the Lord in his sin. A god that does not deal with sin is not a god worth serving because that god is not a just god.
But here’s the thing: just as the story of Cain and Abel can lose how startling and haunting it is because of its familiarity, so can this: just as Cain’s sin brings judgment on himself, so does ours. Our sin rejects the Lord as our ruler and as our God. The sin in our heart and the sins we commit against others, are ultimately rejections of the rule of God in our lives, and that leaves us under the judgement of the wrath of God against us. Romans 1:18 says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” That’s the situation we find ourselves in, repeatedly placing blame and carrying out our own judgement on our brothers instead of where it rightfully belongs; our own flesh. But there is good news.
Hebrews 12:24 says that we 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.” You see, the blood of Abel cries out for justice, and so does Jesus. But here’s the difference: Jesus blood calls out for grace through justice. When he hears his punishment, Cain cries out, “My punishment is greater than I can bear!” And he is right. The punishment that we deserve, the punishment that is headed for us, is greater than we can bear, but the reason that Jesus’ blood cries out for grace is because he has borne our punishment for us. Justice is satisfied and grace is given.
In Genesis 4:1-16, God is gracious to Cain three times despite his escalating wickedness. God comes to Cain when his worship offends God. God comes to Cain when he murders Abel, and God promises to protect Cain even in his punishment. In none of these instances is Cain worthy of any grace, and in every one of these instances is Cain deserving punishment. But, God is gracious.
This same God reveals himself to us that he is gracious in that while we deserved punishment for what we have done, Jesus – who never sinned and did not deserve punishment – went to the cross and took on our punishment. Every bit of wrath that was coming for us, he took on himself. If we place our faith in him, then Christ’s death covers us. Sin has rendered us helpless before God, with no ability to save ourselves from the punishment we deserved. Sin is too powerful in our hearts.
But when we place our faith in Christ, we are relying on him only for life. We are recognizing that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, and we are living in light of what Christ has done. And you know what’s even better news? While Cain is driven from the presence of the Lord, if we place our faith in Christ then we will dwell in the presence of the Lord forever. We will see him. We will worship him, and sin will no longer be present in our hearts.
We should not be lulled to sleep by the starting and haunting nature of the story of Cain and Abe due to familiarity. It is a warning to us to recognize the sin in our lives and the threat it poses to our lives. But sin does not get the last word in the story of Cain and Abel. Sin is present in Cain’s offering, so it is rejected. Sin is powerful in Cain’s heart, so he murders. Sin brings judgement on Cain, so he is punished, but sin does not get the last word - not in the story of Cain and Abel and not in our lives. Christ gets the last word when he declares, after taking the full wrath of God for our sins, “it is finished.” There, at the cross, sin is defeated. It has no power in our lives. It has no control over our destiny. The call of the story of Cain and Abel, is to, by faith, rest in the grace of God in the death of Christ to live in light of his victory until the day when we see him face to face.