We evangelicals don’t burn animals on altars, but we still like the language of offerings. I was thinking recently on the cheesy and sincere “offerings of praise” during congregational singing that are occasionally encouraged. They are always framed as a good thing, holy even.
So, how are we to evaluate if any particular “offering” is good or not? Should we evaluate it? Is showing up enough, is sincerity enough? Lifting our hands, thanking God…this is good, right?
In Genesis 4, both Cain and Abel bring an offering to God. God accepts Abel and his offering, and has no regard for Cain and his. I’ve read this in the past and wondered about it. After all, in later Israelite religion, offerings of the land, like Cain’s, are commanded, so it can’t just be that produce makes God unhappy. What’s the difference? Does the difference mean anything for us?
What's the Difference?
While reading The Person and Work of Christ by B.B. Warfield, this question was raised for me again. Warfield argued that the “by faith” element for Abel, brought up in Hebrews, seems to be the key ingredient of difference, that “what seems to be implied is that Cain’s offering was an act of mere homage; Abel’s embodied a sense of sin, an act of contrition, a cry for succor, a plea for pardon.”
What’s striking is that in some sense, Cain’s offering was legit—what I mean is, it’s not like he was totally blowing off God. He recognized God as deserving an offering, and he brought it. From this you can draw a troubling conclusion: the act of offering, even in the direction of the true God, can be deficient. What’s the deficiency? It stops at homage, it stops at honor. It does not proceed all the way to confession of sin, of unworthiness.
It turns out, if you only have half the ingredients, you can’t make the full cake. You need recognition of God and of self, in truth. We need to say God is God, and we are not, and that an atoning sacrifice is needed to right the relationship between us. These first sacrifices are offered “side by side in the earliest Hebrew tradition,” making their contrast explicit.
Abel’s sacrifice is a precursor to Jesus Christ. When we pray in Jesus’s name, it should be to bind up our “offering of praise” specifically in agreeing that without his death to substitute for mine, I’ve got nothing sufficient to bring. Without my evil being covered, my religious activity, even when pointed in the true God’s direction, is useless. If over time my church, my own ministry, forgets the centrality of Jesus’s ransom, stops stating it explicitly and often, our praise could drift to meaninglessness. We could start preaching about a “God who is crazy about you” without equipping for all the implications of that, like holiness.
In the aftermath of God’s lack of regard for Cain’s offering, Cain gets angry—but he doesn’t get dismissed. God doesn’t declare that Cain blew his one shot. He approaches Cain and speaks of a better way—implicitly, that Cain can have access to Abel’s way. But God makes it clear that there is no neutral; to not choose the offering that pleases God is to link arms with sin, even if that sin looks itself like an offering.
God speaks to all of us like this. We want to do our duty to God, to bring an offering, to recognize him. And because of the perfect sacrificial offering of Jesus, we have a perfect and permanent way to approach him; we don’t have to invent our own, and indeed we shouldn’t. Even and especially if something “feels” holy or right, we should check it against what God has commended.
Let’s not neglect that which is perfectly regarded by God, the offering of Jesus. Instead, let us embrace it, and all that it means.