A Sacrifice From the Heart
What makes our actions commendable to God?
Genesis 4 recounts the story of the first two children born in this world—Cain and Abel: “In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Genesis 4:3-5). It is this sacrifice to which the author of Hebrews refers when he tells us about Abel and his faith.
First of all, he tells us that it was “by faith” that Abel offered a better sacrifice than his brother. It was through this sacrifice that Abel was “commended as righteous.” It would be easy to get lost in speculative theories as to why God accepted Abel’s actions but not Cain’s. But we need to stay focused on the facts that are given—and, at the heart of what we’re told, this fact is unequivocal: the actions which God accepts are satisfactory not because of their material content but because they are an outward expression of a devoted and obedient heart.
The reason why Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable was not because he offered a beast as opposed to a vegetable. The distinction wasn’t between the sacrifices offered but between the sacrificers themselves. John Calvin, commenting on this, notes that Abel’s sacrifice was preferred to his brother’s for no other reason than “that it was sanctified by faith.”
This distinction concurs with what God communicates through the prophets. In Isaiah, for example, God says, “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly” (Isaiah 1:13). It’s as if God is saying, I’m not interested in all the bleating of the calves and the goats and the lambs. I yearn for obedience more than sacrifice (see 1 Samuel 15:22). If you want to rely on these works as a means of making yourself acceptable to Me, I want you to know it will never happen.
“Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6, NIV). Our good works are a result of our acceptance by God, not a means to acceptance. They are our response to His love, not a means of securing it. If your actions, like Abel’s, are ever to bring God glory and pleasure, it will be because they are an outward expression of your love for, devotion to, and personal faith in Him. So today, do not obey Him in order to be accepted by Him or to remain accepted by Him. It is faith that secures that. Equally, do not complacently fall short of obeying Him because you are already accepted by faith. Instead, enjoy your place in His affections and let His pleasure be the motivation for your obedience.
10Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Give ear to the teaching2 of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
12“When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?
13Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
14Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow's cause.
18“Come now, let us reason3 together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
19If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
20but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be eaten by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
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