Posted by: St. Mark Lutheran Church | June 21, 2010

Sermon on Hebrews 11:4

Downloadable Version

Faith Makes the Difference

In the name of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

What was the difference between Cain and Abel? Did Cain bring just some crops, while Abel offered a bloody sacrifice? Did Cain bring leftovers, Abel firstfruits? We’re actually not told where Cain got his offering from. It might have been firstfruits. Did Abel go first and Cain second? Actually, Genesis lists the offering of Cain first. At first glance, God seems to play favorites. He seems to arbitrarily decide to favor Abel over Cain, even though he was the very first child born in the world. But for all that, it’s the younger son, Abel, who’s favored, who did what seems so mysteriously right while Cain did what was wrong.

How was Cain to know what [was] right? Hebrews 11 reveals the answer: 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. Faith made the difference. Abel trusted in the promises of Christ, and that faith exercised itself in a deed – a loving, cheerful offering to God. Cain did not trust in the promises of God, in a coming Savior, and his lack of trust exercised itself – in a gift given without faith. And worse, when called to account for his sinful act, Cain grew angry. So angry that he lured his brother to a lonely spot in the fields and committed the first murder. So angry, that when the LORD asked him about his deed, He covered it up. Yes, faith makes all the difference. Abel’s faith became his eulogy: By faith he still speaks, even though he is dead. Cain’s lack of faith became his. He is known to us now as a murderer, the example of one who commits murder in his heart, the epitome of selfishness, greed, and murder referred to in Jude: These men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals – these are the very things that destroy them. 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. Yes, faith makes all the difference. Between pleasing and not pleasing God; between righteousness and condemnation.

As Lutherans, we spend a lot of time saying, “I’m saved by the blood of Jesus and not by my works!” And that’s true. But we forget that good works are necessary, just not necessary to salvation. Works do not, can not, and have never saved someone from sin, death, and hell. Works do not, can not, and have never created faith, strengthened faith, or preserved faith. But still, they’re necessary. When Christ comes to judge the world, what will He point to? Jesus says, Those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. Works don’t save us. But works give evidence that we are saved. Works give evidence of our trust in God’s promises of a Savior. The works we do testify about our faith, and allow Christ to testify about us. Without works, there’s no evidence of faith. The Formula of Concord puts it this way, referring to circumcision: [C]ircumcision was added so that (a) Abraham might have a written sign in his body, (b) admonished by this, he might exercise faith, and (c) by this work he might also confess his faith before others and, by his testimony, invite others to believe. “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice” (Hebrews 11:4). Because he was just by faith, the sacrifice that he made was pleasing to God. It is not that he merited forgiveness of sins and grace by this work, but he exercised his faith and showed it to others, in order to invite them to believe.

Without faith, though, all our good works are the wrong kind of works. Soon, we’ll hear Hebrews say: Without faith it is impossible to please God. The best good deeds, apart from faith, are garbage. They’re sins. If the giving is not cheerful and from faith, it’s Cain’s sacrifice. If the help offered to a brother or sister is not a living sacrifice of your body coming from faith, it’s Cain’s sacrifice. If the deed is done to make sure God has something to point to when you stand before the pearly gates, it’s Cain’s sacrifice. It’s worthless. It’s despicable. It is death to you, because you’re living by works, not by grace. Acts done apart from faith, acts done not based on Christ’s love for you, are not acts God wants. Listen to Solomon in Proverbs: The LORD deplores the sacrifices of the wicked, but the prayers of the upright please Him. And again, The sacrifice of the wicked is detestable – how much more so when brought with evil intent!

This isn’t just addressed to the non-Christian, who, like the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel cut themselves and dance and scream hoping to please a non-existent deity. This isn’t just addressed to the Roman Catholic praying his rosary, doing works of satisfaction, or buying an indulgence. This is addressed to you. A work done “because I have to…” or “because he is…” or “so that people won’t look down on me” isn’t pleasing to God. Sacrifices offered and given driven by any motivation but faith in Christ aren’t pleasing to God. Seeing my sister’s better work driven by faith, and responding with anger, jealousy, murderous rage, or spiteful gossip, is not pleasing to God, because anyone who hates his brother is a murderer. Offering excuses, lies, or cover-ups, quickly running to do some perfunctory good deed when confronted, is not pleasing to God. Blaming others for your woes, when you weren’t acting from faith, when you’re shocked that your sinfully motivated good deeds aren’t rewarded a hundred-fold by the LORD, is not pleasing to God. Doing deeds with your lips, while your heart is far from it, is not pleasing to God. “But always, I’m corrupted by these things,” you cry out. Yes. As long as we dwell in this sinful world, we are ever and always tainted by our sinful nature, which we will not shed until eternity with Christ. But again, faith makes the difference. Hear the Formula of Concord: Although in this life the good works of believers are imperfect and impure because of sin in the flesh, nevertheless they are acceptable and well pleasing to God. However, the Law does not teach how and why the good works of believers are acceptable. It demands a completely perfect, pure obedience if it is to please God. But the Gospel teaches that our spiritual offerings are acceptable to God through faith for Christ’s sake. In this way Christians are not under the Law, but under grace. For by faith in Christ the persons are freed from the Law’s curse and condemnation. Their good works, although they are still imperfect and impure, are acceptable to God through Christ. Because, in so far as they have been born anew according to the inner man, they do what is pleasing to God. They act not by coercion of the Law, but by the renewing of the Holy Spirit, voluntarily and spontaneously from their hearts. However, they still have a constant struggle against the old Adam.

And now we run to Christ. Because faith doesn’t just make the difference between whether the good deeds I do are pleasing to God or not. Before we can even consider that, we must know that faith makes the difference between righteousness and condemnation. Our author says, By faith he was commended as a righteous man. Abel’s sacrifice didn’t get him into heaven. But it allowed God to testify, “Here is one of my saints, declared holy and righteous by Me, on account of my Son’s atoning sacrifice, through faith in that sacrifice.” Abel’s sacrifice revealed him to be a righteous man, because it came from faith that already existed. His faith in action commended him. And it still speaks to us today, so that we pray as we did in our collect: Guide us through our earthly lives that we do not lose the things you have prepared for us in heaven.

We beg for help. And it is Christ, who offered a sacrifice better than Abel’s. Abel’s sacrifice was declared righteous on account of faith. Likewise Abel. He was not righteous. His righteousness was credited to him on account of Christ. But Christ needs no help. His sacrifice did not need to be declared righteous (though it was, by His resurrection), it was righteous. Christ was righteous on His own account, like us in every way, yet without sin. Hebrews says: 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. Jesus’ blood is better, because it purifies us from all sin. Jesus death is better, because it defines love: This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. Jesus blood, and faith in that blood, makes all the difference. He is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. Whoever believes in Him will never perish. It’s the difference between heaven and hell, between the sacrifices of Abel and Cain. Paul says, Christ love compels us, because we are convinced that One died for all, and therefore all died. And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died for them.

Abel does still speak to us. Scripture records his faith, evidenced by his deeds, for us to see, just as the works of Jesus are as well. He speaks to us. And those words change our hearts. He makes the difference, so that we, by His grace, through faith, are Abel, not Cain. Amen!


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