Christ, Our Exceedingly Great Reward

This is the second post in a series responding to a sermon by a local Purpose Driven pastor. The first part, Justified by Faith, Apart from Works, may be of interest to readers for establishing context.

It is not, I think, entirely unreasonable to be alarmed by a sermon that teaches justification by tithing, no matter how affable the preacher:

But Abel offered the first fruits. He gave the best of what he had to God. And it was credited to him as righteousness. You see, tithing is not about impressing your friends. It’s not about satisfying some form of guilt. Tithing is about giving the best of what you have to a God who sees that as righteous.

The primary claim in this allusion to Hebrews 11:4 is that Abel’s offering of his best to God was credited to him as righteousness. In other words, this is an assertion that Abel was justified (that is, declared righteous) by his works.

My previous post, Justified by Faith, Apart from Works, demonstrated the biblical impossibility of such an interpretation, and emphasized the necessity of distinguishing between faith and works. I plan for my next post to look more closely at the Genesis 4 account of Cain and Abel. First though, we must understand Hebrews 11:4:

By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks.

If one squints at this verse in isolation just so, one might possibly understand how the preacher came to believe that Abel’s giving of his best was the grounds for his righteousness. However, putting the verse into its immediate context shows that the elders, including Abel, ‘obtained a good testimony’ by faith, not by works (emphasis mine):

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony.

By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.

By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks.

Heb. 11:1–4

Still, even with the knowledge that Abel was justified by faith, a faulty definition of faith will lead one astray. We saw in the previous post that the preacher in question did indeed possess such a faulty definition – one that included our works. His confusion as to the meaning of Heb. 11:4 thus remains explicable. Truly, preachers need a firm hold on the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith (that is, systematic theology) if they are to avoid such errors. Neverthless, a consideration of the wider context might have rescued him in this particular case.

Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ Immediately, we are compelled by the text to ask: What is it that we are hoping for? What is it that we do not see?

The preceding context is self-evidently Hebrews chapters 1–10, and those chapters answer our questions. They speak to us of Christ the Prophet, Priest and King. They reveal that Christ, our High Priest, intercedes for us with the Father, as one who is able to ‘sympathize with our weaknesses’ and was ‘in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin’ (Heb. 4:14–16). They tell of this sinless Man’s perfect once-for-all-time sacrifice of Himself, which achieved what the blood of bulls and goats could not (Heb. 10:4) – the cleansing of the saints from their sins, and their eternal perfection:

Previously saying, “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.” He takes away the first that He may establish the second. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.

But the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us; for after He had said before, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them,” then He adds, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin.

Heb. 10:8–18

The Old Testament ceremonies and sacrifices were the shadow; Christ – the Man who is God – is the substance (Heb. 8:3–6). He has fulfilled the Law. He has paid the punishment for our sins in full. Our sins are thus remitted, no longer held against the account of we who are trusting in Christ. There can be no further offering for sin, because Christ has once and forever accomplished all that he intended, and His perfect sacrifice was deficient not even in the least respect.

We, who have been given the gift of faith in this glorious work of Christ for us, now have boldness to draw near to the Father, with whom we have been reconciled by Christ, for ‘He who promised is faithful’:

Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. Heb. 10:19–23

Although there is great comfort for those who are trusting in Christ, those who reject the Good News and continue willfully in their sin (cf. Rom. 7:14–25) face God’s fierce judgment and punishment:

For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The LORD will judge His people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Heb. 10:24–31

Though in this life the faithful shall, like the Hebrews, experience persecutions, tribulations and sufferings (Heb. 10:32–36; 2 Tim. 3:12), nevertheless, our confidence is in the sure and perfect work that Christ has accomplished for us. The promise of God is certain, and Christ ‘is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them’ (Heb. 7:25). Let us therefore not lose heart when faced with troubles, for those who cling to Christ ‘have faith to the saving of the soul’:

Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise:

“For yet a little while,
And He who is coming will come and will not tarry.
Now the just shall live by faith;
But if anyone draws back,
My soul has no pleasure in him.”

But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe [have faith] to the saving of the soul.

Heb. 10:35–39

That is the context of Hebrews 11 – the assurance that we are not of those who draw back to destruction, for the promise of God to us in Christ is certain, and we are of those who have saving faith in Him (if indeed we are so trusting).

Suitably prepared, we may return to the opening verses of Hebrews 11:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony.

By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.

Heb. 11:1–3

Having understood the context, we now understand faith to be a confidence in Christ to salvation. Such faith receives and lays hold of all that God has promised in Him, though as yet unseen. Those who possess this confident trust are justified, because the One who has promised is faithful. And thus we begin to ‘comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height’ of ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’, even ‘the love of Christ which passes knowledge’ (Eph. 3:18–19).

As vv. 10:35–39 tell us, Christ is coming again, without delay and in a very, very little while. He brings with Him a reward (Rev. 22:12), for as He was for Abraham (Gen. 15:1), Christ Himself is our ‘shield’ and ‘exceedingly great reward’ (cf. Ps. 16:5–6). Our sure hope is in His life, His death, His resurrection – the merits of Christ for us, applied to us by the Holy Spirit through His word, thereby causing us to produce fruit to His glory. Our sins are washed away, we are justified, we have been – and are being – sanctified.

Faith (trust) must always be placed in something or someone, and the object of our justifying faith is none other than Christ Himself and the promise of God to us for His sake. We are the righteous by faith. And now in Christ we live and have eternal life, for ‘The righteous, as the result of faith shall he live.’, as R.C.H. Lenski translates Heb. 10:38. Jesus is the bread of life who came down from heaven, and He has promised that ‘He who eats this bread will live forever.’ (John 6:54–58)

When we come to Hebrews 11:4 with this understanding, we see that it is not at all Abel’s works that were the grounds for his righteousness. Rather, he was accounted righteous through his trust in the promise of God. He looked forward to the coming Messiah, confident in the promise of the first Gospel recorded in the Bible (Gen. 3:15). Abel’s offering did not make him righteous, but already being righteous by faith, his offering was pleasing and acceptable to God for the sake of Christ. The offering was not the cause, but the evidence of Abel’s righteousness, ‘God testifying of his gifts’.

Lenski renders Heb. 11:4 like this:

By means of faith Abel offered to God a superior sacrifice than Cain, by means of which testimony was given to him that he was righteous, God giving him testimony on the basis of his gifts; and by means of it, though having died, he still continues to speak.

He comments:

The writer starts with Abel and not with Adam because Genesis offers an example of God’s approving testimony in the case of Abel and not in the case of Adam or of Eve. What made Abel’s sacrifice to God πλείων, “more” in the sense of “superior,” than the sacrifice of Cain? Abel’s faith. That is stressed and not the fact that Abel offered a bloody and Cain a vegetable sacrifice, or that Abel offered firstlings and Cain not first fruits, on which some have laid stress by emphasizing these differences. The writer centers everything on Abel’s faith in contrast with Cain’s lack of faith.

Since the emphasis is placed on πίστει [faith], “by means of which” has “faith” and not “sacrifice” as its antecedent. Abel’s faith gained for him the approving testimony of God that is recorded in Gen. 4:4: “And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering” while he had no respect unto Cain and his offering (v. 5). Abel is thus the first of “the ancients” who were given God’s approving testimony in Scripture (v. 2). The matter is emphasized by the repetition of ἐμαρτυρήθη in the participle μαρτυροῦντος: “Abel was given testimony … God testifying.”

God never looks only at our “gifts,” he looks at what is back of them in the heart, whether there is faith, the confidence in things hoped for from him and his promises of grace, the conviction in regard to things unseen (v. 1). But when God pronounces his verdicts in public, testifies in public to men about any person who has faith, he stresses that person’s works, in this case Abel’s gifts. Jesus will do the same in the final, public judgment (Matt. 25:34, etc.).

R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of the Epistle of James (Columbus, OH: Lutheran Book Concern, 1938), 382-85.

Lenski’s comments are helpful, and he is absolutely right to reference the sheep and the goats discourse from Matt. 25. That bears directly on this whole discussion, and the parallel he draws is apt. (For more on this, see The Point of the ‘Sheep and the Goats’ Passage is Not that We Should Try Harder to Do Good Works.)

Having understood something of the glorious Gospel by examining Hebrews 11:4’s inspired commentary on Abel’s faith and sacrifice, we may now turn to the Genesis 4 account itself. That is the subject of my next post, Cain and Abel, Law and Gospel.

4 thoughts on “Christ, Our Exceedingly Great Reward

  1. Thank you for explaining this so well. I was taught that it was because Abel’s sacrifice was a blood sacrifice and Cain’s was not. I had already come to believe that it was not the content of the sacrifice, but the attitude of the heart of Abel that was more pleasing to God. Cain was angry, bitter, and his countenance had fallen. God asked him,” Why are you full of wrath? And why is your countenance fallen? ” Then God said, “if you do well, shall you not be accepted? And if you do not well, sin lieth (crouches) at your door. And unto you shall be his desire (sin desires to have you NIV), and you shall rule over him (but you must master it. NIV) ”

    Cain allowed his resentment to turn to anger and bitterness and God warned him of the consequences if he did not get his heart right. Cain did not master sin, did not resist it, but rather let it fester until it manifested in full blown murder of his brother.

    I could see that Cain’s heart was the issue with his sacrifice being unacceptable, but never saw the “faith” element in Abel’s sacrifice being accepted. Thank you for pointing that out, as the faith element is not mentioned in the Genesis version.

    Again, thank you for pointing out how good sounding preachers can be in error on the fundamentals of our salvation and faith.

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