Cypress Valley Bible Church
We read about Cain in Genesis 4:
Now the man had relations with his wife Eve. And she conceived and gave birth to Cain. And she said, “I’ve gotten a man child with the help of the Lord.” And again, she gave birth to his brother Abel (Gen 4:1-2a).
In the NT, Jesus told us something significant about Abel as it related to Cain. Jesus told us in Luke 11 about the blood of all the prophets, from the blood of Abel until the blood of Zechariah (Luke 11:50-51). The point here is that Jesus told us that Abel was a prophet. And as a prophet, he had a message. That was the message of all the prophets. We know the message of all the prophets because Peter told us in Acts 10, also recorded by Luke, in which we read, “All the prophets witness that through His name whoever believes in Him will receive forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43).
Now, from that statement by Peter we learn that all the prophets witness that through His name—and from the context, he is talking about Jesus—whoever believes in Him will receive the forgiveness of sins. This means to believe in Him for everlasting life. And with that comes the forgiveness of sins. So, if we put Abel in that verse, Abel witnessed that through the name of Jesus whoever believes in Him for everlasting life will receive forgiveness of sins.
II. WAS CAIN A BELIEVER?
We can certainly assume that Cain heard the saving message through his brother Abel, who was a prophet proclaiming that message. Cain likely heard the saving message from his parents,2 but certainly, through his brother, because his brother was a prophet.
Thus, the question is: did Cain believe that message? Did Cain believe in the coming Messiah for everlasting life? Was he born again? I believe the answer to that question is seen in the evidence found in the story of Cain. I think the evidence is very conclusive that Cain was a believer who had everlasting life. He was a born again, regenerate child of God who tested the limits of God’s love.
III. CAIN VERSUS ABEL
Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. So, it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground…The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering He had no regard (NASB; Gen 4:2b-3, 4b-5a).
I think “regard” means that God was pleased with Abel’s offering and not pleased with Cain’s offering. Of course, the question is why would God be pleased with one offering and not the other? However, the text does not say just with the offering, but with the men themselves. It says Abel and his offering and Cain and his offering. What was the difference between the two offerings?
Some have suggested that the problem with Cain’s offering was that it was not a blood offering, while Abel brought an animal, and there probably would have been shed blood.3 Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground. Some have said that that was an insufficient offering which displeased God. However, we know that later in the Bible, God commanded grain offerings, so there certainly was not anything wrong with a grain offering. It was an acceptable offering before God.4
Some have suggested that Abel brought the firstlings of the flock and the fat of the flock. It does not say that Cain brought the first fruits of his harvest.5 But we do not know that Cain did not bring the first fruits. It simply does not say.
All the speculation about why God regarded one and not the other is completely cleared up, for me, in the New Testament in 1 John 3:12 in which John tells us about Cain: his works were evil and his brother’s righteous. That was the problem. It was not the offering. It was the life behind the offering. Cain was living an evil life when he brought his offering to God. Abel was living a righteous life when he brought his offering to God. And that is why Cain’s offering was hypocritical in the eyes of God.
David’s words in Psalm 51 are relevant here in what we read about Cain:
You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart. These, O God, You will not despise (Ps 51:16b-17 NKJV).
Certainly, Abel had a broken and contrite heart over his sin when he brought his offering to God. But Cain did not.6
Cain was living a life of evil works when he brought his offering to God. Cain did not have the sacrifice of a broken spirit or a broken and contrite heart over his sin.7 And because of what we read in 1 John 3, we can now better understand what is meant in Genesis 4. The Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering, but for Cain and his offering He had no regard.
IV. CAIN KNEW THE REASON
It is very likely, if not certain, that God communicated that to these two men: “Abel, I have regard for your offering, and, Cain, I do not have regard for your offering.”
The reason God had to have communicated this is because of what we read next, that Cain became very angry, and his countenance fell (Gen 4:5). Notice it does not say, “and Cain became angry.” It says that Cain became very angry, and his countenance fell. You could see it all over his face. He was extremely mad. Right there we see that Cain was truly testing the limits of God’s love. He was testing the limits of God’s love when he brought these hypocritical offerings, living an evil life and then coming and saying, “I want to worship You.” That was testing the limits of God’s love. Then, when God said, “I am not pleased with your offering,” he became very angry.
With whom was he angry? Certainly, he was angry with his brother because he was jealous of his brother. But it is very likely that he was also angry with God. God was playing favorites towards his brother and had disregard for him.
V. REACHING OUT TO CAIN
As you read in the verse, he was very angry in his heart, and you could see it all over his face; God went to Cain and asked, “Why are you angry? Why has your countenance fallen?” (Gen 4:6). Was God asking this because He did not know the answer to the question? Of course not. God knew the answer to the question. Why, then, would He ask Cain the question? I believe it is because God loved Cain and was trying to illicit from Cain confession of sin. He was trying to get Cain to talk about what was going on in his life, hoping that maybe Cain would say,
Well, Lord, you know that I guess that I should not be angry. I know that I am living an evil life. I understand why my offering isn’t acceptable to You. God, I am really convicted, even as You ask me the question. Please forgive me for the way I have been living and for what I have done and for being angry with You and for being angry with my brother.
But that was not how Cain responded, as we will see. But God went on to explain to him and tried to plead with him, “Cain, if you do well, will you not be accepted?” (Gen 4:7). And of course, the obvious answer to the question was, “Yes. Cain, if you do well, you will be accepted.”
This is a statement that I find hard to believe God would say to an unregenerate person, someone who did not have eternal life, that had never believed for eternal life. God would not say to this unregenerate person, “You know, if you do well, you will be accepted.”
It would not make sense, certainly in terms of salvation, for God to say to an unbeliever, “If you do well, I will accept you into My family,” let alone, “I will accept you into fellowship.” But He would say it to a believer. He says that to believers every day. He says it to you and me every day. “If you do well, you will have fellowship with Me.8 If you confess known sin, I will forgive you, and you will have fellowship with me.”
Of course, with Cain it was more than just confession. It was repentance. He needed to confess and repent in order to be accepted into fellowship with God his Father.9 And then, God went on to say it in an even stronger way: “If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door and its desire is for you” (Gen 4:7). God was saying,
Cain, if you persist in the path you are going down with these evil works, these hypocritical offerings, and this anger you have in your heart towards your brother and towards Me, sin is crouching at the door like an animal, and sin will pounce on you, and it will get worse and worse. You will sink deeper and deeper into the depths of your sin.
And then God said in that last line, “But you should rule over it” (Gen 4:7). “Regarding sin, you should rule over this sin.” And I am certain in my own mind that God would never say that to an unbeliever, to an unregenerate person who did not have everlasting life. Unregenerate, unsaved, people cannot rule over sin.10 That is their problem. They need eternal life, and then they need to call upon God to give them the strength and power to overcome sin in their daily lives.11
This evidence seems conclusive to me that God was speaking to His child who was in danger of sinking deeper and deeper into sin but encouraged him by saying, “you should rule over it. You have the power to rule over it. You are a child of God. You have My life, and you have Me to help you. You can rule over this sin.”
VI. CAIN’S RESPONSE
I am sure Cain heard God because we read next that he went and told his brother Abel (Gen 4:8a). I would have liked to have been there for that conversation, to listen to what he said. But we should certainly assume that he told Abel what God had told him.
Cain went and told his brother Abel. What else could he tell him except what he had just heard from God? “Abel, you know, God told me that He is not happy with me. He is pleased with you, but He is not pleased with me. He does not like the way I am living, and He wants me to change.” Something like that.
Since Abel was a prophet, I am guessing that Abel might have had some words for him, such as, “Cain, that is what I have been telling you all along. I have been trying to get you to turn from your sin and repent and to come back into fellowship with God.” Whether Abel said that or not, we know what Cain said because he told Abel what God had told him.
Most of you know what happened next. It was horrible. “And it came about, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and killed him” (Gen 4:8). You talk about testing the limits of God’s love.
We already read that Cain had evil works. We read that he came to God with this hypocritical offering. We read that when God called him out for it, he had anger in his heart. And now, he had killed his brother. Talk about testing the limits of God’s love.
VII. STILL REACHING OUT TO CAIN
But the Lord did not run away from Cain. The Lord ran to Cain. The Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” (Gen 4:9). Did God ask him that question because he did not know where Abel was? No, He knew where Abel was. He asked the question for the same reason He asked him the question before (4:6). “Talk to me about this, Cain.” God was hoping that Cain would be so convicted by what he had done that he would say,
Well, Lord, I killed him. He is dead in the field. God, what have I done? Forgive me for the evil that has risen in my heart. You said that sin was crouching at the door, and it has consumed me. I have had enough. Please, Lord, please forgive me. Restore me to the fellowship I had with You.
That is why God asked him the question.
Did Cain respond in the way God had wanted him to? Hardly. He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9). You talk about testing the limits of God’s love. He had evil works. He had a hypocritical offering. He had anger in his heart when God called him out for it. He murdered his brother, and when God tried to get him to talk about it, to admit it, He lied to God: “I do not know.” And in my opinion, he became sarcastic with God. “Am I my brother’s keeper? You are God. You know where He is. And if You do not, go find him Yourself.”
I know I am elaborating. But I see sarcasm in Cain’s statement, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Talk about testing the limits of God’s love. But God did not run away from Cain. He kept coming towards him, and God said,
What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground. Now you are cursed from the ground that has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. And when you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you. You will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth (Gen 4:10-12).
Was God saying, “You have pushed through the limits of My love for you, Cain. I have had it with you. And this is my pronouncement upon you”? Did God say, “I don’t love you anymore”? No, it is the exact opposite. What we read in those words is an expression, the very expression, of God’s love for Cain. The writer of Hebrews says, “Those whom the Lord loves He disciplines” (Heb 12:6). What God was saying is, “You are going to get a good dose of discipline, Cain, because I am trying to get your attention. I am trying to break you. And I want this to break you.” And further:
When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength. Your life is going to be miserable. And it needs to be, to get your attention. You are going to be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth. You are not going to have rest. You are not going to have peace. You are not going to be fruitful in what you want to do. It is going to be bad, Cain. But it is what you need.
And Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to bear” (Gen 4:13). This is the translation found in the majority of English translations. To me, what that implies is one of two things. “This is not fair.” “This is too much. What you have put on me is too great. I cannot bear this because of the excessive punishment you have put on me.”
Another way to think about what this means would be to see Cain as feeling sorry for himself by saying this was more than he could bear. “I do not know if I can stand this. This is just too much for me.” It is as if he wanted God to feel sorry for him. That is what I gleaned from this translation.
VIII. A DIFFERENT TRANSLATION
As I indicated earlier, that is the translation of the majority of English versions. There is a small minority translation that I think presents a better way to look at it. I will walk you through that translation by first looking at the Hebrew words. “Punishment” is the Hebrew word āwōn. And the word “bear” is the Hebrew word nāsā.
Those words for “punishment” and “bear” are translated in another passage. I want to go there because it stands out to me how these words are used in Psalm 32, David’s psalm of repentance: “I acknowledge my sin to You and my iniquity [āwōn]. I have not hidden, and You forgave [nāsā] the iniquity [āwōn] of my sin” (Ps 32:5).
I want to examine the last two lines so that we can focus on those words—“You forgave [nāsā]the iniquity [āwōn] of my sin.” You see that word āwōn? It is used 229 times in the Old Testament. One hundred and eighty-nine of those 229 times, it is translated “iniquity.” Eighty-three percent of the time it is found in the OT, it is translated “iniquity.”12
The word nāsā is translated “forgave” here in Ps 32:5; it is used many times in the Old Testament, and in the English translation it is often rendered “forgave.” Thus, as we see David’s use of those terms when he was repenting of his sin, let’s take those words back and think about them in light of Gen 4:13.
If we take the words we saw in Psalm 32, we would read Gen 4:13 as, “My iniquity is too great to forgive.” I believe this is the translation which best reflects the intended meaning of what Cain was saying. “My iniquity is too great to forgive.” I want to repeat it the way I think Cain said it. “My iniquity is just too great.”13 This rendering is found in three English translations: the Aramaic Bible in Plain English, the Brenton Septuagint translation, and the Douay–Rheims Bible. There are at least these three English versions which translate it in the way I am suggesting: “My iniquity is too great to forgive.”14
And with this translation, I believe we can say that Cain was saying, “I am so wrong. I am such a sinful man. What I have done is so bad. It is too great for You to forgive. I have pushed past the limits of Your love, and I know it.”
And I think that what he went on to say emphasizes that thought even more: “Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground. From Your face I will be hidden” (Gen 4:14).
Cain was saying, “I have pushed past the limits of Your love. I know that I can never have fellowship with You again. You can never forgive me for what I have done. Your face will be hidden from me.” And not only that, but he went on to say, “I will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth and whoever finds me will kill me” (Gen 4:14). And I believe he had in mind, “And I deserve it.” “I deserve to be a fugitive. I deserve to be a wanderer. I deserve to die for what I have done, because I have pushed past the limits of Your love.”
Now, I want to suggest this morning that that was exactly what God was looking for. That was exactly what God was trying to bring out of Cain: a broken spirit and a contrite heart, a heart of confession and a heart of repentance before God.
And I think we are hearing it and seeing it from Cain in these words. I think that not only because of what we have read so far, but also because of what God said next. “And the Lord said to him, ‘Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold.’ And the Lord set a mark on Cain so that no one finding him would kill him” (Gen 4:15). That mark—I do not know what it looked like—but it was a mark that when people saw it, they would not see a mark of guilt or shame. They would see a mark of God’s love and God’s protection and God’s fellowship on Cain.15
Cain had a story to tell. It was from that day forward. It was a story that I am sure he was eager to tell people, if they would listen. His story could be summarized in two statements. Cain would say,
I tested the limits of God’s love. But I want to tell you. God’s love has no limits. I am a testimony to the fact that God’s love has no limits. If you think you have pushed past the limits of God’s love, look at me. I am proof positive that God’s love has no limits.16
I am sure Cain carried that testimony and proclaimed that testimony as long as he lived. And his testimony is still with us today. Cain is still speaking to us today. We all need Cain’s testimony, for every one of us has tested the limits of God’s love.
And even as we acknowledge that, you can ask yourself whether you have done anything as bad as Cain. Probably not, but maybe. Maybe there is a murderer in the room. I know that many are murderers in their hearts. We all have tested the limits of God’s love. And we all know people—born again people—who think they have pushed past the limits of God’s love. They need to hear about Cain. They need to know about Cain.
Cain did not have the examples we have. He did not know anything about David and how he committed adultery and murder. He did not know anything about Moses and how he committed murder. He did not know anything about Peter denying Christ. The only thing he knew was that his mom and dad had eaten from a forbidden tree. Yet God still loved them. But Cain had no model to know if God would still love a man who would murder his brother. He had to learn it as the first one who would commit such a sin, a crime like that, and would learn how true it is that God’s love has no limits. People need to know about Cain, and they need to know this truth: God’s love has no limits.
1 This was originally given as a spoken, plenary session at the 2021 Grace Evangelical National Conference held at Coppell Bible Fellowship, Coppell, TX. The title of the conference was Genesis: The Beginning. The audio version can be heard on the GES website, www.faithalone.org. Footnotes and section markers have been added by the editor. Used by permission.
2 Ross indicates that when Eve gave birth to Cain she was “full of hope and faith” (Gen 4:1). Her name for him and the faith she expresses seem to point back to the promise of the Messiah in Gen 3:15. This supports Bryant’s view that she would have spoken of this promise to her son Cain. See Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 156.
3 The view that God wanted a blood sacrifice has a long history. See, John Skinner, Genesis (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1910), 105-106. With Bryant, Sailhamer rejects this common view. He points out that the reason for the rejection of Cain’s offering is not that it was bloodless. Both Abel and Cain’s offerings are, in themselves, acceptable. Moses writes that both are “offerings” and not sacrifices. See, John H. Sailhamer, “Genesis,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis–Leviticus, eds. Tremper Longman, III, and David E. Garland, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 97.
4 See, for example, Leviticus 2; 6:14-23.
5 This, too, has a long history. See, H. D. M. Spence-Jones, “Genesis,” The Pulpit Commentary (London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), 78. Spence-Jones bases this upon Exod 13:12.
6 Sailhamer seems to agree with Bryant’s discussion about the problem with Cain’s offering, in contrast to the reasons often given. The issue was one of the heart, not the sacrifice itself. In the account of Cain and Abel, the reader can see the “kind of heart that lies behind an unaccepted offering.” Sailhamer says it is a matter of worship. See, Sailhamer, Genesis, 97.
7 Ross also supports this notion when he points out that Abel went “out of his way” to make his offering to God, while Cain felt he had to discharge “a duty.” The kind of offering is not the issue, but the attitude in which it is offered is. See, Ross, Creation and Blessing, 157.
8 Editor’s note: Here Bryant makes the Biblical distinction between having eternal life and having fellowship with Christ. All believers have eternal life, but not all believers have fellowship with Christ. Fellowship is the result of the believer’s walking in obedience. See, Zane C. Hodges, Absolutely Free!: A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1989), 131-34.
9 Editor’s note: Bryant correctly points out that there is a difference between the confession of sin and repentance. A believer confesses sin when it comes to his attention through the Word of God. Repentance is turning from a lifestyle of sin after the believer has become entangled in it. See, Zane C. Hodges, The Epistles of John: Walking in the Light of God’s Love (Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 1999), 63.
10 Editor’s note: This is an important point Bryant makes. His entire presentation is centered around the fact that Cain was a believer. But many reject that view because they say Cain is pictured as such a terrible sinner. However, the inconsistencies in that view are on display. Brown, for example, agrees with Bryant that Cain’s problem was jealousy, and this sin was trying to control him. Cain was told by God to fight back. But Brown then says that Cain’s willful sin shows he is an unbeliever. See, Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1982), 442. As Bryant points out, God would never tell an unbeliever he needs to fight against jealousy. The unbeliever does not have the spiritual resources to fight against sin.
11 Speiser does not speak about whether Cain had eternal life, but he does say that the point here is clear. Cain could master the power of sin. He could have mastery over his sinful impulses. See, E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 33.
12 This is discussed in any Biblical Hebrew lexicon. For one example of the various possible translations of these words, see R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 600, 650.
13 Editor’s note: Here Bryant inflected his voice to express a person who is contrite or sorry over his sin.
14 Matthews points out the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the OT, translated these words in this way (Kenneth A. Matthews, Genesis 1–11:26: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scriptures, vol. 1a [Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 1996], 276). The early Jewish Rabbinic literature did also but put them in the form of a question (b. Sanh. 101b). Luther, the early Reformer, also translated the words in this way. It needs to be said, however, that while he thinks translating these words in this way is legitimate, he prefers the majority view.
15 Arnold agrees. In Gen 4:15-16, after Cain murdered his brother, God dealt graciously with him. He provided for Cain’s future. See Bill T. Arnold, Genesis (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 80.
16 One can compare this picture of God’s infinite love and grace with the view, often associated with Cain, that he was an unbeliever and expelled from God’s presence. Ross comments that when God expelled Cain, Cain had to “sever all relationship with the Lord.” See, Ross, Creation and Blessing, 156.