Meditations on Sacrifice

ImageWe learn much about faith and sacrifice in the account of Cain and Abel, for we know from the Epistle to the Hebrews that “by faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts.” (Heb. 11:4)

But what was Abel’s faith? Did he just believe more strongly than Cain that God would accept his offering? What was it that Abel believed that made his sacrifice acceptable? Wasn’t it that he trust in the sermon of his father, Adam, that the Lord God would provide a savior who would crush the head of the serpent and so undo the curse of death brought into the world through sin? What other sort of faith is there? Lots of folks say they have faith, but what they mean is a pie-in-the-sky hope that things will get better or that God will love them or that God won’t punish them for their sins. For sinful humanity faith is often nothing more than strong desire for something hoped for. Godless faith is the antithesis of Godly faith. For godly faith isn’t a desire for something hoped for, godly faith is the assurance of what is promised, which then becomes that thing we long for. Faith is the conviction of things unseen, not the really strong desire for things unseen, but the conviction.

Faith, then, is not a wistful longing for what might be or what could be, but a firm footing on what is. So that Abel had a firm footing on what was promised: a savior. It was in this faith, believing God’s word preached by Adam, that Abel offered his offering. Which means that Abel had no notion that his offering was in fact his salvation, but offered the first-fruits in thanksgiving for the promises of God in the Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

On the other hand, Cain had no such faith in the promises of God but was faithless. He assumed that because he offered a sacrifice to God, God would be pleased with him and receive him. How like we are to Cain! We so often offer God our time or our money or our thoughts, thinking, “Now God, I’ve given you of my time and wallet when I could have done something else with both. Won’t you now bless me for this?” It is no different than the Pharisee praying in the temple, thinking that because he has not been a sinful as others and has offered prayers and tithes, that he is accepted by God. I tell you that Pharisee did not go home justified but condemned even as Cain was condemned.

For there are two types of sacrifice: the sacrifice of atonement and the sacrifice of thanksgiving. When we offer ourselves and what we have done or not done, what we have given and how much we have cared for and loved, as that which will please the Lord and make us acceptable to Him, then we are offering a sacrifice of atonement, thinking that by our will and actions we have so pleased God that He accepts us. We hear this all the time from people when they say such things as, “Well, I went to church, but life didn’t get any better!” They think to offer God their church going as a sacrifice that will make them acceptable to God so that He would receive and bless them.

But such sacrifices only draw the judgment of God. When we offer ourselves and actions and thoughts to God as that which will please Him to receive us, we are making ourselves and our actions and thoughts the measure of righteousness. But we are not righteous. There is nothing in us that is pleasing to God so that He will bless us or receive us in His kingdom. Offering such things calls Christ unnecessary. For if we have something by which we might please God and be received by Him, then what need is there of Christ?

But as it is, Christ is the only one that can offer Himself and His actions and will to God and be received by Him for such, for Christ is not born in sin and infected with the disease of sin. He alone is obedient to God and His obedience is offered to God as the sacrifice of atonement so that by His obedience the many are made righteous. When we believe this, we have true faith that is not hopeful of what might be but is confident in what is: that by Christ’s obedience even to death on a cross, we sinners are counted as righteous and forgiven our many trespasses and sins.

This faith, then, the faith of Abel, offers to God not sacrifices of atonement but the sacrifice of thanksgiving. We offer ourselves and our actions and thoughts not in order to be received by God but because Christ has been received by Him, and us through Christ. So when we give money or time or when we teach our children the faith or when we are kind to our neighbor, it is not so that God will look upon us and think, “What a good person he is, I will bless him and receive him,” but we do these things in thanksgiving to God in Christ for the salvation we have by His blood.

We, like Abel, still sacrifice. We still offer to God the firstfruits of our time and money. So the week begins not on Monday with secular work, but on the Lord’s Day with the Lord’s blessing and benediction. And our money is first given to God for the good and care of His ministers and for the poor before it is spent on ourselves. Not because by such things we become acceptable to God or are regarded by Him. But because by such things we show our thanksgiving to God for His promise of salvation in Christ. We offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving when we eat of His flesh and drink of His blood, and when we cry out, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

The Lord is merciful, thanks be to God!

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