11 For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another;
12 not as Cain, who was of the evil one, and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous.
13 Do not marvel, brethren, if the world hates you.
(1 John 3:11-13, NASB).
Cain and Abel are important figures in the narrative of grace and OT Christ typology. I’ve written before about them:
In these three verses we get a very important clue as to what John means by righteous deeds and evil deeds, and to the way in which we are to love on another. Cain slew Abel because his deeds were evil and his brother’s were righteous, and this difference is at the heart of how we are not to love one another.
Cain and Abel both brought offerings to God, but God had regard for Abel’s offering and did not have regard for Cain’s offering:
3 So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground.
4 And Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering;
5 but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell.
6 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?
7 “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
8 And Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
10 And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.
11 “And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.
12 “When you cultivate the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you; you shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth.”
(Genesis 4:3-12, NASB).
Abel brought a blood sacrifice as an offering, while Cain brought an offering of fruits. Cain incorrectly thought that it was the act of bringing an offering, perhaps even a costly offering, that caused God to have regard for him. Maybe if he had taken more care to arrange it more artfully! The truth is, both Cain and Abel brought offerings – there is no difference between them on this account. The act of making an offering is therefore not the substance behind “doing well” and having your countenance lifted up. It is the sacrifice itself that is the difference, the blood sacrifice of animals vs. the bloodless offering of fruits. Scripture corroborates this idea:
4 By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks.
(Hebrews 11:4, NASB).
Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain. Let’s look at this in light of 1 John 1:7,8,9. Let’s suppose two people, Abbie and Cainie, have both erred in doing the same particular sin. Cainie says, “I usually don’t do this, and I haven’t done it again in weeks, and I promise never to do that again. I’m really a pretty good person, this isn’t who I really am anyway. I repent!” She brings her fruits, in other words; she believes that it is her act of sacrifice which justifies. Abbie, on the other hand, goes to God and confesses, saying that she was completely wrong, and she has no other justification except for the blood of Jesus. She does not bring her own deeds or her worthless promise to change forward as justification, but the propitiatory blood of Jesus. Abbie goes away justified for her lesser efforts, while Cainie goes away unjustified despite her greater efforts. It is not the act of sacrifice which justifies, but the substance of it. In the one case we bring forth our own efforts in order to satisfy justice, which does not work. In the other case we bring forth the blood of Another, sanctioned by God, who works for us.
I want to underscore that confession of wrong and faith in Christ’s blood as full justice for sin is the door to sustainable behavioral change. Cainie’s “confession” is really just a proclamation of self-justification, and God is likely to make sure that she finds no success down that road.
Now, the propitiation and confession and love for one another are all a unity, a singular work. If I self-justify, I confess my own sufficiency and leave the injustices I’ve left in the wake of my life unaddressed. You cannot commit a murder and then confess remorse or promise to change and think that will undo the death you caused. All sin is like this: your self-sufficient promises and proclamations are noxious and harmful, and really constitute yet another way that you try to manipulate things sinfully to your own benefit. If you come with any other confession in your mouth besides Christ and Him crucified, you harm all the more.
However, if you come confessing your naked guilt, without any other hope than Christ, you declare vengeance on your selfish actions, and the dictates of your conscience are fulfilled. At the communion, in sharing our communal need for Christ, we are set free to hold no vengeance against one another. We are able to accept the confession of one another. At the table of His flesh and His blood, we are able to truly forgive and to truly love as He loved us — without condition or wrath. The wrath has been poured out on Another.
But how do we relate to those who do not join us at Christ’s table in communion? Are we to forgive them as well, even though they don’t believe in Him? You see that not only does John address this, but he turns the tables. He says, in Christ, we have the platform and the power to love, because our reproach is taken away. However, “the world”, meaning the self-justifying unbelievers, hate us, because they do not recognize or believe that our reproach is taken away. They believe that it is hand-wringing and grandiose promises of repentance and a veneer of behavioral acceptability that justifies, and they have no platform to forgive or to love. They can only pretend to forgive and love, because the reproach is what truly reigns. They do not understand or like the freedom and forgiveness and love that is given as a gift; grace can only be scandalous to them, an enemy to justice. Just like Cain, they hate our acceptance before God when they have worked much harder at their self-justification. But we can look at them with compassion, because they labor under the delusion that they bear the responsibility for their own justice, and they can’t possibly win. Being such winners ourselves in Christ, and having the burden of our justification lifted from us, we operate from a position of strength. Instead of being surprised by their wrath against us, instead of marveling when they hate us, we can understand that they operate under a terrible burden of unremitted sin and so lash out like a drowning man against his rescuers.