Abel was the first of that “great cloud of witnesses” whose faith is set before us in Hebrews 11. Clearly all these witnesses were intended to be examples for every succeeding generation, ours included. Abel in particular was intended to be an example of strong faith for us today, for “he being dead yet speaketh”.
Abel’s was the first death in the world, the first instance of a soul being separated from the body – one aspect of the curse due to sin, about which God warned Adam his father: “In the day that thou eatest [of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] thou shalt surely die” (Gen 2:17). Yet here was a man who was accepted by God; “the Lord had respect unto Abel” (Gen 4:4). So on the day of his death, Abel’s soul was safe; his was a living soul, for the Holy Spirit had breathed into his dead soul; he had been delivered from eternal death in hell.
The special exercise of faith on the part of Abel, which is drawn to our attention in Hebrews 11:4, had to do with the sacrifice he offered on that fatal day. Abel believed the testimony God had given him – testimony as to how he could be saved. He trusted the One who had made this revelation and acted accordingly; he offered to God the sacrifice that He had appointed, which is described as a “a more excellent sacrifice than Cain” offered. That is, Abel offered a sacrifice which met God’s requirements; Cain did not. Abel no doubt understood the significance of being a sinner; he knew that “the wages of sin is death”; so any offering intended to make atonement must involve the taking away of the life of a substitute.
Cain, on the other hand, had no appreciation of the sinfulness of sin or of the seriousness of the consequences which must fall on the sinner himself, apart from an atonement which God could accept. Abel “by faith” was willing to receive God’s testimony and act upon it, while Cain, continuing in unbelief and rejecting God’s testimony, acted according to his own ideas and offered what Paul describes as “will worship” – following out his own will rather than the will of God. In his Commentary on Hebrews, W S Plumer sums up the contrast: “The great difference between the two brothers was that the elder was unbelieving, and so was self-willed, self-righteous, impenitent and unwilling to be guided by the law under which he worshipped; while the younger had faith, and so was conscious of his sins and penitent for them, cried for mercy, not justice, confessed his need of an atonement and obeyed the known will of God, which directed him to make an offering”.
But how did God reveal to Adam that animal sacrifice was the way by which he was to approach Him? We are not explicitly told, but when Adam and Eve sinned and realised they were naked, God provided animal skins to cover their nakedness. Clearly the animals whose skins were used had to die; they had to die because of human sin. And no doubt Adam and Eve understood what happened to these animals in the light of the first revelation of the gospel, through which they learned that the Seed of the woman would have His heel bruised when He would bruise the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15). Abel would have learned from his father that sacrifice was the way God had appointed so that sinners could approach Him. The institution of sacrifice was pointing forward to the perfect offering which was to be made in the fullness of time at Calvary.
Neither Abel’s sacrifice or any which multitudes of others offered – even when they did everything according to God’s revealed will – could actually take away sin. Yet God passed by the sins of Old Testament believers such as Abel in His forbearance. He did not punish them because He was to send Christ in their place in the fulness of time and He would suffer and die instead. Yet God was just in forgiving Abel’s sin, because of the absolute certainty that Christ would come and would then do absolutely all that was necessary to satisfy divine justice on behalf of Abel.
What then was the function of Abel’s sacrifice? It showed that sin could be taken away, by a God-appointed substitute. It points us forward to the Lord Jesus Christ, whom God the Father appointed and sent into the world as the substitute for sinners. He came because of God’s anger against sin – His settled purpose to punish sin. God set Him forth to be “a propitiation” (Rom 3:25) – a sacrifice to turn away the anger of God against sin. Christ turned away the anger that would have gone out against Abel apart from the divine forbearance; that is, He endured the punishment which had been postponed until He would come as Abel’s substitute. So Christ suffered and died instead of Abel and instead of all whom the Father gave to His Son in the everlasting covenant. And divine justice was satisfied for them all.
By faith in Christ’s blood – by faith in the Saviour who died – sinners are saved. God’s wrath is turned away from them and, for Christ’s sake, they are accepted as righteous. So “the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering”. In other words, God looked on Abel and his offering, with favour; He did not turn away from him or turn against him in anger. Rather, in view of the propitiation which Christ was to make, and which Abel’s sacrifice typified, all Abel’s sins were forgiven and he was himself accepted. He was treated as if he had always kept God’s law perfectly – but only because of the righteousness of Christ, even although that righteousness was not to be wrought out for around 4000 years. Yet it was imputed to him when he needed it, while he was still in this world, before he was swept violently into eternity.
Abel was justified freely on the grounds of what Christ was yet to do; he looked to the provision that God was to make and to nothing else. The classic definition in the Shorter Catechism brings this out: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone”. Abel did not earn salvation; that was completely beyond his power. What is more, he recognised this. And, from a heart renewed by the Holy Spirit, he was willing to receive salvation in the way that God had appointed – by faith alone.
Abel speaks to us today in many ways, not least on this vital matter that salvation is by faith alone, not by faith and works. This is an age when even Evangelicals can turn their backs on their Reformation heritage and blur the clear lines of division with Rome. The document Evangelicals and Catholics Together, for instance, declares that “we are justified by faith through grace because of Christ”. True, but this is to omit the word alone although it is essential to focus on the fact that we are justified by faith without works. It is, Paul emphasises, “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy [God] saved us” (Titus 3:5). Our works make no contribution to our salvation; to look to them is to look away from Christ and so to make our salvation impossible. It is, of course, natural to fallen man to try to make a contribution, through his own works, to his salvation. What we need, and what Abel was given, is a new heart, so that we would willingly give up every degree of reliance on our own righteousness and go to Christ alone for salvation. It is one of the wonders of redeeming grace that everything, including a new heart, is provided for in the salvation God has devised. We are to receive that salvation freely, with no thought of bringing any payment to God, in counterfeit money, which is what our own works are.
Abel yet speaks. Through his obedience to God’s revealed will, he shows us how the Most High is to be worshipped and how sinners are to be saved. He reminds us that God’s grace is sufficient to carry us safely through life. Yes, Abel was killed through his brother’s jealousy, but he was brought at once to glory. And for all these thousands of years since then, Abel has been enjoying the perfect blessedness of that state where there is no more curse.
Rev Kenneth D Macleod is minister of the Free Presbyterian Church of Leverburgh, Isle of Harris. This article is taken with permission from the March 2007 Free Presbyterian Magazine which magazine Mr Macleod edits.