Why Cain Killed Abel (Genesis 4:1-16)

"sin is crouching..." (Genesis 4:7)

: When we do not know Grace, we functionally become Cain. When we know Grace, we become a sweet Abel.

Intro: Perhaps, the most striking question from the story of Cain and Abel is "Why did Cain murder his own lovely younger brother?"

A related contemporary question that has broad applicability to all people is, "Why are you upset, inwardly or outwardly, with a particular person?"

I'd like to suggest and propose that the answer to both questions is the same: We don't know Grace. Even though we Christians insist that we "understand" Grace, we do not apply it practically, functionally, emotionally, and experientially in the details of our life, especially when someone upsets us.

A Study of Life: The familiar story of Cain and Abel is a dramatic, spectacular, sensational, brutal story of fratricide, which overwhelms our senses. It's like the king or the president's son killing his brother. Some say it's the 1st case study of murder. But it's really the 1st case study of life. Why?

It is a microcosm of life east of Eden (Gen 3:24). It is how all of life is and has been outside of paradise. It's elements are seen in everyone's life, whether or not we realize it or acknowledge it.

From Genesis 4:1-16, we find 3 factors or 3 realities that are present and operating in everyone's life every day. They are sin, grace and salvation. We can think of this story in 3 parts:
  1. The Secrecy of Sin (Sin always starts small; it's crouching, hidden, secret)
  2. The Gentleness of Grace (God very gently affirms, initiates, uncovers)
  3. The Subtlety of Salvation (Salvation can only be by Grace, and never by man's merit, performance and goodness)
Sin, grace and salvation are extremely subtle things that are very easy to miss. They are not easy to discern. Let's see if we might discern them.

I. The Secrecy of Sin (Gen 4:7) (This is the 1st time the word "sin" appears in the Bible.)

What does this story tell about the nature of sin? Sin is obvious when it becomes murder. But can sin be recognized before it becomes murder?

What are the differences between Cain and Abel? It's not that Abel was a good boy (with good parents) and who "went to church," while Cain was a gangster (from abusive dysfunctional parents) and who cursed God. Rather, both of them were religious. Both made offerings to God. Both acknowledged God whom they both worshiped. On the surface they were virtually the same. What happened to Cain?

In Gen 4:7, God comes and tells Cain that "sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you but you must rule over it." What can we learn here about sin?

Sin always hides itself, crouching low, crouching down. It is an astounding metaphor of an animal "crouching" in the shadows, "crouching" in the corner, "crouching" just out of view, "crouching" out of your radar. But as with Cain, some day, some unexpected day, sin manifests itself with full blown murder or some other manifest sin.

Though Cain and Abel look the same on the surface, there is something wrong with Cain's heart that is very subtle, and that is not seen on the surface. Even Cain doesn't see what's wrong with his own heart. It's because sin always hides itself from us. Sin is always crouching down, crouching low, crouching from view. Today, countless millions deny the existence of sin, while people in every nation continue hurting each other and destroying the world.

Sin "crouching" suggests that it is very, very small, or asleep, or dead; that it's not big. Sin may present itself as a virtue, or even as something good. We say:
  • "I'm not a workaholic. I'm just productive."
  • "I'm not ruthless. I just have sharp business sense."
  • "I'm not stingy. I'm just prudent."
  • "I'm not bitter. I'm just expressing moral righteous outrage."
  • "I'm not flirtatious. I'm just friendly."
  • "I'm not greedy for money. I just like seeing things grow." 
  • "I don't overcharge my credit card. I just enjoy good things."
  • "I'm not a glutton. I just enjoy food."
  • "I'm not lazy. I'm just tired."
  • "I don't have a temper. People are just annoying."
We might think, "I'm really not that bad. I don't smoke. I don't do drugs. I don't sleep around. I don't lie and cheat." But don't we entertain or practice some of the following? Self-pity, jealousy, bitterness, pride, prejudice, dishonesty, selfishness, greed, gluttony and other addictions, unforgiveness, resentment, unbridled inner anger, vindictiveness, revenge, retaliation, gossip, slander, venting our anger, etc. We might think, "Yeah, I have some of those inner traits. But it's very, very small and I'm still in control."

If we still have it under control, what's the problem? It is that when we give in to sin, however small, that it begins to gain power over us. Sin is not something abstract, or that vaporizes in the air. It is like a power that grows within you. Giving in to any sin, no matter how small, creates a force in your life. It creates a being within that takes shape, that shadows you, and that grows and grows until we no longer have control over ourselves. God is virtually saying, "If you do sin, sin will do you." The Puritan John Owen says, "Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you."

Presently, some might still perform sin, and still feel in control, without feeling its dominant overpowering force. But one day, if we keep performing sin, sin will perform us; sin will have you. Sin is not something one does; it's a power. It always starts small. One day, it will take you out.
  • Gossipers will find themselves being gossiped about.
  • Haters will find themselves being hated.
  • Cowards will find themselves being deserted.
  • Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.
  • People who will do anything to be popular will be the most unpopular person. Who wants to be friends with someone who will do anything to be popular--one who has no principles?
Sin is not just a choice. It's a power. It starts as a choice and then it takes you over. Any sin, no matter how small, will affect you, harden you, disillusion you, poison you, harm you, embitter you. While that's all gradually happening, you won't even know it or realize it. No one is more under someone's power than one who does not know they are under its power. Sin always starts small. But it will poison you. It will have you.

If anyone thinks that this is an exaggeration, they are the most vulnerable. Surely, Cain never ever imagined that he would hurt his own little brother, not to mention kill him in cold blood! But one dark day, he did.

When God says, "it (sin) wants to have you," it is not just metaphorical. Though hidden or "crouching," sin is a deadly living reality that has become the hallmark of life east of Eden.

Do you know your crouching sins? Right now, the sins that can most destroy you are the sins that you don't think are that bad, and that you have been making excuses for.

Sin is always a factor east of Eden. Sin is always a factor in every man's life. Sin is subtle. Sin is powerful. Sin is dangerous. Sin is nuanced. Sin is complex. Sin is hidden. Sin is always hiding itself. It is always a factor. It is always a problem. It is always involved.

II. The Gentleness of Grace (Gen 4:1-7)

This story shows a God who completely destroys the stereotype of God being like a cosmic policeman, a God who is waiting for us to sin, and who is waiting to strike us and punish us when we sin--the ultimate party pooper. Our idea is predominantly that of a God of Judgment who is just waiting and ready to judge and destroy us for our sins. Or some think that the OT God is the God of judgment and justice, while the NT God is the God of love and mercy. Do we see such a God here?

God's interaction with Cain is that of a Wonderful Counselor (Isa 9:6) who absolutely refuses to choose between justice and mercy. God displays and exercises them both in his conversation with Cain. God does 3 things very gently and mildly:
  1. God initiates
  2. God affirms
  3. God uncovers
1) God graciously and gently initiates. He comes when nobody calls. He comes not after the murder, but as soon as Cain begins to spiral down, when Cain became angry. His face fell (Hebrew). He fell into depression. God wasn't tapping his feet in heaven, waiting for Cain to slip up, so that he can smack him. Rather, God comes right away, though no one was calling or seeking him. Anyone who has ever known God, knows that God comes to them, though they never called him.

My heart owns none before Thee,
For Thy rich grace I thirst;
This knowing, if I love Thee,
Thou must have loved me first.
('Tis Not That I Did Choose Thee)

God loved Cain first. God came to him. God was always there. God has put in every man a conscience (Rom 2:14-15).

2) God graciously and gently affirms. God doesn't come as a teacher. God comes as a counselor. He does not come as a prophet. He comes as a Priest. God didn't say, "How dare you get angry at me? Who do you think you are?" God also didn't come and say, "Let me tell you what you must do." Teaching assumes the other person is ignorant. But a counselor comes, not with answers, but with questions. Why? The questions of the counselor affirms the self. It affirms their ability to get it. God is affirming to Cain that he can master his sin (Gen 4:7), that he has potential and ability.

3) God uncovers. "Why are you angry?" (Gen 4:6) God looked with favor (respect) on Abel and his offering, but not on Cain and his offering (Gen 4:4-5). Why was Cain upset when his brother did well? Why didn't he say, "Hey, great, little brother!" Why did God do what he did? God would not let Cain refuse to look inside himself. God wanted to uncover Cain's heart.

Cain, the firstborn, was likely the favorite of his parents (Gen 4:1). As one specially treated, Cain felt like somebody, perhaps like Joseph, the favorite of Jacob's 11 sons. When God showed his favor on Abel, the other son, Cain couldn't bear it. He went berserk. Why?

The essence of sin is to build an identity outside of God, which is based on some aspect of your performance. Cain built his identity in reference to Abel, the "less favored son of his parents." He felt like somebody before Abel, his younger and perhaps less accomplished brother. Anyone who builds an identity outside of God will go berserk. Why are you angry if nobody looks up to you or recognizes your hard work, your faithfulness, your commitment, your loyalty?

When God shows up and shows that he is a God of grace, that he is not looking for our performance, or success, or achievement, or human favor. If we had depended on those things we go berserk. People think that violence is an irrational thing. But there is a reasoning behind the violence of Cain, or of anyone else. If one builds their identity on anything other than God, then they will do anything to keep that identity--to maintain the illusion that "I am somebody." Our identity outside of God is affirmed when I am loved or praised, when my family is acknowledged or honored, when my church is commended or exalted, when my work is recognized, etc.

All his life, Cain had based his identity on himself being the special kid. When Abel was then praised, he lost his own identity, and then lost it.

Only God's grace, and God's regard is utterly secure and unchanging. Nothing else is. "All other ground is sinking sand." No one will be happy unless we have and want Jesus only.

From part I and II, we see that sin and grace are always a factor. Sin was a factor in Cain's life. But God's grace was also factoring into Cain's life. Everything and anything that makes our face fall, or that knocks us over, is Grace allowing ourselves an opportunity to see that we are building our life on an identity or a foundation or on something other than God. If we do not cooperate with grace, and make the shift, we will only get more angry, more anxious, more discouraged, more despairing, it will take us out, it will take you over.

III. The Subtlety of Salvation (Gen 4:8-16)

How can we cooperate with Grace and escape the Sin? The subtlety of salvation is the blood. Most people think it is to be good, go to church, make your offering, pray, read the Bible, serve the poor, etc. Cain was doing all of this. That's not it. This doesn't work.

Why was Cain's offering not regarded, and why was Abel and his offering accepted? Abel offered in faith (Heb 11:4). It's not that Abel believed in God and Cain didn't. Both did. It is faith in the grace of God, in the gospel of God, in the work of God. Both knew Gen 3:15 that God would send one to destroy the devil's work. But both made their offerings differently. Abel offered it in gratitude, in faith to what God promised to do. Cain wasn't offering it in gratitude for his salvation, but as a means to blessing and salvation. If what we do is not a response to grace (go to church, read the Bible, do good deeds), then our sacrifice is just a way of trying to get God to do things for us. Then we are a Cain, not an Abel.

What are the marks of Cain? We easily become angry or mad (at God and others). God is not giving me what I believe God and others owe me. Then we don't really believe that we are saved by grace. We are more like Cain than Abel. We are like the older brother. We are more of a Pharisee. We might even be a religious leader. We are trusting in our good works or our performance or our faithfulness or our sacrifice, like Cain.

How do we not become like an angry grumpy bitter Cain, looking down on some people, needing to feel superior to others, angry at God or others all the time, and lacking in the inner sense of the love and respect and assurance of God? How do we become a sweet joyful Abel? Heb 12:24 says, "...to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel." There is a difference between the shed blood of Abel and the sprinkled blood of Christ. The blood of Abel cries out for vengeance and justice (Gen 4:10-11), while the blood of Jesus brings forgiveness and atonement.

Jesus is a true Abel that came many years later. Who killed the true Abel? The prostitues? The pimps? The marginalized? The outsiders? The outcasts? The irreligious? No. It was the good people. The Cains. The older brothers. The Pharisees. The religious leaders killed Jesus. Cains killed the true Abel.

This Abel is better than the Genesis Abel. Jesus' blood cries out too. All shed blood cries out for justice. Jesus' blood cries out differently. 1 John 1:9 says, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." Jesus' blood shed for those who believe in him means that those who believe utterly must be saved. Those who believe are saved by the blood of Jesus, not by their offerings and tithes, not by their good works. If you believe in Jesus, if Jesus' blood was shed for you, God cannot punish your sin twice. If we have this kind of certainty, this kind of faith, God will make us a sweet Abel, not a angry, grumpy, superior, self-righteous Cain, always angry at God and others. We can be a sweet Abel toward others, even toward the Cains who hate us.

When we know this faith, we can do to Cain, what God did for Cain. When Cain feared God's punishment (Gen 4:13-14), God puts a mark on Cain (Gen 4:15). What was God doing? God was caring for the sinner. Derek Kidner said, "God's concern for justice for the innocent is matched only by his care for the sinner." The mark of Cain is equivalent to the rainbow in Gen 9 and to circumcision in Gen 17. God will be Cain's protector. God is showing grace toward the unrepentant.

How can God be so merciful to an unrepentant sinner? How can we do the same?
Only by finding our identity, value and validation in God, and in nothing else. Then we will never demonize or vilify or stereotype or caricature those who oppose us, or speak against us. But we can be gracious toward them because our own identity is in Christ alone. If we know the grace of Jesus, God will enable us to love those who are like Cain--those who are angry and nasty. Cains hate Abels, but Abels never hate Cains. Only Abels can be merciful to Cain, when we know the true Abel.

(The outline and reflections are from a sermon by Tim Keller entitled "East of Eden: Sin and Grace.")