“It was by faith that Abel brought a more acceptable offering to God than Cain did. Abel’s offering gave evidence that he was a righteous man, and God showed his approval of his gifts. Although Abel is long dead, he still speaks to us by his example of faith.” Hebrews 11:4
By reading the account of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, it is easy to be confused about why Abel’s sacrifice was accepted and Cain’s was not. However, this passage in Hebrews clarifies it, telling us that Abel offered his sacrifice in faith, Cain on the other hand did not. The result is that God commended Abel as a righteous man and accepted his offering.
To understand this, we must first look back at Genesis 4. Although not much detail is given about the instructions God gave to them when bringing their sacrifices, we see that Cain brought the fruit of the ground to God and Abel brought an animal sacrifice. God looked favorably on Abel’s sacrifice. When Cain’s was rejected God said to him, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:6-7). The first thing we see is that Cain did not do what was right, which is why he was rejected.
Cain approached God in self-righteousness and on that basis, we are never accepted. Isaiah tells us that all of our righteous acts are as filthy rags. All of the things we do to be acceptable to God are as soiled dirty rags. This is why we are never accepted when we approach Him in this manner.
Abel, by faith, accepted what God did and, on that basis, he was accepted. He took God’s righteousness as a gift which made him acceptable. God was so pleased with Abel that He wrote about it in Hebrews 11 so we could still celebrate his faith.
When we rely on what Jesus did for us to make us righteous, then we are always accepted. This takes faith, but that faith commends us as righteous before God and like Abel speaks a good word on our behalf.