John posted a thought provoking comment on my previous post regarding Heb. 11 and the conception of faith as inspiring works and deeds (or being evidenced by such works and deeds). As I was replying I realized it might be best to put this in a post instead. First, let’s hear from John.
Your statement – In each instance of those faithful ones cited by Hebrews we find that it is their actions that are being described – is interesting. Do you understand that Biblical faith includes deeds of obedience and that without them there is no faith at all?
Now my reply. I am wondering if your last question is asking me if that is my opinion or if you are asking if I agree with the statement you put forward. Before I could say that all conceptions of “faith” in the Bible involve deeds of obedience I would have to do a far more thorough study than I have done to date. That being said, I think that belief, that integral kernel at the center of faith, is not something verifiable, at least externally, until such time as it is put to the test or into action. Thus I would surmise, without doing my homework, that yes, biblical faith would include deeds growing out of that faith. (But I am fairly certain a bit of research would turn up one or two places where someone could argue that “faith” exists in the biblical text aside from a deed of obedience.)
Now I am not sure that I would agree with the last clause that “without them [deeds of obedience] there is no faith at all.” The first verse of this chapter, Heb. 11, begins famously stating that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The next two verses follow on in a similar manner. Nothing in this definition of faith requires action, merely internal certainty and confidence. I think one could argue (and many have), at least theoretically, that one could have faith without actions or deeds. “Ya just gotta believe!” (Say that with a southern accent for full a/effect.)
Of course the [Latin term that escapes me at the moment, wait! I have it, I think] locus classicus in support of John’s view (if I am reading him right, John, not James) is James 2:26 “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” That is why I said “theoretically” one could hold to such a view because certainly the author of Hebrews understands this faith as leading to action since the fourth verse immediately takes us into examples of that faith leading to right action. And this will take us nicely into our devotional portion for today. A bit of a redux from last time to be sure, but let us delve a bit deeper anyway.
Heb. 11:4 begins, “by faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s.” This passage has a special place in my mind since whenever I teach Intro to Hebrew Bible or Genesis I always challenge the students to tell me, from the text, why Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable when Cain’s was rejected by God. The answer is embedded in God’s warning to Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” (Gen. 1:7) But I point out to the students it isn’t explicit and that is why we have to read the Hebrew Bible so carefully. Usually there will be one student who knows their New Testament who will cite this verse and so I am fond of it.
In our current conversation I want to point out that it is, according to Hebrews, Abel’s faith that rendered his sacrifice acceptable to God. The first question that comes to my mind is “faith in what?” Presumably Cain believed in God as well as Abel, so that can’t be it. It can’t be merely his obedience in performing the sacrifice because even Cain offered a sacrifice, again, presumably because God had required it. What is the “faith” that Abel possesses that transforms his sacrifice into something sweet for God and without which Cain’s is nothing more than a Necco wafer in the mouth of God?
The truth is that I am not sure what it is. It could be the confidence that he has given the best of his possessions to God with the knowledge that this is what God wants. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps. 51:17)
Perhaps it is the conviction that God really does care and is engaged with him and so Abel gave his very best. In this case Cain’s sin would be that although he believed God was there he assumed God didn’t really give a toss and so a few fruit and veg would be good enough. Certainly the text of Genesis implies as much, stating that Cain merely brought “an offering of the fruit of the ground” while Abel “brought of the firstlings of his flock.” (And our author of Hebrews clearly knew his Scripture.)
“By faith Abel offered to God….” The more I mull on this the more I begin to think about the moments when I have been in a situation where I must make a decision, I must follow one path or the other, neither is particularly wrong or right, and at those moments I have prayed asking that God would God and trusting that whichever path I chose God would continue to be with me. The faith offered in those prayers is the confidence that God will ensure that the “not yet” will be guided and shaped by him, if I am willing to put my trust in him as I move forward.
And there I think is the nub of it all. It is not, it never is an either or situation. Faith is never simply sitting, rubbing out chins, and reciting like a mantra, “I believe in God, the father almighty….” It is the combination of belief and action, it always is, and the question is what is the motivation for the actions taken. If our belief in the crucified and resurrected Jesus is not life-transforming, if it does not cause us to think about the world in a different way and to act accordingly then have we really believed in the message of the Gospel, in the sacrifice and the empty tomb?
9 thoughts on “Lenten Devotional: “More on Faith” or “By Faith” or “Abel and Cain Going Toe To Toe In A Sacrificial Face Off Where Only One Will Remain, Next Right After These Messages””
Re: the difference between inner trust and action based on trust – I wonder if thinking about faith is a product of our cerebral culture. The Greeks – I am reading again Jerome Creech on the Editing of the Hebrew Psalter and noting how Greek translated taking refuge as hope – the Hebrew more of an action, the Greek sounding like more of an inner mental state.
I think I would say that faith is not matured (I might even go stronger than this) until it expresses itself in action. Two passages translated ‘do’ come to mind (without being too definitive here) – we will do them and we will understand – somewhere in Torah about obedience (hearing and doing) rather than understanding first then doing (inner preceding the visible action) and secondly – what must we do? (in Acts) and its answer – believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved – sounds like an internal state of thinking but I don’t think this is a correct reading of ‘believe’.
Paul’s instruction in Romans – if you by the Spirit do put to death the deeds of the body, you will live – sounds to me like doing the Torah – by which a human will live. That is the faith that justifies. Don’t get me wrong – I do not think we have to do Torah like it was a legal requirement – not at all. But I do think we need to follow the instruction of God – Torah as instruction. And this we can follow in Christ Jesus by the invitation into his death through our baptism – action that leads us into the Holy of Holies.
Addendum – I wonder if faith presents itself in not doing sometimes. For not doing can also be an action – it’s very like the Tao te Xing – action by inaction. There is a strange example on my blog here – it arrived a day or so ago due to mistaken identity and so I wrote this answer to a person in trouble.
Thanks Bob. I would tend to agree, that inaction, or at least the decision to not act, is an action in itself. I like your formulation that faith is not matured until it is put into action. I think that summarizes it quite well.
I appreciate you addressing my comment.
I would say your “kernel” never existed without the obedience that shows it. As you know, not every sentence that addresses a subject in the Bible does so exhaustively. My understanding is that the rest of Hebrews 11 expands, explains, and completes the statement of the first few verses.
Cain and Abel – God must have commanded a blood sacrifice and Abel complied, but Cain thought he knew better. This is not revealed in the Genesis narrative, but precedents abound of one text being supplemented by another. For instance God’s call of Abraham in Ur is not revealed in Genesis, though it occurred in that time period. It is revealed in Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7. Noah’s blood offering in Genesis and the numerous blood sacrifices of Abraham must have had some kind of background whereby they knew that this kind of offering was what God wanted.It would make complete sense if this background went back to Cain and Abel. There is, of course, the obvious typification of the once for all atoning sacrifice of Jesus in the O.T. blood offerings, which would not be true of the grain offerings (Cain).
Having said all that, the simpliest solution is Romans 10:17. Since faith comes by hearing God’s word, and Abel offered his sacrifice by faith (Hebrews), then God had commanded the boys what to offer.
Also, I appreciate your last paragraph of your March 1 post.
John, thanks again! You are certainly correct that we must never simply read a single sentence or verse in isolation. On the other hand I think looking to the NT for the explanation of texts in the OT or Hebrew Bible, while it may be convincing for some Christians, is not a reasonable method for those trying to read the Hebrew text on its own terms and in its own context. (In the case of Acts 7 it seems to me more like Stephen is extrapolating from the Genesis text, or perhaps remembering an oral version, rather than providing additional authoritative information. That, of course, will depend upon one’s understanding of the authority and inspiration of Scripture.)
My point with my students, and the one I would make here, relating to Gen. 4 is that God did not have to tell them to offer the sacrifices. It was understood that this was how you communicated with God. This is the language used to converse from human to divine and would be understood as instinctive. That is, at least, one reasonable option without presuming a back story that is not related. The fundamental point about Genesis: the author often did not give us information that we would like to have! Why, is another question…
I would like to continue to talk via email. I cant get your “contact” links to work. I even downloaded Skype, but it is apparently not what I wanted. If you want to email, I think you have my address where I signed in a couple of days ago.
John – sorry about the confusion! Skype is a telephony program that you can also use to chat, but I am not on it all that often. (I use it mostly for recording podcast interviews.) The other contact is for AOL Instant Messaging. If you have AIM (or any other AIM client) that should work as well. (If others have trouble with this please let me know.)
All of that being said, my email is cbrady AT targuman.org. I will update this to the contact links as well.
Thanks for the great comments! As I read them these many years later, I just want to add a small observation that is usually related to the study of Cain and Abel…
When Adam and Eve sinned, God provided them garments from skins (Gen 3:21). It is believed by some that God sacrificed animals for the purpose to provide their covering and as an offering for their sin. If this was understood by Adam and Eve, they would have most likely engaged in this practice of sacrificing animals for sin atonement. Cain and Abel would have learned God’s will from their parents in this manner.