When considering the effects of Adam’s sin on humanity, it seems reasonable to look closely at the children of Adam. Yet, for all that has been written about the fall, very little is focused on Cain and Abel. Check the major works of theology on this theme and you won’t find any substantive consideration of Cain. Why is this?
If (as most of these theologians believe) all humans are born with a sin nature and spiritually dead, the first human to be born this way should be Exhibit A for discerning the effects of sin. Why wouldn’t we study what we know about Cain before reaching too many conclusions about what it means to be born with a sin nature and spiritually dead in our sins?
The first use of the word “sin” is found when God confronts Cain. God said,
“You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master” (Genesis 4:7).
Standard evangelical theology teaches that sin separates us from God and that spiritual death (among other things) means that we cannot hear the voice of God. But this certainly doesn’t appear to be true for the first person to inherit Adam’s sin nature. Later we learn that Cain “was of the evil one” (I John 3:12). The NIV translates it, “belonged to the evil one.” The language is related to being “begotten of” or “born of.” There is no doubt about Cain’s spiritual condition.
Yet Cain approached God to worship Him. Where did he meet with God? How did he know to worship God? Cain’s wrongful approach to worship is exposed by God and Cain is graciously invited to approach God as he had been instructed. As a sinner by nature and one spiritually dead, it seems strange that Cain would be given this kind of access to God and invited to respond obediently. Of Course, God must graciously confront Cain’s darkness, but God provides him with an opportunity to do what is right.
“In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘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 rule over it.’”
Evidently Cain was not so deeply entrenched in his sin (inherited or actual) that further sinning (at least, in this case) was inevitable. The emphasis does not appear to be on Cain as a sinner by nature, one totally depraved, but on Cain as one who has a freedom to make choices regarding sin’s control.
Sin is pictured as temporarily at bay and subject to the choice of the one who is facing it. Yet Cain must take it seriously. He must act quickly. Sin is ready to pounce Cain if he opens a door of opportunity to it. Cain cannot claim ignorance or helplessness regarding sin’s power. He doesn’t have to be mastered by sin but if he doesn’t repent he will be consumed.
- How should this passage influence our understanding of the effects of Adam’s sin on human beings?
- Why do theologians neglect this account when offering insight on inherited sin and spiritual death?
- Would this account challenge some theological assumptions in what is called reformed theology?
We also must look more closely at the way God described sin and the possibility of understanding Cain’s anger as depression. What should we make of the unusual lack of gender correspondence in the Hebrew language between the word “sin” (feminine) and the surrounding terms in masculine “crouching” (lurking at the door), “it’s desire, in it” (masculine)?