Taken and adapted from, “The Cause of God and Truth”
This section written by, Dr. John Gill, 1735
“If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” –Genesis 4:7
I. It will be proper to inquire, whether a wicked, an unregenerate man, as was Cain, can perform good works.
To which may be answered,
1 Adam had a power to do every good work the law required; which men, since the fall, have not. Men indeed, in an unregenerate state, might do many things which they do not; such as reading the Scriptures, attending on public worship, etc. No doubt but the persons in the parable, who were invited to the dinner, could have gone to it, had they had a will, as well as the one did to his farm, and the other to his merchandise. Men have an equal power, had they an heart, a will, an inclination, to go to a place of divine worship, as to a tavern, or alehouse; but it is easy to observe, that persons oftentimes have it in the power of their hands, when they have it not in the power of their hearts, to do a good work; as a rich man to give alms to the poor. Unregenerate men are capable of performing works, which are in a natural and civil, though not in a spiritual sense, good. They may do those things, which externally, in appearance, and as to the matter and substance of them, may be good; such as hearing, reading, praying, giving alms to the poor, etc., when the circumstances requisite to good works are wanting; for whatsoever is done as a good work, must be done in obedience to the will of God; from a principle of love to him; must be performed in faith; in the name of Christ, and to the glory of God by him. Therefore,
2 It must be denied, that wicked, unregenerate men, have a power to perform good works in a spiritual manner; which is evident from their natural estate and condition, according to the scriptural representation of it, which is this: that the bias of their minds is to that which is evil, and to that only; that they are wholly carnal, and mind nothing else but the things of the flesh; that they are weak and strengthless, yea, dead in trespasses and sins; nay, that they are under an impossibility to do that which is spiritually good; There is none that doeth good, no, not one of them, nor are they able; they are not subject to the law of God, nor can they be. When the Ethiopian changes his skin, and the leopard his spots, then may they also do good, who are accustomed to do evil. Men may expect as soon to gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles, as good fruit to grow upon, or good works to be performed by, unregenerate men; no, they must be created in Christ Jesus, have the Spirit of Christ put into them, and his grace implanted in them; they must be believers in him, before they are capable of doing that which is spiritually good. And even believers themselves are not able to think a good thought or perform a good work of themselves; it is God who works in them both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Sometimes when they have a will to that which is good, yet how to perform they know not; they can do nothing without Christ, though all things through him, who strengthens them; much less then have unregenerate persons either a power or a will to that which is spiritually good. Nor,
3 Is there any foundation for such a proposition in these words, which are hypothetically expressed, and therefore nothing absolutely to be concluded from them; that is to say, we are not to argue from God’s saying to Cain, If you do well, therefore Cain had a power to do well, or to do that which is spiritually good, well; much less should we infer from hence, as one does, that “God could not have proposed the doing of good as a condition, if he had not given Cain sufficient strength whereby he was capable to do good.” Since God could not only have proposed the doing of good, but have required it according to his law, without being under obligation to give sufficient strength to obey; for though man by his sin has lost his power to obey the will of God in a right manner, yet God has not lost his authority to command; which he may use without obliging himself to find man sufficient strength to act in obedience to it. Besides,
4 These words regard doing well, not in a moral, but in a ceremonial sense. Cain and Abel were very early taught the necessity, manner, and use of sacrifices; and in process of time they brought their offerings to the Lord, each according to his different calling and employment; the one brought of the fruit of the ground, the other of the firstlings of his flock. Now to Abel and his offering the Lord had respect, that is, he accepted him and his offering; but to Cain and his offering he had not respect; which made Cain very wroth, and his countenance fell; upon which the Lord expostulates with him after this manner, Why are you wroth? And why is thy countenance fallen? If you do well, –If you had offered rightly, as the Septuagint renders the words which though it is not a proper literal translation of them, yet agreeable enough to their sense, should you not be accepted? Cain failed either in the matter or manner of his sacrifice; probably in the latter; since the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews observes, that by faith, Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain. (Heb. 11:4) Cain offered his sacrifice without faith, without any view to the sacrifice of Christ: he performed this his sacrifice hypocritically, in show and appearance only; he acted from no right principle, nor to any right end; and therefore his works, whatever show of righteousness they might have, are, by the apostle John, (1 John 3:12) rightly called evil; as are also all the works of wicked and unregenerate men. I proceed,
II. To consider whether man’s acceptance with God is on the account of his good works.
1 There is a difference between the acceptance of men’s works, and of their persons for them: there are many actions done by men, which are acceptable and well-pleasing to God, when they themselves are not accepted by him, on account of them. Besides, no man’s works are accepted by him whose person is not previously accepted: God first had respect to the person of Abel, and then to his offering; which shows that his was not accepted for the sake of his offering. The best works of the saints are imperfect and attended with sin, and are only acceptable to God through Jesus Christ, in whom, and in whom only, who is the beloved, their persons are accepted and well-pleasing to God. No man can be justified or saved by his works, and therefore no man can be accepted with God on that account; which is the current doctrine of the sacred writings: this will help us to understand the true sense of such passages, as Acts 10:35, Romans 19:18, 2 Corinthians 5:9, compared with Ephesians 1:6, and 1 Peter 2:5.
2 Nor do these words suppose that man’s acceptance with God stands upon the foot of works. The Hebrew word tas, for there is but one word in the original text, which our translators render, shalt you not be accepted? signifies either excellency, as in Psalm 62:4, and may design the dignity of primogeniture, or honor of birth-right, as it does in Genesis 49:3, and so be rendered, shalt you not have the excellency? That is, shall not the right of primogeniture continue with thee? Shall not the honor and privilege of being the first-born abide with thee? you need not be afraid that this shall be taken from thee, and given to thy younger brother, who is willing to be subject to thee, and ready to serve thee; which well agrees with the latter part of the text, and unto thee shall be his desire, and you shall rule over him; or the word signifies an elevation, or lifting up; and is to be understood as Aben Ezra observes of Mygp tas, a lifting up of the countenance, which was fallen, verses 5, 6, and then the sense is, if you had done well, when you brought thine offering, you might have lift up thy face without spot, and doubtless you wouldst have done so; but inasmuch as you hast sinned and done evil, and which is to be seen in thy fallen countenance, sin lies at the door of thy conscience; which, when once opened, it will enter in, and make dreadful work; as it did a little after; which made him say, My punishment is greater than I can bear. But admitting that the word signifies acceptance, and be rendered, shall there not be an acceptance? It is to be understood, not of an acceptance of his person, but of his sacrifices and services.
III. It remains to be considered, whether Cain had a day of grace, in which it was possible for him to be accepted with God.
1 There is no acceptance of any man’s person, but as he is considered in Christ the Mediator. Now as there is no reason to believe that ever Cain, who was of the wicked one, the devil, was ever in Christ, or ever considered in him; so there is no reason to conclude, that he either was, or that it was possible for him to be, accepted with God.
2 The text does not speak of his doing well in a moral or spiritual, but in a ceremonial way; and not at all of the acceptance of his person, on the foot of so doing; but at most, only of the acceptance of his sacrifice and ceremonious services, supposing them rightly performed.
3 These words are not expressive of a day of visitation in a way of grace and mercy to him; but are to be considered as an expostulation with him for his wrath, fury, and fallen countenance, and an upbraiding of him with his evil doing, in order to awaken his conscience, and bring him to a full sense of his sin; which was so far from proving a day of grace to him, that it quickly issued in the utmost distress of mind, torture of conscience, and black despair.