As the Bible records history, Abel is the first human to offer a sacrifice to God. The Bible gives no indication that he was following what was then popular among the children of Adam and Eve, nor that he was following "common sense," human reason, or his feelings. Undoubtedly, God had instructed Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, and maybe others in His truth. Abel stands out because he offered by faith. He believed the specific instruction given to him, while neither Cain nor anybody else did. His motivation is what set Abel apart; he believed without twisting what God taught.
Recall that Romans 10:17 says that faith comes by hearing the Word of God. Faith in God must have a foundation, and listening is the means by which that foundation is formed. At this point, it is important to understand what Paul—and of course, God—mean by "faith." There are two general kinds of faith: "dead" and "living," as James terms them.
When James calls the one "dead," he is in no way saying that whoever has that faith is stupid. In fact, they may be quite intellectual—"smart," as we might say. He means that, in relation to God, they do not have living or active faith. We can illustrate the difference this way: Suppose two people receive exactly the same instruction from the Word of God; both have been informed as to what He requires. The difference between the person with dead faith and the one with living faith is that the latter is influenced to submit to what he has learned. The one with dead faith remains only informed.
Thus, the person with dead faith may enjoy using his biblical knowledge to discuss and even to argue for or against a given concept. However, it remains only information because the influences to submit and do something in relation to God are lacking. He cannot honestly be said to believe, even though the information he has may be quite extensive and true. By contrast, the person with living faith believes and submits, making active use of the godly information to change his life.
The person with dead faith hears outwardly; the person with living faith hears outwardly and inwardly and yields to it, believing it. This latter person also has what the Bible calls "the faith." Paul writes in Galatians 5:6 that this faith works by or through love. What is love? I John 5:3 declares, "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome." Love is obedience to God.
Thus, living faith is belief in God that keeps the commandments. Living faith produces growth. It is this faith that is in view throughout Hebrews 11. In the case of Abel, the Word of God that he heard is most likely what God spoke to Adam and Eve. Abel, in turn, heard it from them and believed it. Cain heard the same words and was merely informed.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Christian Fight (Part Three)
Hebrews 11, popularly called "the Faith Chapter," contains the recitation of the names and deeds of several men and women of faith from creation to the time of Israel's entering of the Promised Land. In it, the author—most likely the apostle Paul—presents illustrations from the Old Testament to bear out his opening statement: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony" (Hebrews 11:1-2).
In the lives of individual after individual, he shows that their expressions of faith in God, despite the lack of material evidence, proved they were righteous (verse 4), pleased God (verse 5), and were heirs of righteousness (verse 7). The remarkable acts that they accomplished—from Abel's offering of an excellent sacrifice to Rahab's hiding of the Israelite spies—were done because, believing the Word of God, they envisioned a heavenly future that others could not see.
We see, then, that the heroes of faith not only lived righteous lives in the present, but also moved and acted with a steady eye on the future. Their faith had its foundation in the invisible God whose Word they obeyed, yet their foreknowledge of God's plan for mankind contained in the promises that God gave to them and to Israel also played a major role, one not nearly recognized enough among professing Christians. It was not just the promise of salvation or even of eternal life dangled before them that made them so unflinchingly faithful. It was also their steadfast hope of a better tomorrow in God's Kingdom.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
David the Prophet
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Hebrews 11:4: