Paul made the following forceful statement about knowing God:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Rom 1:19-20, emphasis added)
In other words, we know God is there, and his attributes are revealed to us by God and perceived in all that he has made. There is no excuse for being an atheist.
How clear are these attributes? How clear is God’s plan for living a righteous life? Flipping back to Genesis, I was somewhat intrigued by the story of Cain and Abel.
Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. (Gen 4:2-5)
The sacrificial system wasn’t in place yet. That wouldn’t be codified for over 1000 years. God accepts the offering that Abel gives, but not the one that Cain gives. This angers Cain (v. 5). God, however, offers interesting consolation:
Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it. (Gen 4:6-7)
God is indicating that it isn’t about the sacrifice, it’s about doing well and ruling sin rather than letting sin rule you. It’s not about the religious offering. It’s about freedom from sin.
What happens next? Does Cain heed God’s advice? Does he live a godly life worthy of acceptance? Nope–Cain kills Abel in a jealous rage. He’s upset that God accepted his brother’s sacrifice and not his.
Cain is told by God to live virtuously. God is trying to explain that it isn’t about the sacrifice at all. It’s about living free of sin in the first place.
But there’s something deeper here. Cain was simply told to live in a worthy manner, without being given any rules or regulations. The Law, which codifies living in a worthy manner, was centuries away from being written down by Moses. This indicates that Cain already knows how to live virtuously!
And so, I believe, do we. It’s just that we don’t. And therein lies the problem, which Paul discusses in Romans 7:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (vv. 14-25)