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The Image of God in Man

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Date May 31, 2019

‘Man’, said Blaise Pascal, ‘is like one who has been cast sleeping on to a desert island, only to wake and discover that he does not know where he came from, why he is there, and where he is going.’ When men tell us that the great problem facing man today is that of his own identity, modern philosophers are merely re-iterating Pascal’s thought. Confronted with a vast and seemingly silent universe, and seeing ourselves unable to escape from the little point on earth that has been allotted to us, we are perplexed and afraid. We long for truth, but know ourselves to be false by nature; we seek happiness, but find only disappointment; we look for stability and permanence, but all around us we see only change and decay. And our hearts are restless.

Made in God’s Image

Now because ‘man is an enigma whose solution can be found only in God’ (Hermann Bavinck), we are altogether dependent on God for a true understanding of ourselves, and it is into our condition of total dependence on himself that God has been pleased to send the Scriptures with a great and trustworthy and comforting doctrine — that we are made in his image. Man can only identify himself when he recognises that he is the image of God on earth. Briefly stated, the doctrine teaches that the features of God’s own being and nature were concentrated in man at his creation so as to make him identifiably like God. To begin with, he was a personal spiritual being. He reflected the personality and spirituality of God. He could engage in conscious spiritual, intellectual and moral activity. Also, he reflected the splendour of God’s moral attributes. He resembled God in knowledge, righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). He knew and loved and did only what was right, and this, because God had set it as right for him. Perfect intelligence and moral uprightness reigned in his mind, all his senses were ready for prompt obedience, and his body showed a submission corresponding to his inner life. ‘There was no part of man in which some scintillations of God’s image did not shine forth’ (Calvin). It is this likeness to God that shows us our magnificent isolation from all other earthly creatures.

We must be quick to stress, however, that man is like God only on a creaturely scale. We can never outgrow our creaturehood. We can never become absolute and independent, as God is. An infinite distance will always separate us from God.

Nevertheless, the divine image in Adam was his glory. No thoughts of being either above or against God entered his mind; he was content to be nothing more than a reflection of God. He knew that God was the Original and he the image, and he had no desire to reverse that order. Consequently, he enjoyed ‘a happy confluence of all inward and outward blessings’ (Thomas Manton).

Thus, according to his finite capacity, man expressed the being, the attributes, and the blessedness of God.

All of us, therefore, are identified by the Scriptures even before our birth as creatures of the Most High God. This should humble us in the dust.

God’s Image Marred

When Adam sinned, he rejected this image. He sought to erase the moral uprightness which God had impressed on his nature. In his thinking he sought to interpret everything without reference to God, or rather in opposition to God. He placed his ideals of truth outside God. In his living he was determined not to submit to God. Henceforth, he would worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator.

This act of rejection secured a profound and radical change for the worse in man’s nature. His understanding, affections, will, imagination, memory and body collapsed into moral ruins. John Newton was not exaggerating when he described us in our fallen state as monsters, ‘vile, base, stupid, obstinate and mischievous’ creatures. We know many things, but we know nothing aright. Being ethically estranged from the Source of all true Knowledge, our understandings are ‘sealed up with blindness’ (Jonathan Edwards). We live in gross spiritual darkness, and have no light of our own with which to enlighten ourselves.

But not only has sin blinded our minds. It has hardened our hearts.

By the Fall, we all contracted an inbred distaste for God and the things of God. The One who was formerly the object of our deepest reverence is now the object of our greatest scorn. God is not the kind of person we want. Wholly destitute of love for him, we now have an inveterate hatred of him, and our highest aim is to gratify pride and our senses. In some respects, we are worse than animals, for we indulge in unnatural lusts and often lack natural affection.

The enmity of our feelings against God is matched only by our impotence to obey him. We neither can nor will render loving obedience to him. Our wills are resolutely opposed to his will in every instance. Though just as responsible for our choices now as ever we were, every choice we make is an evil one, for our whole nature is infected with the principle of enmity against God.

Even our bodies betray our inner corruption, both in their haughty looks of self-sufficiency and their marks of dissipation and decay. Depravity has permeated every part of our nature.

Having lost the uprightness linked with our primal happiness, we have now lost our happiness too. We are miserable creatures. Though we affect happiness, and often force ourselves to wear a smile when anguish and despair prey on our hearts, we know at bottom only a profound misery. Our state of destitution becomes a daily experience.

Once again, God in the Scriptures establishes our identity. Man today is sinful and miserable because he is a fallen creature. God’s image in him is marred. This, too, should humble us in the dust.

The Image of the Invisible God

Yet we are not altogether without hope for we have not lost our creature­hood. We remain sentient and personal beings. We are still accessible to God. The merciful renovation of his image in us is well within the power of him to whom ‘all things are possible’.

Before a subjective work of renovation can take place in us, however, an objective work of reconciliation for us is required. God is so immutably holy that nothing less than his own pure image seen in a life of perfect obedience to his law can give him satisfaction. Moreover, his justice demands the law’s full penalty from us on account of our guilt. This obedience must be rendered and this punishment suffered by man him­self. ‘The same nature that sinned must work out the reparation and recovery from sin’ (John Owen). No angel or beast of the field can do it for us. In addition, the one who undertakes such a work must be a partaker of human nature. He must be a descendant of Adam, having true organic union with the human race. Yet he must on no account be tarnished with sin, either Adam’s or his own, else he too would incur guilt and find himself in need of restoration.

There is also the question of our need. We need one who can represent God to us as the object of our knowledge, faith, love and obedience, for, having blotted out God’s image in ourselves, we have no idea what that image is. A set of precepts would be inadequate, not because they might be defective, but because they could not reveal the image of God in actual personal conformity to him. We need, therefore a mediator who can show us God’s being and moral attributes.

Now the glory and uniqueness of Jesus Christ is that he is such a Person, One who fulfils all these requirements. In the first place, he is a real human being. Just as those he came to restore are flesh and blood, so he ‘took part of the same’ (Heb. 2:14). As it was a real man, Adam, by whose disobedience we fell into sin, so it is a real man, Christ, by whose obedience we are restored to righteousness (Rom. 5:12-19). Though not conceived a human person, he was conceived with a human nature, and in this nature he ‘fulfilled all righteousness’. Moreover, he was ultimately related to us — for He came ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’ (Rom. 8:3) ­both by his direct descent from Adam (Luke 3:23-38) and by his birth of a woman (Gal. 4:4), though no man could ever claim to be his father (Luke 1:35; Matt. 1:20). Yet he was completely free from the sin of our nature. The embryo formed in the womb of the virgin was a ‘holy thing’, altogether separate from sin. His nature was ‘holy, harmless, undefiled’ (Heb. 7:26). Thus, as to his Person, Christ was fully qualified to remove the obstacles which stood in the way of our restoration back to God.

That in this nature he actually rendered loving obedience to God and bore the penalty of our sin constitutes the whole of his work on earth for us. Regarding the former, ‘he never spent a moment without an unconditional subjection to his Father’s will’ (George Smeaton). At every point, his life displayed that unerring knowledge of this will and that loving obedience to it which alone could give and actually did give uninterrupted delight to God.

His restoring work for us, however, reached its climax in his glorious self-offering as the only availing sacrifice for the expiation of our guilt. When he ‘gave himself for our sins’ (Gal. 1:4), Christ offered no less than God’s own pure image in himself. God neither demanded nor desired more, and his righteous wrath against us was thereby propitiated.

But not only did the Lord Jesus by his obedience unto death satisfy God, he also meets our need. For he fully represents God to us as the object of our knowledge, faith, love and obedience. He is the image or perfect reflection of God to us (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). In him, God, whose infinitely holy nature, considered in itself, is unapproachable, exhibits himself to our faith. By assuming our nature into personal union with himself, God has once and for ever brought himself near to us. ‘In him God was, in him he dwelt, in him is he known, in him is he worshipped according unto his own will, in him is there a nearer approach made unto us by the divine nature than ever could enter into the heart of man to conceive. In the constitution of his Person. . . and in the work it was designed unto, the wisdom, power, goodness, love, grace, mercy, holiness, and faithfulness of God are manifested unto us. This is the one blessed ‘image of the invisible God’, wherein we may learn, wherein we may contemplate and adore, all his divine perfections.’ (John Owen 1:73).

Bearing the Image of the Heavenly

From the truth that we were ‘predestinated to be conformed to the image of his Son’ (Rom. 8:29), we gather that Christ in his human nature is the prototype of all believers. As we have borne the image of the earthy (i.e. the first Adam) in the corruption of our natures, so we shall bear the image of the heavenly (i.e. Christ, the last Adam) in the incorruptible holiness of our natures (1 Cor. 15:49). According to our individual capacity, we shall be like him, and shall be satisfied with his likeness.

God has been pleased to employ three means in restoring his image to his people — firstly, the Lord Jesus Christ as the sole object of our faith, for in him alone we have a true and objective knowledge of God. In Christ, we recognise anew that we are God’s creatures, that we are utterly lost in sin, and that he came to bring us back to God. And in receiving him by faith, we want to become ‘receptively reconstructive’ of God’s image in us.

Secondly, the gospel is the only medium by which Christ is revealed to our faith. We must live by revelation now as we lived by revelation before the Fall. And since it is the image of Christ that is to be restored in us, we can only see what that image is in and through the gospel.

Thirdly, it is the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the blessed Trinity, who enables us to discern that image and who conforms us to it. This must be so, for ‘inasmuch as we were dead in trespasses and sins, it would have done us no good to have the life-giving potion (Christ in the gospel) laid next to us in our coffin. It would do us good only if someone actually administered the potion to us’ (Cornelius Van Til). This the Spirit does: ‘But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord’ (2 Cor. 3:18). When beheld by faith as he is revealed to us in the gospel, Christ by his Spirit imparts to us a transforming power, by which we are changed into his likeness, and made conformable to him. ‘There is the fulness of Christ conveyed into the soul. . . through our union with him there is a kind of flowing of sanctification from him unto us, as the principle of our life’ (Jeremiah Burroughs). This great progressive process, by which God shines into our hearts the light of the knowledge of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ, begins at regeneration and continues until death.

It is abundantly clear that such a tremendous work as the renovation of corrupt human nature cannot be accomplished by the mere imitation of Christ’s example. ‘Some men speak much of the imitation of Christ, and following of his example, but no man shall ever become like unto him by bare imitation of his actions, without that view or intuition of his glory, which alone is accompanied with a transforming power to change them into the same image’ (John Owen). Neither such exhortations as ‘be renewed in the spirit of your mind’ (Eph. 4:23), ‘put on the new man’ (Col. 3:10) and ‘let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 2:5), nor that invitation of the Lord himself to take his yoke upon us and learn of him (Matt. 11:29) can possibly be understood as mere imitation, but rather transformation of our inner natures.

Nevertheless, the in-shining work of the Spirit does enable believers to follow Christ’s example, according to our finite capacity. This is why the apostles can exhort us to ‘walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us’ (Eph. 5:2), to ‘suffer wrongfully. . . because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example’ (1 Pet. 2:19, 21), to ‘forgive one another. . . even as Christ forgave you’ (Col. 3:13), even to the extent of ‘laying down our lives for the brethren, because he laid down his life for us’ (1 John 3:16).

‘But how is it possible flesh and blood should attain to this?’ asks Lazarus Seaman (d. 1675) — ‘Why. . . God. . . working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight. . . You see, thereby all our works depend on God, and it is vain for us to build on any foundation but this. . . Our work is to depend on God’s work; our outward working depends on God’s inward working’. No flesh shall glory in his Presence.

Once more, the problem of man’s identity is solved by this great doctrine. We are the people of God when we have an experimental knowledge of the transforming power of the Spirit of Christ in the gospel. He who is humble, loving and useful, who stoops to the weaknesses of others, who patiently suffers personal injuries, who is free from jealousy and malice, and who is so by virtue of Christ’s righteousness being daily imparted to him, is a true Christian. All others, whatever their profession, are counterfeit coin.

This image after which believers are renewed is not the same image that God in-generated in Adam’s nature, for whereas Adam could, and did, tarnish the image of God in him, the likeness to Christ seen in believers is indestructible.

It is true that in our present condition God’s image in us is blemished by the remains of indwelling sin. But it will not always be so. When in death we shall have died wholly to sin, and when on the resurrection morning we shall be raised incorruptible, we shall be altogether pure like Christ. Even our bodies, now made vile by the ravages of sin, shall be like his glorious body (Phil. 3:21). With the consummation of the process of restoration, Christ’s mediatorial work will have been completed, and once more God will see reflected in his handiwork his own glorious image. We shall shine in the splendour of his attributes, and shall enjoy the blessedness of full communion with him. The wheel of God’s purposes will thus have turned full circle. But let us never forget that we shall remain creatures, even in glory. ‘And in that glory the consciousness that I am nothing and God is all will be the cause of my most fervent adoration and deepest delight’ (Abraham Kuyper).


This article was first published in the May 1969 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.

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