In His Image

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I am challenged by the times in which we live, by the questions that Christians get asked, by the ways of living and thinking that are profoundly foreign to me, and by the ways of thinking and living that are corrosively destructive to my life and faith.  I imagine I am not alone.

Given the increasingly secular culture and the concessions, compromises and caving done by large sections of the Christian church, I feel it incumbent on all Christians to be sure they are very clear on what it is they believe. Considering the basic elements of Christian theology and doctrine is crucial.

For example, knowledge of the doctrine of anthropology (study of man) is an integral part of our larger theology. What we think about human beings and the origin of human beings and the goal of human existence is extraordinarily important. When one looks at the Scriptures it soon becomes apparent that they speak quite specifically about each of these areas. By ignoring or denying what the Bible teaches about us, we have gone very far astray.

Psalm 139:14 states that “. . . I am fearfully and wonderfully made . . . And my soul knows it very well.” The question is, how fearfully and wonderfully made? Aren’t many animals just as fearfully and wonderfully made. Consider the delicate beauty of a butterfly, or the ability of migratory birds to travel vast distances to exact locations, or the friendly and encouraging intelligence of your dog. Well, yes, those creatures are fearfully and wonderfully made also. But something else must be said about all this.

Of all the creatures God created, it was only man that was made in God’s image.

Of all the creatures God created, it was only man that was made in God’s image. That puts humans on an entirely different plane from all other animals. Man is the pinnacle of God’s creation. There is no comparison between man and animals when push comes to shove.  

True, there are many comparable design characteristics shared between humans and animals. Everything from bone and joint structure to DNA sequencing to the production of blood and much else may show similarities between a particular animal and a human person. But, they are only design similarities, and reflect how any good engineer uses the same designs over and over again for many different projects so long as each design functions effectively in each project even though the projects may be vastly different.  

Consider two significant distinctions between humans and animals: 1) animals are not morally accountable for their actions, they simple do what comes naturally – which is not to say they cannot be trained, but it is to say they have no innate sense of right and wrong, while each human person does have such sensibilities; 2) animals can think and learn but only on a very limited scale, there is no development that is passed along from generation to generation, there is no Empire State Building among beaver dams or squirrel nests or bear dens– those dams and nests and dens are the same as they have been throughout history.  

How is it that humans are made in the image of God – what does “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” mean? Certainly, it means we’re like [not to be confused with “equal to”!] God in intellectual ability, moral character, creativity, spirituality, dominion over the earth, and much more. A simpler way to state it is that Adam and Eve were made to be like God and to represent Him on earth. As they grew in the knowledge of God, so they would become more like Him and represent Him better.  

Unfortunately, they didn’t get to know Him better and better. Instead, they sinned and fell farther away in their knowledge of God. Despite this fatal reality, Adam and Eve and all their descendants continue to bear the image of God, even though the image is marred. For instance, in Gen. 9:6 when God speaks to Noah after the Flood and forbids murder, the basis of that prohibition is that man is made in the image of God. In the NT, James 3:9 laments that men use the same tongue to bless God and then to curse men “who have been made in the likeness of God.”  

That’s the meaning of the classic doctrine of total depravity – not that we have no ability to do anything good or worthwhile, but that in each part of our being sin has taken a nail and scratched its name into it.

How marred or how scarred is God’s image in us? Comprehensively. By that I mean there is no part of our human nature that is free from the effects of the fall. That’s the meaning of the classic doctrine of total depravity – not that we have no ability to do anything good or worthwhile, but that in each part of our being sin has taken a nail and scratched its name into it. Each human being, whether unregenerate or regenerate, still bears the image of God no matter how old or young or weak or disabled or sick or anything else. That is the basis of human dignity. That’s why we must protect the life of the infirm, the pre-born, the elderly, and all others that society would seek to diminish in value because they have no “worth” or are not able to “produce” anything or to enjoy a certain “quality” of life. Human dignity is based on none of those things; human dignity is founded on being made in God’s image.

Can the image of God, now marred in all of us, be restored to its original purity? Good question, I’m glad you asked it! Yes, not only can it be restored, it shall be restored! But let’s not go too fast, there are important things to consider.

When a person experiences new life in Christ the Bible tells us that such a one has “put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him.” [Col. 3:10] Is that good news or what?! That’s a good reason to understand conversion for what it really must be: regeneration. Without regeneration there is no hope for the restoration of the image God in any person. With regeneration, restoration of God’s image in any person is assured.

The process by which this restoration takes place is called progressive sanctification. While we wish the restoration would happen immediately and completely, by God’s good wisdom it takes place through the many ups and down of Christian living. Our new man struggles with the old man, the spirit struggles against the flesh, but that is the means by which we “are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” [2 Cor. 3:18] Who among us has not experienced the thudding reality of still resident sin. Just as we were making so much progress in the Christian life we are allowed to see how proud we are, or how selfish we are, or how self-righteous we are, or you name it. Why is that?

That happens because God wants us to see Him more clearly and as we do so, we see ourselves more clearly. He opens our eyes so we can see our need and call on Him to change us and to help us yield to His discipline. Here’s the promise, however: We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.” [Rom. 8:28, 29]

That promise is exclusively for human beings – it is shared by no other creature, whether animal or angel. We shall be conformed to the image of Christ, who is the image of God [Col.1:15], because “when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.” [1 John 3:2] That is the great hope of the Christian; that is the promise we long to have fulfilled. May the hope of that promise comfort and encourage us while we go through the travails of this life that take us from glory to glory.

In the Joy of the Lord,

John H.C. Niederhaus