Bearing the Image of God

Historically, what it means for man (“man” is used to denote all of mankind in this paper not just males) to be created in the image and likeness of God has been interpreted in a number of different ways. Irenaeus, distinguishing between image and likeness, held that man as the image of God is found in his reason and free will[1], and likeness of God in man is found in the “robe of sanctity” which was given to man when he was created and then lost during the Fall[2]. Later theologians would come to understand image and likeness to be the synonyms and not referring to two different things, but they would maintain with Irenaeus that part of the image of God in man was lost in during the Fall. For Thomas Aquinas, being created in the image of God, meant that man was created intelligent and that the mind houses the image of God[3]. For Calvin, the image of God is found in, “the light of the mind, in the uprightness of the heart, and in the soundness of all the parts.[4]” Calvin holds that the image of God is not found in some quality man holds such as intellect or free will, but in the righteousness he held before the Fall, and that is restored by the regeneration of the Spirit. More recently, Karl Barth has put forward the idea that the image of God is found in his relationships. Because God created man male and female, Barth says, He enables man to live in community and in relationships[5].

Now, this question of what exactly it means to be created in the image of God is important because it sets man apart from the rest of creation. Identifying what it means for man to be created in God’s image, therefore tells man what he is set apart to. It tells man why he is set apart. In the answer to this question of the meaning of man being created in God’s image is found man’s purpose and meaning in life. I would like to explore what it means for man to be created in God’s image. In doing so, I will be forced to neglect discussing the extent to which the image of God is lost in the Fall, as well how it is restored in Christ. I will limit my discussion of the topic to what it looks like for man to live as the image of God and how the law God gives points to what it means for man to be an image-bearer of God.

First I will say that man’s intellect, reason, free will, or relationships cannot in and of themselves constitute what it means to be the image of God because they can all be used sinfully. During the Enlightenment man’s reason and intellect were used to reason away the existence of God. Man freely chooses to sin and disobey God, and he constantly puts his other relationships above his relationship with God. These qualities man possesses do not in and of themselves make man the image-bearer of God but they do enable man to bear God’s image. In the words of Douma, “God has equipped man with various capacities (understanding, will, a unique body) needed to function as God’s image” but these “conditions for being the image of God are not the image of God itself[6]”. Without intellect and free will man cannot truly worship God. By himself, absent from community, man has no one to bear forth God’s image to. If these things enable man to bear God’s image but are not the image itself, then what does it mean to be created in God’s image? I believe that what it means for man to be created in the image of God, first mentioned in Genesis 1:26-27, is further expounded upon in the rest of the Bible.

First, according to Deuteronomy 6:4, “The LORD our God,  the LORD is one[7]” and in God, “there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas 1:17). This means that God’s will for man as expressed in Genesis 1:26 to “make man in our image, after our likeness” is in perfect harmony with the rest of Scripture and that God’s will for man as expressed in the rest of Scripture is in unity with this his creation of man in his own image. When God says, “you shall be holy for I am holy” (1 Pet 1:16), his intentions stated here are the same as his intentions for creating man in His own image because in Him there is no change, and He is one. What does it mean for man to be created in the image of God? It mean he is holy as God is holy. It means he has, “no other gods before [the LORD]” (Ex 20:3); it means he “honor[s] [his] father and mother” (Ex 20:12);it means man follows every other command God gives because every command God gives is in harmony with his original intention to create man in his own image, and every command He gives further clarifies what it looks like for man to live in harmony with God’s original purpose. This means that the image of God is primarily not in a quality or characteristic that man possesses but in his action, motive, and heart.

Now, man is in some sense still the image of God after the Fall in his unrighteousness (see Gen 9:6 and Jas 3:9), but this image is surely distorted and perverted and is, as Calvin said, “so corrupted that whatever remains is frightful deformity.[8]” So while all men are still created in the image of God and therefore have intrinsic value and worth that comes from that reality, the image they bear is a gross misrepresentation of the character of God. The fullness for what God intended in creating man as his image, is for man to represent God on earth[9] This fullness is lost in the fall and restored in Christ, and thus man is only able to live out the fullness for what God created when he is in relationship with Christ. The true picture of what it means to be created in God’s image is found only in the one who has faith in Christ who,  “beholding the glory of the Lord, [is] being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” {2 Cor 3:18). In the believer, God restores the fullness of his image that was lost during the Fall through the life-long process of sanctification. As the believer becomes more sanctified, his inclination obey God grows as does the degree to which he bears forth the image of God.  It is in the commands God gives to his followers that he reveals what the believer living in his image will look like. It is in this sense that this paper is focused. It is concerned with human purpose, not human worth.

As stated before, the commands God gives that man may live a righteous life in Christ all point back to the reality that man is God’s image-bearer. When God says, “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezek 37:27), he is restoring man’s ability to live as his image-bearer that he lost in the Fall. By living in obedience to God, man points to the nature and character of God. Man’s holy living reveals the holiness and goodness of the God who’s image he bears. So the law God gives serves not only to guide man in living as His image-bearer but also as a revelation of the very God man is to image.

Because of the Fall, no man can live up the fullness of what it means to be created in the image of God. For the fallen man, who live apart from faith in God and the regenerating work God gives to those who have faith, lives suppressing the truth, exchanging the truth about God for a lie, worshiping and serving creation rather than the Creator. The image of God can not be seen in its fullness in them, for they live opposed to their Creator (see Rom 1:18ff). Yet, even in the case of the believer, the image of God is not seen in its fullness for every believer deals with the remnants of their sinful nature which is opposed to God. It is only when the process of sanctification is complete that the believer will bear God’s image fully.

There is one, however, that can be looked to now in order to see how a life lived in the obedience to God’s commands clearly and perfectly displays the image of God. The God-man Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15, compare II Cor 4:4), “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3). Peter tells us that Christ, “committed no sin” and “neither was deceit found in his mouth” (I Pet 3:22). In Christ’s own words, he came not to “abolish the Law or the Prophets…but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:18). In other words Christ perfectly obeyed every aspect of the Law and he is the perfect image-bearer. Christ is man as he is intended to be, and man as he will one day be in Christ when the work of sanctification is complete.

In the life of Christ, God and his character on display. Because he is the perfect image of God, Christ’s every action, every word, and every emotion he displays is in perfect harmony with God’s. Christ’s love and grace he displays to the sick, the demon possessed, and the leper conveys the reality of God’s love for the poor and broken. The mercy Christ shows to the Samaritan woman points to the enormity of God’s love that transcends all racial and social boundaries. His outrage he displayed toward those who would make a profit from the worship of God reveals the frightening reality of God’s wrath directed toward the hypocrites and the unrepentant.

Because Christ’s life was the perfect representation of God, “whoever has seen [Christ] has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). And because Christ perfectly bore  the image of God, a perfect example is given to he who has been redeemed by Christ to follow. To bear the image of God is to live as Jesus did, saying, “not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39). It is to live a life in obedience to what God has commanded.  Yet, Christ life and words also reveal that being an image-bearer of God is not a mindless obedience to a set of rules that God has laid out. Being an image-bearer of God is not just about outward actions and appearances but the heart. A man who whose actions reflect God’s actions, but who’s motives, and emotions, and heart do not reflect God’s heart misunderstands what it means to bear His image. The commands God gives are not to be just mindlessly done but they are to proceed from heart in union with God’s heart. Jesus states that all the Law and the Prophets depend on two commandments, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all you soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandments. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:37-38). In other words at the heart of the law, at the heart of every command God gives is love. God has already performed the most loving act conceivable; he has given the Son as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of his people. The only response his people can make to such a sacrifice is to, “present [their] bodies as a living sacrifice…which is [their] spiritual act of worship” (Rom 12:1). The life of the image-bearer of God is a life of worship, of loving service to God and to the neighbors for love is “the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:10) and love, “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14). Love for God is the heart of what it means to be the image of God for it is the fulfillment of the law, and was at the heart of the life of Christ[10].

Christ’s life and the words of Scripture reveal that love for God and the love for people that springs from the love of God is central to being an image-bearer of God. Jesus also tells his disciples that, “all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). This love, therefore, is the identifying mark of the believer of Christ and the true sign of the extent to which a man is bearing forth God’s image. The true disciples of Christ are the true image-bearers of God, who though bearing it imperfectly now, will one day be made the perfect image-bearer (see Rom 8:29, II Cor 3:18) but until then, they are growing in the degree to which they bear forth his image. Because the believer grows in his image-bearing of God and of Christ by growing in his love for God and his neighbor, growing in the degree to which God’s image is born is not a process carried out in isolation but carried out in community with the body of Christ, the church, who Christ is sanctifying, nourishing, and cherishing (Eph 5:26,29). In Hoekema’s words, growing in bearing God’s image by growing in love  means that[11]:

The restoration of the image of God in man takes place in the church, through the fellowship of Christians with each other. Believers learn what Christ-likeness is by observing it in fellow Christians. We see the love of Christ reflected in the lives of our fellow believers; we are enriched by Christ through our contact with them; we hear Christ speaking to through them. In the context of the church—God’s chosen people together living in response to His grace—, the believer is constantly challenged to grow in holiness, and in the context of the church the love of Christ for His people is displayed in how His people love one another in his name. This means that the image of God as displayed by the church is much fuller than the sum of its parts, because the church, and not the believer, “is [Christ’s] body, the fullness of him…” (Eph 1:23) who is the perfect image-bear of God.

Because the love for God is the heart of what it means to bear forth his image, it can also be said that a right relationship with God is at the heart of what it means to be the image-bearer of God for to love God is to be in right relationship with him. God created man not just to bear forth his image to creation by serving as his representative over the earth, but also to bear his image by being in relationship with Him. While God speaks all of creation into existence in the Genesis account, to man alone he gives the ability to speak back, and not out of loneliness or need for company but out of the overflow of love, grace, and joy that is God. Man is not the image-bear of God because of what makes him biologically superior to the animal but because of the relationship he can have with God[12]. To bear the image of God is to live in union with God, to follow and serve him, and to love Him for what He has done for man—in  creating and sustaining him, for withholding his wrath when he rebels, and for redeeming him—and for who He is in all of His perfections, beauty, and loveliness. To bear the image of God as He intended man to is to live a life in gratitude in response to his grace, in response to the knowledge of God’s saving work.

The question of the what it means to be created as an image-bearer of God is, at least from the Christian perspective, also the question of purpose. Why did God create man? The Westminster catechism states that, “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever” (or as Piper would have it, “The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever”[13]). In connection to His purpose for man, God also gives man a multitude of commands which can all be summarized as love God and love people. Since God is one these commands must also be in union with his creation of man in his own image. And so to be created in the image of God does not just mean, as some theologians hold, that man possesses some quality, such as  reason or language, which sets him above the animals because all of these qualities can be used to rebel against God. To be an image-bearer of God, to represent him, is to love Him, to know Him, to serve Him, to enjoy Him—they are all synonymous—even if it means dying for Him because to know Him is eternal life (Jn 17:3). The fullness of life is only found in God and that life is only experienced while bearing the image of God, while living in right relationship with Him, while serving and loving Him.

Obviously, there is no way that a paper of this size could hope to begin to cover what it means for man to be created in the image of God. Many books have been written on the subject, going into much deeper and more thorough detail of the topic, covering lines of thought and ideas that space does not permit this paper to discuss. Only passing reference was given to the believer’s  future state as the perfect image-bearer of God. Very little space was given to discussing the aspects in which man is still the image-bearer of God even after the Fall, even while living in rebellion to God. Little discussion  was given to the process of the restoration of the image of God in the believer by the work of the Spirit in Christ. The only thing covered in any detail was what the image of God looks like in the one who has faith in Christ and is being sanctified by the Spirit, and yet so much more could have been said about this topic And how many more insights into this small part of what it means to be created in the image of God do I simply lack to the wisdom to perceive? Yet, this lack of thorough covering of the topic does not mean that this topic was not worthwhile to explore in this paper for in considering the what it means to be created in the image of God, we also consider the nature of the Object whose image we bear, and by doing so, by “beholding the glory of the Lord, [we are transformed] into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (II Cor 3:18)


[1]  Hoekema, Anthony A. Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids, Michigan:William B. ErdMans Publishing 1986), p34

[2]  Irenaeus. Against Heresies Trans. Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut. From Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol 1. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing, 1885) Accessed 27 April, 2011. III.23.5

[3]  Created in God’s Image. 38

[4]  Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ed John T. McNeil. Trans Ford Lewis Battles.(Louisville Westminster 1960) I.15.4

[5]  Created in God’s Image. 50

[6]  Douma, J. The Ten Commandements. Trans by Nelson D. Kloosterman. (Phillipsburg, New Jersey P&R Publishing 1996) 51.

[7]  Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version ( Crossway Bibles 2001)

[8]The Institutes. I.15.4

[9]The Ten Commandments 50

[10]  Created in God’s Image. 22

[11]Created in God’s Image. 89

[12]Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith. (Zondervan 2011) 389

[13]Piper, John. Desiring God (Multnomah Publishing, Sisters, Oregon 2003) 17.