Reformed Articles

The Image of God in Man

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Written by John M. Brentnall | Friday, August 30, 2019

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.

“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.

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