How the Doctrine of the Image of God Changed My Life

Growing up in a Presbyterian family, it was always assumed that theology was important for me to know. Some of my earliest memories are of my dad doing extended Bible lessons on Sunday afternoons and my mom teaching Bible stories and children’s catechism using flannelgraph during the week. There was one lesson in particular that we repeated several times about being made in God’s image. The doctrine of the image of God—in Latin Imago Dei—originates in Genesis 1:27, which states that God made humans, male and female, in His image—His likeness.

Starting in first grade, I had the privilege of attending a Christian school where I lived in Davao, Philippines. Each year we studied the Bible, worldview, apologetics, or theology. My teachers, like my parents, assumed that it was the most natural thing in the world for me to learn about my faith—that biblical knowledge and good theology was important for all people. I generally was quite interested in my Bible classes, sometimes doing research on my own and enjoying in-class debates and projects.

When I got to college in South Carolina, the strong foundation built by parents, teachers, and my own study served me well in my pursuit of degrees in Bible and early childhood education. In one of my classes on education, we spoke of our future students as being image-bearers and the implications that had. Students had an intellect, were capable of learning, were relational, and had immeasurable potential. We ourselves, as image-bearers, were to reflect God’s character and steward our responsibilities by treating our students well, even when they posed educational or behavioral challenges.

However, after I finished college, instead of becoming a teacher, I became mostly-housebound due to chronic illness. My intense physical suffering was concurrent with a growing awareness of some of the great evil believed and practiced within the Christian community and the immense damage this caused; together, these two things shook my faith, making it difficult to listen to sermons, read my Bible, or participate in corporate prayer.

By this time, I was living in Mississippi and starting to learn about the realities of racism. As part of this, I listened to a few episodes of a podcast called Pass the Mic. Though mostly engaging topics related to race relations in the United States, biblical anthropology and emotionally-healthy spirituality were frequent topics as well. I remember crying as I realized there were indeed Christians teaching that lament over evil and pain was an important part of the Christian life, things don’t always turn out to have a happy ending, and it’s okay to take trauma seriously.

In one podcast, Mr. Jemar Tisby asserted that aside from beliefs about God and salvation, believing in the image of God is the most important doctrine in Christianity and that its implications were enormous and far-reaching. I couldn’t stop thinking about this for weeks! Now, years later, it continues to have a profound impact on my thinking and life.

But what does it mean for humans to be made in the image of God? Much has been written on the topic, but here is a summary. Humans are like God in some limited ways, including being rational beings, having moral agency, and being relational. Humans are also God’s viceroys on Earth, here to steward the natural world for God’s glory. Likewise, though all of God’s creation is precious and valuable, humans have a special place of honor and value; only they bear God’s image.

In Psalm 8, King David hyperbolically writes of humans as being made “a little lower than God,” describing them as being crowned with glory and majesty, made to rule over all of God’s works:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than God,
And You crown him with glory and majesty! (Psalm 8:3-5)

(I’ll briefly note that in Hebrews 2, we learn that this Psalm is also prophetic, pointing to Christ as the ultimate human to whom God subjected all things and crowned with glory and honor. This “image of Christ” in salvation is an important doctrinal development upon the image of God doctrine of creation.)

To summarize, being made in the image of God means 1) that humans are like God in some ways, 2) that humans are to act to fulfill God’s purposes on Earth, 3) and that humans have immense and intrinsic worth. This doctrine makes a huge impact on the Christian understanding of anthropology—the study of man.

One caveat: as humans, we are image-bearers, but we are not just image bears. We are also sinners, both in our nature and in our behavior. This has marred, though not erased, God’s image in us. Some humans, in addition to being image-bearers and sinners, are also saints; this is how the New Testament writers describe all those who are in Christ by faith. Saints, by the power of new life through the Spirit, are empowered to grow in Christlikeness, progressively growing in reflecting God’s original design for image-bearers. As Romans 8:29 says, “For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son.” (See also Colossians 3:10.)

Meditating on the doctrine of the image of God has shaped many of my beliefs, convictions, passions, and behaviors over the past few years. For example, it gave theological validation for calling out and grieving the profound evil of race-based chattel slavery, rape, and murder. Furthermore, it buttressed my calls for justice to be done in the face of evil done to image-bearers (because evil done to those who bear God’s image is very serious). However, in my pursuit of justice, believing in the image of God also undercut thoughts of revenge, because even humans who perpetrate great evil deserve to have their humanity respected.

This doctrine impacted me in other ways too. It gave words to my concerns about how some New Calvinists emphasize the sinfulness of humans almost to the exclusion of acknowledging the image of God in humans. It gave me joy in seeing how much humans can achieve. Simultaneously, it assured me that though my health struggles limited my productivity, my value as a human was not diminished. It encouraged me to have an accurate view of myself, one that was neither too high nor too low.

It gave me the clarity to say that one of the reasons pornography and abortion are wrong is that they both exploit image bearers for the sake of another’s sexual gratification. It made me more compassionate towards animals, feeling responsible to care for them as I am able. It made me passionate in proclaiming that more important than people respecting a leader’s authority are leaders respecting other’s humanity. It meant that all human life has value, even if young, old, or disabled. It gave me a framework for learning from, honoring the accomplishments of, and seeing the good in those who hold differing beliefs than I do. It renewed my belief that the Christian’s roles in work, society, and culture are good because they reflect aspects of who God is and how he works in the universe. It provided a litmus test for myself as I sought to think of each person first as an image-bearer, whatever else they might also be.

I continue to suffer from health struggles and to grieve over many things, but most days, I feel more at peace with myself, with God, with his church, and in society. Correctly understanding doctrines such as the image of God has made a practical difference in my life. It has provided a foundation and guidebook for navigating the complexities, evils, joys, and sorrows of life. It is often a weary and weighty task, yet I am immensely thankful for God’s truth as an anchor for my soul.

I am grateful that he has revealed his truth to us in his word. I am grateful for the people throughout my life who have taught me good theology. And I’m thankful for the Holy Spirit, who continues to apply God’s truth to my life, forming my mind, heart, and actions to be further in accordance with his will.

So let us press on to know and serve the Lord and to equip others to better know and serve him. And let us rejoice in the honor of being made in God’s likeness, taking seriously his call upon our lives, and treating others as the valuable masterpieces that they are.

(Special thanks to Joshua Torrey for helping me edit this article and for sharing a portion of it on the Torrey Gazette.)

Sermon Notes: “How Majestic Is Your Name”

Hey Guys,
These are some sermon notes from a message I preached at Newton Springs Full Gospel Church in Hector, Arkansas about a year and a half ago. This isn’t meant to be a transcript just some verses, quotes, and thoughts I jotted down to preach from. You’re welcome to use this for personal or group Bible study, or to even preach from. Just give God the credit for it, since He’s the One who gave it anyway. Soli Deo Gloria!

How Majestic is Your Name
“O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens. [2] Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger. [3] When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; [4] What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? [5] For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. [6] Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: [7] All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; [8] The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. [9] O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!” 

– [Psalms 8:1-9 KJV]

2 Purposes For This Psalm:
1. To Make Us See How Sufficient God is
2. To Make Us See How Insufficient We Are

1. To Make Us See How Sufficient God is
“O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.”
– [Psalm 8:1 ESV]

“O LORD, our Lord…” – YAHWEH our Adonai Just in this little fragment of the first verse two big truths are presented. Almighty God is lord of the universe and He is Lord over the Church.

LORD – All caps means Yahweh (I AM WHO I AM, Exodus 3:14).
He is self-sustaining, all powerful, all knowing, all sovereign, king of the Universe. He doesn’t need our help. He doesn’t our opinion. He doesn’t need our input. He is God all by Himself and that’s the end of it.

“When God says I AM WHO I AM, he summons us to humble objectivity. He puts an end to the notion that everybody’s view of God is as good as everybody else’s. God is who he is and nobody’s opinion of him makes any difference. Therefore, our calling as His creatures is to strive to know him for who he is, not for who we would like him to be. ” – John Piper, Sermon: “I AM WHO I AM”

The idols of the Old Testament had to be built and created from the ideas of men by the hands of men, but the very men that created those idols were formed by the hand of the God they denied.

“Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good…But the LORD is the true God, he is the living God, and an everlasting king: at his wrath the earth shall tremble, and the nations shall not be able to abide his indignation.” – [Jeremiah 10:2-5, 10 KJV]

“Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” – [Psalms 115:3-8 ESV]

“Descend, if you will, into the lowest depths of the ocean, where undisturbed the water sleeps, and the very sand is motionless in unbroken quiet, but the glory of the Lord is there, revealing its excellence in the silent palace of the sea.” – Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David

He is Creator of the Universe (Genesis 1:1; Colossians 1:16)
“A state of mind that sees God in everything is evidence of growth in grace and a thankful heart.” – Charles G. Finney

“Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing.” – [Isaiah 40:26 ESV]

He is Sustainer of the Universe (Colossians 1:17)
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. [16] For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. [17] And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” – [Colossians 1:15-17 ESV]

“The meaning is, that they are kept in the present state; their existence, order, and arrangement are continued by his power. If unsupported by him, they would fall into disorder, or sink back to nothing.” – Albert Barnes

Literally, if Christ were not holding the universe together then the earth and all of creation would fall and sink back into the dark abysmal void that it was found in in Genesis 1:2, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep…” I am held together in the very same way.

If Christ should take His hand off of me then I would slip back into the dark sin and despair that He found me in, but because He is still holding the world in place I know that He will still hold me in place. He has sealed me to the day of redemption (Ephesians 4:30).I cannot hold myself together. I am held together by the fact that Christ holds the universe together and He is Lord over all.

2. How Insufficient We Are
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? – [Psalms 8:3-4 ESV]

God has no reason to be mindful of us because we’ve willingly sinned against him.

“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” – [Romans 3:23 ESV]

“Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” – [Isaiah 59:1-2 ESV]

He doesn’t leave us in a hopeless and helpless state. He sends a Redeemer to save us!

“And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the LORD. “And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the LORD: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the LORD, “from this time forth and forevermore.” – [Isaiah 59:20-21 ESV]

CONCLUSION
“The only thing of our very own which we contribute to our salvation is the sin which makes it necessary.” – William Temple “We sinned for no reason but an incomprehensible lack of love, and He saved us for no reason but an incomprehensible excess of love.” ― Peter Kreeft, Jesus-Shock

We need Jesus to save us and sustain. We can’t do this ourselves.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” – [Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV]

Our sin has separated us from us from God and we need Him to saturate with His love and His Spirit and bring us into right relationship with Him. We can’t go to church enough. We can’t do enough good works. We can’t knock on enough doors. We can’t sing enough hymns during the congregational singing. Only the grace of God can bring us to life in Him. We need Jesus. It’s that simple.