The Image of God and The Greatest Commandment, Part 1

The Greatest Commandment (6)

What does it meant to be human? To err is human—yes, but even though the darkness pervades every corner of our being, sin is not essential to our humanity. Sin is a welcomed contaminant—something that has successfully baited us with high hopes of self-actualization and autonomy, but has in the end betrayed us and left us with self-afflicted adversity. In his systematic theology, Michael Horton provocatively writes, “Every human being is born into this world as an image-bearer of God, installed into an office that, from conception, one holds as a traitor.”[1] This busy world is filled with active men and women who faithfully use their creative abilities in the workplace and in the home to better their lives and the lives of others. Certainly, in a broader, general sense there are vestiges of the image of God in every one of them. But, ultimately, if their actions are not intentionally done to the praise of God’s glory from a devoted heart of worship, then they do not reflect God’s image in the narrower, precise sense. Sin did not eradicate the imago dei, but it has distorted it so that we, like a broken mirror, significantly lack the ability to reflect his glory and fulfill our chief end. If the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and strength, then it follows that to fulfill this command is to fulfill your ultimate purpose in life. It is here, at the ontological and teleological, that the image of God and the greatest commandment intersect.


The Image of God

Like a slick fish in water, the image of God is an elusive concept in Scripture, but is definitely there. Because its substance is not explicitly stated, it is something that must be thoughtfully deduced from the relevant texts. The debate over its precise meaning focuses on whether the image is something humans are or something humans do. Is it substantive—found in man’s psychological composition? Is it relational—found in man’s necessity to be in communion? Or is it functional—found in man’s responsibility to have dominion over the earth? These are the three main options espoused by theologians throughout history. Horton advises that “We come to know ourselves as human beings—that is, God’s image bearers—not only by looking within but chiefly by looking outside of ourselves to the divine Other who addresses us.”[2] In Genesis 1:26-27, we find that God’s plan for man—his relationship to his Creator, other image-beareres, and creation—is in juxtaposition with his deliberation to create man in his image. Because man’s designed structure enables him to be in relationship and fulfill his function, rather than pitting these options against each other, our understanding of the image of God should incorporate them all. Further, understanding that sin has distorted rather than destroyed this image should lead us to see it in a broad sense and in a narrow sense.

The Broad Sense

Man is a complex unity comprised of material and immaterial parts designed by a powerful, wise, and good Creator. In Genesis 1:26, God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.” What is most fundamental about the imago dei can be surmised from these two words image and likeness. It is right to understand these words as synonymous—but with some nuance. As the image of God, man is his physical representation on earth. God gave man the responsibility to rule over all creation (Gen 1:26-31). This is where the physical properties of man are considered as part of God’s image.  William Ames says, “The perfection of [the] body was seen in its embodiment of beauty and usefulness conforming to God’s will.”[3] Man’s body has been specifically designed to fulfill the role of God’s vice regent on earth—to fill it, subdue it, and rule over it (Gen 1:28).

Because God is spirit, being in the likeness of God refers to the ways in which man mirrors God’s immaterial properties. The plural pronoun us in Genesis 1:26 hints at the tri-unity of God and the fact that he is a personal and relational Being. We reflect His likeness in the faculties we have been given to reflect this personhood. This would include cognitive, emotional, and volitional capacities. Intellectually, man was designed to be self-aware, to think rationally and critically, to use his imagination and creativity, and to communicate with various media (e.g., speech, writing, reading, nonverbal, etc.). Emotionally, man was given the gift of various affections and passions such as joy, anger, etc. Volitionally, man was given the freedom of choice—the ability to decide between varying paths of action, to make personal decisions, and to be held responsible for them. Hoekema calls this the “central mystery of man” because as a creature, he is absolutely dependent, but as a person, he has relative independence.[4] Together, man’s material and immaterial properties—body and soul— give him the ability to live as God designed him to.

The Narrow Sense

Hoekema states, “When the Bible says that God created man in his own image, it certainly intends to say that man at the time of his creation was obedient to God and loved God with all his heart.”[5] God declared creation to be very good (Gen 1:31), but this did not last long. The irony is that when man rebelled against his Creator, he had to depend upon his God-given intellect, emotions, and will—some autonomy that is . . . what a sham! Hoekema says, “The magnitude of man’s sin consists in the fact that he used God-given powers in the service of Satan.”[6] Consequently, all of his immaterial properties became tarnished by sin, corrupted, perverted, and bent inward toward self. The material properties of man became subject to the curse of death and decay. This selfish bent and corruption of sin has brought conflict and enmity in his threefold relationship to God, his fellow men, and nature.

Because sin is not essential to humanity as God originally designed it, the image of God can be most vividly and tangibly seen in the Person of Jesus Christ. Although Jesus is coequal and coeternal with God (Phil 2:6), he became incarnate (Jn 1:14) and existed as a true human being without sin (Heb 4:12) who perfectly mirrored God’s image (Col 1:15; Heb 1:3). Ames explains, “The perfection of the soul consists in its immortal nature, seen not only in in the faculties whereby it has freedom in its actions—in the understanding of the will—but also in its endowment with gifts whereby man is rendered able and fit to live well, that is wisdom, holiness, and righteousness.”[7] Looking at the life of Christ would put any man to shame. Hoekema points out that from looking at Jesus Christ, we learn that “the proper functioning of the image of God” includes being wholly directed toward God, being wholly directed toward our neighbor, and ruling over nature.[8] As a true human being, Jesus perfectly fulfilled God’s original intentions for man by perfectly imaging his Father’s likeness. This original righteousness and holiness that infused every faculty of man’s being prior to the fall is the image of God in the narrow sense. Adam fell from this state bringing sin, condemnation, and death to all, but Jesus brought righteousness, justification, and life (Rom 5:12-21). Therefore, Jesus is the better Adam and we are being transformed into his image.


Creation teaches us something important about ourselves—we are not our own. We have been created and designed by God. We are dependent upon him for our existence and we are accountable to him for our choices. Horton explains, “There was no moment when a human being was actually a solitary, autonomous, unrelated entity; self-consciousness always included the consciousness of one’s relationship to God, to each other, and to one’s place in the wider creation environment.”[9] If we belong to God, then it follows that the entirety of our being, everything we have—our material and immaterial properties—belong to him. God lays claim to every faculty of your soul and every fiber of your being. This includes every member of your body—your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands, feet, etc. (Rom 6:13; Col 3:5).

In the grand narrative in Scripture, we can see the image of God at the various stages—creation, fall, redemption, consummation. In man’s original created state, he had the image of God in the narrow sense, but was able to sin. In his fallen state, man maintains the image of God, though distorted, and is only able to sin. In his redeemed state, man is being transformed into the image of God and is able not to sin because he has regenerated faculties, the Spirit indwelling him, and the example of Christ to follow in the Scriptures—everything we need pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). In his glorified state, man will have been fully transformed and unable to sin. Therefore, this glorified state will better than the original created state because we will be ruling with Christ and conformed to his image . . .

The following post explores how this image of God intersects with the greatest commandment. The Image of God and The Greatest Commandment , Part 2


[1] Horton, The Christian Faith, 387.

[2] Ibid, 405. Emphasis mine.

[3] William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 106.

[4] Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 6.

[5] Ibid, 66. Emphasis mine.

[6] Ibid, 7.

[7] Ames, The Marrow of Theology, 106. Emphasis mine.

[8] Hoekema, Created In God’s Image, 75.

[9] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 385.

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