God created the first humans in the image of God, in the likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-30). What does the “image of God” mean? In what way are we humans different than animals, and in what way are we like God? How has sin affected the image? Is this image relevant to Christian growth, sanctification and the ministry of the church?
I believe that the image of God refers primarily to humanity’s moral capacities. Other theories about the image focus on a limited aspect of morality. Although sin has reduced our moral abilities, we continue to have moral abilities, and Christians are conformed closer to God’s image as the Holy Spirit restores their moral abilities.
We will address three topics: 1) What is the image of God that sinful humanity now has? 2) What is the image that Christians are to become? and 3) How does the church assist in this transformation?
Part 1: The Image of God
Thesis: The image of God refers to intellectual and relational abilities not found in animals — the ability to think and reason, specifically to make moral decisions. Our ability has been corrupted by sin, but humans still have the potential for morality.
Humans were made in the “image” and “likeness” of God (Genesis 1:26). These two terms have similar meaning and will be used interchangeably in this paper.1 But animals were not made in God’s image.2 Philip Hughes summarizes our uniqueness by saying that humanity, although having “affinities with the animal realm, is radically distinguished from all other earthly creatures by the fact that [humanity] alone has been created in the divine image and is intended by constitution to be a godly creature.”3
Although humans were created to be God-like, we are now sinful and unlike God in our morality (Romans 3:10, 23). Nevertheless, we are still considered to be in God’s image (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). Four concepts have been proposed as this image:
- Thomas Aquinas located the image in the human
ability to think and reason, to use language and art, far surpassing the
abilities of any animals.4
- Leonard Verduin says that the image consists in our
dominion over animals and plants, which continues despite our sinfulness.5
- A “widely accepted interpretation” is that the “image”
is our ability to make moral decisions, which involve self-awareness and social
- Emil Brunner says that it is our ability to have a
relationship with God, reflected in the tendency of all societies to have forms
These four are inter-related, but it seems that concept 3 is dominant. Our rational abilities are not ends in themselves — they enable us to make moral decisions, and our intellectual abilities are judged by morality. Morality also determines whether we are using dominion rightly and whether our relationships with God and humans are right.
Rationality and dominion help distinguish humans from animals, so they may be considered aspects of the image of God, but they do not constitute all that the image is. Rather, it is the purpose for which we use rationality and dominion that is of greater importance. People who have low intelligence and limited dominion are, if they love God and neighbor, closer to the desired image of God than a wicked genius dictator is. Mental skills and rulership are God-like only if they are used in a moral way. Morality is the standard by which thoughts and actions are judged, so I conclude that, although cognition and dominion are aspects of the divine image, morality is a more significant aspect.8
Aquinas’ emphasis on mental abilities is too broad, and the focus on dominion is too narrow. Humans are not unique in ruling, and we conform to the image of Christ primarily by submitting to rule, not by ruling. The manner of our rule is far more important than the fact of our rule — it is essential that we rule morally, in right relationship with God and other beings. Morality involves our relationships with other people, and also with the divine Being, but relationship in itself is not sufficient. The relative importance of morality and relationships will be further analyzed in the next section of this paper.
Part 2: Restoring the Image
Thesis: Jesus Christ is the perfect image of God. As we are re-created in his image, by his presence in us, we are being changed primarily in our morality — in our relationships with other humans and with God.
Ever since the Fall, humans have been corrupted morally. They are not like God in their morality, but yet they are still considered to be in God’s image (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). Our defect must be corrected, as shown in the next paragraph. Humans still have vestiges of moral potential. Even the natural human has a potential for morality — all societies have some concept of right and wrong (Romans 2:15).
Jesus Christ is the perfect image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3), and Christians must be conformed to his likeness (2 Corinthians 3:18; Galatians 4:19; Ephesians 4:13; Colossians 3:10). Geoffrey Bromiley observes, “In Himself Christ already sums up all that humanity is to be…. He is a perfect representation of God.”9 He is our perfect example.10 He is being formed in us and we are being conformed to his image. If we share in his humble estate in this life, we will share in his glory in the next age (Romans 8:29-30; 1 Corinthians 15:49; 1 John 3:2) — living more fully in his image.
In what way should we be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ? Jesus spoke about the morality of our thoughts, but he did not address rationality per se or the logic we use in forming conclusions. Although he took care of people’s bodily needs, he did not indicate that health and wholeness were necessary for image completion. And he said more about subordination than about exercising dominion over animals and matter.
Knowledge is important (Romans 10:2; Ephesians 4:13), but not all facts are of equal importance. Jesus said that we ought to understand the Scriptures, to discern which portions are most important, and to make behavioral decisions on that basis (e.g., Matthew 23:23). We need to discern right from wrong behavior (Hebrews 5:14). Jesus’ focus was on morality, which involves our relationships.
Karl Barth, noting that God is triune and that humans are male and female, argued that relationship is the divine image.11 Bromiley and Hughes point out that his conclusion is not explicitly provable from Genesis 1.12 Nevertheless, interpersonal relationships are important, for they are the sphere in which morality is manifested. They are a prominent part of Jesus’ teaching and one of the ways in which we must become more Christ-like. Jesus advocated emotions such as love (an interpersonal attitude) and faith (an interaction with God).
Emil Brunner focused on our relationship with God.13 This potential is a reflection of what God is, but it is misleading to isolate this as the only way in which humans are like God. Atheists are made in the image of God, so we can conclude that the image is not dependent on a good relationship. All creation has a relationship with God, but not all creatures are made in God’s image. What kind of relationship is needed?
A right relationship with God leads to changes in our understanding of right and wrong behavior and to changes in our relationships with others. As we are being transformed more completely into the image of Christ, it is essential that we have a relationship with God. But the image of God has important practical implications, such as the necessity to avoid murder and hatred (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9; 1 John 4:20). We must not neglect the practical way in which the image of God expresses itself, and that is in terms of our morality — our relationships with others. These relationships give us experiences that help us understand our relationship with God. The quality of all our relationships is judged by morality, which again shows the priority of morality. Relationships are very important, since they are the sphere in which morality is exercised.
Part 3: Ministering to the Image of God
Thesis: The church should assist with the needs of every aspect of humanity: physical needs, knowledge and emotional needs involved in making moral decisions, and relational needs in society and with God.
Ephesians 4:12-13 summarizes some basic functions of the church: preparing God’s people for works of service, and working toward unity in faith and the knowledge of Christ and maturity in him. Physical service, education, social needs and worship are all within the responsibility of the church.
Physical needs are important. Just as all humans have the duty to avoid bodily harm and cursing because of the image of God (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9), Christians have the duty to take positive actions for others.14 The church not only teaches Christians to perform physical works of service that help the needy (James 2:15-17; Matthew 25:31-46; Galatians 6:10), it also sets an example of ministering to physical needs, as Jesus did. The church teaches social responsibility and morality to all who are being transformed closer to the image of Christ. It is often our failures in social areas that help us realize that our relationship with God is in need of repair.
The church preaches a message of reconciliation with God, which is a result of faith in Christ as Savior. Cognition and emotion work together to produce the faith-decision of the will — whether to believe (cognitive) and trust (emotive). The church teaches about God and Christ and exhorts people to accept the relationship with God that is offered through Christ and the Spirit. A love-based relationship with God, in turn, carries with it obligations regarding our relationship with other humans. Theology leads to ethics.
Christianity interrelates all aspects of humanity — worship, social obligations, rational decisions, and physical assistance. The church teaches relationship with God, faith in him, love for him, holy living (James 1:27; Hebrews 5:14; 1 John 3:1-3; 5:2), and love for other humans, a love that leads to practical service (James 1:27; Hebrews 10:25). The church teaches the proper use of dominion, rationality, creativity, and personality.
We are made in God’s image, but the potential value of this image will not be realized unless we become conformed to the image of Christ in our morality. To be living in God’s image, we must be in a right (i.e., moral) relationship with God and with other humans, using our minds and our authority to serve God and our fellow humans. This is what it means to be in the image of God and conformed to the perfect image, his Son.
1 These terms are used interchangeably in Genesis 1:27; 5:1; 5:3; 9:6; they are used in Genesis 1:26 as synonyms in a typical Hebrew poetic parallel (Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989, p. 7).
2 Animals could be killed, but humans were not to be killed because they were made in the image of God (Genesis 9:3, 6). Adam could not find any animal suitable as a companion (Genesis 2:20), and humans were given rulership over animals (Genesis 1:26-30).
3 Hughes, p. 7. Humanity’s similarities with animals include the fact that both are living nepheshes made of the earth, dependent on the breath of life (Genesis 2:7, 19; 7:15). These material similarities with animals suggest that the image of God is not to be found in our matter, including shape or posture. Humans are in the image of God even if they are deformed.
4 Thomas Aquinas, “Man to the Image of God,” in Millard Erickson, editor, Readings in Christian Theology, Volume 2: Man’s Need and God’s Gift, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976, pp. 37-43.
5 Leonard Verduin, “A Dominion-Haver,” in Erickson, pages 55-74.
6 G.W. Bromiley, “Image of God,” in G.W. Bromiley, editor, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988, p. 804.
7 Emil, Brunner, “Man and Creation,” in Erickson, pages 45-54.
8 Genesis 1:26 implies that the image of God is a qualitative rather than quantitative distinction. We are distinctly different than animals — not just more intelligent than apes and not just able to rule more of creation than elephants can. Some aspects of cognition and dominion are merely quantitative, which again suggests that they are not definitive of the image of God.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Michael Morrison and updated in 2014. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.
9 Bromiley, p. 805. The metaphor of image is again paralleled by the metaphor of sonship, in that Christ is the Son in its fullest sense.
10 Christ is more than an example, since he is the One who empowers the transformation we need and rectifies our failures along the way.
11 Bromiley, p. 804.
12 Bromiley (p. 804) and Hughes (pp. 18-20) point out that animals are created male and female, and that sexual activity is not necessary for image-bearing. Moreover, humans are not the only social animals, so this is a quantitative rather than a qualitative difference.
13 Brunner, pp. 45-54.
14 The practical implications of the image of God were seen by Tyndale and Latimer, who argued that it was more important to serve the needs of the living images of God than to give money to the church for lifeless images (Hughes, p. 21).