The image of God (LD 3, q&a 6)

Introduction

I am not able to keep God’s law perfectly. Without my saviour, I am a miserable sinner, in the power of the devil. This is true for me, for you, for all people. I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbour. 

That was the teaching of Lord’s Day 2—see the previous lesson. But we must delve a bit deeper. Why is it that I cannot help sinning? All too often, people say: “We are only human.” As if it is part of human nature to be imperfect and unloving.

If we say that, we are really pointing the finger at God. If he created us as human beings, isn’t it his fault that we are not good enough? Did he not create us weak and imperfect, unable to keep his law? If that were true, it would be unreasonable for God to set the standard so high. Ultimately, he should blame himself for our sin and failure, since he created man so wicked and perverse.

But it is not true, says the catechism in Lord’s Day 3. God did not make corrupt people. He did not create us with a sin problem. He did not create a human nature that is inclined to hate him and other people. He cannot be blamed, because he created man good. In fact, he created us in his image.

In this lesson we discuss what that means. Because it shows what human nature really is supposed to be. It shows us the purpose of our life. It also helps us see how much we have lost—and how much we get back when Jesus saves us.

    The image of God.

        1. How God created us
        2. Why God made us
        3. What we have lost

How God created us

When you read the creation story in Genesis 1, you hear that refrain: “The Lord saw what he had may, and see, it was good.” But best of all is the last thing God made: humankind, starting with one man and one woman. “It was very good,” says the Bible. (Gen. 1:31) Human beings do many wicked things, but that evil is not an essential part of human nature. The catechism summarizes it briefly: God created man good

What does it mean for us to be “good”, even “very good”? A profound answer can be found in the way Genesis 1 describes our creation.

    Then God said: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.
    And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea
        and over the birds of heaven and over the livestock
        and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on earth.”

    So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:26-27)

Unlike all other creatures on earth, God created us in his own image. He made us to be like him in a profound way. There are differences, of course; God is a spiritual being, while we have physical bodies. God is unlimited, while we are limited by our physical bodies. God is all-powerful, but we have only limited influence. Still, in our limited way, we reflect so much of who God is, that we may think of ourselves as image-bearers, showing and reflecting in our very make-up what God is like.

What does that mean practically? There are many wonderful qualities people have. Intelligent thought, creativity, physical skills, beautiful bodies, and so on. Psalm 8 says:

    You have made [mankind] a little lower than the heavenly beings
        and crowned him with glory and honour.
    You have given him dominion over the works of your hand;
        you have put all things under his feet […] (Ps. 8:5-6)

But the catechism highlights two especially important qualities: we were created in true righteousness and holiness. The Bible also uses this combination of words to describe the perfect human life. (Luke 1:75; Eph. 4:24) When the Lord created Adam and Eve, they were perfectly righteous. They understood how to be good governors of this world, and how to treat others fairly. Their actions were completely in line with God’s will for the world. They were also perfectly holy, that is, focused on worshipping the Lord with a pure heart. Obeying God’s law came to them easily. It was natural for them to love God and love each other in thoughts, words, and deeds.

When we think about who we are, we should keep this in mind. When God created us, he equipped us with many wonderful qualities. God created man good and in his image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness.

Why God made us

God not only created human beings good; he also created us for a great and wonderful purpose. You could say, in general, that God created all things to show his beauty and his glory. But he created mankind for an even higher purpose. The catechism summarizes this purpose in three short sentences:

    so that he might rightly know God his Creator,
    heartily love him,
    and live with him in eternal blessedness to praise and glorify him.

To know God, to love God, to live with God. The Lord made us for a relationship with him. That is an amazing thing! God is our Creator, infinitely powerful and greater than we are, and yet he wants us to be his companion. He made us, human beings, to share his thoughts with us, to enjoy life together with us.

First of all, he made us so that we would know him. Know him rightly, the way he is. Our minds were created so that we can understand much of who God is. We can, as it were, “think his thoughts after him.” We were designed with emotions, so that we can enjoy beauty just as God enjoys beauty, so that we can be joyful and excited about all that is good.

Second, he made us so that we would love him. Love him heartily, that is, sincerely and from the bottom of our hearts. To enjoy living our life for him, spending our time with him, eager to have intimate fellowship with the God who made us.

Third, he made us so that we might live with him, to work alongside him in this world that he made. The kind of life for which we were made is eternal, without end, without death or decay. It is a life of perfect blessedness, without frustration or suffering. The Lord made us for a life that is one song of praise to God. He made us to glorify him, to show off his wonderful goodness and creativity and beauty in who we are, what we say, and what we do.

Rightly know God, heartily love him, and live with him forever—that is God’s purpose in our creation. He gave us a perfect purpose; he gave us the righteousness and holiness needed to fulfill that purpose. When he looked at Adam and Eve, he saw his own best qualities reflected. They were the most wonderful things that he had made. There was absolutely nothing wrong with them. They were made for fellowship with the Lord, and in the course of time they could bring forth many other people to live that same perfect life.

What about all the things in life that are not so good, our suffering and other imperfections? Well, we certainly cannot blame our Creator. He made us good and beautiful like himself. He did not cause any of the bad things.  No, on the contrary, God created man good and in his image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love him, and live with him in eternal blessedness to praise and glorify him.

What we have lost

When I think about our creation in God’s image, and about the perfect life for which mankind was created, it makes me wistful. If only we could live like that… The fact of the matter is that we have lost much of our good qualities, and therefore we fail at our purpose. That is true for us together, as mankind; it is true for each of us personally.

We have lost our righteousness: very often we do things that are wrong, things that are harmful for ourselves, for others, and for the world around us. One reason for this is that we lack the wisdom and insight to make good decisions. Our minds are “darkened”, says the Bible (Rom. 1:21; Eph. 4:18). Another reason is that we simply don’t want to do the right thing, and we choose to sin. When temptations come, we easily give in. Instead of listening to God’s will and his law of love, we pursue pleasure, selfish ambition, and wealth.

We have also lost our holiness: we often forget our relationship with the Lord. Instead of worshipping him, we make an idol of ourselves, or of things in the world around us. When the first people were created, they loved to spend time with the Lord and bask in the light of his glory. But now we tend to crawl away, far from God’s presence. Jesus said: “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” (John 3:18)

There is still much in human beings that is beautiful and good. We still have remarkable skills that reflect some of God’s qualities. We have many qualities that no other animal has: intelligence, moral agency, creativity. When God created people, he gave them dominion over the earth and the animals; and we still do that work, albeit in a very flawed way. Even as sinful people, we still carry an imprint of God’s glory. That is why Christians insist that we must respect all human life, including the unborn child, the severely handicapped, and even the worst criminals.

But we have lost our most glorious qualities. We are no longer able to give perfect care to the world in which God placed us. We are no longer capable of giving God the worship he deserves. In that sense, we lost the “image of God.” As we will discuss in the next lesson, this happened through our own fault; God himself is not to blame.

Thankfully, our Saviour God is not content to leave us in this terrible situation. The gospel tells us that he will take care of all that is wrong, in the world and in our lives. One way of saying this, is that God restores the lost image of God in us.

That restoration has already begun. If we wish to see the true, perfect image of God, we must look at Jesus Christ. “He is the image of the invisible God.” (Col. 1:18) “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” (Heb. 1:3) Jesus himself said: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 6:46; 14:9) Our Lord Jesus has the perfect righteousness and holiness of the first creation—even more.

Because of that, Jesus is our example and our goal. He shows us what we will be like when we have been saved completely. As believers, we are “to be conformed to the image of God’s Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). All of Christian life can be viewed as growing more and more into that perfect image of God. Paul writes: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Cor. 3:18

Jesus Christ came to bring back the true image of God to people who had lost it. His Holy Spirit is working even today to remake that image of God in every Christian believer. Once again we learn to be truly righteous and holy. This is such a profound change, that the Bible calls it “being born again.” (John 3:3); and it speaks of a “new self”. “Put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Col. 3:10)

Conclusion

In this lesson we have looked back at the original creation of human beings. We were made most wonderfully, perfect in every way, an accurate reflection of who God is, but in physical form.

It is important to think about this for four reasons. 

  1. We must know that God is not to blame for what is wrong with us. He made us with the highest possible perfection. 
  2. We must be aware of how much we have lost. We may not be content with our imperfect self; we should be sad about our lack of righteousness and holiness. 
  3. We need to know that Jesus Christ has brought back the perfect image of God. We should look at him to see what God is like, and to understand what human life was made for. 
  4. We may believe and experience that the Holy Spirit is remaking us in God’s image, from day to day. If we seriously live the Christian life, we can expect to grow in righteousness and holiness. As we grow older, we can expect to get to know our creator better, to love him more deeply, and to live with him in peace and happiness.

In the end, God will restore his image in us completely. When the Lord Jesus returns, he will make all things new. He will complete his work in us, and we will perfectly reflect God’s wonderful qualities. In that new, good and holy world, God’s image will be visible; first and foremost in Jesus Christ, and then also in all who have believed in him.

Questions

Reading/listening questions

  1. What does it mean that people were created “in the image of God”?
  2. What are two important qualities of this “image”? Explain each word briefly.
  3. Name three things for which God created us.
  4. What does it mean, practically, that we have lost the image of God?
  5. Where can we see the image of God today?

Discussion questions

  1. “Our intelligence and creativity make us like God.” Do you agree?
  2. The purpose and task of human beings is described in Gen. 1:26; 1:28; and 2:15. How are you fulfilling these things in everyday life?
  3. Jesus is now in heaven. Does that mean we can no longer see the perfect image of God?
  4. Can you give an example from your own life that shows how you have grown in righteousness or holiness?
  5. What can we do to “put on the new self”, to reflect the image of God better?

Suggested Bible reading schedule

MondayGenesis 1:26-31. What aspects of being “in God’s image” does this passage mention? What is God’s assessment after creating people in his own image?
TuesdayRomans 1:18-24. One of our sinful attitudes is to focus on the wrong kind of “image”. What contrast does Paul make here? (v. 23)
WednesdayEphesians 4:17-32. How does sin affect our knowing, loving, and living? How should people who know Christ know, love, and live?
ThursdayColossians 1:15-20. What is said here about Jesus Christ as the image of God?
FridayColossians 3:1-17. What happens practically when we “put on the new self” and are renewed in the image of God?
SaturdayGenesis 9:1-7. How did God reaffirm human beings as “image bearers” after the Flood? What is a practical consequence of this? (see esp. v. 6)

Further Reading

Understanding the “image of God”

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