In my latest book project, I’ve been studying and writing about how Jesus saw people. Jesus perceived a <em>light</em> in others (Matt. 9:10-13)—even in the darkest characters—that he went to brighten. He saw something in them worth redeeming. What was it? The short answer is the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27).
A Dense but Pressing Question
But what does it mean to be made in God’s image? I’m not exaggerating; I’ve studied theology for years: You could fill libraries with all that’s been written on what it means to bear God’s image. Everyone who answers the question simplifies things somehow, and I’m no different. But I do think I’ve come to understand the image of God in biblical categories that lie at the bedrock of our understanding. Other facets of the image of God, in other words, can be added to the following definition, but nothing can be taken away.
Knowing the answer to this question is always pressing—since we always need to know who we are. But in our time, it seems even more relevant than usual. Identity is a central theme in Christian and non-Christian literature. (I wrote an article on our identity in relation to the Trinity). Everyone with a sliver of influence seems interested in claiming some territory in this age-old region of human inquiry. As Christians, we need to have a biblical, concrete answer to this question that guides how we act in the world. My hope is that this article contributes to that end.
Four Touch-Points and Three Takeaways
I’m going to give us four touch-points and then three takeaways. At the end, I’ll suggest what difference all this makes in daily life.
Touch-point 1: We are covenantal creatures, born into a knowledge of God through revelation.
This was the Apostle Paul’s point in Romans 1, where he says that all people know God. The knowledge of God marks us as creatures made in God’s image. He writes, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20). “The things that have been made” means everything. Everything around us reveals God (Ps. 19:1-4). That means we’re born into a relationship with him, a covenant. And that covenant has relational requirements for us. That’s why Paul says people are “without excuse.” Without excuse for what? For acknowledging God’s presence and being faithful to him. That’s what it means to be in a covenant: to recognize another and act in faithfulness according to the relational boundaries.
We're born into a relational covenant with God.
Touch-point 2: A knowledge of God is implanted in every person.
John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion talks about the knowledge of God that is implanted in each person. He calls it a sensus divinitatis, or sense of divinity. Some people have translated it as “seed of religion.” What Calvin adds to our understanding here is that it’s not just God’s created world “out there” that gives us knowledge of him. That knowledge of God is also inside us. Notice how what he writes is in step with the Apostle Paul: “We regard it as beyond dispute that there is in the mind of man, by natural inclination, a certain feeling for divinity, so that no one should seek refuge by claiming ignorance.”1 This is in us "by natural inclination." Calvin will later talk about our conscience as one component of this sense of divinity. The point is that we’re made with a knowledge of God from both the outside (the created world) and the inside (sense of divinity). This doesn’t mean we all know Jesus Christ, that we all have saving knowledge of God. It just means that no one on the face of the planet can say in truthfulness, “I don’t know who God is, and I’m not in a relationship with him.” What we have instead are people who suppress this truth; they push it deep down inside themselves. But just like a balloon under water, it keeps popping up.2
We’re made with a knowledge of God from both the outside (the created world) and the inside (sense of divinity).
Touch-point 3: We’re always bent towards communion with God.
The Dutch theologian Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) recognized these truths, but he was able to see their spiritual implication. If God is always revealing himself outside us and around us, then we’ll always be drawn to him. We’ll always be yearning for him in every facet of life. Here’s how he put it. “That man bears God’s image means much more than that he is spirit and possesses understanding, will, etc. It means above all that he is disposed for communion with God, that all the capacities of his soul can act in a way that corresponds to their destiny only if they rest in God.”3 We are always and everywhere bent towards communion with God. We want his presence in every arena of life. Every human soul is leaning, searching for the grand column of God to rest his shoulders on. Every relationship, every ambition, every desire, every loss, every frustration—everything is pulling us toward God, towards our ineradicable need for communion with him. We’ll never be satisfied apart from that.
Every human soul is leaning, searching for the grand column of God to rest his shoulders on.
Touch-point 4: We’re always reacting to revelation.
The last touch-point comes from another Dutchman. Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) followed the Apostle Paul, John Calvin, and Geerhardus Vos. He embraced the teaching of Romans 1 and the call to commune with the God who is always revealing himself to us. But he also added an important emphasis, captured in a single word: reaction. If God is always revealing himself to us, and if we’re always bent towards communion with him, then we’re always reacting to God’s revelation. Think of this in an ethical sense: we’re reacting in faithfulness (in Jesus Christ) or in rebellion (in Adam). When speaking of God’s ever-present revelation within and outside us, he says, “man is always reacting ethically to this revelation of God. . . . The Holy Spirit testifies to man through his own constitution as well as through the facts of the universe around him, that he is God’s offspring and should act as such.”4
Why is this so important? Well, many people assume there's some sort of neutral territory for humanity. In other words, at any stage of life we can be for God, against God, or neither. Van Til is saying there is no “neither.” We’re always reacting to the revelation of a good, beautiful, authoritative God. There are only two directions for us to choose from at any given moment: faithfulness or rebellion. Indifference falls into the latter category. Put differently, there is no such thing as a spiritual Switzerland.
Three Takeaways: Covenant, Communion, and Reaction
So, those are the four touch-points, which lead naturally to three takeaways. We can fit them into three words: covenant, communion, and reaction. That’s what it means to be made in God’s image. We can always ask the following questions about who we are and what we’re doing.
- How am I doing in covenant? Where am I being faithful to the God who brought me into being? Where do I need help? Where am I trying to rebel against his words? What are the results of that rebellion?
- How am I doing with communion? How am I longing for communion with God in the various facets of my life?
- How am I reacting to what God is revealing to me? What is God showing me about himself out in the world and in my own conscience? How am I responding to that? Am I responding to it with indifference?
Why Does All This Matter?
Now, why does all this matter? While this may sound like a lot of jargon—maybe even from old, tight-faced curmudgeons—it’s critical for our daily life because everyone in the world is looking for two things: (1) reminders of their identity and (2) encouragement in developing as a person.
Knowing who you are isn’t just an existential dilemma; it’s affecting your choices each day. If you believe you are your feelings, then you’ll chase them like mad and make every effort to feel a certain way, even at the cost of others. Conversely, if you know you’re a covenantal, communion-seeking, ever-reacting creature of God, you’ll be motivated to give yourself to others and love as he loved.
And once you know who you are, you need continual encouragement from God’s Word and other Christians to become who you already are. Encouragement isn’t an optional behavior choice for Christians; it’s a touchstone of who Jesus is. Encouraging others (and encouraging yourself through the reading of God’s statements about you) is part and parcel of the Christian life.
This also has lots of implications for how we treat others who don’t believe in God, who aren’t following in the footsteps of Christ. What do those people most long for? Restored relationship with God that affirms their unique value as his children. And that is why they want and need love more than anything else. That’s the mark of a true Christian, after all (John 13:35). We aim to love everyone we encounter because that’s what they want most and that’s who they are: a creature made to love God and others selflessly. That's ultimately what covenant, communion, and reaction point to: faithful love. Apart from that, people will never be satisfied.
If we want to live well each day, we have to start by knowing who we are. The biblical teaching that we bear God's image can shape how we treat ourselves and others each day. We are ultimately concerned with relationship (between us and God, and between us and others) and how that relationship influences the thoughts, words, and actions that emerge from our hearts.
1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: Translated from the First French Edition of 1541, trans. Robert White (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2014), 3.
2. On this suppression dynamic, see Romans 1:18 and also K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 50-53. The illustration of a balloon popping up after being pushed under water came from his AP 101 class lectures.
3. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics: A System of Christian Theology, ed. and trans. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2020), 231.
4. Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 2nd ed., ed. K. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015), 237, 238.
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