Created in the Image of God
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The imago Dei has been a doctrine of debate for many years. “Theological anthropological claims were derived by applying the general account of creatureliness to human creatures in particular, qualified by the claim that what distinguishes them as specifically human is that God creates them into the image of God.” Throughout the centuries, people have been in many discussions and studies about what it means to be made in God’s image. There are many theories from being made in the image of love, to being a good and moral person, to having the creative ability to steward and care for the earth, to…I’m sure many other ideas. All of which point to the character and personhood of God. Just what is the image of God? What does this mean for humankind and its identity? What are the implications for salvation and life everlasting?
For a while, I have fallen into the camp of saying God is love and we are created in the image of love, but I have come to better understand this is true, yet not a complete understanding. Why? Because of the way love is defined in our current culture—more dealing with feelings than as a way of life. Another way I have understood the image of God is we have morality within us. It is true humanity has the moral law written on our hearts. This is why we can determine what is right and what is wrong. Duane Stephen Long writes, “The moral life has its origin in our creation in the image of God and its end in our restoration and return to that image.” But I have some reservations about this. Is the imago Dei “just” about morality? Are we not considered “moral” when we move on from this life? Or does “morality” take on a new meaning, or dimension, when we transition into the next life?
Now we come to, what I think is, the real issue—who is God and what is God like? I also believe how we live out our life shows what we believe about the nature and person of God within us. When we take the time to study, reflect on, and pray about who and what we are, we can begin to understand our purpose in this world because we understand there is a deep level to goodness there is within the world, and within the nature and character of God. “The triune God is complete goodness…the triune God is the perfect fullness of being…God loves his own goodness such that he seeks to share it. This occurs through the second person of the Trinity, who is the image of God.” Our entire life should point and be directed to the Son, the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ to best understand the image of God.
To this end, I am concluding the image of God is about relationship. To be made in God’s image shows we can have a deep relationship with the creator, other people, ourselves, and creation. One of the things to understand is God is in relationship with Godself through the Trinity. The Trinity, the relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, show us it is possible to live in perfect harmony and peace with others. I believe this is God’s intent—we live, with the Spirit of God dwelling with us, in perfect harmony and peace with everyone and everything around us while we take care of and tend to the created order, as God would do here since we are the image-bearers of God and God’s representatives here on earth. As Stephen Fowl writes, “In creation God freely wills not simply the existence of humans created in the image of God, but God also desires fellowship with humans, offering them a share in the divine life. This is both the intention with which God created and the end for which God created.” And everything was all well, and good, until, free will got the best of humans and the divine image within humanity became marred through the entry of sin and evil in our world.
Image of God Broken Within Us
Humanity was created to be God’s image-bearers on earth and take care of the created order. “The issue at stake, rather, is the theological account of the specific relationship of two causalities to each other—the triune God, creator and redeemer, and the human being, created in the image of God and existing under the condition of sin.” Now that we understand this concept, we have to take responsibility and respond to God. We can either accept gratefully this image and task, or we can reject it. When we reject God, this response, “may take the form of efforts ‘to be self-constituting and isolated being’, i.e. the form of sin that distorts the image of God vertically and horizontally.”
Because of sin, we easily lose our divine purpose, within us, and end up making ourselves made into the image of anything else that makes us happy. Thus, idolatry, greed, murder, thievery, adultery, etc. become the “gods” we seek after to fulfill us and we have allowed these other “gods” to lead us to live a life for us rather than the life God created for us. We continue to mar the image of God within us by reshaping our lives by the relationship(s) we have with other entities we feel are more valuable than the life of God within us. We miss out on living out the divine relationship of the Trinity in which we have been created. Why? “Sin obtains, with the consequence that the entire relations that constitute persons is distorted or ‘fallen’” meaning we have lost our way, our purpose, and our identity. Unfortunately, because the reality of sin and evil, has entered into our world, and every human, there is nothing we can do, on our own, to change our relationship with God and restore us to the divine image.
What happens next is humanity will begin to seek after other things, people, statuses to believe they have found who they are and what their purpose is for life. Idols and idolatry now come into view, which distorts the vision humans have of themselves and the created order even more. We think we can “fix” this problem on our own, so we will do everything possible to try to “earn” God’s favor and acceptance, but we can end up making things worse because our focus is not on God but on ourselves and how we want God to fix us so our lives are better. It is too easy to treat God as our magic genie, who works for us, and expect God to do our bidding, thus attempting to make God an idol who works for us. We need the grace of God. We need God to do something, to intervene in our lives to make this change for us. We need God to remind us who we are and replace the image of ourselves once again with the divine image to restore all relationships in this world.
God Reveals Himself
Due to the fall (sin and evil becoming attached to human life and existence), humanity had lost so much of its identity concerning how to be in relationship with God, others, self, and creation, that is it impossible for us to restore the relationship status we were created in without any assistance. Therefore, God sent the Son, Jesus the Christ, as the one who would save and atone for the sins of the world. What this means is God descended from heaven to show the people of Israel (eventually the world) what it means to be human and live into the divine image. To best reveal himself to the world, God sent Jesus, the human revelation of God in flesh. Jesus is the way we can experience a restored relationship with God, others, self, and creation.
Before Jesus came, humanity did not have a full revelation about who God is and what God’s nature is like because God revealed small amounts of the divine character at different points in history (see Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets). Humanity was not able to grasp the richness and deepness of God, so God needed to send a full representation of himself to show the world who he is and what his character is like. Jesus is this revelation for humanity. In Colossians 1:15, the Apostle writes out a hymn and confession of faith that was taught to teach about who Jesus is. “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” The revelation of God has been made known through Jesus the Christ. Without Jesus, God would still be unknowable, in the manner we can know God today. Therefore, humanity would not know the divine image given to humanity at creation. It is also through the Holy Spirit, within us, we can more fully understand who we are because of the image of God by leading us to Jesus Christ. “The gift of the Holy Spirit invites us to participate in the life of God by drawing us into the life of the Son.”
Made in the Image of Christ
“As a human person who is the image of the invisible God, Jesus Christ is not merely a spirit or soul but an embodied human being.” Jesus is the way humanity can personally know God—who God is, what the character of God is like, and thus who we are, as people. “To know who God is, the theological virtue of faith is necessary.” To be restored to the image of God, God allowed humanity to have faith in God’s Son, Jesus the Christ. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God…” Jesus tells his disciple, Phillip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” To know Jesus is to know God. To know God is to know who God is. To know who God is reveals who we are. To know who we are reveals the divine nature within us. To know the divine nature within us reveals how we should live, in relationship with God, other people, ourselves, even the created order.
Jesus has been made known to the world, and now humanity can know what it means to be made into the image of God by being recreated, reformed into the image of Christ because of God’s grace through our faith we direct back to God through Jesus the Christ. The image of Christ does everything possible to proclaim and connect the world with the already yet coming kingdom of God. We can see how this is carried out within the pages of the New Testament.
“In the New Testament the imago is identified with Jesus…the imago was not fulfilled at creation but rather is a divinely given eschatological destiny. This destiny is fulfilled by the eschatological Spirit, who, transforming human beings by incorporating them ‘in Christ’…drawing them into participation in the divine life.” One of the ways we can see this lived out and practiced is in the letters of Paul to the people at Corinth. He writes, “Follow [imitate me] my example, as I follow [imitate] the example of Christ.” To fully live into the divine image, we (humanity) need to follow the example of and imitate the life of Jesus. It is in Jesus Christ the image of God is fully lived out. We, humanity, now have the chance to display and live into love, morality, joy, peaceful relationships, etc. because this is all part of the divine image, the imago Dei. This is all possible by placing and grounding our faith in Jesus Christ.
Faith, in Christ, is where this transformation begins. “Persons are re-created, the image of God restored, when they are conformed to Christ.” “The theological virtues, gifts, and beatitudes restore us into the image of God, Christ, whose life is the foundation for this restoration. Through his incarnation and its meditation through the church in word and sacrament, we participate in his righteousness.” This kind of life leads us to the gift of salvation and understanding how we should live, in this life, and in the life to come.
Salvation and the Goal of Salvation
For people to fully realize a life lived in and with the imago Dei, humanity needs to be recreated into the original image God intended. Nothing will be set right, no relationship will ever be peaceful or just until the imago Dei is fully restored in the life of the follower of Christ. This begins a process of being recreated, being made new in Christ. In the process of being made new, being recreated, this does not take away our uniqueness, it simply means the essence of who we are (our motives and focus in this world) will be recreated and re-centered around the God who created us. “Re-created persons truly image God. Thus personhood is inherently centered outside itself. Since, as created, personhood is already intrinsically related to God, God’s relating to re-create does not threaten person’s autonomy and subjectivity.” All of this is made possible through the work of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul reminded the people of Corinth, “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old is gone, the new is here!” Humanity can, and will be recreated into something new, something that God intends, something that will allow humanity to dwell and live with God in life everlasting, or as N.T. Wright says, “life after life.” This is the goal of salvation–theosis.
“Theosis (divinization) is not, of course, a ‘becoming God’, but being made into the ‘likeness’ of God, which means being drawn much more deeply into the relationships in which God exists as a Trinity of love…salvation is a ‘coming closer to God’ or an ‘ever intensifying relationship.’” What this means is humanity moves closer and closer to the original design of perfect relationships whole, at the same time, moving away from the relationship and damage of a life guided and lived under the curse of sin.
One of the beautiful aspects of salvation is the past, present, and future aspects of the working of God in our lives. We have been saved. We are saved. We will be saved. God’s act of salvation is constantly moving us closer and closer to the divine and deeper and deeper into the divine relationship. With each act of God, we realize more and more of the divine image within us and we can see how God, because of the work of Jesus Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit, is moving us to live into more of the divine image. Forgiveness of the sin nature within us is transforming the marred part of us and transforming the sin nature back into the imago Dei.
What Does This Mean?
Restoring the divine image within us, transforming us into the image of Christ, means God is making us whole. We will not have to think there is something we’re missing out on because we find our completeness in the presence of God. After all, we will find God’s image within us and working through us. It is our relationship with God that makes us whole. Being whole means we see how we are set apart—made holy. This is the goal of reclaiming the imago Dei in us. We become a set-apart people shining forth God’s light, love, and character into the world. We live into the Great Commission (going, teaching, baptizing, making disciples) because this is who we were created to be and because we have a deep longing for others to know, realize, and live into the divine image within themselves too. How cool is it, God gave us the Holy Spirit to know God personally and to know God is guiding, directing, encouraging us each step of the way to not forsake or quench the Spirit within us, but to become more and more into the likeness and image of Jesus Christ? This is the image the world needs today and what the world needs to see so transformation can take place and we can visibly witness the kingdom of God reigning and ruling in this world. We become, by the grace of God, new creatures, transformed into whole and holy people doing the work, and living the life, God originally intended for God’s people.
 Genesis 1:1a; 26a, 27 New International Version
 J.B. Webster. The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, 122
 Ibid, 460
 Ibid, 460
 Ibid, 348
 Ibid, 291
 Ibid, 132
 Ibid, 132
 New International Version
 J.B. Webster. The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, 460
 Ibid, 75
 Ibid, 460
 1 John 5:1 New International Version
 John 14:9 New International Version
 J.B. Webster. The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, 129
 1 Corinthians 11:1 New International Version (my addition of imitate)
 J.B. Webster. The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, 132
 Ibid, 461
 Ibid, 132
 2 Corinthians 5:17 New International Version
 J.B. Webster. The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, 176