By Taylor Combs
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. … Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. … So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female.
Christians believe human beings were created in the image of God. Yet most of us, I would venture to say, have little idea of what that means and why it matters.
We hear about the imago Dei in occasional sermons about abortion or end-of-life ethics, reminding us of the dignity of every human being. This is good.
But we could stand to hear much more about what it means that humans, unique among all of God’s creation, are said to be made in His image.
What Does It Mean?
Theologians have given three broad categories throughout history for what it means that we are made in God’s image.
The most common category is what we’ll call the structural category. This view asserts that something in our very makeup reflects God.
Instead of saying “we bear God’s image,” you might say “we are God’s image.” It’s in our being, our essence. The image of God is something we are.
A second category used to define this doctrine is the relational category. This view, made popular in the early 20th century, says that the image is found in our capacity for meaningful relationship—with God, with one another, with the created world.
Some theologians have emphasized the covenantal nature of our being. That God made us and invites us into covenant with him, and in him with one another, is a unique privilege. The image of God is something we have.
The third category, rising in prominence in recent years, is the functional category. Proponents of this view argue that to image God is primarily a verb. What was God doing in the context in of the creation story when we were made in His image? Creating.
And what did He command us to do? “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it.” These actions are the function of imaging God, according to this view. The image of God is something we do.
Brilliant theological minds have differed on the precise definition of the image, but I think it’s best to contend for a holistic view. The image of God is structural, relational, and functional.
To put it concisely, the image of God is the essential and unique quality of human beings whereby we reflect and represent God in the context of meaningful relationship with him, one another, and the rest of creation.
But why does it matter?
1. Preaching on the Image of God Will Prepare Your Life in the 21st Century.
I am convinced that in 2020, no doctrine is more under attack in our world than this.
Christians in the West are bombarded with false anthropologies—unbiblical theologies of what it means to be a human being. The consequences have been disastrous.
The sexual revolution has redefined gender again and again. Our culture is in a years-long struggle related to racial reconciliation.
And as technology continues to advance, transhumanists seek to redefine humanity, helping us “evolve” above and beyond our current state.
I’ve already mentioned abortion and end-of-life ethical questions as well. All of these are matters related to the image of God.
If you’re a pastor or church leader, you cannot simply give your congregants the answer to all these questions. In fact, you know as well as anyone that you don’t have all the answers! But you can give them solid theological ground on which to stand.
As your people begin to grasp, through your biblical preaching, what it means to be made in the image of God, they will see the implications of these truths for the various cultural issues of our day.
2. Preaching on the Image of God Will Lead to Sanctification.
It’s healthy to have a solid doctrine—even a devastating doctrine—of sin. Few of us overestimate sin’s effect on our lives, and on the human race as a whole. But a healthy doctrine of the image helps us to see sin in its context.
When we start with the imago Dei and only then get to sin, we can see the unspoiled state from which Adam and Eve fell in the Garden.
Human beings are radically depraved, but we aren’t wholly bad—we’re still image bearers, and that tells us something about what we’re called to be.
In our redeemed state, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we recapture some of what it means to bear God’s image. How?
By imitating Christ, who is Himself “the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) and “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3).
Jesus is the perfect image of God. We are His disciples.
As we seek to imitate Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we start to look like our Father again.
As we come to understood that the truest version of ourselves is not the old self, whom we’re called to put to death, but the new self, made after the image of Christ, we’re empowered to do just that. (Colossians 3:9–10)
3. Preaching on the Image of God Will Change Your Corporate Life
Preaching on the image of God will help your people interact with the world, and it will help them in their personal sanctification. But it will also change the corporate tenor of your congregational life.
When people start to realize what it means not only that they are made in the image of God, but that everyone around them is made in the image of God, they will treat people will the honor, love, and respect each is due.
James warned against the sinful use of our words: “With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in God’s likeness” (James 3:9).
But how can Christians do this when we understand the weight of the imago Dei? The answer—we increasingly should not.
Not only will a love of neighbor rooted in this doctrine cast out cursing against one another, it will expel the power of all kinds of disrespect and disdain, ultimately helping the members of your church body love and respect one another.
The doctrine of God is and will always be the most important thing for believers to study and understand. A biblical understanding of the gospel is also essential for a faithful Christian life.
But in our day, special attention must also be given to the imago Dei, the image of God, the doctrine of humanity. When we understand who we are and who our neighbors are—in light of who God is—it changes everything.
Taylor is an associate publisher for B&H Publishing and is active in the teaching ministry at Grace Community Church in Brentwood, Tennessee.