“The glory of God is a human being fully alive; and to be alive consists in beholding God.” Irenaeus
“Thus humans may be said to have a reflexive identity. In some sense they find meaning outside themselves by virtue of what they reflect.” Richard Lints
There are few questions more significant than what it means to be an image-bearer of God. It’s at the heart of what it means to be human. It governs our ethics, calling us to see every person (not just those like us or those we like) as valuable and treat every individual with dignity, respect, and honor. It helps us answer questions like these:
- Why do we exist? What is our purpose?
- What makes human life valuable?
- Where does our worth, dignity, and value as human beings come from?
- How should I talk to, treat, interact with, and relate to this person or group?
Identity has (rightfully) received more attention in recent years. We all want to know who we are. Every human person’s identity question (Who am I?) is fundamentally answered by what it means to be created in God’s image. We must factor in how sin scars, mars, and wrecks the image of God in us without eliminating it, and then how in Christ we’re remade into God’s great design for us as his image-bearers, but we can start with some simple thoughts on what it means to be an image-bearer.
It’s a big question that could be answered in various ways (for a fuller treatment, see Created in God’s Image by Anthony Hokema or Made for More by Hannah Anderson), but below are some thoughts to guide our thinking.
All humans were created with a fundamental identity as unique (among creation) persons who bear God’s image. There’s a lot to be said on what it means to be image-bearers of God but we might boil it down to these basic truths. Our identity begins like everything else in creation—even what is not in God’s image—as a created being. But then we as human beings quickly depart from the rest of creation in our unique and privileged status as image-bearers.
We are creatures, which means we live dependently on our Creator, we owe allegiance and obedience to Him, we flourish when our lives match up with His plan for us, and we are created to bring glory to Him.
The basic Creator-creation distinction reminds us that God is God and we are not. This is true for all of creation and is not unique to image-bearers. Identity is found when we place ourselves into God’s story of what He’s doing in the world and what His plan is, not when we make ourselves the center of the story and either push God out or squeeze Him in. All of life is lived before God (coram Deo) and all of life is lived to image God (imago Dei).
- Creatures depend on their Creator.
- Creatures obey and live in accordance with their Creator.
- Creatures glorify or worship their Creator.
We are ambassadors, which means God placed us on earth to act as His representatives who would reflect Him and represent Him as we steward the earth.
This is seen in God’s command to exercise dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:26-28). As we care for, provide oversight of, and generally rule the earth in a manner that works for its good we are imaging how God rules the universe.
This affects how we work, our involvement in culture and government, our care for creation, education, and letting the Church influence large segments of society around us. This also entails being faithful and truthful witnesses who remind people of who is king. The scene in Genesis 1 likely draws upon Ancient Near Eastern practices of kings putting their images throughout the kingdom as a reminder of who rules. When we reflect God’s character and desires and when we speak His truth we represent Him on this earth.
- Ambassadors reflect the King and the kingdom wherever they go.
- Ambassadors represent the values, character, beliefs, and priorities of their King.
- Ambassadors work to expand the interests and glory of the King/kingdom.
We are relational, which means we’re created as worshippers to be in relationship with God, but we’re also created to be in relationship with other human beings.
Genesis 1 indicates that not only does each person image God, but the unity in the diversity of male and female together images God (Gen. 1:27). The three persons of the Trinity are equal and they eternally live in relationship with one another. Males and females together image God uniquely but it also points us to the reality that our diverse personalities, ethnicities, skills, experiences, and characters image God.
Hannah Anderson summarizes this well in her book, Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God’s Image.
By doing this, God revealed two fundamental truths about our humanity: (1) both men and women are fully formed, equal image bearers, and (2) we are different from each other and therefore dependent on each other. In other words, while each of us is fully in the image of God, none of us can fully reflect and represent God alone. Instead we reveal the nature of God together, and as a result, we also find identity together.
This also tells us we’re not monads meant to live in isolation. We are meant to belong to a community and to have healthy relationships with other people. As we love, serve, and enjoy other people we reflect the eternal and beautiful image of the Father, Son, and Spirit incessantly loving, serving, and enjoying one another.
- Relationally we’re created to know, love, and be in communion with God.
- Relationally we’re created for communities where we belong and experience God through others.
- Relationally we’re created for healthy relationships of mutual serving and love so as to bring about one another’s joy and good.
We are moral, which means we can know right and wrong and exercise our moral wills in such a way to do what is right.
Paul seems to suggest this aspect of image-bearing: “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). Man and woman were created without sin and were to reflect the character of God: righteousness, goodness, holiness, justice, love, purity, and the list could go on and on. Whereas animals act impulsively and do what leads to their survival, humans are moral beings who can and should live in accordance with what is right.
Our heart, thoughts, words, and actions are meant to express the moral attributes God shared with us by making us in his likeness. God’s love is seen in how we put His love on display (see John 13:35). This relates to the other categories so that our relationships, our stewardship, and our whole life as ambassadors is all done to reflect the character and concerns of God.
- Moral persons reflect the attributes of God He has communicated to us.
- Moral persons can make decisions consistent with values rather than impulses.
- Moral persons can understand the difference between right and wrong.
How Being in Christ Redeems Us as Image-Bearers
These are fundamentally true of all human beings and not just Christians. We need to recognize how sin has marred the image of God in mankind so our lives only dimly reflect and represent God. Mankind has the possibility of living in line with what I’ve described but sin distorts and disturbs our desire and ability to do so.
The good news of being in Christ is we regain what was lost at the Fall and the Spirit is working to remake us into God’s image more and more (2 Cor. 3:18; 4:4; Rom. 8:29; Col. 3:10). We find wholeness and fulfillment by rooting our identity in Jesus, not be fashioning a self-made version of ourselves or taking on an identity given to me by the world. Who we are, fundamentally, is who we are in Christ.
- In Christ we’re reconciled back to God and again experience the joy of intimacy and fellowship with Him.
- In Christ we again belong, as God is our Father and the Church is our family.
- In Christ our minds see what is worthy of worship, and as our hearts and minds re-center their worship on Jesus we begin looking like him.
- In Christ we again find our purpose as we represent Jesus on this earth and make ourselves servants for the good of others.
- In Christ we can have healthy relationships because we experience the grace, forgiveness, and love of God that enables us to give these things to others.
- In Christ we’re given the wisdom of what is good and upright, and what will lead to God’s glory and our joy, and the Spirit helps us to then walk in such things.
- In Christ we reclaim what was lost in Adam and we’re made participants in the new creation so we can begin to experience the life God intended for us. It starts now but one day it will be fully and finally completed as our God dwells with his resurrected people on a restored earth forever.
In other words, my gospel-identity can be summarized as follows.
I am a created person made in the image of God. Sin—inherited and committed—corrupted me, wrecked but didn’t eliminate the image of God in me, and distorted my identity so before Christ I didn’t understand who I was. In Christ—through the gospel, by grace, through faith—I am reconciled back to God, redeemed from my former shame and sin, and finally have my identity restored in Jesus.
The Christian life is about the Spirit remaking me into the image of God by transforming me into the image of Christ, and as this happens I discover God’s good plan for what it means to be human. As Christians corporately and individually reflect and represent Christ in the world we fulfill our original design to spread the glory of God. Although I am now a new creation in Christ and have a new identity in Christ, in this life we give in and fall prey to mistaken identities and identity theft by letting sin confuse, confine, and condemn us to our old self. And yet, we await the day when sin will be eradicated completely and we will finally be glorified so that we will live forever as humans fully alive.