Come, let us worship and bow down,

Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.

Psalm 95:6


A Truth Suppressor's View of Personhood

In December 2014, what was hailed as a landmark ruling from an Argentine court regarding the case of Sandra, a “shy, twenty-nine year old,” was reported in numerous global news outlets.  Sandra had lived the entirety of her life as a captive, most of it in the capital city of Buenos Aires.  The lawsuit was brought in order to seek Sandra’s freedom from her “unjust imprisonment.”  

The critical matter before the court hinged, however, not on the legitimacy of the claims regarding her imprisonment, but rather on whether Sandra was a “thing” or a “person.”  The court’s momentous verdict was ultimately rendered in favor of Sandra as a “non-human person.”  As such, Sandra was “thus entitled to some legal rights enjoyed by people, and better living conditions.”  Sandra, by the way, is a Sumatran orangutan and, with the court’s decision, became the “first non-human animal recognized as a person by a court of law.”

Sandra the orangutan may be the first animal to be granted legal status as a person, but she isn’t the first animal to be elevated to equality with mankind.  In fact, as Paul clearly shows in Romans, men who “suppress the truth” about God “in unrighteousness” don’t merely elevate animals to the same status as man, they elevate them to the status of gods.  “Professing to be wise, they became fools,” writes the apostle, “and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (Rom. 1:22-23).

“Most animal rights groups start with an evolutionary view of mankind.  They view us as the last to evolve (so far), as a blight on the earth, and the destroyers of pristine nature.  Nature, they believe, is much better off without us, and we have no right to interfere with it.  This is nature worship, which is a further fulfillment of the prophecy in Romans 1 in which the hearts of sinful man have traded worship of God for the worship of God’s creation.”  Ken Ham

As noted by Paul in his first-century world, and as evidenced by Sandra the orangutan in ours, those who fail to worship God do not fail to worship.  Worship is a universal behavior of mankind, believer or not.  We inherently have, by divine design, the realization of the transcendent, that there is a God.  Paul remarks of the truth suppressors that “though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God” (Rom. 1:21).   Man may not worship the true God, but man simply cannot “not worship.”  So in Paul’s explanation of God’s wrath on unrighteousness in Romans 1, sinful, truth suppressing men substitute anything and everything in place of the true God in their worship.  

God's Imago Dei Design

John Calvin rightly noted that “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”  While Calvin’s comments correctly apply to the entirety of fallen humanity throughout history, “man’s nature” as an idol factory was not our original design.  Our original, “very good” (Gen. 1:31), design wasn’t with a sinful nature prone to idolatry, but with one divinely and sinlessly fashioned to exclusively worship and commune with the Creator who made us.  Our original design was imago Dei.

“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’  God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.  God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth’.”  Gen. 1:26-28

Because man was made imago Dei, which is Latin for “image of God,” we can understand Paul’s explanation about idol worshiping, truth suppressing, unredeemed man.  Their failure to honor God, whose image all men are to reflect, results in futile speculations, in foolish hearts which are darkened.  Those who should be reflecting the image of the holy and righteous God instead sinfully and pridefully deny Him and, “professing to be wise, they became fools”  (Rom. 1:22), worshiping the creation rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25).  It is understanding imago Dei that fundamentally informs us about what God’s intended, original design for man was – and remains – and it rightly informs us of the wrath-begging judgment that man’s image-denying idolatry demands from a holy God.

But what exactly does imago Dei mean?  Theologians have wrestled with this for centuries and numerous biblically worthwhile ideas have been proffered.  Perhaps the seemingly difficult struggle is compounded because the topic of imago Dei is only explicitly mentioned in the Old Testament in three passages, all from Genesis.  Genesis 1:26-28, cited above, is the first reference to imago Dei in God’s revelation to us.  

In Genesis 5, in which the descendants of Adam are given, verses 1-3 summarize the imago Dei creation of man, and tells us that Adam “became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image” (Gen. 5:3).  The original imago Dei design was therefore reproduced through the progeny of Adam.  The final Genesis reference to imago Dei comes from the Lord in His words to Noah in which He decrees capital punishment for murder: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Gen. 9:6).

The first chapter of Genesis, though, gives us perhaps the fullest direct explanation about imago Dei.  In it we easily note the distinction between plant and animal life, created “after their kind” (Gen. 1:11, 12, 21, 24, 25), and the uniqueness of man, the sole creature made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27).  The Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck wrote: “The entire world is a revelation of God, a mirror of His virtues and perfections; every creature in his own way and according to his own measure is an embodiment of divine thought.  But among all creatures only man is the image of God, the highest and richest revelation of God, and therefore head and crown of the entire creation.”

Three Categories To Help Define Imago Dei

In considering what imago Dei means, three defining categories arise.  There is the representative view in which man is intended to represent God on earth.  There is the relational view which says that man’s nature, compromised of his spiritual, rational, and volitional capacities, among others, allows him to engage in complex relationships that reflect God’s own relational capacity by virtue of these same attributes which He exhibits in perfection.  The third category, the functional view, emphasizes man’s divinely assigned duties of subduing the earth and taking dominion of it rather than what his nature is.

Louis Berkhof, in his Systematic Theology, provides a further helpful explanation of the Reformed conception of imago Dei.

“To sum up it may be said that the image consists: (a) In the soul or spirit of man, that is, in the qualities of simplicity, spirituality, invisibility, and immortality. (b) In the psychical powers or faculties of man as a rational and moral being, namely, the intellect and the will with their functions. (c) In the intellectual and moral integrity of man’s nature, revealing itself in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10. (d) In the body, not as a material substance, but as the fit organ of the soul, sharing its immortality; and as the instrument through which man can exercise dominion over the lower creation. (e) In man’s dominion over the earth.”

In Biblical Doctrine, edited by John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, similar implications of imago Dei are given:

“First, the image of God is affirmed for all persons – male and female alike.  Genesis 1:27 states, ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’  While distinct genders, both male and female are equal as persons and equal in value.”

“Second, even after the fall (see Genesis 3) all people still possess the image and likeness of God.  This is affirmed in Genesis 5:1-3 for both male and female and for the offspring of Adam and Eve …”

“Third, the image of God explains mankind need to live in relationship with others.  The triune God is three persons in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This is the foundational definition of the essential nature of God.”

“Fourth, the image of God is connected with man’s task to ‘rule’ and ‘subdue’ the earth on God’s behalf.  (Gen. 1:26) … God tasks man to manage the world as his representatives.”

Paul’s Roman commentary about idolatry, perpetuated in our day by such things as the elevation of Sandra the orangutan to the status of personhood, informs us that the imago Dei has been horribly impacted by the Fall.  The doctrine of total depravity correctly, and biblically, speaks to the thoroughness of corruption that man’s sin has wrought.  There is no part of us unaffected by sin.  Our ability to represent God is grotesquely marred by it.  Our capacity for relationship is fraught with sin.  Our ability to execute our divinely assigned functions is corrupted by our iniquity.  That man was made in the image of God, and is to bear that image before the world, has been wickedly distorted by man’s willful rebellion in sin.  Fallen man cannot rightly reflect God’s image, though vestiges of its divine stamping upon us remain.

God's Restoration Of The Fall-Destroyed Imago Dei

In order, then, to apprehend a proper understanding of imago Dei, we must not only look back at the Scriptural record to ascertain the meaning, but we must also look forward in Scripture.  As Calvin helpfully notes, “Since the image of God had been destroyed in us by the fall, we may judge from its restoration what it had originally been.”

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.  For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.  Romans 8:28-30

When we look at  God’s intent in Christ for us, we turn to Paul’s summarized ordo salutis.  Paul’s pithy outline of the order of salvation makes clear to us the divine purpose of our salvation.  He has predestined believers “to become conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29).  The “image of His Son” is, of course, nothing less than the very imago Dei in which man was originally created. 

The author of Hebrews clarifies this by confirming for us the very deity of the Son: “He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” (Heb. 1:3).  Paul makes the same statement about Jesus to the Colossians: “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).  To the Corinthians Paul writes, regarding the blinded eyes of unbelievers, that the “god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).

That man has fallen into sin is self-evident and, equally evident is that sin has corrupted the imago Dei design of God for man.  Not only are we unable to rightly bear God’s image, but we cannot, with blinded eyes, even behold the glorious image of God Himself in Christ.  “But God,” as Paul notes in Ephesians 2:4, has shown great mercy by making believers “alive together with Christ,” noting that “by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:5).   God’s intended end-goal for  His salvation is nothing less than our full, final, eternal conformity to Christ (Rom 8:29) who is the glory of God (John 1:14).  Our salvation by Christ places us in Christ to bear the image of Christ, the imago Dei.  And all for the glory of God  (Rom. 11:36).

And put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth”  Ephesians 4:24

“…since …[you] have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him …”  Col. 3:10

“… in Him you have been made complete …” Col. 2:10

Believers, by the grace of God in Christ, are both being restored and have been restored to the originally intended design of imago Dei as exemplified in Christ alone, the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45).  While our ongoing, temporal sanctification finds us necessarily mortifying the sin of the flesh in which our new self yet resides, we are increasingly, temporally able to rightly reflect God as He intended when conferring upon man the unique status as His image-bearer.  From God's judicial perspective, however, in Christ the restoration is complete (Col. 2:10).  As Paul gloriously confirms as a completed event by employing a past-tense word to emphasize eternal certainty, we have been “also glorified” (Rom 8:30). 

Consider Calvin’s comment on Colossians 2:10 regarding what the image of God means for the believer:

“We are renewed after the image of God. Now, the image of God resides in the whole of the soul, inasmuch as it is not the reason merely that is rectified, but also the will. Hence, too, we learn, on the one hand, what is the end of our regeneration, that is, that we may be made like God, and that his glory may shine forth in us; and, on the other hand, what is the image of God, of which mention is made by Moses in Genesis 9:6, the rectitude and integrity of the whole soul, so that man reflects, like a mirror, the wisdom, righteousness, and goodness of God. He [Paul] speaks somewhat differently in the Epistle to the Ephesians, but the meaning is the same. See the passage — Ephesians 4:24. Paul, at the same time, teaches, that there is nothing more excellent at which the Colossians can aspire, inasmuch as this is our highest perfection and blessedness to bear the image of God.”

Unlike the truth-suppressing, idol-worshiping unbeliever who remains in Adam and thus must die (1 Cor. 15:22), those who are “in Christ will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22) and our “new self” in salvation is “according to the image of the One who created him” (Col. 2:10).  Believers, then, do not desire to make any graven images or worship a false idol.  We know that God will tolerate no graven images (Exodus 20:4-5) because He has filled the earth with men and women created in His image.  Though the fall destroyed the image, in and through Christ, God restores it.

“Paul says that we are transformed into the image of God by the gospel.  And, according to him, spiritual regeneration is nothing else than the restoration of the same image (Colossians 3:10, and Ephesians 4:23).”  John Calvin

As we come to worship God, let us worship Him as the gracious giver of His image to us.  Though sin has corrupted that image, let us thank Him for His sovereign plan to redeem for Himself a people who are being temporally, and will be eternally, conformed to the image of His Son, Who is the image of the invisible God.  Let us joyfully anticipate the certain, promised result of His grace for “We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2).  Let us exalt Christ as His image bearer, knowing that the divine glory and infinite value isn't in the mirror, but in One whose image we are to reflect.  Let us so live our Christian lives that we are the worshipful image bearers mirroring our blessed God who has forgiven us, redeemed us, justified us, and glorified us, all done for the abounding of His glory throughout His creation (Isa. 43:6-7, 1 Cor. 10:31).