Ask the Expert with Dr. Stephen Wellum on the Image of God.
Question: What does it mean that God made man in his image and likeness?
Answer: “In my view, [when God in the Bible says that he made man in his likeness and image], I would…see image and likeness…as synonyms with a slight nuance. Image/likeness refers, first and foremost, to humans as God‘s representatives on earth, his vice-regents in this world.
Image/likeness picks up the fact that unlike any other creature, including angels, humans alone are God‘s representatives, God‘s rulers over creation, God‘s sons (in the sense of his representatives) made for covenant relationship with the Lord and out of that relationship to rule over the creation. Angels are unique creatures, and they show a lot of similarities to humans, but they are not image in the sense that they do not rule over the creation; instead they are God‘s messengers.
So, bottom line what does it mean to be in the image of God? It means that we are created different than all of the other creatures in the sense that we are rulers over God‘s creation, we are to be God‘s representatives in the world as God‘s vice-regents.
For this view of image to be true, it entails that humans have a certain makeup or ontology which allows them to function in a certain way. One must not pit ontology vs. function. In order to rule over the creation (function) and to be in covenant relationship with God (function)…we have certain capacities and a certain structure (rational, moral, spiritual, etc.).
What does sin do to the image? If image is understood in what I have said in the previous points, then sin defaces and distorts the image; but it does not totally remove the fact that we are image. We are still made to rule and be God‘s representatives, but sin means that we do not fulfill our calling to its fullest extent; and that is an understatement. So, we are made for covenant relationship with God, but sin turns us from God and alienates us from him. We are made to rule and to use our reason, minds, etc. to rule, but sin distorts those capacities and defaces them. Instead of using our reason for worship, ruling, and service, we use it to raise our fists against God, to “create” a universe of our own making, to become idolaters, to make things which distort the very purpose of our creation, etc. Anthony Hoekema describes this as we still remain in God‘s image, yet our functioning as the image is defaced.
How do we know that the image still remains intact in non-Chrsitians? See Genesis 5:1, 9:6; James 3:9. All of these texts are post-fall, yet they describe humans as God‘s image and likeness. In fact, Genesis 9:6 lays down the grounds for capital punishment due to the fact that fallen creatures are still God‘s image bearers.
For the Christian, in Christ, the image is renewed, in the sense that we are restored to what God made us to be in the first place. Our reason now is used to glorify God, our capacities are used to fulfill our vocation, etc. None of this is complete until Christ returns; but it begins in salvation and progressively grows until our final glorification.”
Praise be to God.