Many theologians have pointed out that the image of God that humans bear may be a reflection of God’s spirituality, rationality, morality and creativity. While this seems to be a reasonable deduction, all of these elements of the image of God can only be reflected in us insofar as we have a connection—a relationship— with Him.When we remove God from our moral life, our moral compass becomes dim. When we remove God from our spiritual life, we worship created things rather than the Creator. When we remove God from our intellectual life, we find that our ideas of truth and goodness become corrupted. When we remove God from our creative life, we create implements for wickedness that perverts the image of God in mankind.
Why is a relationship with God so important in sustaining His image? Because relationship is one of the keys to our very personhood. Dennis Kinlaw, in his book Let’s Start with Jesus, writes, “a person finds completeness only in being related to others in trusting love.” As evidence, Kinlaw looks into the very being of God. The Scriptures tells us that God is love, which is not to say that he is loving, as if it’s something He occasionally does, but that He in His essence IS love— which is to say that God is self-giving communion. Kinlaw reminds us that, “God is the original of all things, a communion of three distinct persons whose existence consists in the giving and receiving of themselves to and from each other. Self-giving constitutes their being.” If God’s personhood is communion, or relationship, and we are in His image, we are also relational. If we complete each other as human beings because of this image in us, how much more will the image of God in us become corrupt when we are not in relationship with God—the source of this image?
There are (for the purposes of this entry) four ways that God sustains His image in humanity, and they are all acts of revelation wherein we are not the iniators. God first sustained His image with Adam and Eve by walking with them in the Garden, secondly He sustains His image in all sinners by showing Himself to them, thirdly He sustains His image in those who are saved by entering into communion with them, and finally He will glorify us when He comes again and fully restores the image we have corrupted.
God Revealed Himself in Eden
In the Garden, the image of God in humanity was sustained by God fellowshipping with Adam and Eve. Genesis teaches us that Adam and Eve walked with God and ate from the Tree of Life which God gave them. This sustained their life and their reflection of God’s image. When they sinned against God, He took away access to Himself as well as the Tree, telling them that as a consequence of sinning against Him He would remove life from them. Mankind’s disobedience and sin has snow-balled since that moment, as we remove ourselves further and further from communion with God, and His image continues to dim in us as we move toward corruption. This is an act on our part against communion with God in favor of a selfish inward-turning, that results in the perversion of God’s image and eventually our complete undoing. Whether or not the Fall in the Garden is a historical event (as is claimed by liberals and increasingly, moderates and some conservatives), its basic message that our eternal life is dependent upon God and that we remove ourselves from God (and thus life) by turning inward into selfishness is still absolutely valid.
The fourth century theologian Athanasius, in his work On the Incarnation, wrote:
“For if, out of a former normal state of non-existence, [our first ancestors] were called into being by the Presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God and were [turned], they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption. For man is by nature mortal, inasmuch as he is made out of what is not; but by reason of his likeness to Him that is (and if he still preserved this likeness by keeping Him in his knowledge) he would stay his natural corruption, and remain incorrupt.”
Eastern Orthodox theologian John D. Zizioulas points out that even if God weren’t judging humanity in giving them over to their sin, the consequences of humans turning away from relationship with Him and inward into themselves would be the same:
“Man was not created immortal, but by having his personhood he was made capable of communion with the immortal God. Death came to him not as a punishment in a juridical sense but as an existential consequence of the break of this communion; it came at the moment that man became introverted, and limited the ekstatic movement of his personhood to the created world.” Zizioulas then explains that by man’s personhood, he is referring to the image of God. In other words, when man is separated from God, and thus God’s image is dimmed in him, man is not a full person, but an empty shell that can only be filled by being in a right relationship with God. Because we are separated from God, we have no goodness in us that makes us want to seek God. But God in His love and mercy continues to reach out to us by revealing Himself in relationship.
God Reveals Himself to the Unsaved
To the unsaved, God sustains His image by revealing Himself in prevenient common grace. Unfortunately, for the unsaved this is a one-way relationship—God reaches out to them, but they continue to turn away from Him. Romans 1:19 tells us that sinners are all without excuse because “that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (NASB). God continues to reveal Himself to sinners who have no desire for Him. Not only does He reveal Himself to them, He reveals Himself in a way that enables them to turn to Him. In John 12:32, Jesus says, “when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all men to Myself” (NASB). Finally, Paul tells us that in Jesus, “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (NASB). Sadly, many of us continue in rebellion against God despite this revelation, further sullying His image in us. Paul tells us in Romans 1:21-24, “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools… Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (NASB).
While this type of revelation of God can often bring sinners to Him, many do no respond. But this doesn’t mean that the image of God has completely died in them. Because God works His way into the consciences of those who are against Him, they still reflect His goodness and His image. It is also important to note that without God’s reaching out, none of us would turn to Him. We are completely dependent upon His grace, and none of us deserve His favor.
God Reveals Himself in Salvation
Some do turn to God because of this revelation of Himself, and the image of God in them becomes much brighter because they know Him. John 1:11-12 tells us that, “[Jesus] came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.”
One of the most important things for Christians to remember is that we are saved because God revealed Himself to us, and sought to bring us into relationship with Him. It is not our goodness that saves us, but God’s. Because we are now part of God’s family, we ought to be reflecting His image beautifully.
Paul tells us in Colossians 3:9-13:
“You laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him–a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all. So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (NASB).
Not only is the image of God being renewed in how we relate to God, but our relationships with each other ought to reflect the image of God more fully as well, as we reflect Him in communion.Because God is complete in the communion of the Trinity, we are complete persons *only* in communion with God and with other believers.In Christ, the man-made distinctions that we create don’t matter. We are in communion with one another because we’re in communion with God. The relationship that you or I have with God is one we all share. We live every day to love God and love one another, and to forgive each other as God forgave us, as the image of God becomes brighter and brighter in each of us.
God Reveals Himself When He Comes Again
What we await is for the image of God in us to be fully restored. 1 John 3:2 tells us that, “now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (NIV). Paul tells us in Romans 8:9 that, “the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” (NIV). When Christ returns, sin and death will be destroyed, and the children of God will be revealed as the holy bride of Christ. The image of God will be fully restored in us, and we’ll know God face to face.
The image of God in us is based on being in relationship with God. And this is based on God’s revealing Himself to us. If God would not reveal Himself to us once we had fallen out of relationship with Him and into self-centeredness, we would be lost and His image in us would become corrupt and eventually destroyed. As Athanasius says:
“God has made man, and willed that he should abide in incorruption; but men, having despised and rejected the contemplation of God, and devised and contrived evil for themselves, received the condemnation of death with which they had been threatened; and from thenceforth no longer remained as they were made, but were being corrupted according to their devices; and death had the mastery over them as king. For transgression of the commandment was turning them back to their natural state, so that just as they have had their being out of nothing, so also, as might be expected, they might look for corruption into nothing in the course of time.”
If the image of God in us is to be preserved, God must bring us back into relationship with Him– we cannot do this ourselves. This is the meaning of grace. God gives us grace—His unmerited favor— by revealing Himself to us, desiring that we would turn to Him. God seeks a relationship with us, and has done everything needed to bridge the gap between us and Him. The question is, will we turn to Him in love and worship? Will we respond to His call and be received into a loving relationship with the Triune God who is love? We have been rightfully ejected from relationship with God and deserve the destruction that results from turning against Him and corrupting His image in us. But His love is so phenomenal that He took the penalty of our sin upon Himself to bring us back to Him. As the Christian band Half-Handed Cloud sang, “when we found out that you’re seeking, we didn’t have to hide anymore.” If anyone is hiding from God now, know that He’s seeking you, in order to bring you back to Him. We may have created a chasm between God and us, but God has made a bridge—the cross of Jesus Christ which has taken our sins away—so that we can know and enjoy God again in communion with Him.I hope that you will seek Him now, and that you will be blessed by a saving relationship with the God who is love.