Dr Wayne Grudem is an American theologian who has had a significant impact on evangelical thought. His treatment on the concept of the image of God in humanity1 provides a helpful perspective and a good starting point for those interested in studying what the Bible says on the subject.
One way Grudem approaches this subject is by tracing the concept chronologically through the Bible, producing a helpful example of biblical theology. He tells the story of the image of God in humanity with four words: Creation, Distortion, Recovery, and Restoration.
The Bible declares that “God created man in his own image.”2 An image (paired with its parallel term “likeness”) is something that is either similar to something else, or it represents something else. Grudem concludes that human beings were created like God (in some ways) and they had the responsibility to represent God (in some ways). Theologians essentially agree with that. Our differences come when we seek to further define exactly in what way Adam and Eve were like God at creation, and in what ways they were intended to represent him.
The fall into sin and depravity has distorted the image of God in us, but has not destroyed it. This can be seen in the fact that God forbids murder on the basis that humans are in his image.3 James insists that all people should be treated fairly because they are equally “made in the likeness of God.”4 So, even though the fall has drastically changed us, there is a special dignity and identity that we all share by virtue of that special creative act. The Bible does not spell out the details of that uniqueness, and it is wrong for theologians to use it as evidence to refute what the Bible teaches elsewhere.
The process of sanctification that every true believer experiences can be described as a progressive recovery of the original image and likeness God intended at creation. The Bible teaches that believers are “being renewed in knowledge after the image of (our) creator”.5 Paul describes this process by explaining that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”6
The goal of this transformation process is that we might some day “be conformed to the image of” Christ.7 The Bible encourages those of us going through the process that “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.”8 As Grudem puts it, the “amazing promise of the New Testament is that just as we have been like Adam (subject to death and sin), we shall also be like Christ (morally pure, never subject to death again).”9
Wayne Grudem is not a conditionalist: he does not believe that human beings are mortal and that believers await the gift of immortality at the resurrection. He believes that “our souls or spirits live on after our bodies die.”10 But he is careful not to base that belief on the concept of the image of God given at creation. Others are not so careful. Some assert that being created in God’s image guaranteed immortality for all humanity forever. Here is a conditionalist response to that assertion:
- Genesis 1:26-27 does not clarify in what way humans were created in God’s image.
- There are a number of things that it could mean. It could refer to our capacity for relationship (male and female). It could refer to our essential dignity as chief of the created beings on earth. It could be that humanity represented God before the rest of creation as an idol (image) represents a god or king. In the story of creation itself, there is no evidence that immortality is implied.
- Even if immortality were part of the image we bore at our original creation, the fall distorted that image in certain ways that the Bible makes clear in multiple texts. From that time on, humanity was not like God in two specific ways. First, we are sinners, God is not. Isaiah says “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way”11 That aspect of the original image was gone unless and until redemption and restoration.
- Second, we are mortal, God is not. The Bible uses the word mortal to describe all humanity without qualification.
- Job 4:17 “Can mortal man be in the right before God?”
- 1 Corinthians 15:54 “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.””
- Hebrews 7:8 “…tithes are received by mortal men,”
- God, on the other hand, is said to be immortal alone, without any qualification and without sharing that attribute with any others.
- 1 Timothy 6:15-16 “the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.”
The concept of the image of God can be a useful tool in explaining the gospel. It contains all the elements one needs to explain what God intended for humanity, how we lost it, and how Jesus’ death at Calvary and the Holy Spirit’s work in believers’ lives can help us to gain back what we lost. Some, however, make that gospel message more confusing and complicated by throwing the unbiblical concept of the immortality of the soul into the works. When that is done, it becomes less clear what it is that humanity has lost, and what we hope to gain.
Grudem’s chronological approach to the issue of the image of God can be a helpful practical means of letting the Bible speak for itself in explaining the gospel message. We can use the terms creation, distortion, recovery, and restoration to explain the grace of God, and the goal of that grace, which will be fulfilled at the return of Christ. There is a fallen, dying world that needs to hear that message.
- See Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 442-450
- Genesis 1:27 ESV
- Genesis 9:6
- James 3:9
- Colossians 3:10 ESV
- 2 Corinthians 3:18 ESV
- Romans 8:29
- 1 Corinthians 15:49 ESV
- Grudem, 445
- Grudem 472
- Isaiah 53:6 ESV