The Image of God and the Quest for Holiness

The biblical story of creation tells us that all of humanity is remarkably designed by our Creator God, but in the Christian understanding of spiritual formation, this likeness has limits. Bearing God’s image in the inner person does not mean that a person is or can become divine. God will always be other than his creation, including humankind. This is known as transcendence, meaning that God is beyond and superior to all that he created.

This transcendent otherness will remain throughout eternity. Still, there is a proper sense of our participation in the divine nature. God, in his gracious design, has given human beings an invisible soul that is immortal and everlasting, attributes of his divine nature.

But our participation in the divine nature must be understood in a way that avoids any notion of human beings becoming God. This distinction separates Christian spiritual formation from a non-Christian New Age view. Christian spiritual formation allows for oneness with the will of God and a oneness of purpose, but never a oneness of substance.

The biblical presentation of this relationship “emphasizes that human beings are distinct from the wholly other God, their Creator. And yet the priestly writer in Genesis would have us believe that something in us is an icon of God.” (W. S. Towner, “Clones of God,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible & Theology 59.4 [2005]: 341-42.)

Our understanding that the call to be like Jesus lies within God’s original and eternal design for humankind opens for us a deeper appreciation of God’s plan of creation. It allows us to understand that the New Testament message of who we are and whose we are is firmly rooted in the first chapter of the Old Testament book of Genesis. It also begs that we ask just how Jesus is the image of God. It is observed that the New Testament speaks of Jesus as the image of God because in the life and ministry of Jesus the presence, power, and rule of God is made known (Paul Sands, “The Imago Dei as Vocation,” Evangelical Quarterly 82.1 [2010]: 38.) Jesus announced the arrival of God’s rule (Mark 1:15), and he displayed kingdom power in many of its aspects (Matthew 12:28). He lived out the words he taught to his disciples in the Lord’s Prayer: “May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). He was the image of God in his perfect obedience to the Father’s will (John 5:19, 36; 8:28; 10:37–38; 12:49; 14:10–11).

Ultimately, Jesus obeyed to the point of death and was exalted by God (Philippians 2:5–11). In all things he brought glory to God. This example of Jesus helps us learn what the human vocation is to be like. From the life of Jesus it is understood that the human vocation embraces surrender to God, which defines both our relationship to God and to others (Matthew 6:33). M. Robert Mulholland wrote, “Union with God results in our being a person through whom God’s presence touches the world with forgiving, cleansing, healing, liberating and transforming grace.” (Robert Mulholland, The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self, 16) As reflected in the life of Jesus, spiritual formation, or sanctification, is the growth we are to experience as people who believe in Jesus—growth that moves us toward the image of God. Are you seeing the big picture?

From the very beginning and throughout all of time, God has had in place a pattern and a process that flows from his sovereign decision to make us after his own image. It was into this vocation—bringing glory to God—that the first Adam was created, but he and all his descendants have failed at the task. It was into this vocation that the second Adam, Jesus, was born. Through his perfect surrender and sinless life, Jesus fulfilled the human vocation. “In short, Christ imaged God by fulfilling the human vocation. Christians image God as they are progressively conformed to the image of Christ, ” says Robert Mulholland (p. 38-39). Jesus lived out the image of God in his daily life and ministry (Colossians 1:15, 19).

We participate in the divine image only as we live lives as true disciples of Jesus. This conveys the vital understanding that the image of God, and therefore being in the image of God, is a dynamic reality. When our life is lived in the image of God, it is not a motionless picture. Rather, it is a vigorous, active, and forceful life—a life that reflects the glory of God. The fall of humankind resulted in a realignment of life, the distorted focus on things other than God. Since Jesus is the imago Dei, a focus on Jesus is a restored and properly aligned life focus. In Jesus “the mirror of our humanity loses it distortions and regains its proper focus on God, so that in Christ the image is restored and through him can be restored in us as well.” (T. A. Smail, “In the Image of the Triune God,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 5.1 [2003]: 23; see Colossians 3:10.)

Our creation in the image of God means much more than can be observed from a casual reading of the Genesis passage (Genesis 1:26–27). When we see its relation to our human vocation, it compels an order of life that surpasses the relatively mundane pursuits that we so often mistakenly perceive as life’s ultimate goals. That short passage in Genesis encapsulates what it means to be truly human. It also provides a hint as to God’s design for our destiny. “If the first Adam shows us what we are, the last Adam promises what we shall be, and the one is the fulfillment of the other.” (Smail, 23)

With this understanding, the full extent of the dynamic revealed by creation in the image of God begins to become clearer. The image of God is the ultimate promise for and reality of humankind; it is true personhood. As the revelation of creation in the image of God begins in the Genesis story, its conclusion is found in the narrative of God’s work presented in the book of Revelation. Through that revelation comes the vision of God’s faithful people with the name of the Father and the Son on their foreheads:

Since a person’s name is a manifestation of their nature, to have God’s name upon one’s forehead is to have one’s nature conformed to the nature of God. . . . Being the people of God is a matter of having one’s very being restored to the image of God. In Paul’s terms, it is being conformed to the image of Christ (M. Robert Mulholland Jr., “Revelation,” Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, ed. Philip W. Comfort [Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2011], 481.)

For a brief time the first ancestors experienced life in the image of God, but now those who follow await the day when they will be fully conformed to the image of the Son (Romans 8:29; cf. 1 John 3:2). That does not mean waiting passively through this life on earth. It is a life in which the follower of Jesus is called to actively participate each and every day:

But the end of our faith, the salvation of our souls, is the actual conversion of our whole nature into the image of Christ. The end is a person that esteems others as more important than self. It is a content and generous heart. It is a soul that has taken ownership of the spiritual climate in his or her church; that has learned to wait on God; to see with faith, to rejoice in suffering, and to suffer with the world (Steve DeNeff, 7 Saving Graces: Living Above the Deadly Sins [Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan, 2010], 32–33.)

The marvelous grace of our Creator distinguishes us from the rest of creation. Only we are created in the image of God and invited into a personal relationship with God. It is God who defines that relationship and how we enter into it. This reality of creation justifies a very high view of humanity not only because the human race was originally created in the image of God, but also because we may be restored by God’s grace to that image.

From the first chapter of Genesis, God told us who we are and who we are to become. By patterning human beings in his image, God began the revelation of the fullness of life he planned for the pinnacle of his creation. On this T. A. Smail wrote, “We are the human beings that we are through our bearing of the imago Dei, which is not a religious add-on to an already existent humanity but itself constitutive of that humanity.” (Smail, “In the Image of the Triune God,” 23. In other words, who we are as human beings and who God intends us to be is expressed from the very beginning by God’s creation in his image. Creation in the image of God means human beings have souls that can be transformed from a distorted image to the Creator’s image. We have been made by God and for God, and our fulfillment in life comes with our alignment with this truth of creation.

Are you interested in learning more about this topic? David Long wrote a book, The Quest for Holiness: From Shallow Belief to Mature Believer. It’s a work that seeks to help individuals, small groups, and entire churches understand humanity’s fallen nature and surrender more and more to the transforming work of the indwelling Holy Spirit. It is also our Book of the Month for March, so you can buy one and sow a second copy for free! Get your copy from our store now.

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Dr. David C. Long began his professional career as a trial lawyer. He and his wife, Lori, accepted the call to take the gospel to the ends of earth later in life, as they moved to Hong Kong with their family. He has served as president of One Mission Society, and he currently teaches spiritual formation and theological education with the society.

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