The idea of the image of God in Reformed theology has never fully jelled. Too often in the minds of interpreters the idea suggests an analogy to be drawn between the Creator and the creature made in God’s likeness (the terms “image” and “likeness” are generally understood to be synonymous). The contrast is made between archetype and ectype, between infinite and finite being, and between incommunicable and communicable attributes. It is said that man mirrors God in some ways, more than others. The image is, accordingly, defined in two aspects, the narrower (true knowledge, righteousness and holiness, which are lost after Adam’s fall into sin) and the broader (including the ability to reason and communicate, to investigate and exercise dominion over creation with moral sensibility, what is a testimony to “natural law”).
At best, the concept of man as image of God is elusive in theological exposition. The mistake is that exegetes have missed the immediate context of the revelation concerning man’s creation in God’s image in the opening chapter of the Bible. God said: “Let us make man in our own image.” Is this statement made by the Father to the other two Persons in the Godhead (what is implied in the notion of the “plural of Majesty”), or does this assertion bring into view the theophanic Spirit, God’s deliberative Counsel that includes the holy, ministering angels? In the previous article, we gave indication of the prevalence of the Glory-theophany in the history of revelation, beginning with the account of creation and extending over the course of redemptive history, old and new economies. Parenthetically, the view that angels, lacking physical bodies, are thereby denied sonship—and not to be regarded as made in God’s image—is in error (see the argument presented in Part One; cf. additionally, Job 1:6, Ps. 89:6,7; cf. Ps. 82:1).
Likeness to God brings into view both priestly and kingly exercise, requiring consecration of and dominion over all creation. The office of prophet awaits the fallen situation in which humankind finds itself after Adam’s transgression in the garden of Eden. Essential to the biblical explication of the idea of man as image-bearer of God is the doctrine of probation, pertaining both to the angelic and human realms. The Psalmist tells us that the first Adam was created a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8); the writer to the Hebrews informs us that the second Adam, in taking human form with a view to fulfilling all righteousness as covenant Head, was also made (i.e., positioned) a little lower than the angels (Hebrews 2). Here we need to grasp the cosmic scenario laid out in Scripture. Prior to man’s creation, the angels were tested as to their allegiance to the Lord of heaven. The obedient angels, who successfully passed probation, were confirmed in true knowledge, righteousness and holiness. This state of glorification ushered the holy angels into the eternal presence of God, thus enjoying everlasting beatitude. Had Adam obeyed God and passed probation, he too would have been confirmed in righteousness (though final glorification would have awaited the fulfillment of the original cultural mandate, including procreation of the human race and dominion over creation as God’s vicegerent). The beatific vision of God would have come at the close of history, the inauguration of the Eschaton (the arrival of heaven on earth). Though he was without sin, Christ in his incarnation/humiliation as second Adam was not yet “confirmed” (i.e., justified, exalted) in his work as Redeemer and Lord. Upon completion of his probation (extending from his baptism by John to his death on the cross), Jesus was highly exalted above the heavens as the eternal Son of God, meriting the salvation of God’s elect. His reward was the kingdom of kings and priests, those renewed in the image of Christ in true knowledge, righteousness and holiness (Col. 3:10).
It was at the moment of Christ’s sacrificial offering up of his own life that Lucifer was barred future contact with the divine Presence in theophanic Glory. The spiritual warfare that now ensues is one that is guaranteed a positive outcome for the saints of God (Eph. 6). All things work together for good to those called, justified, and glorified (Rom. 8). So certain is the victory of Christ over sin and death, that the redeemed of the Lord are already glorified—at least in principle. As true image-bearers of God, the redeemed have been adopted into God’s family as legitimate heirs and sons. Sonship and likeness to God are equivalent concepts in the Bible; sonship means intimate relationship, communion and fellowship with God by way of covenant. The promise of the covenant is that God comes to dwell with his people by way of his eternal Glory-Presence.
The ministering angels labor on behalf of those who are now being saved. At the close of history, sinners saved by grace will be elevated above the angels, so great is the measure of the Father’s love displayed in the death and resurrection of his only-begotten Son. The archetypal, deliberative Counsel is designated the “eyes of the Spirit,” surveying the events unfolding in the history of humankind (cf. Zech. 4:10). Spiritual warfare is cosmic in scope; it is intense and it is unremitting. To the extent that the people of God reflect his glory and truth, spiritual maturity and likeness to Christ is attained, though not perfectly prior to the Consummation (Eph. 4). We are reminded of the luminescence on the face of Moses when he spoke to God “face to face,” a glory that faded with the passage of time (what was a shadow of things to come). The redeemed of the Lord, however, enjoy a true glorification that does not fade or perish (2 Cor. 3:18, 1 Cor. 15:39–49, and 1 Pet. 1:3–9). Our ethical likeness to God and our physical glory/luminescence are aspects of human image-bearing. Just as the heavens declare the glory of God, so do the saints who presently are seated with Christ in the heavenlies, serving as lights in a world of sin and darkness. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit where God indwells (1 Cor. 6:19, 20).
There are various degrees of Glory-imaging: There are the lesser and greater lights in the heavenly skies; there is similarly an array of light-refraction on the earth below. Differing reflections of God’s glory appear in the angelic and human kingdoms. Yet none can compare with the glory to be revealed on the Last Day, when God the Father will be all in all (1 Cor. 15:24). The original design of creation was that humankind would be ushered into the consummate kingdom of light and righteousness by way of Adam’s successful consecration of his life to the glory of God. Consequent to his transgression, God opened up a new way to secure the proffered kingdom by means of his Son, who became incarnate in human flesh, yet knew no sin. He is the exact image and representation of God (Heb. 1:3, 4). In him we take on the divine nature, as finite creatures remade in God’s own image (2 Pet. 1:3, 4). Since the fall, the cultural mandate is bifurcated—cultic and cultural activities are now distinct. As image-bearers, humanity exercises dominion over creation by means of common grace, itself a benefit of Christ’s atoning death. Image-bearers renewed in the likeness of Christ are building a spiritual edifice, the Spirit-temple of God (1 Pet. 2:4–10). The latter is exclusively the work of God’s saving grace. Humanity in its commonality continues to occupy the kingly office appointed to man at creation; redeemed humanity fulfills the priestly office by the cleansing, empowering, and equipping work of the Spirit of Christ. All glory to God who sovereignly rules over his creation with majesty and honor.
Though analogies can be drawn between the natures of God and humanity, the biblical referent to the image-of-God idea is the theophanic Glory manifested at creation and in recreation. The creature fashioned in God’s likeness reflects his glory in terms of the twofold office of priest and king, a calling shared by angels and humankind (before sin entered the world). The image bears both an ethical and a royal component. As heirs of redemption, humanity in Christ experiences the unique electing grace and love of the Father in communion with the Son and the Spirit (1 Pet. 1:10–12). Until we experience the consummate (beatific) vision of God in glory, we are presently “being transformed in the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Justification for the sanctity and preservation of human life in the present world order—including the institution of civil government associated with the “mark” placed upon Cain and its reinstitution by God with Noah after the flood—is the dignity and royal status of human beings as God’s image-bearers (Gen. 4 and 9). The apostle Paul speaks of civil magistrates as ministers of God having divine authority (Rom. 13). The practice of “holy war” in the time of the Israelite theocracy, the extermination of those living in Canaan (the holy, symbolico-typological site of God’s residence among his chosen people), brings into focus the implementation of “intrusion ethics,” pointing to the end-time judgment of God upon the ungodly, those who are his enemies. In the modern day just war theories are not based on “holy war,” but upon justice as revealed in natural law. One of the responsibilities of civil governments is to provide safety and protection for the citizens of earthly kingdoms. The goal is that nations might live peaceably. At the same time, however, the operation of God’s common wrath against sin and disobedience brings about conflict and destruction upon nations and peoples. Lasting peace is unattainable in this fallen world; both the expansion and the maintenance of the human race and its attending culture in this present evil age are subject to frustration and distortion by the sins of humankind.
The only solution to humanity’s plight is the sanctifying, regenerating work of God the Spirit. The prophet Isaiah beheld the Lord of Glory and experienced the cleansing balm of God’s mercy and grace. With the removal of Isaiah’s iniquity (the benefit of Christ’s future atoning death) the prophet became spiritually qualified to minister on God’s behalf, declaring the will of God in the covenant lawsuit instituted against disobedient Israel. Exile in Babylon typified the payment requisite for Israel’s transgressions; the return to the land of Palestine symbolically announced Israel’s satisfaction for sin (see Isaiah 40:1,2). Corollary to spiritual cleansing is the idea of investiture, being clothed in the righteousness of Christ by means of God’s justifying and sanctifying grace. Under the Mosaic institution, the priestly robes of Aaron were modeled after the tabernacle, which in turn were patterned after the heavenly sanctuary. Ultimately, the resurrection/glorification of the saints is attained in the eschatological replication of the image of Christ in consummate renewal, inner and outer (soul and body), on the Last Day, what is the Second Advent of the Son of God. The incarnate Glory embodies the exact image/representation of the Father through the Spirit. In his life, death, and resurrection Christ experiences the fullness of the Spirit without measure; upon the completion of his redemptive work Christ is identified as one with the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18 and 1 Cor. 15:45). That is to say, in the economy of redemption, Christ and the Spirit are one. Christ has become “life-giving Spirit.” As the body of Christ, the Bride is clothed in the likeness of Christ. She is the New Man. In former times, it was only the prophets of the old (Mosaic) covenant who experienced proleptically the reality of the consummate, eschatological Spirit in Glory-transformation. The Spirit-rapture of the old covenant prophets was peculiar to their (postlapsarian) office; they uniquely experienced the likeness of the Spirit of the Lord. In the exercise of their prophetic role, they mirrored true likeness in the perfected image of Christ.
Originally, completion of humanity’s cultic-cultural labors in the theocratic kingdom that was to encompass the entire world would have ushered humankind into God’s eternal Sabbath. Prior to the Eschaton, weekly observance of the seventh-day Sabbath was an anticipation of consummate rest at the close of human history. With the entrance of sin and death into the world, the Sabbath ordinance was modified in a twofold manner. Initially, the seventh-day observance of sabbath-rest (what was a sign of God’s covenant established at creation) was withdrawn, only to be reinstituted in the typological, theocratic kingdom made with ancient Israel. Subsequently, Christian observance of God’s Sabbath-rest is marked by a change in day (from the seventh to the first day of the week) and by the practice of meeting together for corporate worship among the gathered saints, which does not include the requirement of cessation from earthly labors. In fact, the breaking of the original covenant at creation resulted in God placing a curse upon humankind’s labors, work that is now characterized by frustration, disappointment, and hard toil. The blessing of seventh-day, physical resting was withdrawn, only to be reinstituted in the theocratic kingdom. The writer to the Hebrews makes clear that our true, eschatological rest awaits those of us who are in Christ, beneficiaries of his redeeming work. Only our cultic activities (the kingdom-work of the Christian church in the proclamation of the gospel and the missionary expansion of God’s spiritual kingdom) enjoy the blessing of God signified in the Sabbath ordinance, sign of redemptive covenant. Cultural activities, whether performed by the godly or the ungodly, do not share the Sabbath-blessing of God. Presently, the Sabbath is a sign and an ordinance extended to covenant-keepers, those who are in covenant with God by way of baptism.
The Sabbath of God for the saints is life in the eternal Presence of the Lord of Glory, communion and fellowship with the triune God. The idea of image-bearing and Sabbath-rest (symbolizing entrance into the true sanctuary, the throne-room of God) are unintelligible apart from their mutual interplay in the unfolding history of redemptive revelation. Redeemed humanity finds its true identity in its embodiment of the divine Glory, progressively enhanced over the passage of time, notably, over the course of the extension of God’s kingdom throughout the world. As God’s image-bearers, renewed in the likeness of Jesus Christ, the saints bear witness to God’s unmerited love and grace in accordance with the testimony of Scripture, the canons of Old and New Testaments (the authoritative documents of the people of God spanning the old and new economies of the covenant of grace). In our corporate worship we come to Mount Zion, the true Spirit-temple of God indwelling redeemed humanity, an eschatological anticipation of the consummate reality already enjoyed and experienced—to some degree or in one manner of speaking—by the sons of God, both men and angels (see Heb. 12:22, 23 and Col. 3:1–4). The pre-consummate manifestation of God is by way of Glory-theophany. We now eagerly await the return of the incarnate Son of God in Glory—that we might be transformed “from glory to glory,” changed into his glorious likeness.
Dr. Mark K. Karlberg obtained three theological degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, including a doctorate in Reformation/Post-Reformation Studies. He is the author of Covenant Theology in Reformed Perspective (2001) and Gospel Grace: The Modern-Day Controversy (2003), both published by Wipf & Stock.