Who Am I? Part 2: The Image of God and Human Relationships

The previous chapter [available HERE] evaluated the naturalistic worldview approaches of relativism and utilitarianism to human relationships. Relativism leads to brokenness; utilitarianism, while focusing on what “works” for the majority, leads inevitably to oppression and injustice for the minority. In this chapter we want to lay a cornerstone for a Christian answer to any question that might be asked about human relationships. Two relevant questions emerge: (1) What is a human being? and (2) What is the purpose of a human being?

What is a Human Being?

Genesis 1–2 tell us that the last of God’s creative acts was the creation of humans. They were the pinnacle of God’s creative work, and everything that God created was for their enjoyment and their sustenance. Further, among the creatures of the earth, Adam and Eve were unique in an essential way: they were made in God’s image.

“[26] Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ [27] So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:26–27).[1]

What is the image of God? The image of God in human beings is complex: it is not just one thing. It involves the whole person and his or her God-imaging capacities. Thus, the image of God is “[all the ways] that man is like God and represents God.”[2] While many have (and continue) to debate the specific meaning of the image, it is helpful to think of the image of God as both what we are and what we do: we have the image of God (what we are) so that we might image God (what we do). Anthony Hoekema writes, “The image of God in man must…be seen as involving both the structure of man (his gifts, capacities, and endowments) and the functioning of man (his actions, his relationships to God and to others, and the way he uses his gifts).”[3]

Several facets of the image of God should be noted. First, both men and women are created in God’s image (Gen 1:27). Second, the image was scarred but not destroyed in the Fall. For example, the possession of the image by all humans is the basis for capital punishment (Gen 9:6). We must not curse others because they “are made in the likeness of God” (Jas 3:9). A third and fourth facet are visible here: the image of God, while damaged, is still possessed by all human beings, and the image gives each human being inherent dignity and worth. Finally, Jesus Christ is the perfect image of God (Col 1:15; cf. Heb 1:3; 2 Cor 4:4), and it is only through a relationship with Christ by faith that the image will be restored in us (Rom 8:29). This image-renewal will not be complete until Christ’s return (1 John 3:2), but in light of this hope, believers pursues conformity to his image now (1 John 3:3).

What is the Purpose of a Human Being?

Human beings have been made in the image of God so that they might rightly relate to God and image him to the rest of the created order. All of our God-imaging capacities are designed to glorify God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). “God’s glory is the sum total of who He is and what He does.”[4] The term translated “give glory” means “to glorify, extol, or venerate.” Jesus is teaching his followers to live in such a way that others will see our good works and praise the God whom we serve. Though we are the ones doing the works, our performance has the purpose of pointing them toward our Heavenly Father who is empowering us. Our works are helping others see God for who he is and what he has done. Furthermore, the apostle Paul tells us, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). There is no phase of life that has been exempted from this God-glorifying purpose.

As image bearers, we have been made to glorify God by imaging or reflecting the beauty and perfections of his character to the world, and chief among the attributes of God’s character is love (1 John 4:8). Michael Reeves writes, “Made in the image of [the triune] God, we are created to delight in harmonious relationship, to love God, to love each other.”[5] So, human beings have been created to glorify the perfection and beauty of our God who not only loves but who is love. This has massive implications for our relationships.

Implications for Relationships

First, created in the image of God, “we belong to God” (cf. Mark 12:13–17)[6] and we are to love him with all that we are (Matt 22:37). This is not a one-way relationship, for God has loved us through his general providence and in the sending of his Son to redeem us and his Spirit to adopt us (Gal 4:4–7).

Second, we are in a unique relationship with fellow image bearers. Not only are we not to curse (Jas 3:9) or murder them (Gen 9:6), we are to love them as we love ourselves (Matt 22:39). This love will be expressed differently in different relationships (e.g., marriage, family, friendships). We must, however, not overlook that love is to qualify all our relationships (even with enemies; Matt 5:43–44). We know this love of God through Christ, and the Holy Spirit sheds this love abroad in our hearts (Rom 5:5).

Finally, the image of God means that human community is part of our purpose (Gen 2:18). The Father, Son, and Spirit have eternally existed as one God in loving community. Similarly, humans as image bearers are relational, created for loving community. Sin has profoundly disrupted human relationships. But God is drawing persons through the gospel into loving community with himself and with others. Isolation and antisocial behavior are antithetical to our purpose and design. Thus, we must pursue God-intended, loving community with others.



[1] Unless otherwise noted all quotations are from the ESV (English Standard Version).

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994, 2000), 442. The initial phrase is an addition but seems in keeping with Grudem’s presentation. Grudem goes on to list a complex array of ways in which the image of God is found in human nature (e.g., moral, spiritual, mental, and relational aspects). He even highlights how our bodies reflect aspects of God even though God doesn’t have a body.

[3] Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1986), 73.

[4] Brandon D. Smith, Echoes of the Reformation: Five Truths that Shape the Christian Life (Nashville: LifeWay Press, 2017),  124.

[5] Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012), 64.

[6] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013).

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