HUMANITY: What does it mean that men and women are made in God’s image and likeness?

Christians: What does it mean that men and women are made in God’s image and likeness?

Because the defining feature of what it means to be human is that we are God’s image bearers, there are few questions regarding our humanity that are more necessary to correctly answer than, what does it mean that we are God’s image?

The Bible is clear that men and women, unlike the rest of creation, are made in the image of God.1 Furthermore, the Bible repeats this truth after sin enters the world, which means that even though sin has stained and marred us, as we will examine more thoroughly in the upcoming days, we remain God’s image bearers.2

The word image is often translated “idol.” An idol is something that makes the invisible god visible. Admittedly, the Bible renounces idolatry emphatically, repeatedly, and forcefully. Therefore, we want to be clear that we are not endorsing idolatry. Nonetheless, to image the real Trinitarian God of the Bible is to make him visible to the world.

On this point, John Calvin wrote the following comments on Colossians 3:10:

We are renewed after the image of God. . . . Hence, too, we learn, on the one hand, what is the end of our regeneration, that is, that we may be made like God, and that his glory may shine forth in us; and, on the other hand, what is the image of God, of which mention is made by Moses in Genesis 9:6, the rectitude and integrity of the whole soul, so that man reflects, like a mirror, the wisdom, righteousness, and goodness of God. He speaks somewhat differently in the Epistle to the Ephesians, but the meaning is the same. Paul, at the same time, teaches, that there is nothing more excellent at which the Colossians can aspire, inasmuch as this is our highest perfection and blessedness to bear the image of God.3

What Calvin is saying is that to image God is to “mirror” his invisible attributes to the world, somewhat like Moses, who radiated the glory of God after being in God’s presence. Therefore, we are not to reflect sinful Adam, the culture, or even ourselves to the world. Rather, God has bestowed upon us the amazing ability and awesome responsibility to be his mirrors on the earth, reflecting his goodness and glory to all for his glory and our joy. All persons are God’s image in a basic sense, but Christians image him more than non-Christians and mature Christians do so even more.4

To image God is something we do both personal and communally. By personal, we mean that we as individual worshipers must continually ask whether we are good reflections of our God. By communal, we mean that churches, families, and Christian communities must continually ask whether they are good reflections of God to one another and the world.

This understanding of our created purpose (and subsequently one source of our joy) is radically different from the world’s understanding of being true to oneself, or simply reflecting one’s sin nature to the world. In fact, this understanding of imago Dei is even radically different from many Christian teachings about why we exist. Biblical counselor Edward T. Welch describes how the word need is one of the more confusing terms in the English language.5 Its field of meaning is broad and ambiguous, containing ideas that are completely unrelated but often confused together. He then defines the various popular uses of the term and the history of the concept in the field of psychology before looking at how the idea of “psychological needs” has become grafted into contemporary Christian counseling.6

Welch describes how the biblical teaching on the image of God leads us in a different direction by showing that we are not empty cups needing to be filled by God. Rather, we are broken mirrors that need to be put back together by God, beginning with our regeneration and continuing every day in our sanctification, so that we can better and better reflect God. Welch says, “Instead of a love cup . . . the image is more accurately that of Moses literally reflecting the glory of God. . . . The center of gravity in the universe is God and His glory-holiness.”7 Welch deconstructs the experience of “feeling empty” and thus deconstructs the erroneous notion that God exists to fill our empty cup of needs; he replaces that view with the biblical idea that we exist to mirror God.

Practically, this means that our greatest need is not to focus on ourselves and fill ourselves. Instead, our greatest need is to focus on God and reflect God because this is what we were made for. This also explains why we constantly seek out people as our heroes and seek to model our lives after theirs. Because we were made to mirror when we don’t reflect Jesus Christ we end up finding someone else to put in his place. Subsequently, we elevate them and imitate them in the place that belongs to God alone. This includes politicians, parents, business leaders, athletes, musicians, celebrities, etc.

How many mirrors do you have in your home, car, office, etc.? When you look into a mirror to see your reflection, remind yourself that you are God’s mirror and he wants to see himself in your life.

1Gen. 1:26–27.
2Gen. 5:1–3; 9:6; James 3:9.
3John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, trans. John Pringle (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1847; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 211–12.
4We see this in Rom. 8:29, 2 Cor. 3:18, and Col. 3:10, for example.
5Edward T. Welch, “Who Are We? Needs, Longings, and the Image of God in Man,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 13, no. 1 (1994): 25–38.
6E.g., Larry Crabb, Understanding People: Why We Long for Relationship (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987).
7Welch, “Who Are We?” 33.