Restoring the Image of God in Us
Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, August 6, 2017
Are human being basically good or bad? Some people say that issue is the dividing line between liberals and conservatives—between those who think humans can improve and those who think they basically need to be reined in. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains ... an unuprooted small corner of evil.
As I watched the children in Vacation Bible School this week, I couldn’t help but see a lot of good—the image of God still visible in them. But then I would try to get their attention in class, and I was reminded of the little nursery rhyme,
There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
And when she was good,
She was very, very good,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
Growing up Southern Baptist, I think I heard more in church about how I was horrid, a sinner who deserved to be condemned, than I ever did about the fact that I was made in the image of God.
As you could tell from the first song the children sang, “I was made for this, built for a purpose,” the VBS curriculum placed a lot of emphasis on God as our Maker. The key verse for the first day was from Psalm 139(14) about being “fearfully and wonderfully made”—in a simpler version for the kids, “Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!” The human body is an awesome thing which remains mysterious to us. We compared God’s creation of us to humpback whales who somehow know how to blow bubbles to attract fish, a bowerbird that decorates the nest it builds and a decorator crab who covers his own shell with colorful things, tiny termites who build huge mounds that are insulated cities, and a recently discovered bee in Iran and Turkey which creates an individual nest for its embryo, covered with flower petals and filled with nutrients. Creation is amazing, and God’s creation of us is no less amazing.
One message Kristen repeated every day was that “God made you,” that you are not a mistake or an accident, God has a purpose for you. A theological way of talking about this—which is too abstract for children—is to say that God made us in God’s own image. When God created the first humans, male and female, he declared that creation “very good.” Artists have given us pictures of Adam and Eve as perfect and beautiful humans. They must have been radiant with the glory of God as they communed with God. The image of God in human beings cannot be reduced to any one quality or ability; it’s something more general about our status and our essence.
But then, being evangelicals, before the end of the week we have to bring sin into the picture and the need for salvation. It struck me as an awkward juxtaposition: “You are very good, not like anyone else, made for a special purpose, and God has plans for you,” BUT you have sinned and are separated from God and—although we don’t actually say this to kids—if you don’t do anything about it you are going to hell. It’s as if we are all that little girl who went from being very, very good to being horrid.
Do I believe in sin? Certainly. I am aware that there is something wrong with me, that there is something in human nature that is self-centered and disoriented toward God. We have all lost our way, and none of us old enough to reflect on it thinks we have stayed on the path we were intended to walk. We have not been as fully human as Jesus. We have missed out on so much of the love and creativity that we were intended to display as representatives of God’s nature.
But did the image of God disappear when I sinned? There is a long tradition from the early centuries of Christian theology of saying that the image of God in us was defaced, or damaged, or destroyed altogether. Doctrines like original sin and total depravity make it sound like Adam bore the image of God at first, but the rest of us bear the image of the serpent.
But if you read the Bible carefully, you will find that nowhere does it say that the image of God in mankind was damaged by the Fall. In Genesis 5, two chapters after Adam and Eve have been kicked out of the garden, the writer reiterates that God made mankind in the likeness of God, male and female, and blessed them, then proceeds to give the names of Adam’s descendants, implying that they, too, were created in the likeness of God. In Genesis 9:6, capital punishment for murder is justified because God made mankind in the image of God; the victim still bore that image and should have been treated with respect. In Psalm 8:5, after the question, “What is mankind that you would pay attention to us?” says, famously, “You made them a little lower than the angels”—or in some translations, “a little lower than God.” In James 3:9, in a section about the damage you can do with your tongue, he points out the irony of blessing God and cursing humans who have been made in God’s image.
The assumption is that all humans, not just Christians, still bear the image of God. There is still a family resemblance. That is a core belief of several religions which push us to include people different from us in our communities. We need to remind ourselves when we say things or take actions hurtful to immigrants, transgender persons, gays and lesbians, mentally disabled persons, the obese, and crying babies that they are all created in the image of God and bear that image today. In Mein Kampf, in 1927, Hitler said that strong men are “the image of the Lord,” but weak persons are deformities of that image, and you know where that belief led.
To be sure, we do not look as much like God as God intended when he created us. Sin has damaged us. But if a Stradivarius violin is damaged, it is still a Stradivarius and that is why you would want to repair it. If we are damaged, we are still in God’s image, and that is the reason God wants to restore that image in us so that it is visible once more.
I think that growing up I absorbed the idea that once upon a time, humans were good, but sin entered the world and that was the end of our goodness. I didn’t see the end of the story—that I still bore the image of God and that God wanted to restore it, transforming me into the image of his Son. It was more like, oh well, all hope of being good is lost, so what you need is to be forgiven and get your ticket to heaven punched. The philosopher Dallas Willard was the first to point out to me how terrible the bumper sticker is that says “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” It implies that there is nothing more to the Christian life than being forgiven. It ignores the goal of the process by which God is remaking us and making us Christ-like, restoring his own image in us. I want to say to the VBS children and to you that God really did make you for a purpose, and that purpose has not been wiped out because you messed up. God still has plans for you. And whatever the particulars of that plan in terms of your own gifts and abilities, the overall plan is to remake you in his image so that you look more and more like Jesus.
The first verse we use to show that people need to be saved is Romans 3:23, which we read earlier: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The first part is clear enough: all have sinned. But what does it mean to fall short of the glory of God? It can’t mean that we are less glorious than God. That would be true even if we never sinned. God is God and we are creatures. Here’s what I think Romans 3:23 means: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory God intended.” God intended for humans to be glorious creatures who reflect his glory. The Message catches that sense in its translation: “We are utterly incapable of living the glorious life God wills for us.” That is a true statement before we are reconciled to God by what Jesus did on the cross and God’s Spirit begins to transform us, restoring the image of God. In Paul’s writing, the concept of restoring the image is often spoken of in terms of getting the glory back.
Romans 5(1-2) says that because we now have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Wow! We will someday share God’s glory? Romans 8:18 says that the hard things we are going through now are not even worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us. A few verses later (21), Paul says that the whole creation will someday be set free from its bondage to decay and will share in the freedom of the glory of the children of God. That’s us he’s talking about, glorious and free. A few verses after that (29), Paul says that God chose us to be conformed to the image of his Son. That’s the ultimate purpose: to be conformed to Jesus who is the perfect image of the invisible God. We read one other verse together, from 2 Corinthians (3:18), which says that as we look at the glory of God in the face of Jesus, we are being changed by that knowledge. “All of us…seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” This is what the Christian life is about! We are being transformed into the image of God we see in Jesus, gradually becoming more and more reflective of his glory.
Isn’t that so much better than just being forgiven? What would be the point of being forgiven and reconciled to God, if God just left you the way you were? Would you even enjoy being in his presence? How would you feel face-to-face with Jesus if you never experienced any transformation into his likeness? The gospel is not that you get your ticket to heaven however rotten you are. The gospel is that the Spirit gives you a new life and changes you from the inside out so that you start to look like a member of God’s family, as one of his children bearing his image. Paul says in Colossians (3:9-11), “You have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourself with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewalthere is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised…slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” This is how we become one in the church, across all lines of class and race. We are one because we are sharing the life of Jesus, being renewed as we become more and more like him.
You know the old spiritual “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian”? Today we might say to that old slave, “Hey, it’s easy. Just say the prayer or raise your hand or sign the card. Just accept him.” But that slave knew there was more to being a Christian than that. He sings, “Lord, I want to be like Jesus in my heart.” That is what the Lord wants, too. He wants not just assurance that you are going to heaven but a transformation into a person who would even want to be in heaven, the change of your old self into the new self that reflects the image of God.
I am sure that God made you in God’s own image, and that while we have been through things that covered over that image—cultural shifts, individual choices, inherited attitudes, toxic religion—we are still beings created in God’s image. And God’s plan is to make that image visible again in us. It starts on the inside, with our inner nature being renewed day by day, as Paul says. But eventually, this old slowly dying and decomposing body will be replaced by an incorruptible body, like that perfect glorious body of the resurrected Jesus, and we will reflect God’s glory on the outside as well as the inside. That’s not just a promise we say at funerals. That’s a promise for you. The glory of God is not in the past, something you lost in the garden to which you can never return. The glory of God is your future; it is the glorious person you have always been intended to be as the Spirit transforms you and makes you fully human, sharing the very nature of Jesus. What a future we have! I was created in the image of God, and someday that image will be revealed completely in me. Amen!