On September 10, 2021, I spoke at an event at Central Assembly in Springfield, MO. These are the words I shared that day.
I’m going talk to you about something that’s a lot bigger than what I can give you in 10 minutes. So I want to whet your appetite and stir in you a holy curiosity that I pray will shift the way you read the Bible and interact with God, the way you see yourselves, and the way you love others.
Sometime ago, I was watching a Netflix documentary about American Christianity. In it, someone said, “In our essence, we are sinful.” That sounds spiritual, but is it true? Is our essence, who we are at our core, our sinfulness? Is that how God sees us? And as Christians, is that how God wants us to see ourselves and others?
To answer that, let’s go to the Bible. And let’s start at the beginning.
Genesis 1:1, the opening line of Scripture, says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Right away, we meet the main character of the Bible, the hero of the story: God. And this chapter proceeds to tell us how God created everything in the cosmos. Light, land and sky, day and night, sun and moon, seasons and years, the plant and animal kingdoms—He spoke it all into being. And as He created, He declared His creation good.
And in Genesis 1:26-27, we meet more characters:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
With these verses, we read the beginning of our story. And the very first thing that’s said about humanity is that we’re created in the image of God. God didn’t speak humanity into being. He formed the first human from dust and breathed life into Him.
If you ask a lot of Christians about their theology, what they believe, many would begin in chapter 3 with the fall of man. This is how many of us were taught to share the Gospel. But when we do this, we miss out on the theological richness in the first two chapters of Genesis where we’re introduced to threads that are woven throughout the entire Bible, threads that are important for understanding who God is and who we are. And one of those threads is the idea of the imago Dei, the image of God.
What is the imago Dei? What does it mean to be “created in the image of God”?
When we read the story of creation, God creates a lot of amazing, awe-inspiring things that reflect God’s glory. But not everything is created in God’s likeness. God chose humankind to be the bearers of His image.
The idea of the imago Dei flies in the face of a culture that gives people worth based on things like appearance, platform, productivity, and status. Dr. Jemar Tisby wrote, “…the Christian doctrine of the image of God teaches that all people have inherent worth and dignity simply because they are God’s creation.”
So what are ways we see the image of God in us?
We see it in our capacity…
- to think and reason,
- to forge relationships and emotionally connect with God and others,
- to have authority and responsibility over the earth through our vocation, care for our health and wellness, and stewardship of our resources,
- to become more and more like Jesus until we meet Him face to face. (from Christian Spiritual Formation, by Diane Chandler)
Every single one of us is a bearer of the imago Dei, created in the image of God. THAT is our essence. We reflect God’s image in the ways we’re similar and also in the ways we’re different. Our different stories and backgrounds, the different generations we were born to be part of, our different gifts and passions, even our different races, ethnicities, and nationalities—they all come together to make a beautiful mosaic that reflects God.
At this point, you may be thinking, But what about original sin? In Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, sin entered the world. Did that change our essence? Did sin erase the image of God in us?
Well, what does the Bible have to say about the imago Dei after the fall?
Genesis 5:1 says, “This is the written account of Adam’s family line. When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them.”
When talking about why murder is wrong, in Genesis 9:6, God said, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans his blood will be shed, for God made humans in his image.”
In the New Testament, when talking about how difficult it is to control the tongue, James 3:9 says, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.”
Sin fractured our identities, marred the imago Dei in us, but it did not erase it. Even in our brokenness, we still bear the image of God!
This is the tension we live with: In our essence, we are bearers of the image of God. And at the same time, we live in a fallen world, impacted by sin. And because of that, Romans 3:23 says “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” We don’t live up to our potential as image bearers.
But God has not given up on us. He invites us to follow Him and partner with the Holy Spirit in His transformative work in our lives.
And like a masterpiece painting that has become cracked, weathered, and faded, we’re still a masterpiece. And God, the master Creator and artist who loves His creation deeply, can restore what has been marred to once again look like the image He created us to bear.
Before I continue, I’d like to speak from my heart. The past 18 months have been difficult for all of us. In many ways we deeply feel the pain of living in a fallen world. One way is in the racial divisions that have been brought into the light. Some of you in this room may feel like your dignity and worth or the dignity and worth of your children have been torn down. Maybe you’re carrying the wounds of trauma and you feel emotionally exhausted this evening. If that’s you, I invite you to find me later—or message me—and I’d like to personally take the time to give space for what you’re experiencing.
And for all of us in this room—or everyone reading this blog—I exhort you: Let us practice and model to a hurting and broken world what it looks like to see and value the imago Dei in ourselves and in others.
Now, let’s talk about Jesus.
There is only one person in all the world and history who has ever completely and perfectly borne the image of God. His name is Jesus.
Colossians 1:15 (CSB) says,
He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn over all creation.
I love how plainly The Kingdom New Testament Translation, by N. T. Wright, says it:
“He is the image of God…”
Diane Chandler wrote, “…Jesus is the perfect image that humankind lost during the fall but through whom humankind now is alive with potential for restoration through redemption and is capable of holistic growth into the image of Christ.” (from Christian Spiritual Formation)
Romans 8:29 talks about how we’re to be “conformed to the image of [God’s] son.”
And 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory…”
In other words, what’s the goal? To look more and more like Jesus!
And how do we do that? Through Jesus!
Let’s take this one step further: On this road of spiritual formation, we need Jesus…and we need each other.
God’s character and nature, His personality, His passions, the way He expresses Himself and interacts with His creation and with us—He’s so much bigger than what any one of us can reflect. So it’s vital that on the road of spiritual formation, we not try to do it all on our own, but that we do it together in community. And that means it might get a little messy because people are messy. But even in the messiness, and many times, through the messiness, God’s transformative work happens and we begin to look more like Jesus and better reflect the imago Dei, both individually and corporately.
So let’s do this! And let’s do this together!