As Image Bearers of God
We know from Genesis 1 that God created everything perfectly. The last to be created were people—Adam and Eve—as the crown on God’s creation on earth. Unlike the other living creature—birds, animals, fish, etc.—people were created ‘in God’s image’. That’s what we confess in LD 3: ‘God created man good and in His image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness to praise and glorify Him.’ God put everything on earth under man’s dominion. Mankind was to be active as God’s vice-regents, to rule creation on His behalf, and to do this in covenant fellowship with God. That, you could say, was our intended ‘office’ or task: developing the earth in covenant fellowship with God, glorifying Him in all we do, as His image bearers.
Admittedly, we lost that image of God when we fell into sin. As we confess in LD 3, through the fall of our first parents Adam and Eve in Paradise ‘our nature became so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil’. Hence we might question whether that task, that office of being God’s image bearer, isn’t an impossibility. How can sinful people possibly image God by carrying out the mandate to do our daily work in ‘righteousness and holiness’, in heartfelt love to God and to His glory?
Nevertheless, the mandate remains for everyone to be God’s image bearer. God does not wrong people by requiring them to do His will because He created us with the abilty to do it (LD 4). Moreover, through the renewing work of God’s Spirit within us, it is possible for believers to again begin to reflect that image. In LD 32 we confess that ‘Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit to be His image’. He does this by giving us the gifts and powers mentioned in Eph 4:24 and Col 3:10. In other words there is a process of restoring us to the image of God more and more. In this we begin again to carry out the task or mandate God gave in the beginning.
What is that task? In Gen 1:26-28 we read that God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Man is to do that as God’s fellow worker, as God’s steward.
We get a taste of this in Psalm 8: “You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen—even the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea that pass through the paths of the seas.” Later Christ, in His parables, speaks of stewardship committed to the servants (the people) by their master (God). Likewise, the apostles emphasised our Christian mandate in this life to be imitators of God and walk in love (Eph 5), to be governed in all we do, in all our cultural endeavours, by God’s commandments and in this way to live to God’s glory.
When it comes to cultural endeavours we might ask ourselves whether the unbelievers are not being more successful than God’s children. Don’t they also develop the earth? Think of Lamech’s sons making tents, musical instruments and works of iron. Indeed, most of the cultural products of today are developed by unbelievers. Doesn’t that mean they are carrying out the cultural mandate, fulfilling their task as image bearers of God?
No, because culture is not the products but the process. It’s what motivates and guides us in our works. As we confess, good works are “only those which are done out of true faith, in accordance with the law of God, and to His glory, and not those based on our own opinion or on precepts of men” (LD 33). Only Christians, only those who are grafted into Christ and share in His anointing (LD 12) can begin to reflect His image and carry out the cultural mandate of the beginning. They do it now in the expectation of the return of Christ who will usher in the eternal Paradise of God. As Schilder says:
The real value of culture does not pertain to the things produced, as pieces of art and modern inventions, but in preparing, through the fluctuating tensions of the process, the arena for Christ and the antichrist. And through it all God is pursuing His purpose in achieving His greatest piece of art—namely, the triumph of the last of His elect over the world, in the power of Jesus Christ.[i]
We see how this has ramifications both for our own lives and for the education of our children. Sharing in Christ’s anointing, as His image bearers, we seek to exercise our three-fold office of prophet, priest and king. And in the education and upbringing of our children, we seek to prepare them for their three-fold office in life. This three-fold office means first, as we confess, that we are to confess Christ boldly. That is, we are to dare to be ourselves as Christians, to show our ‘Christian’ colours, to speak unashamedly the will of their Lord. It is to reflect in our walk of life that we are governed by His commandments and in this way to be a piece of spiritual health in a largely godless, secular society. Second, we are, says LD 12, to present our lives a living sacrifice of thankfulness to Christ. Thankfulness, because through our sins we were headed for hell, but through His sacrifice on the cross, He has redeemed us by His precious blood, made us heirs of the kingdom of heaven, and calls us now to show our gratitude through a life of thankful service to Him. Third, in our kingly office we are to acknowledge Christ’s kingship over all. It obligates us to engage in battle, to “fight with a free and good conscience against sin and the devil in this life” in the comfort of knowing that after this life we shall “reign with Him eternally over all creature”.
You can well imagine that being God’s image bearers in exercising our threefold office is not going to please the devil. Nor will it please a world inspired by evil spirits of unbelief and revolution. Both Scripture and church history show that believers will face the scorn and hostility of a wicked and adulterous generation (Mt 16:4). The antithesis of Gen 3:15 manifests itself there where God’s children dare to speak up for the cause of Christ’s kingdom. Indeed, Christ teaches us to have no illusions about courageously confessing Him. He said, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you…” (Jn 15:18-20).
Finally, here’s what Rev C Vermeulen reportedly said in a speech about being in the image of God:
The world becomes more and more ripe for judgement as we live and work towards the new Jerusalem. Suddenly we realize that our lives are full of purpose! We should not fall in with the attitudes around us of “keeping our heads above water” in this “rat race” we live in! Rather, we have a task, responsibilities, obligations and must carry them out faithfully and deliberately. Salvation has everything to do with our everyday work. This prevents meaninglessness in our lives. We are to rule and subdue wherever we have been placed.
This becomes the guiding principle in our tasks within our own domain, in our household, workplace and neighbourhood. In every territory Christ’s kingship must be acknowledged. How does this work itself out in our homes? They become places where we can come to rest, fostering an environment with good books, reformed literature, music which praises God, clothing which promotes modesty and decency, relationships which are characterized by respect and submission. Then we reflect Christ, the image of God, in our daily life!
Finally, it is within the church that we are transformed as we are called together within the communion of saints, united in faith, to assist one another in our task. Then in Reformed education also we are unified in our calling to teach our children what it means to carry out their tasks as image bearers of God in this world. [ii]
[i] K Schilder, Wat is de hemel? (What is heaven?), Kok, Kampen, 1935, pp. 304/5, quoted by H R van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, Presbyterian and reformed Publishing, Philadelphia, 1972, p. 148.
[ii]In an abbreviation of a speech held at the League Day for the Women in Elora and Fergus, Ontario, Canada. Clarion Year-end Issue 2005. Quoted in Clarion, end of year issue 2005.