Conformed to His Image
by Greg Bailey
The conversation turned to the subject of God the Father, and Philip found the courage to express the hope he had nursed as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. “Lord,” he said, “show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”
The Lord’s response brought no promise of heavenly visions. It was, instead, a rebuke: “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:8–9).
Philip had missed it. Despite years of close association with Jesus, he apparently had failed to realize that the divine had come as man.
Scripture proclaims that Christ “is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) and “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). And just as He “is” now, so He “was” during His incarnation. As He walked the earth in the likeness of men (Phil. 2:7), Jesus perfectly displayed the image of God. He did so through His holy living — the perfect obedience to the law of God that qualified Him to be our Mediator. In all He did, Jesus reflected the holiness of God.
Man once was able to do as Jesus did. Scripture says that Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, by which it means primarily that they were made with the capacity to imitate the holiness of God — His perfect moral purity. They could resist temptation and willingly obey God.
However, they rebelled against their Creator and so ceased to be holy. Their hearts were darkened and they — and their descendants — were thereafter inclined to evil. In other words, they lost the capacity to imitate God’s holiness. They became “defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body” (Westminster Confession of Faith [WCF hereafter], 6.2). The image of God in them was not wiped out, but it no longer could be seen perfectly. Humanity is a mirror designed to reflect the image of its Creator, but with the fall that mirror was hideously marred and its reflective capacity largely spoiled.
Philip failed to see the image of the divine in Christ precisely because Adam’s sin had left him a tarnished and corrupted mirror. Fallen as he was, he had not eyes to see how his Master reflected the Father.
By God’s grace, others among Jesus’ disciples did see the image of God in Christ. Peter declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). And the apostle John later testified: “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. … No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:14, 18). As for Philip, we have good reason to believe that he, too, eventually came to see Jesus as the perfect image of God, for he was among those upon whom Christ poured out His Spirit at Pentecost.
It was important for the disciples to see that Christ was the image of God so that they might understand both the work He was about to do for them on the cross and the work He would do in them later. Jesus’ living picture of the unstained, unmarred image of God in man gave His followers an idea of what they were created to be and what God planned to make of them — holy men of God.
Not surprisingly, then, we later find the apostle Paul speaking of believers bearing the image of Christ. Romans 8:29 says, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” And 1 Corinthians 15:49 promises us that “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven [Jesus].” Clearly, the early church had come to see salvation as a work of God by which He makes His people more like Christ — to the end that they more closely reflect the image of God.
But what does it mean to say that God is making us more Christlike? Simply put, it means that He is making us more holy. He is working in us to cause us to live holy lives.
This grand restoration process begins when God’s Spirit regenerates our hearts. Raising us from spiritual death, He gives us faith to trust the sacrificial death of Christ for our salvation. At that point, God declares us just (holy) in His eyes. The righteousness (holiness) of Christ is reckoned to our accounts, so that we are holy in God’s sight.
But we are not yet able to live perfectly holy lives, as Christ did. We are, as Martin Luther put it, Simul justus et peccator — “At the same time just and sinner.” A strong inclination to sin remains within us and must be put to death. So God begins the work of sanctification, which is growth in Christlikeness, or holy living. “They who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally … the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness” (WCF, 13.1; emphasis added).
Throughout this process, the Spirit works in believers to strengthen the new desires for God given to them upon their new birth, and to help them resist their lingering desires for autonomy. Through the reading, studying, and preaching of the Word of God, He calls them to Christlike obedience. He motivates them in their keeping of the Law through the example and encouragement of faithful friends. He opens their eyes to their sinfulness and helps them come to despise it, sometimes by allowing them to stumble. In these and countless other ways, the Holy Spirit polishes the mirror, enabling God’s people to “bring holiness to completion” (2 Cor. 7:1), just as it was in Jesus Christ.
Of course, God could bring about actual holiness in us in a moment if He chose. But in His wisdom He has ordained that this process should take place gradually over the entire course of our lives. Second Corinthians 3:18a says, “And we all … are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another,” and Colossians 3:9–10 adds, “You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (emphasis added). All our days we live in a state of being transformed or renewed.
But the glorious promise of God is this: “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). The process will end when our great God brings about our final glorification. At death, our souls are “made perfect in holiness” (WCF, 32.1) and taken to heaven to await the restoration of our bodies at the day of the Lord. When that glad day dawns, we will reflect the image of our God — and of our Savior — with perfection.