September 03, 2020

How Can We Be Made in the Image of God Yet Still Be Sinful in Nature?

Nathan W. Bingham & Sinclair Ferguson
How Can We Be Made in the Image of God Yet Still Be Sinful in Nature?

How is it possible that human beings are said to be made in the image of God when “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23)? Today, Sinclair Ferguson reveals that the answer to this question touches on the whole message of the Bible.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Joining us this week is Ligonier Teaching Fellow Dr. Sinclair Ferguson, calling in from his home in Scotland. Dr. Ferguson, as Joe asked, since we're sinful by nature, how is it that we're also said to be made in the image of God?

DR. SINCLAIR FERGUSON: Well, that's a good question from Joe, and perhaps like in many theological questions the best way to deal with it is actually to go back to the beginning. As Joe said, we are made in the image of God. What does that mean? Well, Genesis 1:26-28: God having made everything else, according to its own likeness, now makes the creature man and woman after His own likeness, as His own image (vv. 25-26). And that means, as I think the New Testament suggests, we are created in righteousness and holiness, but we are not created as robots. We're not created as an automaton so that we are programmed to function without the consent of our will, without the activity of our lives. And what we know from Genesis chapter 3 is that the man and the woman were created in such a way, they could choose both to grow and to decline. They were made righteous and holy, but they were capable of progressing in that righteousness and holiness. As they actually consciously obeyed God, they would have grown.

Perhaps the best way to think about that is what Luke says at the end of Luke chapter 2 about the Lord Jesus. The Lord Jesus when He was twelve years old was perfectly righteous and perfectly holy; He was sinless. And yet we're told that He grew in wisdom. And perhaps even more astonishingly"because I think we can understand that He had the wisdom of a twelve-year-old boy when He was twelve years old"but Luke tells us He actually grew also in favor with God. In other words, though the Lord Jesus was perfectly righteous, perfectly holy, He was able to grow in that righteousness and holiness. As He grew in obedience, as He met increasingly difficult challenges and overcame them. So again"Philippians chapter 2"Paul says that Jesus, who was always obedient to the Father, became obedient to death, and not just to death, but to the death of the cross, so that the tests of His holiness and righteousness increased in their ferocity and severity. And He Himself grew in His obedience to God"not that He ever lacked obedience, but that He grew in favor with His Father because He met all of those unbelievably difficult tasks with faithful, loving obedience.

And I think we can some surmise from that, Joe, that this was also what was meant to happen with Adam and Eve. If you remember the story of the opening chapters of Genesis, God made a world that was perfectly good. But if you read the text, you'll notice, it was perfectly good, but it wasn't perfectly finished. Because in that very good world, God planted a garden. And that's an indication to us that the garden had an inside and an outside. Everything inside was garden. Everything outside was not yet garden. And Adam and Eve's task"and presumably, had they not sinned, it would've become the task they would have shared with their family"was to extend that garden to the ends of the earth. They were to fill the earth for the glory of God. They were to exercise dominion for the glory of God.

And it was in this situation"especially with the particular commandment not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil"that in a sense, God was saying to them: "Now, I've created you holy and righteous, but I want you to grow in that. I want you to show Me that you're willing to obey Me just because of who I am, your loving heavenly Father, and not just because you're programmed to do it. If you're programmed to do it, then we cannot really have a dynamic relationship and you cannot grow. And so there are tests for you." And in the case of our first parents created as the image of God, they failed that test. In failing that test, their lives as the image of God were fractured. They no longer functioned the way the image of God was supposed to function. But the Scriptures do teach us that despite that, they remained the image of God. So, for example, in the Gospels"in Matthew 22, isn't it?"where Jesus is asked, "Should we pay taxes to Caesar?" He asks for a coin. He says, "Whose image is on the coin?" And they say, "Caesar's image." And He says: "Well, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar. If his image is on the coin, give him the coin." But then He adds, "And render to God the things that are God's." And hidden in that statement is if Caesar's image is on it, give it to him. He's really saying: "But there's a bigger challenge. Whatever has God's image on it, give it to Him." In other words, Jesus Himself seems to understand that we remain the image of God, but in a sense, we've stolen it from Him. James 3 speaks about the fact that we praise God and then we curse our neighbor, although our neighbor is made as the image of God. So, we remain the image of God, but we're fractured.

Here's maybe a simple way for us to think about it. I know people have sometimes said to my daughter"it doesn't please me and it doesn't please her""You're the image of your father." She's not really; I think it's just that people who have looked at me, look at her and see certain resemblances. So, here is, here I am as a father, and my little daughter sitting on my knee and she turns to me and she tells me that she loves me and she's never going to leave me. She's my image. She tells me she loves me and she's never going to leave me. And two days later on, she's sitting on my knee and I ask her to do something, and she turns around and slaps me in the face. But she's still my image. So, in the first instance, she's the image of her father living the way she was intended to live, for her father's pleasure. In the second instance, she's still the image of her father, but she's behaving in a way that is contrary to, contradictory of, what it means to live as the image of her father. And this is the condition we're in now. And I think this is why"I've thought about this a great deal, actually, since it struck me"first of all, when Paul says in Romans 3:23, one of the first verses that, at least in the old days, new Christians were encouraged to memorize, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," I've often thought and sometimes said, if I were writing that verse, I would say, "All have sinned and broken the commandments of God." But what Paul is pointing out really is the tragedy of our situation, that we're created as the image of God to reflect the glory of God. But in our sin, what has happened instead is instead of reflecting the glory of God, for which we were created, we've fallen short of that. And we express the image of God in the form of rebellion and shame. And it's in this way that you have both the image of God and yet the image of God and rebellion. And if you think about it, just to get the whole Bible picture, it's in order to restore what has been broken by our sin that the Lord Jesus came into the world, Himself being the image of God, being the eternal image of the Father. So appropriate as Christian theologians have often said that the One who is the image of the Father and also the Son should also come among us in order to restore us to our sonship to God, and to restore for our lives and in our lives the image of God. So that Paul emphasizes in more than one place, that this is what Christ came to do. So that by His Spirit"2 Corinthians 3:18"we might be changed into His likeness and reflect His glory.

So actually this question takes us right into the whole story of the Bible"what we were created to be and what has happened to us in the fall, what Jesus came to accomplish, and what the Spirit is now accomplishing in our lives. And from that point of view, it's actually a much bigger question than perhaps it was intended to be.