It was March of 2001 and I was a newly ordained missionary serving in Fort Babine, British Columbia. My sending church, the Smithers Canadian Reformed Church, was about 100 km to the south. For the first couple of years that I served as their missionary, the church was itself vacant. So, especially in the early days, before we had worship services on the mission field, I preached in Smithers about once a month. So I found myself preparing my first sermon on the summary of God’s Word in Lord’s Day 3 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Lord’s Day 3 says that “God created man good and in his image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness….” In my sermon, I asked the question whether unregenerate human beings today still bear the image of God. In other words, are even unbelievers today made in the image of God? My answer was “No.” I said, “Of himself, man no longer reflects God’s image. He rather reflects the image of his new lord and master.” I wasn’t totally wrong, but I wasn’t totally right either.
In the following years, as I continued my study of Reformed theology, I came to recognize that the answer I gave in that sermon was far too simplistic. It didn’t tell the whole story. It didn’t do justice to all the biblical data. It neglected an important Reformed theological distinction that comes from the biblical data.
Genesis 1 tells us that God created humanity in his image. Our Catechism defines this in the words of Ephesians 4:24, “in true righteousness and holiness.” That could give the impression that “true righteousness and holiness” exhaust what it means to be created in God’s image. However, one must remember that the Heidelberg Catechism was written for children. It wasn’t written as a textbook for systematic theology. Like primers do, our Catechism sometimes leaves us short of the full picture.
To get a fuller picture, we need to account for the other places in Scripture which mention humanity’s creation in the image of God. There are several that could be mentioned, but the one that most caught my attention was James 3:9, “With it [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” The term “likeness of God” is roughly synonymous with “image of God.” James is appealing back to Genesis 1:26, 27 to argue that if you curse human beings you are cursing God. This is not because human beings once bore God’s image, but because they still do right now. All human beings are image-bearers.
This parallels Genesis 9:6, another striking passage: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” There the exact language of Genesis 1 is used to argue that if you kill a human being, you are attacking God. That’s what makes killing a human being so heinous. That’s what gives every human life its enormous value and dignity. It’s because all human beings are image-bearers.
So is the image of God in fallen humanity gone or still present? To resolve this question, Reformed theologians concluded that Scripture must be speaking of the image of God in two distinct senses. These two senses were eventually labelled “broader” and “narrower” (though other terms have been used). Herman Bavinck explains:
…Reformed theologians continued to speak of the image of God in a broader and a narrower sense. In Holy Scripture they read that man, on the one hand, is still called the image of God after the fall and should be respected as such (Gen. 5:1; 9:6; Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 11:7; James 3:9); and that, on the other hand, he had nevertheless lost the primary content of the image of God (i.e. knowledge, righteousness, and holiness) and only regains these qualities in Christ (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, p.550)
So in the broad sense there are, to use the words of Zacharias Ursinus, “remains and sparks” left of the image of God. According to Ursinus (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, pp.31-32) these consist of:
- “The incorporeal, rational, and immortal substance of the soul, together with its powers…”
- “…many notions and conceptions of God, of nature, and of the distinction which exists between things proper and improper…”
- “…traces and remains of moral virtues, and some ability of regulating the external deportment of life.”
- “The enjoyment of many temporal blessings.”
- “A certain dominion over other creatures.”
Now, as stated by Calvin and others, even these “remains and sparks” have been drastically affected by the fall into sin. Yet, while corrupted, it can still be said that “God’s image has not been totally annihilated and destroyed” (Institutes 1.15.4). However, after the fall, the narrow sense of the image of God (or the moral/ethical sense) has been completely lost. It only begins to be recovered in a vital relationship with Jesus Christ.
Now why does all this matter? First, because this is foundational for a Christian understanding of human worth and dignity. All human beings have worth and value because there is a sense in which they bear God’s image. All human beings deserve to be treated with dignity because they’re image-bearers in the broad sense. From the unborn to the elderly, one and all carry the likeness of their Creator – not in all respects, but those which they do are of enormous value.
Second, this distinction gives us some direction when it comes to considering the universal love of God. Like many Reformed folks, I struggled for some years with understanding the love of God for humanity in general. Can we say that God loves humanity as a whole? Wolfgang Musculus, a Reformed theologian from the 1500s, said “Yes.” He said that on account of humanity continuing to bear the image of God in the broader sense. God loves humanity in general because there he still sees his image. Similarly, John Calvin wrote this remarkable passage:
All of us, therefore, have in ourselves something deserving of God’s hatred. With regard to our corrupt nature and the wicked life that follows it, all of us surely displease God, are guilty in his sight, and are born to the damnation of hell. But because the Lord wills not to lose what is his in us, out of his own kindness he still finds something to love. (Institutes 2.16.3)
God finds something to love in us by virtue of what remains of his image in us. God’s love is thus on account of God’s creation. It all goes back to him.
Come 2006 I was serving my first congregation as a pastor. I had the opportunity to revise my 2001 sermon on Lord’s Day 3. I corrected my earlier theological blunders. As I look at it now, it’s still a flawed sermon in some ways, but at least I was now on the right track concerning the Reformed doctrine of the image of God. Through this experience God taught me that a preacher has to always keep studying theology. We can never stop learning – none of us. Even though we’re created in the image of God (broader), even though we’re being restored to the image of God (narrower) in Christ, we’re still finite creatures whose knowledge and understanding is incomplete.