The Image of God After the Fall
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
— Genesis 1:26-27 (KJV)
You often hear Christians refer to humans as “image-bearers”, or mention that we are all created in God’s image. In the first chapter of Genesis, we are given an account of the creation of the heavens, the Earth, and all the creatures therein. In this creation account we encounter the making of man in God’s image and likeness. The claim that we were created in God’s image is true. Although, if we take a closer look at the biblical account of man, we can see that the question of whether or not we are still made in God’s image today, is a more nuanced one, and requires more than a simple yes or no answer. First, we need to determine what the image of God entails.
What Is Meant By The Image Of God?
The 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), chapter 4, section 2 discusses the creation of man, and gives the description of our created state before the fall of man. The first segment states the elements that comprise the image of God, and what follows is a description of our capacities in relation to Him:
“After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness after his own image,having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfill it; and yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject unto change. Besides this law written in their hearts, they received a command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; which while they kept were happy in their communion with God, and had dominion over the creatures.”
— Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 4.2 (emphasis added)
The image of God in which man was created consisted of: reasonable and immortal souls, knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness. Since the fall, we still have knowledge, the ability to reason, and an immortal soul. Yet, in natural man, there is none righteous (Rom 3:10), and any righteousness we do have, being that we are unclean, is but filthy rags (Isa 64:6).
The Westminster Shorter Catechism, in question 10, asks “How did God create man?” It answers the question with, “God created man male and female, after His own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures.” There is an obvious emphasis in the Shorter Catechism on these aspects of God’s image over the other aspects previously mentioned. John Flavel, in his Exposition of the Westminster Shorter Catechism in question 10, placed the crux of the image of God on holiness. He defines the image of God as “Not a resemblance of God in any bodily shape or figure, but in holiness. Ephesians 4:24. And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.”
Flavel essentially makes the point that the image of God, being righteousness and true holiness, was lost at the fall, and that we are only renewed into the image of God through Christ Jesus our Lord. He states, “We have infinite cause to bless God for Christ, who repairs this lost Image in his people. Ephesians 4:23. And be renewed in the spirit of your mind.” The focal point of Flavel’s description, along with others, is the idea that God’s image was lost in the fall, only to be restored in Christ. Flavel, here, is describing the imago Dei from the narrow sense.
The Narrow Sense
The narrow sense looks at the image of God at creation as the sum of all its parts. Since the fall, there was a change in man, or a falling away, in which sin entered the world and corrupted us to our very core. Lutherans typically hold to a strictly narrow view. The true holiness and righteousness that was bestowed upon us at creation was no longer present. Because of this, those that hold to the narrow view would say that the unregenerate person does not bear the image of God.
There is evidence supporting this in Genesis 5:3, which clearly says that Seth was born in the image and likeness of Adam. Further, we affirm that there is a restoration into the image of God in regeneration. (Col. 3:10 “And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him”) If we were originally made in God’s image, then fell away and needed to be restored in God’s image through Christ, then it could be argued that the unregenerate man does not bear God’s image.
Another way of describing the narrow sense, is that, even if it was granted that some aspects of God’s image remain in us, the image itself, as a sum of its parts, or characteristics, is no longer the image in us because the unregenerate man does not have that knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness. Therefore, it can only be considered God’s image if it consists of all those parts. On the other side of the coin, there is the broader sense which entails how the image of God remains in even the unregenerate.
The broad sense
The broader sense views the image of God as being still present in all people today. Those that hold to the broader sense emphasize the soul, intellectual capacity, and natural affections. In defense of the broader sense of the imago Dei, one could use the existence of the moral law being written on the hearts of all men as revealed in Romans 1. In addition, though we are tainted by sin, we still have a conscience which convicts us of going against the moral law, even as unregenerate people. We never cease to have a rational and immortal soul, which still separates us from the rest of creation, so in that sense, we can say that that aspect of the image remains in us.
We also cannot say that our free will was done away with at the fall. God has bestowed upon us the ability to choose to sin or not to sin. Ultimately, this choice is what led to the fall in the first place. This ability to choose to act in accordance with the moral law (conscience in the unregenerate) or in compliance with God’s law as a mark of sanctification in the believer, the ability to choose still remains. With both senses in view, what conclusions can we draw regarding God’s image in believers, as well as the unregenerate?
RECONCILING THE BROAD AND NARROW
In John Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis 9, which has been used by those who hold to the broader sense of the imago Dei to refute the narrow sense, Calvin describes the chief part of the image of God consisting in “righteousness and true holiness,” and affirms that regeneration is the act of restoring God’s image in us. In this statement, he is in agreement with the narrow sense, but Calvin does not disregard the continuation of our affections, nor our intellect, as part of the image, which is in line with the broader sense. In order to reconcile the two, he goes on to explain that the characteristics of the imago Dei that we retained after the fall was so corrupted by sin, that “they may truly be said to be destroyed.”
“But now, although some obscure lineaments of that image are found remaining in us; yet are they so vitiated and maimed, that they may truly be said to be destroyed. For besides the deformity which everywhere appears unsightly, this evil also is added, that no part is free from the infection of sin.”
— John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 9
Zacharius Ursinus, in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism does a beautiful job of reconciling the characteristic factors of the broad and narrow sense of the imago Dei. He affirms that man has lost the glorious image at the fall, and is “transformed into the image of Satan”. This affirmation is a defining aspect of the narrow sense. Rather than leave it at that, Ursinus goes on to illustrate five things that remain in God’s image in us, even as unregenerate, which are, (1) the incorporeal, rational, and immortal soul; (2) conceptions of God, nature, and distinctions between proper and improper, the logical and abstract, etc.; (3) traces of moral virtue, or an inherent idea of right and wrong; (4) enjoyment of temporal blessings, and (5) dominion over the rest of God’s creation, to an extent. He explains,
“These vestiges and remains of the image of God in man, although they are greatly obscured and marred by sin, are nevertheless, still preserved in us to a certain extent; and that for these ends: 1. That they may be a testimony of the mercy and goodness of God towards us, unworthy as we are. 2. That God may make use of them in restoring his image in us. 3. That the wicked may be without excuse.”
— Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism pg-81-82
In affirming that some aspects, or even a glimpse of the image of God remains in the unregenerate man, lends itself to the broader sense of God’s image. These remaining aspects serve as a picture of God’s mercy, they are used by God to bring us to restoration through regeneration, and like natural revelation, leave the unregenerate without an excuse for their sins.
So what can we say about the image of God in the natural man? Does the unregenerate person still bear the image of God? We can confidently say that natural man does not bear the imago Dei in the sense of which we were originally created in, but is it accurate to say that the image of God was lost entirely? On the other hand, is it accurate to say that we are made in the image of God without distinguishing that any spark of the image we still retain is corrupted?
I think Ursinus’s explanation, along with Calvin’s, paints the most accurate description of the image of God after the fall. It concisely portrays the reformed perspective on the matter. The image was not totally destroyed at the fall. On the flip side, it is inaccurate to say that we are still made in the image of God without adding the disclaimer that the current image in man is not the same as it was at creation.
An honest, biblical approach at understanding the image of God will embrace both the narrow and broad sense. This is important because we can depart from orthodoxy if too much weight on either aspects. A proper understanding of God’s image in us gives us a better understanding of the nature of man, and our position in relation to God. The fact remains that we must be restored to God’s image, and this can only be done through Jesus Christ.
“The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.”
— 1 Corinthians 15:47-49 (KJV)