Occasional Paper

A Theology of the Human Person

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Editor's Note

This Lausanne Occasional Paper was produced by a sub-team of the Lausanne Theology Working Group in the lead up to the Fourth Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. This strategic once-in-a-generation gathering will be held in Incheon, South Korea from 22-28 September 2024.

This paper seeks to provide a preliminary theological and biblical response to the urgent and pertinent gap in evangelical and global Christian thought on the theme of the human person. The mounting anthropological concerns of our time relating to the nature of human beings, human sexuality, racial and ethnic conflicts, and Christian leadership and their authority have necessitated fresh attention to the field of anthropology in relation to theology, biblical engagement, and the Christian tradition.

While this document is not intended to directly address all the present confusions and challenges, it seeks to lay out a biblical understanding of human personhood. Particularly, the biblical understanding of creation that has been articulated over the history of the church, needs to be reiterated for the benefit of the church in every generation. Therefore, in the following, we begin with the creation account as the starting point for this discussion.

Created in the Image of God

Human Beings Are Created Directly by God

The existence of humankind is wholly a result of divine creation. Genesis 1:1 declares, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ God is the eternal transcendent cause of everything. According to the biblical account, God created all things that are material and immaterial (cf. Col 1:16). The creation of humankind is the climax God’s creation in Genesis 1.[1] 

Genesis 1 and 2 are not two contradictory creation accounts; rather, both accounts are complementary. Genesis 1 gives an overview account of the creation of mankind and the universe, including the creation of the sun, moon, stars, and living creatures. Genesis 2, on the other hand, provides a more detailed account on the creation of humanity including the creation of the first man and woman.[2]

In Genesis, various terms such as ‘make’ (Gen 1:26; 2:18)/ ‘made,’ (Gen 1:31; 5:1) ‘create’ (Gen 1:27; 5:1–2), and ‘form’ (Gen 2:7, 8) are used to show God’s active involvement in the creation of human beings. 

God’s creation of humanity is affirmed throughout Scripture (Ps 100:3; Matt 19:4; James 3:9). That humans are created by God carries significant implications.

  • Human beings do not exist in a vacuum. The precondition for humanity is God, humanity can be understood only by starting with the creator. When Paul addressed the philosophers in Athens, he pointed them to the God who created the world and everything in it (cf. Acts 17:24).
  • Humans are not God. Human beings are neither divine nor the highest beings in existence. An ontological gap exists between God and humans. Humans can never be God, nor should they seek to be God.[3]
  • As creatures, humans are obligated to submit to God. 
  • Humanity is tasked to fulfil the creation mandate—to multiply, fill the earth and subdue it (Gen 1:26–28; Ps 115:16).
  • Humanity is created to give glory to God (cf. Ps 8; Ps 148; Isa 43:6–7; Ps 115:1; 1 Cor 10:31).
  • Humanity bears God’s emblem in the image and carries the ruah ‘breath of God’ that animates and sustains all life (Gen 1:27; Gen 2:7; cf. Ps 51:10–12; Ezek 37:9).

Human Beings Are Created in the Image of God (Imago Dei)

In our quest to understand what it means to be a collective humanity and a human person in particular; it is very important to begin with the fact that humans are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26–27). As Beck and Demarest state, ‘The Implications of human persons created in the image of God are immense for theology, psychology, ministry and Christian living. Ramifications of the imago Dei embrace issues of human dignity and value, personal and social ethics, relations between sexes, the solidarity of the human family. . . and racial justice.’[4] 

The passages that explicitly refer to the imago Dei include the following:

  • Gen 1:26 ‘Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”’[5] 
  • Gen 1:27 ‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ 
  • Gen 5:1–3 ‘This is the written account of Adam’s family line. When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “Mankind” when they were created. When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.’ 
  • Gen 9:6 ‘Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.’ 
  • 1 Cor 11:7 ‘A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.’
  • James 3:9 ‘With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.’
  • Col 3:10 ‘and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.’ 
  • Eph 4:24 ‘and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.’ 

Some early patristic fathers did make a distinction between ‘image’ (tselem) and ‘likeness’ (demut) to capture both the static identity of the human person as the imago and therein the dynamic potential to attain the likeness of God by becoming Christlike. This distinction, of course, has been dismissed by theologians as they paid close attention to the semantic range of the terms in the original language and the context in which they emerged. 

The second Hebrew term for ‘likeness’ (demuth) denotes the full range of similarities, which may be physical or non-physical.[6] The term can refer to a ‘pattern’. It signifies something patterned after an original. When the term is used in Genesis 1:26, the term indicates that humans are patterned or like God. In order to avoid the possibility of humanity being viewed as an exact ‘image of God’ the abstract word ‘likeness’ is added as an apposition to tone down ‘the physical nuance of the concrete term image.’[7] 

This fundamental identity of the human person, described as the image of God in the Scriptures, has been the basis by which the church throughout the ages has affirmed and advocated for the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of human persons. Where the church failed by compromising and conspiring in abusing power and becoming an instrument of oppression, prophetic voices echoed back to this fundamental doctrine that all humans are created in the ‘image of God’.[8]

The Views on the Meaning of the Image of God?

While the affirmation that humans are fundamentally image bearers is universally agreed, the questions of ‘what image bearing entails’ and ‘what is it exactly that is being imaged’ has produced different answers. In fact, the meaning of the imago Dei in Genesis 1:26–27 is a matter of some controversy among biblical scholars and theologians. Three types of views have been suggested[9]

  • Some consider the image of God to consist of certain characteristics within the very nature of a human being, which may be psychological, physical or spiritual. This view is known as the ‘substantive view’ of the image of God. The image of God has also been viewed as self–consciousness, the power to reason, moral or spiritual or physical likeness to God. 
  • Others regard the image of God not as something inherently or intrinsically present in humans, but as the experiencing of a relationship between a human being and God or between two or more humans. This view is called the ‘relational view’ of the image of God.
  • Some consider the image of God to be, not something that is intrinsically present in humans or the experiencing of a relationship between a human being and God, but a function that a human being performs. This is view is called the ‘functional view’ of the image of God. Human being functions a representative of God on earth, just as lifeless statutes in the the Ancient Near East (ANE) world would represent a god, a king or ruler. While God is the king, God created human beings in his image, so that they would serve as vice-regents and mediators over the creation on God’s behalf.

Apart from these, there are other subsidiary views like the existentialist, ethical, and eschatological views of the human person.[10] The popular views classified above have appealed to a wide range of Christian thinkers across time and space who favoured one or more of these for their conception of the imago Dei

As varied as this discussion might be, the church has affirmed that we cannot consider the meaning of humanness or personhood without attending to the primary scriptural description of humanity as ‘images of God.’ Therefore, in the following, we begin our enquiry with ‘revelation’ and not based on cultural trends or philosophical speculation (even though these are valuable conversation partners)—both the revelation of God’s Word in Scripture and the Word that is Christ the true and preeminent image bearer. 

The Meaning of Being the ‘Image of God’ in the Context of Genesis 1–8


If we treat Genesis 1 as an introduction to Genesis 2–11, we can see that the temptation involved a promise of Godlikeness (Gen 3:5). However, it’s worth noting that according to Genesis 1:26–27, Adam and Eve were already, in some sense, like God. The concept of Godlikeness, as well as the idea of dominion from Genesis 1:26, appear to be recurring themes throughout chapters 2–6. 

God’s good creation is corrupted by the Fall. Yet, it is important to begin with the first principle of humans being God’s good creation lest we begin with the bleak fallen nature of humanity. 

The Nature of Human Beings

The uniqueness of the human constitution is that they are embodied souls. While the Old Testament considers ruach as the breath of God—the life principle of all living beings, God breathing into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life infuses humans with unique ‘spiritual’ capacity (Gen 2:7). This, however, does not mean that Scripture dichotomizes the body and spirit to the extent that one is superior to the other. The theme of God’s good creation affirms the ‘goodness’ of material and embodied existence that is further cemented in the Incarnation of the Son of God in human flesh. Therefore, while various views interpret the relationship between the body and soul (and/or spirit) in different ways, theologians and church historians in recent times have documented the adverse consequences of minimizing the importance of the ‘physical body’ and ‘bodies’ of human persons in Christian thought. Human beings are embodied beings. Our bodies are not just containers for our souls, but an integral part of our identity. Our physicality is part of what makes us human, and it shapes our experiences and relationships with others.

Genesis 1:27 describes the creation of humans as male and female in his image. As gendered creatures, Adam and Eve would fulfil their calling to multiply and fill the earth with their distinct and unique natures as male and female (Gen 1:28). Humans are characterized by an extraordinary dignity equally ascribed to man and woman to complement each other in reigning as vice-regents under God over his creation. That they were created with the spiritual capacity to commune with God marks their dependency upon God to reign as vice-regents. This understanding of creation entails that humans are not autonomous and cannot live self-referentially, let alone reign over the earth. 

The two realities that characterized humans are represented by the two trees in the centre of their life and existence (Gen 2:9). The free access to the tree of life (before disobedience) is the constant communion with God, the source of life. Whereas the forbidden, tree of the knowledge of good and evil reminded humans of another character unique to humans—a limit/boundary for Adam and Eve to operate their relationship with God and their dominion over creation. 

Implications on Genesis 1–2 in our modern world:

  • Both men and women are created in God’s image (Gen 1:27), signifying equality in God’s eyes. Regrettably, certain cultures perceive women as inferior to men, resulting in the oppression, mistreatment, and denial of educational opportunities for women and girls. Gender–based violence (GBV) affects many women, yet Genesis 1–2 underscores the equality of men and women before God, recognizing their distinct roles. The church must vocally denounce GBV, abuse, and mistreatment of women, acknowledging their equal creation in God’s image alongside men.
  • We live in a world where there is confusion regarding gender. Western culture recognizes a wide spectrum of gender identities, encompassing male, female, transgender, gender–neutral, non-binary, agender, pangender, genderqueer, two-spirit, third gender, and combinations thereof. However, Genesis 1:27 informs us that God created male and female.
  • Regarding gender, one’s biological embodiment is often not considered a definitive source of self-understanding. However, Genesis 1:27 states that God created humanity as male and female.

The temptation, the Fall, and the image of God 

The tempter of Genesis 3, the devil, ‘the ancient serpent’ (see Rev 12:9; 20:2) tempts Eve when he says ‘You will not surely die. . . You will be like God, knowing good and evil’ (Gen 3:4–5). The tempter denies the consequences of breaking God’s command (Gen 2:17), thus calling God a liar. In telling Eve that God did not want them to be like him, the serpent insinuated that God was jealous for his position and was withholding something good from them. The serpent suggested that humankind could be better than what God made them, attacking the relational aspect of the image of God: the parent-child relationship based on faith, trust, dependence, love, and obedience. By accusing God of being a liar and envious, the devil portrayed himself as good and God as evil. 

Through his statements in verses 4–5, the tempter planted seeds of unbelief, distrust, doubt, and rebellion in Eve, which threatened her relationship with God. By denying the consequences of breaking God’s command, the tempter lied to Adam and Eve, as they eventually died physically (Gen 5:5). The tempter also falsely claimed that they would be ‘like God’ when they ate from the fruit (Gen 3:5), where as in reality, they were already created in God’s image (Gen 1:26) and had been crowned ‘with glory and honour’ (Ps 8:5). When Eve began to doubt God’s character and goodness, she gave in to sin and she ate the forbidden fruit, and also gave it to Adam who was also with her. Adam and Eve acted like God by deciding for themselves what was good and what was not, usurping God’s divine prerogatives. Only God had the right to define what was good and evil, and he had defined the eating of the forbidden fruit as ‘not good’ in Gen 2:17. When Adam and Eve redefined what God had already defined as ‘not good,’ the challenged God’s authority. This observation is reinforced by the language used by the author of Genesis to describe Eve’s disobedience. The language of Genesis 3:6 echoes the language of Genesis 1, ‘And the woman saw that it was good’ (Gen 3:6) is an imitation of the language of Genesis 1, ‘And God saw that it was good’ (Gen 1:10b, 12b, 18b, 25b).[11] 

What we see in Genesis 3 is the disobedience of Adam and Eve to God’s command and their putting of themselves in the place of God. Interestingly, there is a rhetoric of reversal at play here. Adam and Eve put themselves in God’s place and did not listen to him. Instead of ruling over the serpent they fail and follow the serpent’s leading. Therefore, the temptation involved an offer of illegitimate Godlikeness, in which human beings decided for themselves what was good and evil, thus rejecting the relational aspect of the image of God—the God and child relationship in which man and woman were created. In short, beguiled by the promise of autonomy and attainment of another kind of godlikeness, humans disobeyed God resulting in the alienation from God (Gen 3:15–19), and the corruption of God’s image in them (Gen 3:6).

The consequences of the Fall on the image of God (Gen 4)

Theologians describe the state of fallen nature as human depravity, which centrally affects the relationship with God, but also as a consequence, affects their affective, cognitive, and volitional capabilities (Gen 6:5), characterized by an errant heart, a darkened mind, and a rebellious will, leaving them incapable of Godward relationship. In short, humans are deprived not only of the truth of the gospel but also of the condition to receive the truth if they were to encounter it. Fallen humanity is in desperate need of redemption.

The biblical narrative portrays Adam and Eve as having been created in the image of God, morally upright, and obedient. However, their son Cain is depicted in Genesis 4 as having moral and relational similarities with the tempter from Genesis 3. 

The Implications of the Fall for the modern-day church

  • We live in a world where there’s widespread promiscuity, a culture of casual sex, practices like polyamory, polygamy, homosexuality, and even bestiality gaining popularity. However, Gen 1–2 teaches us that God intended marriage for one man and one woman. Additionally, sex is portrayed as God’s gift meant for procreation and the enjoyment of a married couple. The Lausanne Cape Town Commitment echoes this point when it states, ‘God’s design in creation is that marriage is constituted by the committed, faithful relationship between one man and one woman, in which they become one flesh in a new social unity that is distinct from their birth families, and that sexual intercourse as the expression of that ‘one flesh’ is to be enjoyed exclusively within the bond of marriage. This loving sexual union within marriage, in which ‘two become one’, reflects both Christ’s relationship with the Church and also the unity of Jew and Gentile in the new humanity’ (CTC IIE 2).
  • When addressing inappropriate sexual practices (eg homosexuality, pornography, polyamory, polygamy, etc.) the church should adhere to the complete counsel of God, encompassing everything Christ commanded us. It should teach the comprehensive biblical sexual ethic that reflects the entirety of the Biblical narrative, starting from Genesis 1 and 2. The Lausanne Cape Town Commitment supports this point when it encourages all pastors to have open conversation about sexuality in churches ‘declaring the good news of God’s plan for healthy relationships’ (page 95) and to ‘teach God’s standards clearly’ (CTC IIE 2B). 

Genesis 4 thus represents a fulfillment of Genesis 3:15. The two seeds referred to in Genesis 3:15 are the righteous and the wicked, with enmity existing between them.[12] The righteous seed, identified as the seed of the woman and thus of God, is portrayed as being morally aligned with God. Conversely, the wicked seed, identified as the seed of the serpent or tempter, are depicted as being morally and relationally like the tempter of Genesis 3.

In Genesis 4, Cain is portrayed as having moral similarities to the tempter, setting him apart from his parents—an idea that is supported in the New Testament, which describe Cain as belonging to the evil one and engaging in evil works (1 John 3:12; cf. Jude 11), underscoring his moral likeness to the tempter rather than to God. Like the tempter, Cain is guilty of both lying and murder, resulting in God’s curse upon him and identifying him as the seed of the serpent referred to in Genesis 3:15. The tempter had lied to Eve in denying the consequences of eating from the forbidden tree (Gen 3:4, cf. 2:17), and similarly, Cain lies to God when questioned about his brother’s whereabouts (Gen 4:9).

Cain rejected the relational aspect of ‘family’ with his brother. He also rejected the relational aspect of filial relationship to God, and he showed himself to be the offspring of the devil. Cain rejected God’s correction, ‘If you do what is good, will you not be accepted?’ (Gen 4:7). Cain decided for himself what to do. He did not heed God’s correction and he murdered his brother. Like Eve, he did what he thought was right in his own eyes, and this was also illegitimate God–likeness.

Cain took his brother to a field, and he killed him, which shows that he knew God would not approve of what he was going to do to Abel. He tried to cover up his sin by lying to God about the whereabouts of his brother. The murder of Abel was a direct assault on the relational aspect of sonship to God because God alone, as the giver of life, had the right to take life.

God warned Cain about the encroaching presence of sin and exhorted him to rule over it, saying, ‘If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it’ (Gen 4:7). Instead of obeying God’s command and mastering sin, Cain chose to follow the devil, as Jesus affirms in John 8:44. The consequence of this choice was enslavement to sin and separation from God, replacing Cain’s sonship to God with sonship to the tempter.

Renewal of the image of God after the Fall

Abel’s moral character is presented as the opposite of Cain’s in the Bible. He is described as being morally like God, doing what is good or right. In fact, God tells him, ‘If you do what is good, will not your countenance be lifted up?’ (Gen 4:7, literal translation), implying that Abel’s actions are pleasing to God (Heb 11:4). Abel is accepted by God because he brings his best as an offering to God as indicated by the general description of his offering fat portions of his flock (Gen 4:4a). God approves of Abel’s offering (Gen 4:4b), but he does not accept Cain’s offering. 

From the story of Cain and Abel, it is clear that God allowed Abel, his favored one, to die, not as a payment for sin but as an act of divine will. In this way, Abel is likened to God who also gave his best, as exemplified in the New Testament when God gave his only Son to die on the cross for the sins of humanity (John 3:16; Rom 3:25). This idea of God giving his best is further emphasized in the history of Israel, where God gives them good land described as ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’ (Lev 20:24; Num 13:27; Deut 11:9; 26:9, 15; Josh 13–19).

In the account of creation, God sees light as good (cf. Gen 1:4) and does not look at the darkness. Similarly, in Genesis 4:4b–5a, God sees Abel and his offering but does not look at Cain and his offering. This implies that Abel and his offering are like God’s creation, which is described as good (cf. Gen 1:31). Abel is like light, representing God’s new creation, and is viewed as righteous and a type for a regenerate person in the New Testament.[13] In contrast, Cain is likened to darkness and the unformed seas, representing the fallen and unregenerate state of humanity.

Cain is identified as the offspring of the serpent, and after God rejects the sacrifice he offers, God warns him in Genesis 4:6–8, providing him with an opportunity to repent. However, the serpent is not given such an opportunity as there is no hope that he will be pardoned.[14] 

The death of Abel is a foreshadow of the redemption that Christ brings. The redemption of humanity is accomplished by Jesus’ perfect obedience and sacrificial death. The incarnation presents the perfect human nature—the prototype for all humanity to imitate. Theological anthropology is fundamentally Christological in its substance and form. Jesus as the true human is both the object and subject of election and the rest of humanity is elected only by being in Christ. While work of justification is accomplished by Christ’s death on behalf of humanity, sanctification—a process by which a believer is transformed into Christlikeness, is accomplished by the Holy Spirit. Being in Christ, entails a new nature, where the old is replaced by the new (2 Cor 5:17), which apostle Paul refers to as the ‘new creation in Christ.’ This new self is ontologically different from the old that is put to death (Col 3:5).

Apostle Paul uses two distinct antitheses—the Torah/Spirit antithesis and flesh/spirit antithesis to draw the contrast between the old and the new natures. Just as believers are justified in Christ, they now are enabled to live with the new nature that corresponds to being in Christ and is made possible only by the Holy Spirit. 

This entails that all human natural inclinations (that is corrupted by the Fall) are subject to and superseded by the sanctifying work of the Spirit enabling humans to rise above their natural animal passions and cognitive orientations to live in accordance to the Spirit. Although the in–Christ status does not obliterate the flesh and its appetites, Paul argues that ‘those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit (Rom 8:5), whereby the ‘the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead’ (Rom 8:11) inaugurates a new mode of being that is inconceivable for the natural human being. This new mode of being that entails a constant struggle against the desires of the flesh and the works of the evil one, strives toward Christlikeness in the hope of the resurrection that will once and for all bring an end to the fallen condition and restore humanity to a more glorious state than at Eden with renewed bodies, reconciled new heavens and new earth, and eternal bliss with God as all in all. 

Genesis 4–5 and the image of God

According to a strictly functional interpretation, the image of God consists of dominion over creation (Gen 1:28). In Genesis 4, Cain and his descendants are depicted as exercising this dominion by building a city and introducing various technological, agricultural, and cultural innovations (Gen 4:17–20), consistent with this functional interpretation. However, the story also highlights that despite their ability to exercise dominion, Cain and his offspring are morally unlike God, resembling the serpent instead.

Cain’s offspring do not exercise dominion over sin, as evidenced by Lamech’s song in Genesis 4:23–24: ‘I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy–seven times.’ This indicates that Lamech, who is even more wicked than Cain, believes he will have greater protection. Lamech’s song reveals that he and the wicked in general are enslaved to sin rather than ruling over it (cf. Gen 4:7), with sin exercising dominion over their lives. In contrast, the righteous seed (such as Abel, Seth, and their descendants), who are being renewed in God’s image, exhibit limited dominion over creation. Later, God puts an end to the dominion of Cain’s offspring through the flood.

The events of Genesis 4 appear to challenge the notion that the image of God consists solely of dominion over creation, as the wicked Cain and his descendants exercise dominion while the righteous Abel and Seth, who are being renewed in God’s image, demonstrate little dominion over creation.

In Genesis 5:3, the phrase ‘image and likeness’ is used in place of ‘son,’ which is not in the Hebrew text. The verse reads, ‘When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered [a son] in his own likeness, according to his own image, and named him Seth’ (Gen 5:3, ESV). This verse suggests that Seth resembles his father Adam in a way that is analogous to how humans are like God, their creator.[15] To be created in the image and likeness of God means to be created as God’s children. Adam and Eve were created as God’s children. The same notion is seen in Luke’s genealogy (Luke 3:38), where Luke traces Jesus’ lineage back to Adam, who is called the son of God.[16] Therefore, Genesis 5:3 indicates that image and likeness imply sonship, and to be created in God’s image means to be created as God’s children. The next section will discuss in what sense all humans may be said to be in the image of God.

Apostasy at the time of the flood

Genesis 6 describes further moral and spiritual deterioration of humanity, leading to God’s judgment through the Flood. The entire earth, except for Noah, had become corrupt: ‘God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt’ (Gen 6:12, cf. v.5, literal translation). This stands in contrast with Genesis 1:31, where ‘God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good.’ From the creation of the world in Genesis 1 to the time of the Flood, the moral state of humanity had changed. This contrast shows that moral goodness was an essential aspect of God’s overall goodness in his creation in Genesis 1:31.

One may ask, what brought about this moral change in humans? With the Fall of humanity, they took on the moral likeness of the tempter. Therefore, the image of God is a moral image because humanity is still exercising dominion over creation. After the Fall, humans are born with a tainted or corrupt image of God, which is prone to evil (Gen 6:5, 12; 8:21).

In Genesis 6, the sons of God[17] decided for themselves what was good and evil, thus rejecting the relational aspect of the image of God—the father-son relationship. By analogy with Gen 5:3, the sons of God can be viewed as those who are in the image of God.

The language of Gen 6:2 echoes 3:6: ‘The sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were good’ (Gen 6:2). This is similar to what Eve does in Gen 3:6: ‘And the woman saw that it was good’ (literal translation). This shows that the sons of God were repeating Eve’s sin. They were deciding for themselves what is good and what is not good. This is an illegitimate form of God–likeness. The sons of God ignore the moral or spiritual characteristics of the daughters of humans and lust after their physical beauty. They were supposed to marry good wives, just as Adam did. God created and brought to Adam a good wife, one in his image. Therefore, the sons of God were supposed to marry the daughters of God. Because of their disobedience, the whole earth became morally corrupt. The sinfulness of humans covered the inhabited earth, and it was intense and deeply rooted (Gen 6:5). 

As we observed, after the Fall, humans are born with a corrupt image that is prone to evil (see Gen 6:5, 12; 8:12). However, the Scriptures (eg Gen 9:6; 1 Cor 11:7; Jas 3:9) reveal that people still bear the image of God. The image of God in humanity was not entirely lost but corrupted; part of the image of God still remains in humans. After God rejects Cain’s offering, he gives him the opportunity to repent and exhorts him to rule over the sin that is encroaching at his door (Gen 4:7). When Cain kills his brother, God asks him, ‘Where is your brother?’ (Gen 4:9), not because he did not know but to give Cain the chance to confess and take responsibility for his sin. However, Cain does not confess or take responsibility for his sin, and God punishes him. Cain’s fear of retribution implies that he was conscious of his sin and probably thought God would execute justice by sending someone to kill him. God responds to Cain’s complaint by protecting his life (Gen 4:15).

In contrast to Cain, who was given the opportunity to repent when God asked him questions, the devil was not given a chance to repent. God did not interrogate the tempter because there was no hope of pardon. The tempter’s level of apostasy is not the same as that of the fallen children of Adam and Eve, like Cain, which is why God gave them the opportunity to repent and showed them special care (see Gen 4:15; cf. 3:21).

Despite the Fall, humans still possess the image of God, although not in the same way that Adam and Eve did before the Fall. The former has a corrupt image of God, as seen in Genesis 6:12 and 8:21. Humans are morally unlike God but are morally like the serpent. However, this does not mean that they are no longer God’s children or in God’s image. This interpretation is supported by Scriptures, such as Genesis 9:6, 1 Corinthians 11:7, and James 3:9, which seem to indicate that all people are in God’s image. In addition, image implies sonship, meaning that all humans are God’s children.

Summary, conclusions, and implications

The temptation that Adam and Eve faced involved an offer of illegitimate God–likeness or God rivalry. They were tempted to decide on their own what was good and evil, rejecting the relational aspect of the image of God in which they were created. Similarly, Cain is portrayed as morally and relationally like the tempter in Genesis 3, while Abel is depicted as morally like God, indicating that he is in the image of God. The events of Genesis 4 appear to contradict the strictly functional interpretation of the image of God. The wicked offspring of Cain are seen exercising dominion over creation and fulfilling the creation mandate of Genesis 1:28. 

On the other hand, the righteous, such as Abel, who are being renewed in God’s image, demonstrate little dominion over creation. The moral decay of the world in Genesis 6 stands in sharp contrast to the state of God’s original creation in Genesis 1, implying that moral goodness was an essential aspect of God’s overall good creation. The sons of God repeat the sin of Eve by deciding for themselves on what is good and evil, thereby rejecting the relational aspect of the image of God in which they were created, which ultimately leads to universal moral corruption.

In light of Genesis 2–8, it can be concluded that the image of God mentioned in Genesis 1:26–27 is both moral and relational in nature. It involves humans’ moral likeness to God as well as a parent–child relationship between God and humankind based on trust, faith, love, dependence, and obedience. However, when they were tempted and fell into sin, both the moral and relational aspects of the image of God were corrupted. Morally, humankind is like the serpent, as seen in the case of Cain. Relationally, humankind is regarded as the offspring of the serpent and enslaved to sin, as exemplified by Cain and the wicked in general. Nevertheless, humankind is also renewed into the image of God through a creative act of God. Abel, on the other hand, represents God’s new creation, as a righteous man and a regenerate man. It is important to note that despite the corruption caused by the Fall, the image of God was not entirely defaced, and part of it still remains in humankind.

Implications of Humans being made in God’s Image:

  • First, the image of God is affirmed for all persons—male and female alike (cf. Gen 1:27). While men and women have distinct genders, they are all equal as persons and equal in value.
  • Second, the image of God was not lost or obliterated by the Fall, even after the Fall all people still possess the image and likeness. After the Fall mankind bears the image of God which is marred or corrupted by sin. 
  • Third, the image of God relates to the creation mandate, the task ‘to rule’ and ‘subdue’ the earth on God’s behalf. Dominion is a consequence of being in the image of and not the image of God. Immediately after creating mankind in his image and likeness, God gives mankind dominion over the animals and the earth (Gen 1:26–28; Ps 8:4–8). Because human beings are made in the image of God, they can reflect something of the beauty and creative ability of God—for example humans make visual objects or images, music etc. The Lausanne Cape Town Commitment echoes this point when it says, ‘we possess the gift of creativity because we bear the image of God’’ (CTC IIA 5).

Jesus Christ, the Image of the Invisible God

Christ in the likeness of humankind 

Jesus Christ, who is the true image of God (Heb 1:3), was born in the likeness of humankind (incarnation). Through Christ, we see the perfect embodiment of humanity, as John 1:14 says, ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’ By taking on human form, Christ bore the burden of sinful flesh, ultimately sacrificing himself to save humanity from sin. In other words, he became human in order to die for humanity. ‘For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people’ (Heb 2:17).

Christ took on the likeness of a sinner through the incarnation, not to become a sinner, but to live the perfect life that sinners should live. As Hebrews 4:14–15 tells us, Christ lived a sinless life, and through his sacrificial death, he became the perfect offering for sinners (Rom 3:21–25). Therefore, Christ serves as both our perfect high priest and our sacrifice (Heb 9:11–12, 14, 28; 10:14). Through his substitutionary death, Christ restores sinners to the likeness of God.[18] As seen from the study of Genesis, humanity’s image of God was corrupted after the fall. But through Christ’s work on the cross, believers can be restored to a moral likeness to God. In this way, Christ effects our restoration to the image of God.

When we compare the incarnation of Christ (John 1:14) to the creation of Adam and Eve (Gen 1:26–28), we can see that Adam and Eve were originally created in the image of God. They were crowned with glory and honor (Ps 8:5) and given dominion over the earth and its creatures (Gen 1:26, 28). However, Christ humbled himself by leaving the glory and privileges of deity to become human (John 17:5; Phil 2:6–8).[19]

Christ’s incarnation is a rebuttal to Satan’s accusation against God. Unlike Adam and Eve, who were tempted by the devil to seek equality with God (Gen 3), Christ—although he was God—did not cling to his divine status. Rather, he willingly laid aside his glory and took on the form of a servant (human likeness). He submitted himself to the will of the Father (Phil 2:6–8).

Christ and the relational aspect of the image of God

As we have seen in our study of Genesis, being created in the image of God implies a sonship relationship. In the New Testament, this father-son relationship is exemplified between God the Father and Jesus Christ (Matt 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 2:49; 3:22; 8:28; 9:35; 10:22; John 1:18, 34; 3:16–18). As God’s Son, Jesus enjoyed a close, personal fellowship with the Father, particularly through prayer. In fact, he almost exclusively addressed God in prayer as ‘Father’ (using the Aramaic Abba; cf. Mark 14:36; Matt 26:39, 42), a term of intimacy.

Luke in his genealogy of Jesus Christ, describes him as one who ‘was thought’ to be the son of Joseph (Luke 3:23). This suggests that he was not actually the biological son of Joseph, but instead the Son of God through divine conception, as described in Luke 1:32–35. However, this phrase also highlights the mystery of Jesus’ divine sonship (Luke 3:22; 9:35).

Jesus’ relationship with the Father is defined by love, trust, obedience, and dependence. Unlike Adam, Jesus did not give in to temptation but instead trusted and submitted to the will of God the Father. In the wilderness, Jesus faced three temptations. The tempter tried to persuade him to demonstrate his divine sonship by performing extraordinary signs, but Jesus chose to prove his sonship through submission to the Father’s will (Matt 4:1–17; Luke 4:1–14).

In Matthew 16:22, Peter assumes the role of a tempter and encourages Jesus to see his sonship in ways other than obedient suffering and death. At this point, Peter was influenced by the devil, but Jesus does not yield to this temptation. He recognizes the tempter’s influence and rebukes Peter (Matt 16:23). In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus expresses his desire to avoid the ‘cup’ of suffering, but as God’s Son, he ultimately yields to the will of the Father (Matt 26:39, 42).

The Father’s love for the Son is expressed in several passages of the Gospel of John (John 3:35; 5:20; 10:17; 17:23), and the Son reciprocates this love (John 14:31). Jesus shows his love for the Father by living a life of perfect obedience to his will (John 8:29), which is in contrast to Adam’s decision to disobey God. Through Christ’s perfect obedience, God expresses his love for him by placing everything in his hands (John 3:35–36; 13:3), especially those who come to him as his spiritual offspring (John 6:37, 44, 65; 10:29; 17:2; cf. Isa 53:10).

Christ is obedient to the will of God in every way (John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38; 7:28; 8:29), especially in his willingness to suffer and die on the cross (John 8:42). Jesus’ obedience to the will of God is evident in his baptism, where he submits to John’s baptism ‘to fulfill all righteousness’ (Matt 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–22; John 1:29–34).

Christ and moral godlikeness

Unlike Cain, who is morally shown to be like the serpent, Jesus is portrayed as being morally like the Father. Jesus, like God the Father, is kind and compassionate towards the helpless, defenseless, and those in need. In Matthew 9:35 (cf. Mark 6:34), Jesus observes the crowd and feels compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, lacking guidance and protection from their religious leaders. In Matthew 15:32, Jesus has compassion on the multitude because they had nothing to eat, and he miraculously provides food for them (Matt 15:34–38; Mark 15:32). Jesus’ compassion and kindness also led him to heal the blind man who cried out for mercy (Matt 20:29f) and the leper who begged for mercy (Mark 1:40f). He showed compassion on the Gerasene demoniac and exorcised demons from the man (Mark 5:19) and was moved with compassion when he saw the dead man being carried out, the only son of the widow of Nain, raising him back to life (Luke 7:13f).

Jesus is passionate about the worship of the Father and does not tolerate sin. Upon arriving in Jerusalem, he enters the temple area and discovers merchants selling animals. Jesus is angered by their blatant disregard for the temple, which was a sacred space specifically designated for the worship of God. As a result, he overturns the moneychangers’ tables and the dove–sellers’ benches, and forbids people from using the area as a marketplace (Matt 21:12–17; Mark 11:15–16; Luke 19:45–46). Christ’s actions stem from his holiness and his zeal for God.

Like the Father, Jesus is righteous and holy, as testified by the New Testament Scriptures. Jesus was ‘tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin’ (Heb 4:15). He is described as ‘holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, and exalted above the heavens’ (Heb 7:26), and as ‘unblemished’ (Heb 9:14). Peter declared Jesus to be ‘the Holy One of God’ (John 6:69), a declaration that was also made by demons (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). Paul referred to Christ as someone ‘who knew no sin’ (2 Cor 5:21). Even when the Jews made false charges against Jesus that led to his crucifixion, some individuals testified to his innocence. Pilate’s wife warned her husband, ‘Don’t have anything to do with this innocent man’ (Matt 27:19), while the thief on the cross said, ‘This man has done nothing wrong’ (Luke 23:41).

Like God the Father, Christ is sinless, which is in stark contrast to Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden. Jesus’ sinlessness is a testament to his true sonship and moral likeness to the Father, as well as his complete submission to the Father’s will. In contrast, as we have seen from our study of Genesis, Adam, Eve, Cain, and the sons of God all sinned and rebelled against the Lord. They did not demonstrate themselves to be true sons of God, but rather fallen ones. Morally and relationally, they were modeled after the tempter in Genesis 3.

Christ’s equality with God, the Father

Christ’s likeness to God means more than ‘Godlikeness’ in Genesis. Christ is equal to God in essence (Phil 2:6; Heb 1:3). This equality is affirmed by Christ himself in the Gospels, where he says, ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9) and ‘When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me’ (John 12:44–45). As God’s eternal Son, Christ pre–existed before the creation of the world. He is the Word who was with God from the beginning (John 1:1; 8:58; Heb 1:8; Col 1:17).

Because of his equality with God, Christ performed miracles (Matt 4:23–24; 8:2–4, 13, 15–17, 26, 28–34; Mark 1:25–26, etc.), forgave sins (Matt 9:2; Mark 2:5,9; Luke 5:20; 7:48), and brought his followers into an experience of divine sonship. In the epistles, Christ is referred to as the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24, 30). He is supreme over all creation, being ‘the first–born of all creation’ (Col 1:15), and ‘in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him’ (Col 1:16). In Christ, ‘the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily’ (Col 1:19; 2:9).

Believers as the Children (or Sons) of God

Believers are referred to as God’s children (John 1:12; Rom 8:14; Gal 3:26; Phil 2:15; 1 John 3:2). This is significant because the study of Genesis reveals that being created in God’s image implies sonship, which suggests that sonship may also imply bearing God’s image. In this section, we will explore how a believer’s sonship relates to both the relational and substantive aspects of the image of God. 


The believer is reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and adopted into His family (John 1:12; Gal 3:26). The gift of sonship is not earned by the believer’s own merit but bestowed upon them by God’s will through Christ (Eph 1:5) and is made possible by the Holy Spirit and baptism (John 3:5). Redemption is therefore a precondition for adoption (John 1:12; Gal 4:5–6).

As seen above, enslavement to sin is one of the consequences of the fall and its impact on the image of God. However, through faith in Christ, a new believer is freed from a state of alienation and enslavement to sin and is brought into a new relationship with God. The Holy Spirit indwells believers, and they are united with Christ in calling God ‘Abba, Father,’ and the Spirit bears witness that they are God’s children or sons (Rom 8:14, 16). Believers are also heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, inheriting the kingdom of God that was prepared before the foundation of the world (Rom 8:17; Eph 1:4; Luke 12:32; 1 Cor 6:9–10; 15:50; Gal 5:21; Eph 5:5). Conversely, unbelievers are referred to as ‘children of the devil’ (1 John 3:10). Their moral behavior distinguishes them from the children of God.

The children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother (1 John 3:10).

The description of ‘children of the devil’ given in 1 John 3 is reminiscent of Cain’s story in the Old Testament (as discussed above). God corrected Cain, saying, ‘If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?’ (Gen 4:7, own translation). However, Cain chose to ignore God’s correction and instead decided for himself what to do. He did not do what was right and ultimately murdered his brother out of jealousy. Cain’s actions demonstrate that he did not love his brother. In 1 John 3:11–12, believers are warned not to follow in Cain’s moral footsteps because he belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. Therefore, the conclusion drawn above regarding Cain as a moral offspring of the temper aligns with John’s teachings on the children of the devil (or tempter) and on Cain. 

Believers are often referred to as ‘children of obedience’ (own translation) in 1 Peter 1:14. This highlights the importance of obedience in the believer’s relationship with God, which is a crucial aspect of the parent–child relationship within the image of God. As children of God, believers should strive to obey His will and commands. In contrast, unbelievers are referred to as ‘children of disobedience’ (Eph 2:2; 5:6), emphasizing the lack of obedience in their lives.


Through faith in Christ, believers are transformed into a new creation (2 Cor 5:17) and become slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:15–23). Paul refers to this transformation as the ‘circumcision of Christ’ (Col 2:11; Phil 3:3), an inward reality that is brought about by God (Col 2:11; Phil 3:2; Deut 30:6) and received through faith in Christ (Rom 10:6, 8, 17). Because believers have the Spirit of God dwelling in them, they are no longer bound to the desires of the flesh but are led by the Spirit (Rom 8:12ff). Therefore, the Spirit of adoption and sonship stands in opposition to the Spirit of bondage.

As children of God, believers are called to imitate their Father’s moral character. God’s graciousness is a reflection of his nature, as he shows grace even to the ungrateful and the wicked, causing the sun to rise on both and sending rain to both (Matt 5:45; 7:11–12). Believers are likewise called to demonstrate God’s grace to others, especially to those who are ungrateful and wicked. They are to love their enemies and pray for them, to lend to them without expecting anything in return. God honors such righteousness (Matt 5:44; Luke 6:35–36), and by demonstrating grace, believers reveal their identity as children of God.

In addition to being gracious, believers are called to be merciful, just as God is merciful (Luke 6:36). They are also called to do good works, just as God’s children in the Old Testament (eg Abel) were compared to light, while the offspring of the serpent were compared to darkness (eg Cain, see above). This same symbolism is present in the New Testament, where believers are called ‘the light of the world’ because their good works glorify God (Matt 5:14, 16). They are also referred to as ‘the children of light’ because of their relationship with Christ, their Lord and Savior (John 12:36). Believers have been saved from the kingdom of darkness and brought into the kingdom of light (1 Pet 2:9). Unbelievers, on the other hand, are called the children of darkness, as they prefer darkness over light due to their wickedness (John 3:19; Eph 5:8; 1 John 2:11).

Holiness is a reflection of God’s character, and as such, believers are called to be holy, just as God is holy (1 Pet 1:15–16; 2:5,9). As God’s children, believers are no longer to live according to their former ways, but rather, to pursue holiness in all aspects of life. It is a fundamental aspect of being a child of God. Through sanctification, the believer is empowered to become more like God and to conform to his image.

Since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator (Col 3:9b–10).

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:22–24).

Colossians 3:10 and Ephesians 4:22–24 refer to the sanctification of believers in the church. This is indicated by the phrases ‘you have taken off’ and ‘you have put on,’ which are in the plural. Believers should constantly put to death the sinful acts that emanate from their nature (Col 3:5; Rom 8:13). These practices include sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language, lying, and many others which should be put to death (Col 3:5–8). This is reminiscent of how sin was dealt with in the law (Deut 13:5, 11; 17:5; 24:7), where the offender was stoned to death to prevent the same sin from happening again. The church, or believers, should do the same thing to practices that emanate from their sinful nature. If sin is not put to death daily, it will bring God’s judgment on the believer (Col 3:6; Rom 1:18). Since the believer is God’s new creation, they have died to their trespasses and sins. The believer is alive in Christ and no longer enslaved to sin, but to righteousness (Rom 6:11ff cf. Matt 5:21). Believers are not to tolerate evil but should purge it (cf. 1 Cor 5).

Believers are called to put off the old man, which is modelled after the serpent and is wicked and evil. The old man is derived from Adam through natural birth, and man’s inborn nature is corrupt and prone to serpent likeness, as discussed above. Instead, believers are to put on the new man, which God has created in them. The new or regenerate man is morally modelled after God and is characterized by true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:22ff; Col 3:9ff). Paul uses the metaphor of a garment, where the believer takes off the old and puts on the new, which is not two separate acts but one. This is made possible by the grace and power of God, and the process happens progressively through the work of the Holy Spirit. God continuously and constantly renews the new man in the believer, as seen in the present participle ‘renewed’ in Colossians 3:10. This denotes continuousness and iteration. Through sanctification, believers are being renewed in the image of God, which, as discussed above, refers to moral likeness to God. This was man’s original state before the fall, and sin corrupted the image of God. God restores the corrupted image through sanctification. On the last day, believers will finally bear the image of the heavenly (1 Cor 15:49; Phil 3:21; 1 John 3:2).

The Church and Christlikeness

This section will explore the development of the concept of the image of God from the Old Testament to the New Testament, particularly in relation to the image of Christ. However, as we have seen from our study of Genesis, the image of God in Genesis 1:26–27 encompasses both a substantive and relational perspective, involving moral likeness to God and a relationship between God and humanity (see above). These two aspects of the image of God are also evident in the concept of Christlikeness.

God’s ultimate goal in the New Testament is for believers to be conformed to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ (Rom 8:29–30). Christians are called to be like Christ, and when believers imitate Christ, it is Godlikeness ‘down to the details’ because Jesus is both God and man. In the New Testament, Christlikeness entails moral likeness to God in the details of human actions. Christ is our example in the relational aspect of the image of God, and Christlikeness is imitating Christ’s moral likeness to the Father and His sonship relationship of submission to the Father. For example, in the Old Testament, God is not literally tempted to commit adultery, murder, steal, lie, or covet. However, in the New Testament, Jesus Christ (who is both God and man) is tempted in all things but was without sin (Heb 4:15b).


God’s eternal plan is for believers to be conformed to the likeness of Christ, which is why he has predestined them for this purpose (Rom 8:29). This conformity happens through sanctification, where the believer becomes more and more like Christ in their character and actions, ultimately becoming fully conformed to his image and likeness.

Christlikeness involves loving others. Believers are encouraged to live a life of love, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her as a sacrifice to God (Eph 5:2; John 13:34; 15:12–13; Rom 12:9–10; 13:8, 10; Gal 5:14; 1 John 3:16–17; 4:7–9, 11). Love should be evident in the believer’s thoughts, words, and deeds (cf. Deut 6:5). The believer’s life of love goes beyond the Old Testament law of love. Believers should imitate God by working in love because Christ is the supreme example of this love. He willingly gave himself up for the church (Eph 5:25; John 10:11, 15, 17–18; Gal 1:4; Heb 9:14). In Ephesians 5:1, Paul addresses believers as ‘beloved children.’ Since children are great imitators, believers are to imitate Christ’s love. The word ‘beloved’ reinforces Paul’s admonition. The child who is the object of love will imitate those whom they love. Believers are to reflect the moral characteristics of Christ, as they are His offspring (cf. Isa 53:10; 1 Cor 15:42–49).

The believer’s reflection of Christ’s glory (or image) is revealed through suffering and persecution (2 Cor 4:8–16). As Moses’ face reflected the physical glory of God at Sinai (Exod 34), so the believer’s face reflects the glory of Christ through suffering and persecution (2 Cor 4:8–16). Therefore, suffering for the sake of Christ is an integral part of being in the image of God (John 15:20). This is probably why Jesus twice mentions in the Sermon on the Mount that those who are persecuted for his name are blessed (Matt 5:10–11). Believers are called to suffer for the Lord (1 Pet 2:21), and Jesus Christ is their example on how to endure and glorify God in suffering. In his words, attitude, and deeds, Christ set an example for believers to follow. He did not argue, fight back, or make threats against those who persecuted him. Instead, he submitted to the will of the Father (1 Pet 2:23). Therefore, believers are to imitate Christ, because he is the perfect example of patient submission to unjust suffering.

Relationally, believers are called to imitate Christ’s relationship of submission to the Father. Even though Christ was God (John 1:14; Col 2:9), he humbled himself, taking the form of a servant and becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:6–8). As followers of Christ, believers are urged to adopt the same attitude or mindset as Jesus (Phil 2:5), characterized by humility and selflessness towards God and others. If Christ was willing to be obedient to the Father to the point of dying on the cross, then believers too should be obedient to God’s will and directions. Through his humility and obedience, Christ was exalted by the Father to the highest place of honour (Phil 2:9–11). By imitating Christ’s humility, believers can also expect to be exalted by God (1 Pet 5:6, Matt 23:12, Luke 11:14, 18:23).

Believers are called to persevere in their faith (Heb 12:1–3). Jesus Christ is their supreme model, who not only initiated but also perfected their faith. This means that Jesus ‘pioneered’ the path that believers should follow, and he completed it successfully. Therefore, believers should imitate Christ by enduring in their faith, knowing that he has already run this race of faith and finished it triumphantly (Heb 12:2). By fixing their eyes on Christ, believers can find strength for their faith and hope.

Sanctification is the process by which the believer becomes conformed to the image of Christ. As stated in 2 Corinthians 3:17–18, the Holy Spirit plays a significant role in this process, acting as the transforming agent. Using God’s Word as the instrument of change (Eph 6:17), the Holy Spirit gradually molds the believer’s character and lifestyle to be more like Christ and less like the present world system (Rom 12:2). While the work of Christ rescues a believer from the penalty of sin, the work of the Holy Spirit rescues a believer from the power of sin. This glorious new creation life is already inaugurated in the redemptive work of Christ a more glorious life is yet to be actualized in the fulfilment of the promised eschaton.

That is, even though what a believer experiences in Christ are glorious in the present, the promise of the future is better still. Theologians understand this as the tension between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet.’ The believer anticipates a glorious future when ‘we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3:2). The sovereign power of God that is perfected in human weakness (2 Cor 12:9) is manifest in turning our sinfulness and fallen nature not by restoring humans back to Eden, but something far more glorious to ‘become partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet 1:4) with Christ. Thus the apostle Paul writes, ‘Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven’ (1 Cor 15:49). 

‘The moral gap’

It is worth highlighting that Christian ethical principles have played a notable role in shaping ethical standards across various cultures and societies, whether through direct missionary forays or indirect processes such as the secularization of cultures.[20] The ethical standards presented in the Bible have consistently surpassed human capabilities. Individuals often grapple with their inability not only to uphold the standards set by God in the Scriptures but also to meet their own human standards. Sometimes, one may be astounded by the seemingly higher moral standards displayed by neighbours from other faiths, which can lead to a believer wondering if true transformation has taken place. However, the Holy Spirit empowers each person to exceed what is achievable through their natural abilities. 

The challenge of bridging what John Hare terms ‘the gap between the moral demand on us and our natural capacities to live by it’,[21] can be most effectively addressed through a pneumatological perspective. Human salvation is fundamentally achieved through Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, where sinful individuals are declared righteous through Christ’s work. While humans do not work to earn their salvation, they are nevertheless invited to abide ‘in Christ’ (John 15:4), by allowing the Holy Spirit who also accompanied Jesus during his earthly life, to impart the ‘mind of Christ’ to humans. 

The ethical requirements outlined in Scripture are not attained by simply suppressing one’s flesh or bolstering willpower but rather through the Holy Spirit, bestowed upon us (Rom 5:5). The new ontological self, as discussed by Paul, emerges from the demise of the old self and the surrender to Christ and His divine will for our lives (Gal 2:20). The Holy Spirit, who is both with us and within us (John 14:17), guides us as a resident personal counsellor in discerning the will of God and enables us to adhere to the standards that would otherwise be unattainable for humans to follow. 

This implies that the Holy Spirit, residing within us, is able to supplant sinful inclinations and the desires of the flesh with the discernment and execution of God’s will. Consequently, despite the battle between the flesh and the Spirit depicted in Romans 7:14–25, Paul reaffirms that setting our ‘mind on the Spirit’ leads to life (Rom 8:6) and true freedom (Rom 8:21). This liberation emancipates a believer from being bound deterministically to their sinful tendencies and enables them to willingly submit to God’s law (Rom 8:7). 


As seen from our study, beginning with Genesis 1–8, the image of God is both substantive and relational in perspective: it involves a moral likeness to God (see above) and a relationship between God and man like that between a parent and child (see above). The function of dominion is a consequence and not the essence of being in the image of God. 

Additionally, the image also carries a future orientation, a teleological focus. As seen earlier, Jesus Christ is true God and true human and stands as the perfect image bearer and the prototype for true humanness. As much as Christ’s redemption is about recovering what is lost in the Fall by the Spirit, the eschatological goal for humanity far exceeds the glory of Eden (Eph 4:30; Rom 8:18; 2 Cor 3:18). 

The theme of the image of God is also seen in the New Testament where Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the perfect expression of the image of God. Christ is equal to God in essence. Through his work on the cross, believers are adopted as God’s children and are to be morally like him. Believers are called to be like Christ. They are to imitate Christ’s moral-likeness and submission to the Father.

  1. The narrative structure of Genesis 1 highlights the prominence of the third and sixth days. A number of scholars (eg Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15 [WBC; Waco: Word Books 1987], 6–7) argue that the six days of creation are in two sets of three, which correspond to each other in terms of forming and filling. Day 3 is the climax of the first set and day 6 is the climax of the second set. In day 3 and 6 there is a double decree of creation. First, dry ground is made on day 3, and land animals and mankind are created to inhabit the dry land on day 6. Second, the vegetation, produced by the earth on day 3, is given to mankind and animals to eat on day 6. Therefore, the narrative structure of Genesis 1 highlights the prominence of the third and sixth days. (2) Being created last also highlights mankind’s significance (see Charles Lee Feinberg, ‘The Image of God’, BSac. 129/515 [July 1972]: 238). (3) The author of Genesis also highlights mankind’s prominence in creation by altering his wording entirely, from the statement ‘God said, Let there be. . .’ (Gen 1:3, 6, 14) to the divine decree ‘Let us make humankind. . .’ (Gen 1:26). Therefore, the creation of humanity ‘took place, not by word alone, but as the result of a divine decree.’ (4) The fact that mankind is given the creation mandate of ruling dominion over the whole creation (Gen 1:28) also sets human beings apart from the rest of creation.
  2.  For further reading see Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001); John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015); Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982).
  3. Even though there is an ontological distinction between humans and God in terms of nature, in Christ, who is truly God and truly man, we are invited to partake in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4). The Eastern Patristic Fathers and Orthodox theologians understand this process as theosis, ‘becoming (like) God,’ however, even in this scheme, humans do not cease to be humans in nature but rather are drawn into divinity by grace and in Christoformity.
  4. James R. Beck and Bruce Demarest, The Human Person in Theology and Psychology: A Biblical Anthropology for the Twenty–First Century (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 131.
  5. Unless indicated otherwise, Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible: New International Version.
  6. The term can refer to physical likeness (eg 2 Kings 16:10; 2 Chron 4:3; Ezek 23:15; 1:5, 10, 13, 16, 22, 26, 28; 10:10; Dan 10:16). The term indicates a simple comparison (Ps 58:4; Isa 13:14; 40:18). 
  7.  See Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 135.
  8. Abolitionists like William Wilberforce and others based their campaigns against slavery on their deep–seated Christian conviction that the imago Dei is inherent to all humans regardless of color, class, or creed. 
  9. See Millard J Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983). On top of the plurality of views on the imago, the different hermeneutical approaches behind the above views must also be brought into consideration. The first of two prominent approaches is the comparative study approach, in which ancient pagan sources are utilized to derive essential socio-cultural and linguistic insights into the Ancient Near East context. These insights, in turn, inform the meanings of the Old Testament text against their socio-cultural context. The second approach is an intra-biblical, Scripture-interprets-Scripture approach (scriptura sui interpres), wherein the meanings of certain ambiguous terms or phrases are sought to be understood in light of other clearer references to those same terms and phrases within the Bible. Here, the emphasis is placed on the underlying assumption that the whole canon of Scripture is essentially harmonious and internally consistent. The present study employs the latter approach in its description of the image.
  10. Existentialist View: In the context of the imago Dei, an existentialist might interpret it as an affirmation of human freedom and responsibility. Humans, created in the image of God, are seen as beings with the capacity to make choices and shape their own destinies. This view emphasizes the importance of individual agency and the moral responsibility that comes with it. The ethical view of the imago Dei emphasizes the moral implications of being created in God’s image. It suggests that since humans reflect the divine image, they have inherent value and dignity, which forms the basis for ethical considerations; Eschatological View: The eschatological view of the imago Dei looks at the concept in terms of its ultimate fulfilment or destiny. In Christian theology, it may be associated with the idea that humanity’s restoration and ultimate conformity to the image of God will occur in the eschaton, the end times or final state of existence. This view focuses on the idea that humanity is in the process of being transformed into the likeness of God and will achieve its true destiny in the future.
  11. See Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 75.
  12. There is debate amongst OT scholars with regards to the identity of the seed of the woman. Conservative scholars (eg Hebert C. Leupold; Derek Kidner) view the seed of the woman as Christ, the Messiah who has victory over the devil. Critical scholars (eg Von Rad, Westermann, Skinner) do not to see any promise of a Messiah in Genesis 3:15; see Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, 197. As Waltke points out, the noun ‘seed’ can refer to an immediate descendant, a distant offspring, or a large group of descendants. In Genesis 3:15, we infer both single and collective meanings. Since there is a struggle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, we can infer that the term has a collective meaning. Since only the head of the serpent is crushed, we expect an individual person to crush the head and to be struck on his heal (Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis, 91).
  13. John L. Ronning. ‘The Curse on the Serpent (Genesis 3:15) in Biblical Theology and Hermeneutics’ (Ph.D. diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1997), 152–153.
  14. John Calvin, A Commentary on Genesis (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 165.
  15.  See Edward M. Curtis, ‘Image of God (OT),’ ABD 3:390 and Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue (Hamilton: n.p., 1993), 30.
  16. Kline, Kingdom Prologue, 30.
  17. The identity of the sons of God The identity of ‘the sons of God’ in Gen 6:2 is a thorny issue in OT interpretation. See Wenham, Genesis 1–5, 139, and Archer, Encyclopaedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 79–80 for more information and details on the various views.
  18. See Martin Luther, Luther’s Works Vol 1: Lectures on Genesis Chapters (Pelikan, J. [ed.]. St. Louis: Concordia, 1958), 64–68. G.C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics; Man: The Image of God. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1962), 104–112.
  19. This is not to suggest that Christ emptied himself of the divine nature. In the incarnation Christ takes on human nature. 
  20. This is evident in the embrace of charters like the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which is grounded in Judeo-Christian anthropological principles, even though these principles are not native to those cultures. 
  21.  John E. Hare, The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 1.