The Image of God, Sin, and Depravity


Of all of God’s creation, none comes close in grandeur and splendor to the creation of humanity. Human beings alone were created with an image and a task, i.e., the image of God and the task to rule over God’s creation. One scholar makes the distinction between God as suzerain-king, and humanity as vassal-king. Yet, despite this wondrous blessing, humanity turned away from God’s provisions, and rebelled against this King, in an attempt to usurp the kingly rule of God. God was not overthrown; instead, it would be humanity that is ejected from the Garden of Paradise. The study of the image of God, sin, and depravity is necessary in understanding humanity’s place in God’s redemptive plan. That God would continue to show mercy and grace to a people who would continually rebel against Him (cf. Rom. 3; 5:10), is indeed amazing grace. So to understand the work of Christ, one must comprehend the fallen work of humanity to capture the full power and glory of the cross. May you worship Him as you learn of our fallenness and God’s incredible grace!

The Image of God

The term image of God is from Genesis 1:26-27:

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Humanity’s distinctiveness is marked by the very fact that human beings are the only creatures which are labeled as beings created “in the image of God.” But what exactly does it mean to be created in the image of God? Anthony Hoekema writes: “But we should note at the outset that the concept of man as the image or likeness of God tells us that man as he was created was to mirror God and to represent God.” This too is a quandary, as what it exactly means to “represent” God or “mirror” God, remains ambiguous. The Hebrew word for image is tselem which primarily means “something similar.” “Likeness” or demut in Hebrew conveys a similar meaning. But how is the human image, “similar” or in the “likeness” of God?

Some Aspects of the Image of God

1. Structural Image – This view assumes that the image refers to the “being type” of humanity. When God said that humans were created in His image, He referred to the actual composition of humans, whether it be physical, emotional, and/or psychological characteristics.
2. Functional Image – This view assumes that God’s image refers to what a human does, and as such, reflects God’s glory.
3. Combinational Image – This view assumes that there is a measure of both structural and functional aspects, that most accurately reflect the complete image of God.

A Biblical Understanding of the Image of God

When God created humans in His image in Genesis 1:26-27, His intention was to create Adam like Himself. So in Genesis 5:3 Adam also became father to Seth who was in his likeness [demut] and image [tselem]. It is not identicalness that makes Adam and Seth in the same image. It is also uncertain as to what makes them appear in the same image, whether physical traits, personality commonalties, or quirks. The point is that they are so similar that Seth appears to be the “spitting image of his father.”

The image of God does seem to have both structural and functional aspects. Genesis 1:26-27 is followed by verse 28 which says: “28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Hoekema again writes: “Most interpreters, however, have believed—and rightly so—that man’s having been given dominion over the earth is an essential aspect of the image of God.” God commands Adam to “subdue” and “fill.” These are two functions that God had established for Himself, as the Creator-King, or to use Kline’s terminology, “Suzerain-King.” Dominion must be a part of the image of God that represents how even He Himself rules the earth. Psalm 8 echoes the nature of humans. David writes:

6 You made him ruler over the works of your hands;

you put everything under his feet:

7 all flocks and herds,

and the beasts of the field,

8 the birds of the air,

and the fish of the sea,

all that swim the paths of the seas.

Another aspect of the image of God is the male-female relationship. Looking at Genesis 1:26-27 again, it says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” It was not only that males were created in God’s image, but females as well. However, maleness and femaleness is not the only determinant that defines image. It is their relationship that gives the image of God its reflection. It is that God created them male and female. To neglect this factor leaves out the notion that God viewed the relationship as a measure of His own glory, and perhaps the relational aspect of the Trinity itself, as the “Let us make man in our image” seems to imply. Genesis 2:18 continues this theme as God makes a “helper suitable” to perhaps, complete the image creation.

So the biblical view of the image of God in outline form, can be listed as follows:

1. Image of God

1. Structural

1. Physical
2. Mental/Intellect
3. Moral/Ethics

2. Functional

1. Dominion rule
2. Relationships

The Types of Image

1. The Original Image – Prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve were without sin. Augustine called it “able not to sin” meaning that they were in a state when they had the ability not to sin, but they also had the ability to sin. In such a state, the image of God completely reflected God’s glory and character. Yet, in the midst of this original sinlessness, there was still room for sin. One theologian put it this way:

Adam thus stood not at the end but at the beginning of the road; his condition was a provisional and a temporary one, which could not remain this way, and which had to pass over either into a state of higher glory or into a fall into sin and death.

Adam and Eve might have been sinless, but it is quite clear that they were not perfect and still had the ability to sin.

2. The Perverted Image – Once Adam and Eve did sin, the image of God was disfigured horribly, utterly perverted, but not annihilated. Humans would no longer naturally desire to worship God. Instead, human gifts and talents would be used for completely selfish means. Bavinck writes:

Man through the fall…has not become a devil who, incapable of redemption, can no longer reveal the features of the image of God. But while he has remained really and substantially man and has still preserved all his human faculties, capacities, and powers, the form, nature, disposition, and direction of all these powers have been so changed that now instead of doing the will of God they fulfill the law of the flesh.

Human longings no longer claimed God as the object of worship. Instead, the human heart sought after any object of fancy as the end to worship. Idolatry began with the first sin, when Adam and Eve no longer desired God as their King. Humanity uses those things that were meant for the praise of God, to now praise the self. Self-adulation and flattery become a positive trait, rather than sin. Dominion over the earth is no longer about fulfilling the creationary rule of God, but about a complete self-centeredness bent on selfish purposes and motivations.

3. The Renewed Image – All is not lost, however, despite humanity’s wretchedness. The work of Jesus Christ on the cross has allowed us to again worship God. Hebrews 9 says:

11 When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! 15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.

The regenerative act of the cross slowly heals the image of God and renews it to continue in a progressive nature towards the complete worship of God. The Holy Spirit then, is the primary figure which brings about this renewal process, and points us toward the cross. Thus, sanctification is that work which the Holy Spirit does to renew our image and restore us to a right relationship with God. Humanity now longs for God, grows to love his neighbor, has a right perspective of the self, and rules God’s creation properly.

4. The Perfected Image – We will not understand this perfection until we see God in full glory. As John tells us, “2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). We will indeed be “like him.” Augustine called this state, “not able to sin and die” (non posse peccare et mort). It will be an eternity with the Father, in full and complete perfection. The Bible reminds us that this state will be forever without sin: “8 [God] he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth” (Isaiah 25:8). Rev. 21:4 says, “There will be no more death.” Perfection will be a reality.

Implications of the Image of God

The image of God, no matter how disfigured, is still a part of every human being, believer and non-believer alike. In light of this, human dignity and worth is of great value. Wayne Grudem writes:

It would be good for us to reflect on our likeness to God more often. It will probably amaze us to realize that when the Creator of the universe wanted to create something “in his image,” something more like himself than all the rest of creation, he made us. This realization will give us a profound sense of dignity and significance as we reflect on the excellence of all the rest of God’s creation: the starry universe, the abundant earth, the world of plants and animals, and the angelic kingdoms are remarkable, even magnificent. But we are more like our Creator than any of these things. We are the culmination of God’s infinitely wise and skillful work of creation. Even though sin has greatly marred that likeness, we nonetheless now reflect much of it and shall even more as we grow in likeness to Christ.

Yet we must remember that even fallen, sinful man has the status of being in God’s image (see discussion of Gen. 9:6, above). Every single human being, no matter how much the image of God is marred by sin, or illness, or weakness, or age, or any other disability, still has the status of being in God’s image and therefore must be treated with the dignity and respect that is due to God’s image-bearer. This has profound implications for our conduct toward others. It means that people of every race deserve equal dignity and rights. It means that elderly people, those seriously ill, the mentally retarded, and children yet unborn, deserve full protection and honor as human beings. If we ever deny our unique status in creation as God’s only image-bearers, we will soon begin to depreciate the value of human life, will tend to see humans as merely a higher form of animal, and will begin to treat others as such. We will also lose much of our sense of meaning in life.

In light of who we are dealing with, the very image-bearers of God, may this be reflected in our attitude toward God, toward others, and toward ourselves.

Sin and Total Depravity

Sin is not just a theological concept for scholars to examine and dispute. The reality is, sin is pervasive. We see children killing children. We have dictators wiping out whole ethnicities for the sake of personal glory and gain. There was a time, when people believed “things were getting better,” until the devastation of the two World Wars. With the destruction of whole societies and the evil of the Axis powers, it was no longer tenable to hold the view that things were better. Sin had run rampant.

A Definition of Sin

It is not easy to define sin. One person defines sin as: “Sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.” Another definition is “any act—any thought, desire, emotion, word, or deed—or its particular absence, that displeases God and deserves blame. Let us add that the disposition to commit sins also displeases God and deserves blame, and let us therefore use the word sin to refer to such instances of both act and disposition. Sin is a culpable and personal affront to God.” Since Adam and Eve, sin has been pervasive throughout human history. Adam and Eve’s complete rejection of God, their desire to usurp His authority, to be “their own God,” has been witnessed through their progeny. So sin encompasses the rebellion against God, the complete moral decay of the person, so that actions, thoughts, attitudes are completely affected. The heart is no longer directed to God, but against God (cf. Rom. 5:10). Sin is total in nature, and covers both state of being and action. This must not be forgotten as rebellion is not just active (disobedience and open defiance), but inactive (indifference towards God and His Law).

Scripture and Sin

The New Testament describes sin with three words: hamartano, parabaino, aikia. The first hamartano means “to miss the target, or wander off path.” In the OT the word occurs in Judges 20:16 and Proverbs 8:35-6. In the New Testament hamartano is anything which is directed against God (1 John 3:1-10; John 9:16-41; 1 John 1:7; 2:2; 4:10). Parabaino is “a transgression, an over-stepping, a refusal to be subject to rightful authority.” Some texts that speak of parabaino are: 23 You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? (Rom. 2:23); 15 …because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. (Rom. 4:15); 20 The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more (Rom. 5:20).

The final word aikia means “lawlessness or transgression, an absence of righteousness.” Examples are found in Romans 3:5 – 5 But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (Rom. 3:5); 15 and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. (Acts 24:15); 12 and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness. (2 Thess. 2:12)

Original Sin

The doctrine of original sin has been one that has befuddled Christians throughout the centuries. Both church fathers and modern theologians have continued to wrestle with the theories and ramifications of original sin, without ever coming to a satisfying conclusion. Augustine wrote: “Nothing is so easy to denounce, nothing is so difficult to understand” concerning original sin. Why should we continue to uphold such a confusing doctrine? Primarily because the biblical evidence clearly teaches the reality of inherited or original sin.

Most have viewed original sin as a complete corruption of human nature. But John Calvin makes the distinction between “natural sinfulness” and “our nature’s corruption. Blocher writes:

Nature, in the strict sense of what makes men and women human, the essence of being a particular kind of creature, cannot be termed evil. The phrase ‘natural sinfulness’ conceals a paradox, which Tertullian…noticed (‘The corruption of nature is another nature’). Calvin deliberately developed this thought: ‘We say, then, that man is corrupted by a natural visciousness, but not one which proceeded from nature’…Sinfulness has become our quasi-nature while remaining truly our anti-nature.

Like the Trinity, the doctrine of original sin contains a paradox that assumes a sinful nature without being created by nature, sinfully.

William Ellery Channing’s speech at the ordination of the Rev. John Sparks in Baltimore, 1819, is said to have marked the beginning of Unitarianism in America:

It is astonishing what a fabric they [orthodox Christians] rear from a few slight hints about the fall of our first parents; and how ingeniously they extract from detached passages mysterious doctrines about the divine nature. We do not blame them for reasonings abundantly, but for violating the fundamental rules of reasoning, for sacrificing the plain to the obscure, and the general strain of Scripture to a scanty number of insinuated texts.

Channing argues that orthodox Christians have taken much of Scripture either out of context or utilizes and distorts texts to describe such doctrines as original sin. But Paul writes quite simply and clearly in Romans 5:12 – “12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” The question is not whether the doctrine of original sin exists in Scripture, for it certainly does. Rather, the question that most have is, how can God maintain His justice in the midst of original sin?

Romans 5 is one of the clearest teachings of Scripture on the doctrine of original or inherited sin.

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned— 13 for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.

15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

18 Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

20 The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Some comments on the text of Romans 5:

1. The sin referred to is not about everyday sin, but the sin of Adam that “came to all men” (v. 12). So now “we do naturally what he did by original choice.”20 There is a aggregate rejection of God, as Adam had rejected God as Lord and King.
2. Verses 13-14 show that “death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses.” Even though there was no law to “take into account” sin, death still reigned. The logic goes, that since there was sin “in Adam” and not “like Adam,” death reigned. It is what Grudem calls “legal guilt” which is inherited from Adam.
3. Verses 18-19 shows that “the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men.” Even before we were created, we were found to be with sin. In God’s omniscience and foreknowledge, God knew that we would reject Him. So that “while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
4. His logic goes that since sin entered through Adam, how much more will death be defeated through the God/man Christ. Thus, the inheritance of sin assumes also the inheritance of righteousness through Christ. To disregard and reject original sin, ultimately leads to a rejection of the redemptive work of Christ.

How Could We Sin in Adam?

1. Federal Theory – This theory holds to the belief that Adam was the covenant-keeper between God and humanity. Just as Abraham represented not just ethnic Israel, but spiritual Israel in its place as the Chosen People, so too Adam represents all of humanity in the covenant between God and himself. In this light, Adam was the federal head who represented the human race. When he sinned, all of humanity fell under his representation.
2. Realistic Theory – This theory holds to the belief that sinners were not represented by Adam, but somehow, all of humanity intrinsically co-existed with Adam. Thus, in his Fall, all of humanity realistically fell.

Is God Unjust in the Doctrine of Original Sin?

1. Although original sin causes humanity to live in sin, sin itself is a part of human nature, and the sin to be judged will be that which is done throughout our lives. Every person will be judged “according to his works” (Rom. 2:6). In other words, as much as original sin will be a basis of judgment, God will judge the whole life.
2. The main point of Romans 5 is not about the transgression of Adam, but the grace through Christ. Inherited sin has another side, imputed righteousness. The cross was God’s perfect plan for a very grim situation. Thus, God’s justice is fully seen in light of the cross. Now, as to the theory of redemption: “As there can be no imputation of Adam’s guilt to his people, so neither could there be of Christ’s people’s guilt to Him, or of His righteousness to them. But sins are forgiven by the mercy of God in Christ (without penal satisfaction for them), on the condition of trust, repentance, and reformation.”.
3. Ultimately, if God is the ultimate standard of justice, some things will be left to God as He metes out perfect justice (cf. Rom. 9). Explanations can only go so far, as indeed His thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are His ways bound by our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).

What Happens to Infants When They Die?

Wayne Grudem makes a compelling argument for some infants to receive salvation. His premise is that…

1. All are inherently sinners and will receive judgment.
2. The only way to be saved is through Jesus Christ.
3. Any infant that is saved is through the meritorious works of Christ alone.

No infant goes to heaven without the blood of Christ. But can a child know the person of Jesus Christ, even in the womb. Scripture speaks of one instance, John the Baptist, as recognizing Christ. In Luke 1:14-15 it says, “14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.” This is not to say that God regularly works in such a manner, since John the Baptist was a special child. However, it does mean that it is possible that God does sometimes give such grace in certain conditions. It is also clear that Scripture does report that children of believers are sometimes saved as a measure of grace, through their parents (cf. Genesis. 7:1; Heb. 11:7; Josh 2:18; Psalm 103:17; John 4:53; Acts 2:39; 16:31; 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:16; 7:14; Titus 1:6).

Total Depravity

Human beings are completely and utterly sinful, in light of original sin. The depravity is “total” in that they are completely unable to follow God and His ways. Their desire is to worship the self, to propagate the self, and to protect the self. There is no desire to know God. Total depravity is not the incapability of any human good. As it is quite clear that human beings, who have no relationship to God, can perform “good” acts. In light of the fact that human beings are still image-bearers of God, though disfigured image-bearers, it is no wonder that they can still do “good” things.

David deems himself depraved from birth as he writes: “Surely I was sinful at birth,

sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). Psalm 58:3 says, “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies.” Paul affirms this truth in Ephesians 2:3 when he writes: “3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.”

Humans also are unable to worship God as “all fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Also, “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9) Simply, we have no desire because of an innate inability to love God, to worship God.

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