Are Unbelievers in God’s Image? (I)


There is one thing in Scripture that the ungodly refer to as an “image” of God, but which is certainly not: that is idols (e.g., Ex. 20:4-6; Isa. 44:9-20; Rom. 1:23; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 35)!

There are four parties who are spoken of in Holy Writ as truly being in God’s image. Here they are arranged in “chronological” order:

  1. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity (cf. Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3; Belgic Confession 10)
  2. Pre-fall Adam and Eve (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1; Belgic Confession 14; Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 6; Canons III/IV:1)
  3. The incarnate Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ (II Cor. 4:4)
  4. All born again through the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10; Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 115)

Two of these four parties in God’s image are divine: the eternal Son simpliciter and that same eternal Son when He became incarnate. The other two of these four parties are human beings: Adam and Eve before the fall, and those regenerated after the fall.

All   individuals   and   churches   that have any claim to be orthodox gladly acknowledge the truth of the above four identities regarding the image of God or imago dei. However, there is disagreement regarding the unregenerate:   is   unbelieving   man in God’s image? This is the most controversial question involved in the whole subject of the imago dei. It is also a very important issue, especially in our day, when the notion that everybody is in God’s image is being used to promote common grace, women in church office, homosexuality, the salvation of unconverted pagans, etc.

The thesis of this and subsequent articles is that unregenerate and unbelieving men, women and children are not in the image of God. In this and later instalments, Lord willing, we shall see that this is the teaching of the Holy Scriptures and the doctrine of the Reformed confessions.

The Nature of the Image of God

Let us begin by analysing the nature of the image of God. The Bible clearly describes God’s image in His believing people as consisting of three things: knowledge, righteousness and true holiness.

The proof of this comes from two passages in Paul’s epistles. Colossians 3:10 states, “[You] have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him [i.e., God] that created him”. Notice, first, that here we have a reference to the “image” of God. Second, these Christians at Colossae (and all believers) have been “created” in God’s image in regeneration. Third, this image of God, in which we have been created through the new birth, includes “knowledge”, the knowledge of God.

Our second Scripture is the parallel passage in Ephesians 4:24: “ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness”. First, since Ephesians 4:24 refers to the “new man” which is “created” in God’s “image” and Colossians 3:10 speaks of the “new man” which is “created” “after God”, the phrases God’s “image” and “after God” are equivalent. Second, our being “created” “after God” or in His “image” in regeneration includes “righteousness” and “true holiness”.

This use of Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10 in defining the content of the image of God in His born again and believing people (and pre-fall Adam and Eve) as consisting of knowledge, righteousness and true holiness (all ethical, moral or spiritual virtues) is clearly biblical and widely recognised. It is also confessional (Belgic Confession 14; Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 6, 115; Canons III/IV:1;   Westminster     Confession 4:2; Westminster Larger Questions, Q. & A. 17, 75; Westminster Shorter Questions, Q. & A. 10, 35).

But what is the imago dei in which unbelievers are supposed to be? Unlike what we have just seen regarding the nature of the image of God in believers, there are no biblical text which specify the nature of the (alleged) divine image in the ungodly. Nor is there any solid exegesis of any biblical texts that prove the content of the (supposed) imago dei in the wicked.

Instead, the content of this alleged image of God in unbelievers is arbitrary. Typically, some or all of the following are mentioned: morality and rationality; spirituality and personality; possession of the “faculties” of memory and/or intellect and/or will and/or conscience; personhood, freedom, dignity, language, etc.

These things surely characterise man— whether believing or unbelieving—but there is no proof that these things are the content of the image of God. Those who maintain that the unregenerate are in the divine image can point to no scriptural testimony as to its content. On this subject, one searches their books and articles in vain for any cogent exegesis of even a single biblical text.

The Number of the Image of God

Moving from the nature of the alleged imago dei in unbelievers, we come to the number of images of God in man. According to the theory that absolutely everyone is in the image of God, there are necessarily two images of God in man. First, there is the image of God in the narrow sense, as many of them put it, which consists, as we have seen, in knowledge, righteousness and true holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). Second, they posit an image of God in the broader sense, which is the only imago dei in unbelievers.

In short, according to the view that we are here opposing, the number is two, for there are two images of God in man. To express their view more kindly, there are two aspects of the image of God in man.

Reader, which of these two images of God, do you think, is most talked about? Is it the manifestly scriptural truth that believers in Christ crucified and risen are in the imago dei (the image of God in the so-called narrow sense) or the idea that unbelievers are in the imago dei (the so-called image of God in the broader sense)?

What about the teaching of the liberal Protestant churches? Or the Roman Catholic Church? Undoubtedly, they lay great emphasis upon the notion that absolutely everybody is in the image of God. This notion is fundamental in their false doctrine and practice. Indeed, this idea is one of their main theological building blocks!

What about purportedly conservative churches and organizations and people? My experience—and many others I know would say the same thing—is that in their pulpits, periodicals, books and witnessing they speak a lot more about the (alleged) image of God (broader sense) in all men head for head than the very clearly biblical teaching that those are in His image who are in fellowship with the Father through Jesus Christ and by His Holy Spirit.

Let us see know how this applies to unbelievers and believers in this life. According to the theory that we are refuting, the unbeliever is in the imago dei (broader sense), so he has one image of God or one aspect of the image of God. The believer, however, is both in the imago dei in the broader sense and the imago dei in the narrow sense, so he has two divine images or two aspects of the image of God.

But is there any Scripture for this idea of two images of God in His children? Are you aware of anywhere in the Bible that speaks of two divine images in us? Yet the theory that unbelievers are in the image of God necessarily entails two images of God in the regenerate.

We should also consider how this notion applies to the elect before and after their regeneration or conversion. “While we were yet sinners” (to echo Romans 5:8), we possessed one imago dei, the image of God in the so-called broader sense. After the Holy Spirit “quickened us together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5), we possess two images of God, both the divine image in the broader sense and the divine image in the narrow sense, as they speak of them.

But is there any warrant in God’s Word for such a thing? A man being born with one image of God and then being born again and so possessing two images of God? Does Christ teach this in the gospel accounts? Is this found in the letters of Paul or Peter or John, or anywhere in Scripture? Yet these notions of two images of God in man, of unbelievers having one image and believers having two images, and of the elect possessing one divine image before their conversion and two divine images after their new birth, are required by the theory that we are opposing.

Written by: Rev. Angus Stewart | Issue 43