By Curtis Erskine: “The image of God should be restored in us once again. This task encompasses our whole existence. The aim and objective is not to renew human thoughts about God so that they are correct, or that we would subject our individual deeds to the word of God again, but that we, with our whole existence and as living creatures, are the image of God. Body, soul, and spirit, that is, the form of being human in its totality, is to bear the image of God on earth. God is well pleased with nothing less than God’s own perfect image.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
When Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship is discussed, the conversation usually revolves around the concepts of cheap grace vs. costly grace. This is understandable given the gravity of the implications for the church and the kingdom of God. However, what has often been neglected in the conversation is Bonhoeffer’s conclusion as to the ultimate purpose of following Jesus as His disciple. In the final chapter of The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer argued that the chief end of the gospel is that men bring glory to God by being re-conformed into the image of God that they were originally created to be. Bonhoeffer devoted the entire chapter to this principle as the final purpose of what it means to follow Jesus as His disciple.
I remember reading the final chapter and thinking, “Bonhoeffer should have led with that; everything else makes so much more sense in light of that.” So, when I personally began to outline what it means to be a disciple of Jesus for our church plant, I decided to take my own advice and lead with this principle.
To be clear though, Bonhoeffer was not the first person to write down this principle; he pulled it straight from Scripture. The Apostle Paul wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit:
“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” (Ephesians 4:22-24).
“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
“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” (Colossians 3:9-10).
Moreover, Bonhoeffer was not the first man of God to teach this principle in the 2 millennium since the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostles to first write it down. This principle has been taught explicitly throughout the 2000-year history of the church by great men of God; including:
Irenaeus: “For in times long past, it was said that man was created after the image of God. . . . Wherefore also he did easily lose the similitude. When, however, the Word of God became flesh. . . He re-established the similitude after a sure manner, by assimilating man to the invisible Father through means of the visible Word.”
Clement: “He Himself formed man of the dust, and regenerated him by water; and made him grow by his Spirit; and trained him by His word to adoption and salvation, directing him by sacred precepts; in order that, transforming earth-born man into a holy and heavenly being by His advent, He might fulfil to the utmost that divine utterance, ‘Let Us make man in Our own image and likeness.’ And, in truth, Christ became the perfect realization of what God spake; and the rest of humanity is conceived as being created merely in His image.”
Athanasius of Alexandria: “For as, when the likeness painted on a panel has been effaced by stains from without, he whose likeness it is must needs come once more to enable the portrait to be renewed on the same wood, for the sake of his picture, even the mere wood on which it is painted is not thrown away, but the outline renewed upon it; in the same way also the most holy Son of the Father, being the image of the Father, came to our region to renew man once made in his likeness, and find him, as one lost, by the remission of sins.”
Gregory of Nyssa: “The sky was not made in God’s image, not the moon, not the sun, not the beauty of the stars, no other things which appear in creation. Only you were made to be the image of nature that surpasses every intellect, likeness of incorruptible beauty, mark of true divinity, vessel of blessed life, image of true light, that when you look upon it you become what He is, because through the reflected ray coming from our purity you imitate He Who shines within you. . . , He dwells in you and moves within you without constraint, saying that ‘I shall live and walk for them’ (Lev. 26.2).”
John Chrysostom: “As the word ‘image’ indicated a similitude of command, so too ‘likeness,’ with the result that we become like God to the extent of our human power—that is to say, we resemble him in our gentleness and mildness and in regard to virtue.”
Augustine of Hippo: “We carry mortality about with us, we endure in?rmity, we look forward to divinity. For God wishes not only to vivify, but also to deify us. When would human in?rmity ever have dared to hope for this, unless divine truth had promised it?”
Basil of Caesarea: “. . . for what is set before us is, so far as is possible with human nature, to be made like God.”
John Calvin: “Since the image of God had been destroyed in us by the fall, we may judge from its restoration what it originally had been. Paul says that we are transformed into the image of God by the gospel. And, according to him, spiritual regeneration is nothing else than the restoration of the same image.”
. . . “Hence, too, we learn, on the one hand, what is the end of our regeneration, that is, that we may be made like God, and that his glory may shine forth in us; . . . Paul, at the same time, teaches, that there is nothing more excellent at which the Colossians can aspire, inasmuch as this is our highest perfection and blessedness to bear the image of God.”
John Wesley: “Man knows not that he is a fallen spirit, whose only business in the present world, is to recover from his fall, to regain that image of God wherein he was created.”
A.W. Tozer: “This is the purpose of redemption: taking on the material of fallen man and by the mystery of regeneration and sanctification, restoring it again so that he is like God and like Christ. This is why we preach redemption. That is what redemption is; it is not saving us from hell, although it does save us from hell; but more importantly, it is making it so that we can be like God again.”
However, this concept is not the same as Perfectionism theology. Just as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48); Paul then used the same Greek word translated ‘perfect’ when he wrote:
“Not that I have already grasped it all or have already become perfect, but I press on if I may also take hold of that for which I was even taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers and sisters, I do not regard myself as having taken hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. . . . For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our lowly condition into conformity with His glorious body, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself” (Philippians 3:12-21).
While we realize that we will not be completely perfected into the image of God until our glorification, we also know that there is coming that day when we will be perfect. Just as an engaged couple knows that one day they will be married and therefore they begin to prepare for that day; when a disciple begins to follow Jesus, they begin to live and prepare for the day when they will be completely remade into the image of God that they were originally created to be.
Just as we would find it strange and troubling for a man who is engaged to not live accordingly in anticipation of his wedding day; we must then also find it even stranger and more troubling that a disciple of Jesus would not begin the process of being re-conformed into the image of God in the here and now.
As John the Apostle wrote: “But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3).
That a supposed disciple of Jesus would be unwilling to purify themselves and be re-conformed into the image of God in the here and now should be a red flag that they either do not understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, or that they are a false disciple.
In the parables of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44-46); Jesus taught that there must be an exchange in order to receive the kingdom of heaven. The imperfect kingdom of the world must be exchanged for the perfect kingdom of heaven. The old man, the fallen sinful self, is a citizen of the kingdom of this world. The new man, “which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator,” is a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. The old man is a subject of Satan. The new man is a subject of King Jesus. In order to enter into the kingdom of heaven, the old man must be exchanged for the new man, who is being re-created into the image of God he was originally created to be.
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To be blunt, in failing to teach this principle we have failed to properly inform believers what exactly they were exchanging their lostness for. Unfortunately, we have too often taught they were only exchanging the old man for future salvation; instead of teaching them that they were exchanging citizenship in the kingdom of this world for citizenship in the kingdom of heaven in the here and now. And in order to become a citizen of the kingdom of heaven they must submit to be conformed to the image of the King; beginning here and now.
If this has kept your attention thus far, you are probably asking a couple of questions about the biblical idea of being re-conformed into the image of God:
1. Why has this principle not been widely and clearly taught in the modern Evangelical church?
Long story short, the rediscovery of salvation by grace through faith during the Reformation, and then the Evangelical focus on the cross in response to the social gospel in the twentieth century have unfortunately led to the neglect of this important biblical principle. In addition, I would argue that Satan has deceived the modern church (as he too often does) away from realizing and teaching the importance of this principle. However, as we have been rediscovering true biblical discipleship over the last century and a half, we have been rediscovering this principle as well.
2. Why should we teach this principle in our churches now?
First, because it is clearly taught in Scripture and “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If as Evangelicals we claim to teach the entirety of Scripture, we must teach this principle; even if we have neglected to do so thus far. Moreover, given the gravity of this principle, we should be teaching it often and clearly.
Second, because God deserves to receive the glory that He is due.
In Mark 12:15-17, Jesus said, “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it. . . . Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
If that which should be rendered unto Caesar is that which bears his image, what then is that which should be rendered unto God? That which bears His image of course.
Ignatius wrote: “For as there are two kinds of coins, the one of God, the other of the world, and each of these has its special character stamped upon it. . . . The unbelieving are of this world; but the believing have, in love, the character of God the Father by Jesus Christ. . . .”
Tozer wrote in The Purpose of Man:
“Man’s supreme function through all eternity is to reflect God’s highest glory, and that God might look into the mirror called man and see His own glory shining there. Through man, God could reflect His glory to all creation. All the holy prophets and apostles teach that man fell from his first estate and destroyed the glory of God, and the mirror was broken. God could no longer look at sinful man and see His glory reflected. Man failed to fulfill the created purpose of worship to his Creator in the beauty of holiness.
For worship to be acceptable to God, you must be renewed after the image of Him that created you. That ‘image’ must be restored. Only the renewed man can worship God in a way worthy of and acceptable to Him.”
The third reason we should be teaching this biblical principle is that the disciples which we are teaching to imitate and obey Jesus deserve to know what the end goal and ultimate purpose of discipleship is. With unlimited access to education and information, disciples are less likely to accept pat answers from pastors and church leaders. They can now fact-check everything on the internet. Personally, I have never heard this principle taught in a church in almost 50 years of being in the church. Instead, I discovered it through attending seminary online. However, this principle is once again beginning to be taught more commonly. Jen Wilkin’s recent book In His Image is a great example. Sooner or later, someone in your church is going to rediscover this principle and begin to ask why you have not been teaching what the Bible and great men of God have so clearly taught throughout the history of the church.
Tozer wrote in The Crucified Life:
“What a bunch of unworthy people we evangelicals have become, daring to stand up on our feet and preach to an intelligent audience that the essence, the final purpose and the cause of Christ is to save us from hell. How stupid can we get and still claim to be followers of Christ. The purpose of God is not to save us from hell; the purpose of God is to save us and make us like Christ and to make us like God. God will never be done with us until the day we see His face, when His name is on our foreheads; and we shall be like Him because we shall see Him as He is.”
3. What does this have to do with being and making disciples of Jesus?
If you haven’t figured it all out already (and even if you have), it will be examined in my next blog: The Purpose of Imitating and Obeying Jesus as His Disciple.
By Curtis Erskine