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  • Paul Reich

Formed, Deformed, and Reformed (Part 2)

Updated: Mar 5, 2022

God is a relational being and He created man for relationships. This aspect of God's image in man was damaged by sin and needs Christ's redemption and restoration.


A catechism is a summary of Christian beliefs that is taught in a question-and-answer format. Popularized by Martin Luther for teaching children the meaning of The Lord’s Prayer, The Ten Commandments, and The Apostle’s Creed, this Q&A approach was also adopted by other Protestant denominations for teaching their tenets of faith. Perhaps one of the best-known examples of this catechetic form of instruction is the first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Q.1. What is the chief end [purpose] of man?

A. Man’s chief end [purpose] is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.

Less known is the second question, which building on the first provides a general answer for how we are to glorify and enjoy God.

Q. 2. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?

A. The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

The Scriptures give us the answer for how we are to glorify and enjoy God. Though there is much that the Bible has to say about glorifying and enjoying God, I believe Jesus gave the key to fulfilling both these purposes in two simple commands. When asked by a religious leader, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied:

Matthew 22:37–40 (NIV)

37 “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’

38 This is the first and greatest commandment.

39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

I believe the key to glorifying and enjoying God is one and the same – loving God with our entire being, and then flowing out of our intimacy with God, loving others. It is in our love for God that we both glorify Him and enjoy Him, because in our love for Him we will willingly do the things that please Him (which includes loving others), and our greatest joys will come from the intimacy of our relationship with Him.

God created man in His Own image and likeness for this very purpose. In last week’s post we explored the substantive view of man being created in God’s image. This view finds God’s image primarily in psychological, spiritual, and moral faculties that we share with God. In this post, we will look at the relational view of God’s image.

2. The Relational View

The relational view does not deny the substantive similarities between God and man but emphasizes that the image of God is not individualistic. His image is not simply something that we possess in our own individual persons. God in His very nature is a relational being. Therefore, if we are created in God’s image as relational beings, His image will best be expressed in our interactions with Him and with others.

The relational view recognizes that humans alone of all earthly creatures were designed to live in relationship with God and they alone have the capacity for love, complex symbolic language (spoken, written, visual, musical, digital, etc.), and meaningful interpersonal relationships.

God is relational. This is central to His very nature – after all, God is love (1 John 4:7-8). As a tri-unity, He has enjoyed mutually honoring and loving interactions within the Godhead from time immemorial in the far reaches of eternity past.

John 17:5, 24 (NIV)

5 And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.

24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

Every relationship requires an “I” and a “Thou,” two or more distinct persons, capable of self-awareness, other awareness, and meaningful interaction. As a triune God with three distinct persons in one divine being, God exists within Himself in this “I-Thou” relationship. In like fashion, He created man as male and female to experience this “I-Thou” relationship both with Him and with each other.

Theologian and prolific author Karl Barth saw this “I-Thou” distinction in his understanding of Genesis 1:26-27. Though there are at least a half dozen ways that scholars have understood, “Let Us make man in Our Image,” I believe that Barth rightly recognized that “Those addressed here are not merely consulted by the one who speaks but are summoned to an act . . . of creation . . . in concert with the One who speaks.”[1] Since God alone created man in His own image (Genesis 1:27), Barth understands the “Let Us” in verse 26 as a “summon to intradivine unanimity of intention and decision.”[2] In other words, God is inviting a plurality of distinct persons within Himself to cooperate in the creation of man. This shows a differentiated unity in God, requiring an “I” and a “Thou” distinction of at least two in the Godhead, though Barth does not specify who God’s partner is.[3]

Other scholars have noted that the only other divine entity previously mentioned in Genesis 1 is the Spirit of God moving over the surface of the waters (Genesis 1:2). Therefore, they understand “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” as God appealing to His Spirit to help in the creation of man. This interpretation coincides nicely with Genesis 2:7 where God forms man from the dust of the ground and breathes into him the breath (spirit) of life. Since the Spirit of God is identified as distinct from God in Genesis 1:2, and yet He is in His very essence God (i.e., indistinct ontologically), this would explain how God could invite participation in the act of creation, and yet He alone created man in His own image,[4]

Though perhaps hinted at here in Genesis 1, it is only from the progressive revelation of Scripture that we later discover that God is a trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit. This creative “partnership” becomes clear in New Testament teaching, conveying that not only are God the Father and God the Spirit active in creation, but also God the Son. In fact, God’s spoken Word that brought forth creation in Genesis 1 is directly equated with God’s Son (John 1:1-3, 10), and numerous passages describe the Son’s unique role in creation (1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:2).

The important truth to draw from Barth is that God is a relational being and He created man to be a relational being. A contemporary of Barth, Emil Brunner also endorsed Barth’s relational view of God’s image. “God, who wills to glorify Himself and to impart Himself, wills man to be a creature who responds to His call of love with a grateful, responsive love.”[5] In order for man to respond in this way, he must like God have personal autonomy and freedom of choice, being an independent “I” in relationship to an independent “Thou.”

Hence the heart of the creaturely existence of man is freedom, selfhood, to be an “I,” a person. Only an “I” can answer a “Thou,” only a Self which is self-determining can freely answer God.[6]

In his excellent book, Created in God’s Image, Anthony Hoekema summarizes Brunner’s understanding of God’s purpose in creating man.

Love, therefore, is at the heart of Brunner’s understanding of man and of the purpose for his existence: God loves us and desires us to love him. God does not wish from man the response of an automaton or of an animal; he desires the response of a free person, since only such a person can truly love him.[7]

Brunner attributes man’s freedom and responsibility to respond to his Creator as intrinsic to the image of God. This capacity and responsibility to respond to God’s love and to love Him in return, as well as the freedom and responsibility to love one’s fellow man, Hoekema calls the “formal” aspect of God’s image in man. This innate freedom and responsibility are unchanged even after the fall. God still requires this of man.

Thus it is part of the divinely created nature of man that it should have both a formal and a material aspect. The fact that man must respond, that he is responsible, is fixed; no amount of human freedom, nor of the sinful misuse of freedom, can alter this fact. Man is, and remains, responsible, whatever his personal attitude to his Creator may be. He may deny his responsibility, and he may misuse his freedom, but he cannot get rid of his responsibility. Responsibility is part of the unchangeable structure of man’s being.[8]

The Impact of Sin

So, man remains responsible for his response to God and for his treatment of his neighbor. Yet, the fact that man is often selfish, seeking self-glory instead of giving God glory and preferring self over his neighbor, demonstrates that the “material” aspect of God’s image in man has been damaged by sin, though the “formal” freedom and responsibility remains.

At this point, it is worth noting that it requires both man and woman, the masculine and the feminine, to fully express the psychological and relational aspects of God’s image. Though we must avoid painting every man or woman with the same brush or denying that both men and women can share many of the same traits, it is commonly recognized that there are general psychological and relational differences between men and women, not just physical and sexual differences. Relationship books such as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by Dr. John Gray and Men are Like Waffles, Women are Like Spaghetti by Bill and Pam Farrell are designed to help couples understand, live with, and even delight in these common differences.

It is easy to see how commonly recognized masculine traits such as strength, courage, protection, loyalty, chivalry, adventurous, goal-oriented, logical, compartmentalized, playful, and inspiring impact the ways in which a man loves his wife and interacts with others in the world around him. It is also easy to see how typically feminine traits such as tender, nurturing, gentle, empathetic, home-oriented, intuitive, flexible, graceful, caring, and expressive impact the ways in which a woman loves her husband and interacts with the world around her. Certainly, individual personalities influence a vast array of differences in both men and women, and some of these traits as classified here would not be true of individual men or women. My point is that God exhibits both masculine and feminine traits and it takes both men and women to fully express God’s image. [9]

Mankind’s fall into sin has not only deformed God’s image in man in a substantive sense, but it also struck at the very core of God’s image in man as a relational being. Sin brought alienation from God and from one another. Where relationships were once transparent, trusting, and without shame (Genesis 2:15-25), Adam and Eve’s sin brought guilt, concealment, separation, self-justification, and blame (Genesis 3:7). Already by the second generation we see jealousy, anger, murder, and lying added to these relational sins (Genesis 4:5-10).

Ever since the fall of man, the damage of sin has been experienced in every human relationship. Under sin’s power, positive male traits can give way to aggression, domination, violence, egotism, abuse, control, compulsiveness, and indifference. Likewise, women can become vain, insecure, defiant, manipulative, nosy, critical, complaining, harsh, resentful, gossiping, and petty. Again, these relational sins, though perhaps more commonly exhibited in one gender over another, are not gender specific. There are abusive women and there are manipulative men.

The point is that all relationships: parent-child, husband-wife, employer-employee, government-citizen, and friend-friend have all been contaminated by sin and fail to fully reflect God’s image in man. Power struggles and conflicts abound. Though the “formal” structure of God’s image remains, the “material” aspect of God’s image has been deformed.

Redemption and Restoration

Christ came to reconcile us to God and to one another (Romans 5:1-10; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Ephesians 2:13-22; Colossians 1:19-23). God’s purpose is not that we just individually become more like Christ in our personal character, but that we also become more like Christ in our relational expression of God’s image. Christ came to heal the “I” and “Thou” alienation between God and man, but also between one another.

Certainly, individual transformation in the substantive sense will impact our ability to love and please God and to love our spouses, children, friends, and neighbors. The point is not that personal character transformation does not need to take place. Rather, the point is to not restrict an understanding of God’s image to only personal transformation. Of course, individual character transformation in a substantive sense is vital to successful and transformed relationships, but individual transformation is not the end, it is for the purpose of loving and fulfilling relationships both with God and with others.

This is why the two great commandments express the heart of God’s moral laws for man. It is only as we grow to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves that we reflect His image as lived out in the tri-unity of the Godhead from before the beginning of time. As husbands and wives learn to love and respect one another as God intended, marriage becomes a living object lesson of Christ and the church, and thereby further revealing God’s relational image to all who look on (Ephesians 5:22-33). Also, as brothers and sisters in Christ love one another, we display the character of our Heavenly Father and His nature in us (1 John 4:7-8; 2 Peter 1:3-9).

Through Christ demonstrating the full extent of His love, we come to see the love the Father has for us (John 3:16, 13:1-5, 15:13; Romans 5:8). In the same way, it is as we live out God’s image in our relationships, that the world will come to know what God is like. If we truly love one another as Christ has loved us, the world will know that we are His disciples (John 13:35). It is as we become one with the Father and the Son and with each other, perfected in unity, that the world will know that the Father sent the Son and loves them as He loved the Son (17:21-23). The relational image of God conveyed through our relationship with Him and with each other is key to showing the world who God is and revealing His love for them. We cannot exhibit this aspect of God’s image in isolation. We must do it together.

Just like God's relational image can only be fully revealed through relational interaction, I believe its formation in our lives will also only come to maturity through our relationships. We will never fully develop patience, forgiveness, humility, kindness, unselfishness, and sacrificial love apart from experiencing God's love overwhelming our hearts and our selfishness being challenged and refined through our interactions in marriage, family, work, the community of faith, and the world. But that's a topic for future blogs.

Going Forward

More can be said, but already this post has become longer than intended. Consequently, I will cover the functional view of God’s image in next week’s post. As we continue, my hope is that you will not see the substantive, relational, and functional views of God’s image as opposing ideas, but rather as complimentary, each displaying a facet of God’s image in man. Like a diamond, together they collectively reveal the radiant glory of God. See you next week as we reflect on yet another facet of this fascinating and life-relevant topic.


[1] As quoted in D. J. A. Clines, The Image of God In Man. Tyndale Bulletin 19 (1968) 67. The original source is Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. III/1, Clark, Edinburgh (1958) 191f.

[2] Ibid, 60.

[3] Ibid, 69.

[4] Ibid. This interpretation avoids the apparent contradictions found in other views such as the “heavenly council” view, in which God consulted a divine court comprised of heavenly beings that He also created to share His image. Though there is strong Scriptural evidence for a “heavenly council” (Psalm 82:1–2, 89:5-7; 1 Kings 22:19–23; Daniel 7:9-10), it seems awkward that God would invite them to co-create with Him and then He alone makes man in His own image. To interpret the “Let Us make man in Our image” in this manner restricts the role of the “heavenly council” to consultation prior to the creation of man and woman rather than participation in the act of creation. It also begs the question as to the creative powers of heavenly council members, especially when the entirety of Scripture only attributes the acts of creation to members of the Godhead.

[5] Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994, 53. Brunner as quoted by Hoekema. The original source is Emil Brunner. The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption. Dogmatics: Vol. II, 55-56.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. Hoekema’s Created in God’s Image is a significant treatise on the meaning of God’s image, including an overview of important theological perspectives throughout Church History.

[8] Ibid, 54.

[9] This is a message for another time. The fact that God exhibits both masculine and feminine traits is in no way an endorsement for using gender inclusive language when referring to members of the Godhead. God has revealed Himself as Father and Son for very specific reasons. This should not be tampered with by referring to Him as Father/Mother God.

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1 opmerking

04 mrt. 2021

I am finding rich fodder on this journey to understanding imago Dei--building a solid foundation of precepts essential to transformation. I feel it is the core of true discipleship. I especially loved the part about both male and female qualities being needed to give a total picture of His image in us. I wish more people were aware of this resource!

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