Why Image-Bearing Isn't Only About Responsibility


In my last article, I described our core identity in terms of being God's image-bearers, but if you survey the New Testament, you'll find its overarching understanding of our identity in Christ is that we are sons, co-heirs, siblings of Christ destined to become like Christ. So, we must ask the question: is the New Testament replacing the Old Testament image-bearer motif with an in-Christ adoption motif, or is something else happening? Of course, the answer is that nothing is being replaced. Rather, something is being fulfilled and filled-out.

Adoption Is about Image-Bearing

Our adoption in Christ is the grand restoration of what was marred and broken to the “very good,” even glorious, thing it was meant to be. We are being conformed to the image of Christ, who is the express image of God (Heb 1:3 NKJV). From image-bearing we came, and to image-bearing we have returned. But it’s about more than just restoration; it’s about redefinition – or at least expanded definition. Our inclination when we think of image-bearing in terms of representation is to think of it exclusively in terms of responsibility: We are God’s representatives, therefore, we had better get it right. And indeed we had! But this is only half the story. Image-bearing was never exclusively about responsibility – it was always about sonship. Sinclair Ferguson puts it this way in his book Children of the Living God:

"To be a son, and to be the image and likeness of your father are synonymous ideas. To put it another way, if we wish to understand what man was intended to be, we need to think of him as a son of God. If, in turn, we ask what it means to be a son of God, the answer must be found in terms of being in God's image and likeness."

Thus, for Adam and Eve (God’s original image-bearers), as well as for Christ (God’s perfect image-bearer), being in the image and likeness of God always meant being God’s child. And what we say of image-bearing we also say of adoption: from sonship we came, and to sonship we have returned. We were prodigals whose lives told the world that our Father and all He provided us were not worth sticking around for. Now, by returning to God in Christ, our lives are telling everyone we were wrong.

There is a beautiful continuity between the Old and New Testament conceptions of the identity of the children of God. Adoption in Christ fills us in on what it means to bear God's image. We are image-bearing sons, children who show the world a little bit of what God is like by how we relate to God and others. But we're more than representatives - we're recipients! Salvation isn't about getting right what we once got wrong. That's what Christ did. Salvation, our adoption in Christ, is about receiving and entering into all that Christ has done for us, and bringing as many people as we can along for the ride. This means entering into freedom from sin and slavery to righteousness (Rom 6). It means entering into a new way of navigating and interpreting life. It means entering into a living hope and an eternal inheritance (1 Pet 1). It means entering into a love that redefines and remakes everything about us in the best ways possible.

And it also means is that this article is a starting point, a launch pad, for a series of articles on our identity in Christ. From here we will "survey the wondrous cross" and all its benefits (or, at least some of them) over the coming weeks so that, as Paul says, we, "being rooted and grounded in love, may have the strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God" (Eph 3:17-19 ESV).

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