This article looks at the relation of human rights and man as the image of God, common grace and civil rights.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1984. 4 pages.

Human Rights and Image of God

The so-called human rights are a hot issue in this world. Heads have rolled in the struggle for, or against, their recognition. Human rights are said to be essential to a free and democratic society. Violations against human rights are a cause of international friction.

The United Nations, in the preamble to its charter, reaffirmed its faith the fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.

All this has given a great boost to those who proudly claim the value of their humanity. It has also made Christians very cautious: this claiming of rights is contagious. Reformed people are worried about it. Mentioning human rights gives many of them the shivers...


Still, if you leave out the most recent additions to the array of human rights what has been handed down from old traditions does not seem all that bad. For example, no one would have problems with a thing like "equality before the law": it is prescribed by God; or "the right to due process": the apostle Paul claimed it (Acts 25:10). Some people may have trouble practicing the precept that accused persons are innocent until proven guilty, but very few would consider it a bad rule. Why then the apprehensiveness?

The difficulty lies in the origin of these rights. They are claimed as "in­herently human." They are based on a "natural sense of justice that is essential to man." It is considered to be "in the nature of man to loathe oppression."

The adoption of these human rights, or basic rights, for example, by the British government, was the result of a slow and gradual process. The existence of human rights had been well established in the course of many years of common law judgments. Over the years, as the rights of the monarch became restricted, and parliament, as the representation of the free political will of the people, took on sovereign powers, there was indeed the question who would check parliament. The common view that prevailed in Britain was that its system was rooted in Bib­lical and natural law, from which flowed the rights and liberties of Englishmen. Although they were not codified, no parliament would remove them. This expressed the generally held view that man was not totally depraved, but that he is prone to sin and therefore must be contained within the limits that are imposed upon him by God, nature, and social needs. At the same time, man, not being totally lost, must therefore be allowed to enjoy his rightful liberties which God has given him within nature. As a consequence, the state, instituted to assure both human justice and liberties, mirrors two aspects of society: human perverseness and human dignity.

Recognition of the fact that rights and privileges existed well before the organization of government, is surely a blessing of God's providential care. Imagine what could have happened, had it been the other way around!


This is admittedly an oversimplification of British history, but it helps to illustrate the basic tenet of political thought: gradualness and moderation. In contrast, then, how sharp and clear cut was the introduction of political freedom in the United States! There was no gradual process. And there was no vagueness or ambiguity. The American Declaration of Independence states:

We hold these Truths to be self evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed..." The document was issued "... in the Name and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies...

It was an incisive moment in his­tory: it cut deep into the political philosophies of those days. To a great extent it reflected the changing attitudes in Europe, which eventually led to the French revolution. However, as American deeds and bills were drafted, the religious and judicial concepts that had been inherited from the British ancestry found their way into those documents.

In comparison, the document produced by the French revolution, the Declaration of Man and of the Citizen, adopted in 1789, was completely ungodly. Still, it contained civic rights and privileges which we as Christians would (and should) never hesitate to employ.

Common Grace🔗

How then do we look at these things? Could we go along with Abraham Kuyper when considering human relations? He noted that man, fallen into sin, was still able to produce much that is good. In that respect, Kuyper did not say anything new.

John Calvin had already noticed that "…in every age there have been persons who, guided by nature, have striven toward virtue throughout life..." He went on to say: "These ex­amples, accordingly, seem to warn us against adjudging man's nature wholly corrupted, because some men have by its prompt­ing not only excelled in remarkable deeds, but conducted them­selves most honorably throughout life." Calvin even uses the word "grace" here: "It ought to occur to us that amid this corruption of nature there is some place for God's grace..."; but then comes the clincher: "…not such grace as to cleanse it, but to restrain it inwardly."Institutes, Book 2, III, 3

But Kuyper was different in his approach, in that he built a whole system around this observation that unbelievers still do works of the law. In the first chapter of the first volume of his huge trilogy, Common Grace, he poses the problem of how to deal with so much beauty produced and so much good work performed by unbelievers that would make true believers jealous and ashamed. These were the possibilities: we could follow the Anabaptists and say that these works are of the world and therefore bad, or we could follow the Arminians and say that man's fall did not cause his complete depravity. But neither proposition was acceptable. Therefore he found the solution in his conclusion that also:

…outside the church, among the heathens, in the middle of the world, there was the working of grace, not an eternal grace, not a saving grace, but temporary and restraining, restricting the corruption that came forth from sin." This third option he called "common grace.

It allowed a fascinating buildup of concepts that tended to fill a gap in the Christian world view. Its constructions developed over many years. A positive cultural outlook resulted from it. While the doctrine of total depravity was being main­tained, common grace became one of the cornerstones on which the details of Reformed (antirevolutionary) politics was built. And gradually Kuypers' followers have built up a view of socie­ty in which man as image-bearer of God even after the fall became more and more of a focal point.

The text frequently mentioned in this respect is Genesis 9:6, which reads: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; FOR God made man in His own image." From that text, strengthened by the concepts of common grace, grew the notion that man, although totally corrupt after the fall, still had a certain dignity. The remnants (Belgic Confession, Article 14) of once having been the glorious image of God were still present. And that dignity concept has become a separate matter, functioning by itself. In that light, human rights, the ones that lead to civil responsibility, are then seen as gifts of God's common grace, resulting in cultural-historical blessings. It leads to definitions of human relations in which the attributes of man's "creatureliness" has an important place.


But the Reformed confessions, especially the Heidelberg Catechism, give an entirely different explanation about the concept of man created-in-the-image­-of-God. Man created in God's image means:

…in true righteousness and holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness to praise and glorify Him.Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 3

And of that human quality nothing is left. When the confession mentions remnants, it uses the word "vestiges." But vestiges are like the imprint of a boot in the snow. You can see that there was a boot at one time, but there is no measurable percentage left behind on which you can build a new future. When discussing the matter of "the image of God," it is therefore wiser to refer to Ephesians 4:23, 24: "Put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness."

How? Through the very particular grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The objections to the common grace concept, especially by Dr. K. Schilder, have been very ably summarized in Dr. J. Douma's dissertation which was published by Oosterbaan & Le Cointre in 1966, under the title Algemene Genade (= Common Grace). Douma agrees with Schilder that the Kuyperian concept of common grace is untenable, although he does not rule out the use of the term "grace" as is done by Calvin.

Douma's work is a handy reference, since it brings much of the arguments about this topic together in a systematic man­ner. It has also been criticized because it questions the validity of Schilder's concept of the cultural mandate. But such ques­tioning, in itself is not unhealthy. The main argument against Kuyper's construction was that all of the historical develop­ments after the fall were necessary to complete God's plan of salvation. The restraining of the evil one is a very necessary part of this development. From the English summary included in Douma's book the following may be quoted: "Kuyper (ac­cording to Schilder) reasons one-sidedly when he stamps the continuation after the fall as grace only. For this continuation of the world and of mankind is indispensable 'both for laying the path to Heaven as well as for walking down the roads that lead to Hell.' Theologically speaking, it is neither grace, nor judgment, but a substratum for the administration of blessing and curse."

In that same light, Schilder's view on Genesis 9:6 is very interesting. After a lengthy discussion of man-as-image-of-God in his work on the Heidelberg Catechism, Schilder concludes:

Why was murder punishable? Indeed, because man was made in God's image. He was 'worthwhile' but not because he was who he was, but because God had a great destiny for him from the beginning. From the motivation for the death penalty (for God made man in His own image), one should not conclude a supposed remainder of the image of God which can be ex­pressed in percentages. David did not touch Saul, for he was the anointed of the LORD, although he knew very well that Saul had made a caricature of the image of theocratic royalty, and that he had been rejected long before."Volume 1, p. 312


Therefore, when we deal with the issue of human rights and the manner in which they have become translated into civil rights, we should see them as subservient to the future of the Lord. That is shown very clearly in the Belgic Confession, Ar­ticle 36.

We hear quite frequently how civil disobedience is being advocated as a manifestation of human rights. Particulary the preachers of the liberation theology are strong in that. In the name of combatting social injustices, they claim the right to violate government regulations. How do we look at this? Should we compose our own code of Reformed principles with regard to human rights?

The Bible gives a clear example of what could be termed "civil disobedience" in the face of violations regarding freedom of speech by the authorities. The apostles Peter and John, hav­ing been told to stop speaking and teaching in the name of Jesus, answered: "Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you, rather than to God, you must judge; we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:19, 20). But, before we apply that example to our own particular circumstances, we must always ask ourselves: Is it indeed God to whom we listen? Don't forget that in that same Bible the apostle Paul tells slaves, not that they are free from their masters because slavery is in conflict with man's dignity, but rather that sharing the same table in celebrating the Lord's Sup­per should not go to their heads!

It is quite clear that man in the twentieth century has not "listened to God" when deciding what to do or whom to obey. Rather he has listened to what is in his own heart and projected that as the will of the common people, his new God. And the image of that God is becoming more and more evident as the last traces of a Christian past are being removed from society one by one. Human rights in today's society lead to unburden­ing the people by removing the "oppressive Judeo-Christian value systems." Eventually the man of lawlessness shall usurp his ultimate human right and, instead of professing to be God's image, shall sit in the temple of God, claiming himself to be God (2 Thessalonians 2:3, 4).

In this complex world we as Christians must be "innocent as doves, but also wise as serpents," so as to gain a clear understanding of what is going on amidst those persuasive claims of human rights.

Blessed are those who, with eyes enlightened through God's grace, have seen through the treacherous ploys. They shall exercise their human rights — obtained through grace in Christ's blood — to govern with Him over all creation.

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