Will We Be Like The Lord Jesus?
In my youth, in kindergarten this little verse was sung: “I wish to be like Jesus, so friendly and so good, his words were e’er kindhearted, his voice was always sweet…” I still remember that my parents did not think much of it. Jesus is not just some great example and one can never be like him, because he is more than a noble person.
What the poet of that verse exactly meant with it, I cannot figure out. If it indeed merely sought to present Jesus as our enlightening example, it holds little value. For after all, more than anything he is our Saviour, the one who gave his blood for us.
But in the meantime our [Heidelberg] Catechism does state in Lord’s Day 32 that the Holy Spirit renews us to be Christ’s image.1 That confession is fully in accordance with Scripture. Paul writes that we are “with ever-increasing glory” being changed into the image of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18) and he wants Christ to “be formed in” the Galatians (Gal. 4:19). John encourages us to walk “as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6).
And it is also surprising how the Lord Jesus, more than once, makes an example of himself (John 13:15; see 15:10). The apostles also point towards him as our example (Rom. 15:5; 1 Peter 2:21). And what beats everything: John even proclaims that one day we shall be “like” Christ (1 John 3:2).
In this article I want to examine what it means to be changed into the image of Christ and if we may say that we will be like him; and what this would then consist of.
The extent to which being renewed according to Christ’s image, of which Lord’s Day 32 speaks, is the Lord’s great goal for us. Paul teaches us in Romans 8:29 when he writes: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son…” That renewal according to Christ’s image concerns nothing less than a destination of eternity! This awesome destiny rests upon God’s electing love, a love already given to us “beforehand” or “before all times” (see 2 Tim. 1:9). It goes back to God’s eternal counsel!
The old [Dutch] Bible translation still puts it so beautifully: “Those whom he foreknew…” Thus it is also literally stated in the Greek. The apostle is using a word that is wholly marked by the language of the Old Testament. The Lord “knew” Abraham (Gen. 15); “knew” Moses (Ex. 33:12); “knew” Israel (Amos 3:2). He also “knows” the path of his children (Ps. 142:3).2
In the Hebrew a little word is used that is also utilized in relation to a man’s ‘knowing’ his wife. In such cases, that “knowing” clearly pertains to a “knowing in love”.
Thus when Paul speaks about the Lord’s “knowing” beforehand [predestination], he wants to impress upon our hearts God’s care and love for us — a mercy utterly personal, which he has harboured towards us already from eternity. This being known by him is a being known in Christ. Through his beloved Son God bestowed grace upon us (Eph. 1:6). He is “known” from eternity (1 Peter 1:20, 1951 [Dutch] translation). And through him all those who are his, are destined to be his image!
All of this emphasizes that what the Lord has in store for us is entirely characterized by grace alone. It is not on the ground of any merit on our part, but out of mere grace that we may be the image of God’s son!
Christ as God’s Image
Now, when we consider what being “the image of God’s Son” means, it is clarifying to focus on the fact that Christ himself is referred to as “the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4) and “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Especially the latter text makes clear that what is at stake in this designation is not the position of Christ in relation to his Father, but rather his relation to us.3
He is the one who makes God visible on earth. God’s glory radiates outwards from him. He makes known the Father as the Son who “is at the Father’s side” (John 1:18). He does “the work” of the Father (John 9:4) and in everything acts as the Son in whom the Father “is” (John 14:11). In this way he makes his Father visible on earth and is he able to say: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). As “image of God” he reveals the Father and do we see the Father — in Calvin’s words“as in a mirror”. Yes, we may say that he is God’s image on earth in order for us to share in that image, to bring us to our destination of eternity!
Man as God’s Image4
Against Anabaptist errors, Reformed theologians have always stuck to the point that the renewing work of the Holy Spirit does not entail an entirely new creation, but a restoration of that which God created and which sin has corrupted. Hence in these ruminations we cannot bypass what the Bible says about the creation of man as the image of God. Paul also clearly reaches back to this when he writes about “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Col. 3:10). The renewing work of the Holy Spirit focuses on and is aimed at that which the Creator once made man to be.
Now concerning this, Genesis 1:27 does not leave us in limbo. We read that God created man “in his own image”. The old [Dutch] Bible translation states: “unto his image”. But the [more recent Dutch Bible translation] NBV deserves to be preferred here. The Hebrew preposition here is better captured as “like” [in English: “in”]. The text tells us that man is the image of God; that he was put on earth by the Creator as his image.5
Hence to my mind, it also seems less correct to say that the image of God is something that is added to the original humanity, and that man can also “lose” that again.6 Man is created as the image of God. Adam was the image of God. This does not deny that he then also, in his doing and being, needed to demonstrate this. Every gift from God is at once also a task. Adam was “the glory of God” (see 1 Cor. 11:7). In him God’s glory became visible on earth — a glory that, following Genesis 1:26, especially needed to shine forth through his reign over the whole earth and its animal life. What counts for Christ counted also (mutatis mutandis) for the first man: he was the image of the invisible God, the mirror wherein God’s glory was reflected.
Corrupted By Sin
Unfortunately here also, sin carried out its devastating work. The person who has sinned falls short of “the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23); is no longer the image of the invisible God. When Adam reaches out to “become like God” (see Gen. 3:22), he actually darkens God’s glory and fails to appreciate what he was and needed to be: mirror of God’s glory. We must not minimize the seriousness of the fall into sin by saying that man “in a broader sense” still remained the image of God, for after all he remained a man with a will, with consciousness of the self; in short, with everything that separates him from the animals.
Still it is true that, also following the fall into sin, there is much that recalls the unique position which the Lord bestowed on human beings at creation. Genesis 5:1, 9:6, Psalm 8:6-7 and James 3:9 speak of that unique position. But these scriptures do not state that man, also after the fall into sin, remained the image of God!
The corruption that sin brought is radical and total. Our nature became corrupt; our behaviour godless and perverted. And nothing but “some small traces” — as the Belgic Confession states in Article 14 — remain of the “excellent gifts” with which the Lord entrusted us, humanity, to be his image.7 Those traces can still be perceived when we discover that unbelievers can behave very considerately, decently and mercifully (see Canons of Dort, III/IV, 4). Still, that does not warrant the call of P. Houtman: let the Reformed theology consider “people of today” as image of God, if “always damaged; at the very least scratched and dented. But still.”8
When Paul names “righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24) and “knowledge” (Col. 3:10) as characteristics of “the new self, which is being renewed… in the image of its Creator”, he teaches us that the consequence of sin is not just “damage” but radical corruption. When we maintain that salvation is the restoration of that which became corrupted through sin, then that which Paul refers to must also have adorned Adam, and enabled him to be God’s image and behave himself accordingly. Precisely of these “excellent gifts”, Article 14 states that human beings lost them (see Canons of Dort, III/IV, 1). How could a person without all of this still be able to radiate God’s glory and occupy his original “honourable position”? Klaas Schilder rightly points out that being the image of God is embedded in a living communion with God as the God of the covenant. “And things must stand or fall through that relationship.”9 When man breaks that covenant relationship, he is no longer the image of his holy Creator. I cannot read Article 14 differently than that, through sin, man has gambled away that “privileged position”.10
The above is confirmed in the manner in which Paul speaks about the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. God already knew us beforehand to become the “likeness” of his Son (Rom. 8:29); we become transformed into “the likeness” of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18), who is “the image” of God (2 Cor. 4:4); the new man is renewed in “the image of its Creator” (Col. 3:10). It all recalls Adam in Paradise and proclaims to us how, in Christ, there is restoration of that which was lost through sin. What we as Adam’s children can no longer be, we may become again through the renewing work of Christ’s Spirit: the image of God, mirror of his glory on earth. In the communion with him who is God’s image in perfection, God’s children may demonstrate the image of their heavenly Father.
We become merciful as the Father is (Luke 6:36); holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:15); we love as he loved us (1 John 4:11); we become good as he is good (Luke 8:15; 6:35) — in all of which we should of course not forget that a real difference between him and us remains!
Unto Christ’s Image
Paul summarizes concisely what the Holy Spirit makes of us when he says that we become “the image of God’s son”. The Spirit renews us into the image of Christ, who is the image of God. Through his work Christ is “formed” in us (Gal. 4:19). When Christ lives in us (Gal. 2:20), it is also him who is visible within and “on” us. We gain his “attitude” (Phil. 2:5); his “mind” (1 Cor. 2:16); we are going to “walk as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6); and we love as he loved us (John 15:12). In short, inwardly and outwardly we will be like him!
The Lord Jesus becomes iconic for us. That is why in the New Testament he is so often presented to us as an example and why we are called to follow him. Precisely in that following (on the inside and outside!) shall “the glory” of his Father “be shown” (John 15:8). That glory Jesus demonstrated. And we may in our turn — in the communion with him — also show that glory. Paradise-glory returns!
When Paul in Romans 8:29 speaks of our predestination, it is not merely future-oriented. We do not become the image of Christ only on Judgment Day. It concerns a process of renewal that will be completed on Judgment Day. The new person “is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Col. 3:10) and we “are being transformed” into Christ’s likeness (2 Cor. 3:18). Present tense! This means that in this life, we will already show Christ’s image and make visible the greatness of his Father.
Still, here on earth things remain imperfect. Perfection is still awaited (Heb. 11:40). But amidst all fault and lack, still we become “renewed more and more after [or into] God’s image” (Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 115).
The Heavenly Image
Ultimately, the renewing work of the Holy Spirit also concerns our body. In Paradise, the whole person was the image of God. That implies that in becoming God’s image again, “the redemption of our bodies” is included (Rom. 8:23). In that, the renewal into God’s image is completed. Paul speaks of that completion when he writes: “And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49). Now we still show the figure, “the image” (the eikon, so writes Paul literally) of the mortal, perishable man. But soon we shall demonstrate “the image” (the eikon) of the Heavenly. And with that “Heavenly” the apostle means our risen Lord. He is called “the Heavenly one” because he is “from heaven”: immortal, glorious and powerful.
One day we shall be like him. We will gain the existence that he has had since his resurrection — an existence that is incomparably greater in glory than that of the first person.
One day we shall be completely the image of Christ, also bodily. Because Christ will make our present lowly bodies “like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21), the body with which he rose from the dead.
Then we will have reached what God had planned for us already from eternity (Rom. 8:29). Then we shall be, as perfected people, “the image of his Son”, and so shall be the image of our Creator. Unstained mirror of God’s glory!
That nursery rhyme with which I began was maybe not so strange after all, because it puts forth the request: “Oh Lord, please help and make me be like him.” We may and must begin to be like Jesus. But this is not an ideal that we need to pursue. The becoming like him is a gift that Christ gives us through his Spirit. We may ask for that, and it is something to be experienced in communion with him. Christ lives in our hearts through faith, and, taking shape in us, we begin to convey his image.
The “like” [or “as”] that we so often encounter when he makes an example of himself, points not only toward the manner via which but also the grounds upon which this is possible.11 He loved us and that love makes possible our love. At the washing of the feet, Jesus is an example to those who are his. But what matters most is that they share in him. That must come first (John 13:18). We discover the same regarding “walking in his footsteps”. They are the footsteps of him who bore our sins on the cross (1 Peter 2:21ff).
In that unique mediating work we cannot and need not follow him. But we can and must do so in regards to the manner in which he carried out that work. We must accept each other in the way that Christ also accepted us (Rom. 15:7), and walk in the love with which he also loved us and gave himself up for us (Eph. 5:2). Then we will be like him; we will gain his spirit; we will walk as he walked; our life becomes “Christ” (Phil. 1:21), revealing his image in thought and practice. And therein we are again “the image and glory of God” (1 Cor. 11:7) and the image of our Creator (Col. 3:10).
Here on earth things remain imperfect. But there is growth and progress; a “more and more” with the delightful prospect that after this life we will “reach the goal of perfection” (Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 115). Then we will, in body and soul, be as Christ is (1 John 3:2), because we will “share in God’s glory” with him (Rom. 8:17). Then we will have reached our destination from eternity [our predestination]. And we will forever stand in awe at all that our God had prepared for those who love him!