Implications of Being Made in the Image of God

Session 2

Racial Harmony


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

This is session two now on our seminar on racial harmony. Let me move into tonight’s biblical content with just a few things to show you the relevance of what we’re discussing. Again, I’ll try to do this each time because it’s very easy to do when you have the internet, and you can just have every piece of information in the universe, it seems, at your disposal — either to ruin your life and marriage or to bless your ministry, depending on whether you use it carefully or not.

One of the article’s in Time magazine last week had the headline: “Blacks Need Not Apply.”

When a black college freshman applied to join Alpha Gamma Delta at the University of Georgia last August, most members of the all-white sorority were horrified. As they gathered inside their neoclassical mansion to discuss the new applicants, the sisters of AGD singled out the black freshman and talked about her separately. “Why does she want to go through white rush?” asked a sorority member. Another warned, “If we had a black girl in our sorority, none of the fraternities would want to do anything with us.”

That’s 2000; that’s not 1965.

The Vote

But let me tell you a few stories from my background, so you know where I’m coming from and what I bring to this. I remember a Wednesday night in 1963. I don’t remember the date, but I know it was earlier in the year, because I remember what happened at Christmas. My church that I grew up in, on a Wednesday night, voted on the issue of whether they would allow any blacks to stay in the service if they showed up. I was there. I remember my mother was there. My daddy was not there. He was off doing evangelism somewhere. And the tension was absolutely incredible because they were doing sit-ins at places around the city. The thought was that these politically active folks are going to move on all the churches and make a big scene on Sunday morning in these all-white places. And should that be allowed? The argument was that no, we shouldn’t allow that on Sunday morning.

So there was this motion before the church, and it was voted on. My mother, to my recollection, was the only person who voted against this motion. So my mother is not a vintage Southerner. She grew up in Pennsylvania, went to a different sort of schooling. She didn’t bring the same Deep South notions to the table. They moved there when I was not yet born, and then I was born six months later. So I grew up there in this, but I remember getting home and my mother was so distraught about this, and couldn’t believe what had just been done. That’s the first example I can give you from my own experience.

Clear Expectations

My sister was nineteen and engaged, and was married that December in our church. We had a black maid. (I’ll come back to that in a minute and the implications of that.) Her name was Lucy, and she was like one of the family, supposedly, and was there every Saturday morning. I knew her since the time I was a little. I knew her until I left for college. My mother invited her to come to the wedding at the church with her whole family.

I’d never seen a black family invited to a white Baptist church in my life. My mom was ready to do battle to have this family at the wedding. So they showed up, and the ushers didn’t know what to do. Nobody in the history of this church had ever sat in the balcony; we never were big enough as a church. But there was a balcony. I’d never been up there. One of these ushers, in a moment of “genius,” he thought, I guess, decided to solve the problem by not kicking them out, but taking them to the balcony. My mother hit the roof. She went over there, and herself ushered them into the sanctuary and sat them down.

However, I’m very much aware that the very having of Lucy as a maid was part of a system that was also demeaning because I noticed as I got older that Lucy never ate with us. We loved Lucy. It never occurred to me that there was anything bad in her or the situation, but that, too, was part of the system. It’s still going on. I go back to situations now, and I’m so keenly aware of this now, that here’s this maid. Now this maid drives a very nice car and is paid very well, I gather, in this setting where I visit, and she prepares the meal, helps, and then we go sit down. And I’d go to her and I’d say, “Come eat with us.” She’d go, “Oh, no, I need to keep working.” Well, I know what she really means. That would not work here.

So that’s a taste. That’s a taste of what was — is — where I come from, and it’s huge. It’s a huge, demeaning thing that is in the mindset of these sorority girls, the house where I go to visit, the background I grew up in, even in church.

From Ethnic Hatred to Christ

I’ve got to connect this with a story I read this week about another kind of ethnic issue. Let me read you the story of the conversion of W.H. Auden. This is a quote from an article in The Journal of Biblical Counseling by John Yenchko.

I just recently read about W. H. Auden, one of the wonderful poets of the 1930s, who was a fair-haired European intellectual. His poetry captured the hearts of the intelligentsia of Europe, and they loved him. He went to fight in the Spanish Civil War against Franco and the Fascists. He wanted to join the good guys to stand against the Fascists. But while he was there, he discovered that there were no good guys, that there were, in fact, horrible, evil atrocities on both sides. In 1940 he was converted. Do you know how he was converted? In one event. He went to the Yorkville section of Manhattan, and there he saw a movie produced by Hitler’s Third Reich. It followed the invasion, the Blitzkrieg through Poland. It was called Psyche in Poland, and it was the propaganda piece of their great victory. There were many Germans who had immigrated to the United States sitting in the theater. Whenever a Polish person was brought on the screen, usually being ferried about by one of the Germans, people in the audience would scream, “Kill him! Kill him!” in a frenzied commitment to the destruction of Germany’s enemies. Auden, this magnificent, wonderful, European, enlightened intellectual, was so shocked and so horrified that he walked out of the theater stunned. He later said that one question ran through his mind: “What response can my enlightened, humanistic tradition give to this evil, to those who cry out for the blood of innocent victims?” He saw the bankruptcy of humanism. He began to sense that the only answer to evil would be found in God and in the revelation of God in the Bible. He was convicted of God’s holiness and of his own sinfulness. In 1940 he became a Christian. He began to write poetry that infuriated the European intellectuals, and they grew to despise him. But he didn’t care.

Now here’s the thought: here’s a man who sees an ethnic hatred manifest against innocent Polish people, and he gropes in his own system of thought for the explanation of this evil and how it might be redeemed, and he makes his way toward Christianity.

KKK in the Church

And there are people making exactly the opposite move for exactly the same reasons. For example, in I was a freshman at Wheaton College in 1964. So I left the South behind, headed off to Wheaton, and a whole new world opens up to me, both religiously and culturally, and I begin to see things a little differently. I went back for the summer of ’65. There was a big pizza gathering in my backyard and a shirt-tail relative, and suddenly he’s talking about his membership in the KKK with pride, and how good it is for the community. Now this is a man that goes to my church. I didn’t know what to do. He’s probably ten years older than I am. I was stunned.

So here’s the point: It’s nice to hear this story about W.H. Auden, that he made his way into Christianity as a solution to ethnocentrism. Well, here is a guy who finds himself at home and supported in his vision of what that horrific group stands for at home in the church. There are people who know that, and a lot of other things that the church has tolerated and supported, and they’re making their way straight out to humanism. So what do you do when you find stories that will give you some comfort that Christianity has offered a solution to ethic pride, and other stories that show Christianity was part of the problem?

Well, you know what you do? You go to the Bible to ask, Did they get Christianity right? And you can ask, Did he get humanism right? And you should ask both. When I ask those questions, my answer is clearly: I don’t see any solution in humanism. If you just have man and no God to explain evil and to deal with the redemption that would somehow solve the problem of the human heart, I don’t see any answer there. But when I go to the Bible, I see a totally different thing than what my shirt-tail relative was giving into. So I think we just have to be honest about the history of Christianity, with the crusades, and with the pogroms, and with the cross-burning and lynching. Just from ethnic group to ethnic group, we just have to realize that the institutional church has blown it over and over again. When you’re talking to people — Jewish people or Polish people or German people, or red, yellow, black, or white people — everybody’s got a story to tell of a failure of an institutional church.

You don’t need to fight that. You can just say, “I know, and I’m sorry.” But please, can we let Jesus have his say here and realize that those who profess to be his followers may not be his followers? And those of us who are, are so yet imperfect and on the way, just like, I think, if you were honest, you would say you are. And then start there instead of any kind of defensive posture that tries to say there’s never been a problem.

In God’s Image

So that’s where I’m going to go. I’m going to go back to the Bible, and I’m going to take doctrinal pieces, and the first one will be that all humans are made in the image of God, and we’ll talk about the implications of what we are by virtue of creation, even apart from redemption in new creation in Christ.

So tonight we’ll just deal with what we are by virtue of creation, then we’ll deal with what we are by virtue of new creation, and both are massive. It’s good to take them separately, though I know what I’m going to talk about tonight could sound like, “Well, you’re leaving Christ out. You’re leaving the cross out.” Well, I’m not. I’m just going to take them in stages because on your way to the fullness of the understanding of the Bible, it’s good to know what God designed for us in creation as well as redemption, and both of them have powerful words to say on this issue of race. So I’ve got eight points and we won’t get through them all, but let’s get through some of them.

The first man and woman were created in the image of God. Some of these are so obvious and so plain that maybe we don’t need to linger on them as much as we might on some of the others. I think I read this text last week:

God created mankind in his own image,
     in the image of God he created them;
      male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

That’s a basic, foundational, utterly profound and significant, and full-of-implications text. Adam and Eve were created in the image of God.

Perpetual Likeness

That also needs to be supplemented with subsequent human beings who come not by virtue of direct creation totally, but through procreation, are in the image of God as well. I think that’s one of the points of Moses writing this sentence in Genesis 5:3: “When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.” Those two words likeness and image are the same two words back there in Genesis 1. I think the only point here is to say the image carries on. The first pair are not the only people in the image of God; those who come from them are in the image of God. The way Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:48–49 is:

As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.

So that’s just another pointer to how it goes on, and there are other texts we could talk about. So it’s not just Adam and Eve who were created in the image of God but every one that flows from them as human is in the image of God.

Reflecting God’s Glory

Being in his image, we are to image forth his glory. If you were to ask me what it means to be in the image of God, we could argue until we’re blue in the face about rationality, morality, volition, things that would distinguish us from chimpanzees and whatever. It’s hard to put your finger on it, and the Bible doesn’t say. It doesn’t pause and put it in a little systematic-theology comment on, “Here’s what I mean by ‘image of God.’”

I think a better thing to do than try to pick any of those wonderfully human traits is to say that all of them, whatever they are, are designed to image forth God in a way that no other being can, no other animal or being can.

I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’
     and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’
Bring my sons from afar
     and my daughters from the ends of the earth —
everyone who is called by my name,
     whom I created for my glory,
     whom I formed and made.” (Isaiah 43:6–7)

I think being created in the image of God means being created for the glory of God, imaging him forth as only humans can because we have those traits like God. So rather than quibble about the details, let’s take it as a mission, not just to subdue the earth, because that was the context — to subdue and have nature in submission — but to mirror him. We should live in such a way that when people see you, they see a reflection of the character and the quality of God. That’s a huge calling that we are to do.

Extraordinary Dignity

Man’s extraordinary dignity above all other creatures is for the sake of magnifying the majesty of God. I think that’s the point of Psalm 8. “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” And the psalmist is going to end that way in verse 9: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” That’s the point of the psalm. The point of the psalm is that God is majestic. How does it relate to what else is in the psalm?

Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
     you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
     the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
     and the son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
     and crowned him with glory and honor. (Psalm 8:2–5)

Who’s got majesty here? “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” So what’s the connection?

You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
     you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
     and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
     whatever passes along the paths of the seas. (Psalm 8:6–8)

There’s Genesis 1 and the cultural mandate coming out. And then he doesn’t say, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is man.” He did say that — under God. But he ends on the note of praise. So my way of constructing it is to say that the point of our majesty in the dignity of being in the image of God is to make known the majesty of God. It begins with the majesty of God. It ends with the majesty of God. Our subordinate majesty above all the creatures is in the middle, and the point of it is for God.

Which means, at least, that if you demean or belittle anybody created to that end, you demean God. You rupture his purposes for all his people to show him as majestic because of the reflection of their being created in his image and dedicating themselves to that end.

What a Life Is Worth

All humans being in the image of God implies the immense horror of unjustly harming or destroying a human being. When God establishes his covenant with Noah, he says in Genesis 9:5–6,

For your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.

Now capital punishment is a big issue, but it’s not the issue we’re dealing with it. There are really two separate issues in America today: the justice system that may make it impossible to exercise justice in the way it should be done, and the exercise of capital punishment and the principle of capital punishment over here. This text says that capital punishment is the only fitting response to anybody who kills a human being. The point there is not to make the taking of a life through capital punishment an evidence of the small value of a life. It’s exactly the opposite. Human beings are so incredibly unique and significant that a high-handed crime that takes another human being’s life, the only way to settle accounts and uphold the dignity of human life is to kill that person.

So at least get the logic here. The image of God in man is huge in this ongoing covenant. So when we deal with capital punishment (which is not my aim), keep in mind that it is a very complex issue in our culture, even when you settle the principle. I feel settled about the principle that it is biblical and right to believe in capital punishment. How to implement it is another story and a complicated one. I just wanted you to see the principle they’re rooted in the image of God.

Blessing and Cursing

All human beings in the image of God implies that all this unique dignity governs our speaking about them and to them. James 3:8–9:

No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.

See the connection there? How can you bless the Lord and curse men out of the same mouth when men have been made in the likeness of God? From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing, and these things ought not to be so. So that’s an argument, apart from redemption in Jesus Christ. That’s going to bring huge new arguments to the table for why you don’t curse other people. But this argument is simply rooted in the fact that every human being is created in the image of God. To talk of them in any other way than with a careful recognition of that extraordinary dignity ought not to be.