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Ethical relativism has seemingly fractured our culture into millions of isolated islands where everyone does what is right in his own eyes. In this world shaped by technology, people create virtual realms tailored to their interests and have extended this mentality into the real world as they create their own morality.
Nevertheless, the Bible teaches us that God has created all human beings in His image, which means that we share this God-given bond. One of the key elements of bearing God’s image is that He has inscribed His moral law on the hearts of all humans; ultimately, we all share the same God-given morality and ethics, though unregenerate people suppress it. We can explore this truth by first examining what the Bible has to say about image bearing. Second, we will ponder the theology of our commonly shared ethical norm. And third, we will think through the implications of what it means to have the law of God inscribed on our hearts. Can we interact with our neighbors on the basis of this commonly shared ethical knowledge?
what the bible says
When God created, He crowned His work with human beings, His image bearers. The threefold repetition of Adam and Eve’s image bearing signals the importance of God’s action: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’ . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26–27, emphasis added). That humans were created in God’s image means that they resemble God in many ways. This is not to say that humans physically look like God, for He is a spirit and does not have a body (John 4:24). Humans nevertheless reflect God’s attributes such as holiness, wisdom, power, knowledge, and righteousness. We bear these attributes in a creaturely and analogical way. The connection between similitude and image bearing appears in Genesis 5:3, where we read that Adam “fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image.” Genesis makes the subtle but amazing point that all humans are sons of God because they bear His likeness and image. That God invested humans with His image is no small thing, as the psalmist characterizes this as a tremendous blessing:
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.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet. (Ps. 8:3–6)
theology and ethics
When we gather this biblical data to formulate our theological understanding of the relationship between image bearing and ethics, there are rich truths that come to light. We must look at human beings within the broader context of creation to appreciate the nature of image bearing. John Calvin characterized creation as a mirror of God’s divinity, discernible from the architecture of the world. Calvin had in mind passages such as these: “For [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20) and “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). Notably, the psalmist moves from the broader creation to the law of God: “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul” (v. 7). God’s creation and law go hand in hand, as the creation reflects God’s being and attributes. What is true of the greater creation is also true of human beings. According to Calvin, humans are a microcosmic creation that mirrors the Creator. The macrocosmic and microcosmic creations both reflect their Creator. Herman Bavinck states that every creature is an embodiment of divine thought, but human beings in particular are the richest self-revelation of God, as they alone bear His divine image.
A picture of the close relationship between image bearing and the law appears in God’s temples. Whether in the desert tabernacle or in the Solomonic temple, the ark of the covenant rested in the Holy of Holies. And what did the ark contain? Aaron’s rod, a jar of manna, and the “tablets of the covenant,” the law (Ex. 16:33–34; 25:16; Num. 17:10; 1 Kings 8:9; 2 Chron. 5:10; Heb. 9:4). God’s last temple also contains His law—His final dwelling place is the church, the people of God. Our bodies individually are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), and collectively the people of God are the “temple of the Lord,” “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20–21). When God redeems His people, He incorporates them into His temple, the church, and He writes His law on their hearts (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10; 10:16). But when God redeems sinners, He does not write a different law on their hearts but rather restores the knowledge of His law by removing the stains and distortion of sin and gives them a new heart. In other words, in redemption He re-creates His image and the knowledge of His law in the hearts of believers.
Paul testifies to the fact that all human beings possess the knowledge of God’s law by virtue of their image-bearing status. In Romans he describes the Jews as those who have the law of God, the Decalogue. Israel stood at the foot of Sinai and received the law from God. By contrast, the gentiles, who do not have the Sinai law, “by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law” (Rom. 2:14). Note that Paul says that the gentiles by nature—that is, by virtue of their creation, their image-bearing status—do what the Sinai law requires. How so? “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts” (v. 15). Gentiles did not stand at the foot of Sinai to receive the law, but God has nevertheless written His law on their hearts (here referred to as the “work of the law” to distinguish it from the law received at Sinai). Gentiles know they must worship and honor God; honor parents; not commit murder, adultery, theft, or deception; or covet. Even though all humans have suffered the deleterious effects of Adam’s sin on their whole being, there is still a sufficient degree of the knowledge of God’s law left that enables nonbelievers to know the difference between right and wrong. Paul explains that the consciences of the gentiles bear “witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (v. 15). Think, for example, of when Abraham allowed Abimelech to take Sarah into his harem. God warned Abimelech that he had unknowingly taken Abraham’s wife (Gen. 20:2–3). When the gentile king confronted Abraham, he said, “You have done to me things that ought not to be done” (v. 9). Here the pagan showed greater morality than Abraham, one who was saved by God. The same can be said of the Corinthians, who boasted about a kind of sexual immorality that was “not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife” (1 Cor. 5:1). Once again, pagans practiced better morality than the Corinthian Christians.
Given this biblical data and theological reflection, we can conclude that Christians share an ethical point of contact with unbelievers. By virtue of our creation in the image of God, we are not blank slates as John Locke once claimed but instead have God’s law written on our hearts. What C.S. Lewis once called the Tao (the absolute principle undergirding the universe) or natural law exists in every human being. Lewis argues that certain attitudes are true and others are utterly false. People throughout history and around the world share the same basic collective moral values. Wearing the spectacles of Scripture to ensure we read God’s natural law correctly, we can engage in common creation endeavors with our neighbors, knowing that we have a shared ethical knowledge. We also have a point of contact with unbelievers as we evangelize and defend the gospel in the face of unbelief. When we appeal to this shared ethical knowledge, we do not capitulate to sinful human reasoning or a human moral standard, but we appeal to the law of God written on the hearts of all people.