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What is man?

May 2014 | by Mostyn Roberts

‘It has been said by someone that “the proper study of mankind is man”. I will not oppose the idea, but I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God’s elect is God’, said C. H. Spurgeon.

I would like to propose that God’s elect might also usefully give a little time to the biblical view of man! Indeed it could be argued that the most neglected and most necessary doctrine in the Christian system today is that of man.  

One hears much of the doctrine of God from contemporary evangelical theologians, and for this one gives thanks, but how often is the creature made in the Trinitarian image given serious theological attention by Christians?  

I say theological. There is man-centred worship, preaching and writing, but that is not the same as a theological study of man. Yet we need this to recover our bearings.  

Blurred boundaries

Boundaries are blurred, if not erased: firstly, between man and animal — according to evolutionary teaching, man is a ‘lucky’ animal; secondly, between man and machines — apparently, we are just the result of our DNA working itself out through various mechanisms; thirdly, between us and God — he is no longer the Most High God, but a god ‘within’, whose mission in life is to make us happy.  

Finally the boundary between male and female is erased. ‘People can feel like girls; they can feel like boys; they can feel like both; and they can even feel like neither’, said an American high school teacher.

‘Gender identity is about what’s in here [pointing to his chest] … and up here [pointing to his head]’. In other words, gender is what you want it to be. Gone are the days of two genders!  

Above all perhaps, it is needed because, ‘We cannot have a clear and complete knowledge of God, unless it is accompanied by a corresponding knowledge of ourselves’ (Calvin, Institutes; I.xv.1).  

Lose touch with what we are and we speed further down the road of losing touch with God. Let us look briefly at a few things the Bible tells us about man.  

Uniqueness

Man is placed in an environment prepared for him. Creation was ready for the appearance of man, indeed created for his sake (Calvin). He entered a world in which he had context.  

Man is unique, but not alone. This world will provide for him, but he will have dominion over it, to work and care for it. He must extend the rule of God over the whole earth, through ‘multiplying’ and having dominion. This was Adam’s ‘great commission’.  

God consulted with himself (Genesis 1:26) before creating man. Three times the Hebrew word bara is used in Genesis 1:27, indicating that here is something special. Man alone was explicitly created male and female.  

Man alone has a soul in-breathed by a special act of God (Genesis 2:7). He alone is given dominion over the earth and has a helpmeet specially created for him.  The punishment for his life being taken is death (Genesis 9:6). Above all, only he is called into a covenantal relationship with God (Genesis 2:16-17). These and other things point to his uniqueness.

God’s image

The most important aspect of man’s uniqueness is that he is created in the image of God. He resembles and reflects God and is to represent God in creation. The image of God is something he is, not something he ‘has’.  

The whole of man is the image of the whole God. Even the body is included, but we cannot speculate as to how.  

This image is generally regarded as having two aspects: original holiness, which was entirely lost at the Fall; and a broader image, consisting of all those things in which we are different from or vastly superior to the animals.  

These include our capacity for worship, ‘sense of God’, reason, language, conscience, choice, creativity, personality, love and ability to rule the earth. This aspect was not entirely lost in the Fall (Genesis 5:1-3; 9:6; James 3:9), but is horribly distorted — ‘totally depraved’, we say.  

When you become a Christian, you are renewed in the image of God through Christ, renewed in righteousness, knowledge and holiness, in the image of your Creator (Ephesians 4:23-24; Colossians 3:10).

Gender

Man is male and female. This is painfully present to our minds today. We do not need to be reminded of the tragedy of this being deliberately rejected.  

There are sad personal cases that remind us that, physically and psychologically, we live in a fallen world, but they do not give us the right to reconstruct reality.  

The vast majority of ‘gender bending’ is a philosophical issue, seeking to justify rebellion against God in the profound area of human identity. And, as we lose touch with what we are, we lose touch with the God in whose image we are made.  

Man is made for his Creator. Nothing is more important in the Genesis account than the covenant God entered into with Adam. Adam was to obey God, and the clear implication is that, if he did, his perfection would be rewarded with a sonship he could never lose.  

If he disobeyed, he would die in several ways. The whole of human history hinges on this arrangement, and it was restored in the even greater event of the incarnate obedience of Christ (Romans 5:12-21).

Moral law

Man is a creature under law. In the state of perfection this was not a burden. But once we lose the sense that we are creatures under law, we lose ourselves.

 ‘I’m sorry about yesterday; I feel bad inside’, wrote a little boy in our local school after a spell of bad behaviour. It was better than nothing, but how sadly adult. No sense of right and wrong; just how he felt!  

Our problems are not moral but psychological, so we think, and God (if he exists) is a therapist. We are, however, moral beings, as God is a moral God, and conscience is a friend. Only this framework of understanding can prepare man for conviction of sin, repentance and salvation.

Mostyn Roberts

The author is pastor of Welwyn Evangelical Church and chairman of Evangelical Press

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