Tuesday, May 26, 2015


Yes. You read that right. I am writing on the image of God in those who don't believe in Jesus. No. I am not a universalist, someone who believes all will be saved. I believe that the only way to the Father is through the Son (Jn.14: 6). All those who try another way will be forever excluded from the Father's presence. They will spent eternity in hell. I just wanted to reaffirm what God's Word says on the matter to avoid any misconceptions.

Back in the late 80's I attended a Friday night Bible study in a college dorm. One of the other participants was a guy a couple years older than the rest of the group. He was married with one child on the way. To support his family, he delivered pizzas. One day on the job, he drove downhill on a side street. Stopping at the bottom of the hill, he turned to his right to see if any one was coming down the hill towards his intersection. At the crest of the hill was a sports car with dark tinted windows traveling his direction. My friend decided he had enough time to make a left turn into the street. In a perfect world, he would have judged correctly. However, the sports car descended the hill at an excessive rate of speed. Before my friend could complete his turn, both drivers had to engage in evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision. Normally, my friend is a very laid back person. But as he got out of the car to confront the other driver, he was determined to give the other driver a piece of his mind. As he got out of the car, the other driver, who's identity was shielded by the tinted windows, exited his vehicle. The other driver was the leader of our Friday night Bible study. The conversation between the two went something like this:

Bible Study Leader: Oh Man, am I sorry!
Pizza Delivery Guy: Ah, that's all right. Don't worry about it.
BSL: But I could have injured you or damaged your car.
PDG: No harm done. God is in control.
BSL: But what I did was such a bad witness.
PDG: Hey, in a few years we'll be laughing about this.

My friend the pizza delivery guy, normally an even tempered person, was ready to give the other driver a piece of his mind. And he would have been justified. But when he found out that the other driver was not only a personal friend, but also a member of his own tribe (evangelical), his equilibrium was immediately restored and his friend was spared an unpleasant scene. I'll come back to this story later on.

Here is another true story. Before the Arab Spring in Egypt, Christians gathered in a church in Cairo on Christmas Eve. The sanctuary was packed. One of the crowd began firing shots. Bombs were thrown into the throng of worshippers as well. Over forty worshippers were killed. In the Middle East, whether one is a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, poor or rich, powerful or oppressed, when one dies, they are buried quickly, usually within twenty-four hours. As the mourners prepared to bury their dead, they feared they would be targets for further violence as they carried their dead through the streets. A group volunteered to serve as body guards to protect the Christian mourners. Was this group members of another Christian church? No. They were Muslims. Even though they believe Christians worship three gods, even though they think the Christian claim of Christ's divinity is blasphemy, even though they resent the Church's treatment of Muslims during the Crusades, even though assurance of eternal life is not a feature of Islam, they were willing to take a bullet or to be blown to bits protecting Christians. Its enough to boggle the minds of many Christians. Why?

Either through actual teaching, or through our own assumptions, we Christians conclude that non-believers are incapable of good acts, noble acts, acts of supreme sacrifice. We tend to think that only those who abide in Christ are capable of such acts. How many times have we been surprised when we encounter someone with a kind, generous disposition who does not believe as we do? Or does not believe at all? We say to ourselves, "How can this be? They're not even Christian?" How can Muslims perform such a selfless act, while many of those who claim to follow Christ act so un-Christlike? My parents lived in Kentucky when they were first married. There was a church split in their area. Both sides in the split got into a fistfight in the church sanctuary over who was going to keep the church furniture. How can those who claim to follow Christ come to blows over furniture while Muslims risk death for Christians?

Some Christians believe that when Man fell, the image of God in Man was totally eradicated. Some believe that to deny this is to disbelieve in humanity's total depravity and utter inability to be justified in God's sight. But does scripture teach that the image of God in Man has been totally eradicated? No. In The Doctrine of Original Sin, John Wesley points out the parallel between Gen. 1:27 and Gen. 9:6. Gen. 1:27 reads: "So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." Gen. 9:6 reads: "Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man." Wesley then states : "Certainly it has the same meaning in both places; for the later plainly refers to the former. And thus much we may fairly infer from hence, that, 'the image of God,' wherein 'man was' at first 'created,' wherein so ever it consisted, was not totally effaced in the time of Noah.Yea, so much of it will always remain in all men, as will justify the punishing of murderers with death. But we can in non wise infer from hence, that that entire image of God, in which Adam was at first created, now remains in all his posterity." (Works of John Wesley, vol. 9, p. 91, Baker Books) After reading this, your reaction may be, "So what?" Why is this important? What possible relevance could this have for discipleship or evangelism?

I once heard a radio interview with a former missionary to South America. His faith did not survive on the mission field. Why? His explanation was his realization that the people he was evangelizing conducted themselves as ethically as those he went to church with back home. Either through direct teaching, or through unconscious assumption, he came to the mission field believing that only born again believers are capable of good acts. Those outside God's kingdom, he assumed, had no capacity for goodness. This notion was so tied up with his religious beliefs that when confronted with the way people really are, he rejected his entire Christian world view.

Does Scripture teach that unbelievers are incapable of good acts? Absolutely not. Consider what Paul wrote in Romans: "For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would ever dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom 5:6-8). Notice that Paul makes a distinction between good and righteous persons. He had already stated that no one could earn God's favor by their own efforts (Rom. 3:20). Righteousness comes through faith in Christ (Rom. 3: 21-26). So the goodness Paul speaks of is something all people are capable of in varying degrees. Think of the soldiers who have led men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan. Think of those leaders who have thrown themselves on explosive devises, given their lives so that those under their command may live. Were all those men who sacrificed their lives for others faithful disciples of Jesus Christ? Probably not. Yet they were capable of making the supreme sacrifice, good men daring to die for good men. But such goodness as all of us are capable of is not a goodness that justifies us before God. And such goodness can be present in a soul where evil also dwells. During the Civil War, there was a Union general named Orville Babcock. On many occasions, he would leave his position of safety, riding in the midst of a battle to draw enemy fire away from his men. He knew that the enemy made every effort to kill as many Union officers as it could. He often exposed himself to enemy fire to rescue his men from dire situations. After the war, he was a corrupt politician, giving and receiving bribes. He later died while trying to save a young boy from drowning. A person who was financially corrupt was capable of sacrificing his life for others. Here was a great example of the goodness humans are capable of, yet it is a goodness that does not justify us before God. It is the same goodness that those Egyptian Muslims displayed. They were willing to sacrifice their lives so that the Christians could bury their dead. Yet they themselves had no faith in Jesus Christ. It is only through faith in Jesus that one is declared righteous. Jesus made the same distinction Paul made between being good and being righteous. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "...what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father, who is in heaven, give good gifts to those who ask Him?" (Mt. 7:9-11). It was this very verse, stating that evil men were capable of a form of goodness, that the Holy Spirit used to reveal to me that the Bible was indeed of divine origin. Many who fail to realize the distinction Jesus makes here will lose what faith they have. Therefore, when we engage in discipleship, this lesson must be taught early to prevent new Christians from having their faith shipwrecked.

When we witness to the lost, it is important that we acknowledge man's capacity to do good. While engaged in prison ministry, I came met an inmate who was once taken to church by his girlfriend. His presence caused an uproar among the congregation. One woman told him to leave, claiming that he was possessed by a demon. This experience caused him to believe that he was too sinful to be in church, or that Christians believed he had no business being there. When I showed him Mt. 7: 9-11 and Rom. 5:6-8, his hostility to the Gospel melted away. I showed him from God's Word that Christ's followers didn't possess a naturally superior goodness unattainable by him. Both he and everyone else were capable of a form of goodness. However, this form of goodness does not save us. Only God's grace saves us, and that grace is available to all. Again, I just didn't tell him; I showed him from Scripture. When he realized Scripture contains these truths and that they were not just my words, he gained respect for Scripture and wanted to read it for himself. So, to make acknowledgement of humanity's capacity for goodness while distinguishing such goodness from righteousness is an important tool in evangelization. It would appear that Francis Schaeffer thought along the same lines: “Another question in the dilemma of man is man’s nobility. Perhaps you don’t like the word ‘nobility,’ but whatever word you choose, there is something great about man. I want to add here that evangelicals have made a horrible mistake by often equating the fact that man is lost and under God’s judgment with the idea that man is nothing-a zero. That is not what the Bible says. There is something great about man, and we have lost perhaps our greatest opportunity of evangelism in our generation by not insisting that it is the Bible that explains why man is great.” (Francis Schaeffer, He Is There and He Is Not Silent.)

Remembering that the image of God is not totally eradicated in humanity makes a great difference in how we treat unbelievers. If we believe that unbelievers are incapable of good acts, we fail to live up to that standard of perfection set forth by Christ in Mt. 5: 43-48: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (NIV, Bible Gateway). Failing to live up to Christ's own words, we think of unbelievers as morally inferior, and we treat them so. Perfection in God's sight is to treat others with the same love we show to our own, which means treating them with the dignity they deserve from being made in the image of God. It would be unfair to my friend the pizza delivery driver to assume he doesn't model Jesus' standard of perfection as a way of life. In fact, I know he does. But in the incident cited earlier, he did treat the other driver differently because he was a friend and a member of his own evangelical Christian tribe. 

Finally, why is the conduct of some non-believers more praiseworthy than the actions of some church goers? The simple answer is that those who claim to be Christ followers but act contrary to Christ's teachings aren't really followers of Christ after all. In other words, they were never saved. There is some truth to this assertion. There are those who have a form of religion, but are not in a real relation to Jesus. But this is not the whole answer. The sad truth is that so many who are saved fail to live in the full power of the Holy Spirit. They know they can't be saved by their own power, yet they forget that they are equally incapable of living the Christian life through their own efforts. They forget what Paul wrote about Christ's indwelling through the Holy Spirit in each believer:  "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me"(Gal. 2:20, NIV, Bible Gateway). And they don't follow Paul's command,"...do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed in the day of redemption" (Eph. 4:30). By failing to allow the Holy Spirit to empower us to be the people the Father and the Son want us to be, Christians behave in ways that bring embarrassment and shame to the body of Christ. This allows for an unfavorable comparison between Christians and unbelievers which causes people to conclude that faith in Christ makes no difference in how people treat one another. And that is why the question of whether or not the image of God in man was totally eradicated at the Fall is so important.

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