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The War between the Seeds by Owen Strachan

The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Rev. 22:2)

It was a tree that damned us. It was a tree that redeemed us. And it will be a tree that heals us in the age to come—time beyond all time.

Trees are not the central motif of the Bible. But trees figure directly in the grand story of Scripture, and we do well to keep our eyes on them in theological terms. Where we find the three great epochs of all time, we find trees. I do not mean that we spot a tree, somewhere in the background, visible only to the especially alert. I mean that we find trees in the very middle of the metanarrative. It is not too much to say that the great shifting plates of biblical history turn on trees. God makes trees. God, we can fairly say, loves trees. He is the original forester. And wherever God has history on a hinge, turning according to his divine will, he places trees front and center.

But we have run slightly ahead of ourselves. Before the trees even take root and flower in all their glory, the Bible begins with peace—peace that we can scarcely imagine in our fallen world. All around us war rages, people fight, and nations rise and fall. We ourselves are little centers of war as well: as Christians, though made into a new creation by the grace of God, we wage daily war in a self-contained sense (Gal. 5:24–25). Knowing the truth, we nonetheless battle false thoughts. Re-created by the Spirit, we nonetheless experience the surge of ungodly desires from within. Remade emotionally, we yet feel powerful but wrong emotions. War goes on out there, absolutely. But war also rises and falls in here, in our own soul.

The creation knew no such conflict in its earliest days. In six days the Lord God made the heaven and the earth. The Spirit played midwife to creation, aiding in the execution of the Son’s sking unto God. He lived and ruled under the divine regency of his Maker. His wife, Eve, came into existence from Adam’s own body. God made the first couple, married in the flowering garden of Eden, to unite in marriage and carry out a mission of dominion on the earth (Gen. 1:26–28).

From the start, the existence of man was a purposeful one. God the working God made the human race to fill the earth with children, steward the creation, and honor his great name by living under his perfect rule. Man did not chart his own course or determine his own fate; from the beginning, man was under rule, the rule of God, and a glad obedience it was.

The Beautiful Beginning

The first chapter of Genesis is the beginning of a glorious adventure story. The second chapter of Genesis is a love story between Adam and Eve. The third chapter of Genesis is a horror movie, at least much of it. To understand the tragedy that unfolds in chapter 3 of Genesis, we should briefly consider God’s mandate for Adam specifically.

We read this mandate in Genesis 2:15–17. First, we hear that “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (v. 15). Adam had a charge from God to cultivate Eden as a garden, showing that he had to work unto God as a constitutive element of his manhood. Eden was made well by God; it was “very good,” as with all the earth, per Genesis 1:31, but the garden called for tending, stewarding, and care. Adam was in truth a priest-king of creation, and as such had to cultivate and protect Eden.

G. K. Beale helps us understand Adam’s priestly role here: “The two Hebrew words for ‘cultivate and keep’ are usually translated ‘serve and guard [or keep]’ elsewhere in the Old Testament.”[1] As priest of Eden, Adam had to tend the garden in terms of getting his hands literally dirty; he also had to guard this terrain. Eden was unspoiled, but Eden needed protecting.[2] Beale nails this down: priestly service “in Israel’s later temple included the duty of ‘guarding’ unclean things from entering (cf. Num. 3:6–7, 32, 38; 18:1–7), and this appears to be relevant for Adam, especially in view of the unclean creature lurking on the perimeter of the Garden and who then enters.”[3]

Eden at this time had no marring or pollution from sin. But this does not mean that Eden was perfect in the sense of being impenetrable by evil. In fact, the man himself was warned of the possibility of falling away from God, as Genesis 2:16–17 shows: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” Eden was a paradise, but Eden had a real danger in it: apart from the snake that we soon meet, it was the danger of Adam’s own heart wandering from God and eating of the forbidden tree. From the start, God sought faithfulness on the part of his people through testing. He gave them a forest-garden overflowing with beauty and gladness, trees spilling unblemished fruit, but he also gave them a prohibition—one delivered under the starkest terms: death from disobedience.

In giving this warning, God taught Adam about his gracious and holy character. In truth, the first word spoken here is a generous one, steeped in kindness. Too many trees to count existed to feed Adam.[4] Here is a God of tremendous love, filling the life of his image-bearer with delicious goodness.[5] But here too is a God of real moral solidity, dictating terms to his creation. Before we know the name of God the Father, we witness the nature of a father here: directing his loved one toward blessing, but also warning him of real danger and peril. Joy would not come from moral autonomy (via eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). Joy would come from moral submission, living under the rule of God by rightly exercising self-rule.

The Lord gave Adam yet another gift: a wife. The Lord made the man and the woman equal but distinct. She was of his flesh and bone and as such deserved great cherishing and care. She was made to partner with Adam in fulfilling the dominion mandate, and her role was vital: to bear and nurture children in a distinctly maternal way. For all time to come, the man would pursue a woman of beauty like Eve, leaving father and mother to make a new family. She would be his “helper” (Gen. 2:18) and would demonstrate that role in too many ways to count, aiding and strengthening him by her wisdom, grace, and skill. He would “hold fast” to her, counting her life dearer than his own, leading her and their children to know the Lord by divine grace (v. 24).

The Attack on the Image-Bearers

First came peace; then came war. In the mysterious appointment of God, a cunning snake entered the garden. God placed the first couple under the reign of his inerrant word, but the snake—Satan in slithery form, per Romans 16:20 and Revelation 20:2[6]—offered a counterrevelation and a counterrule. The serpent targeted the woman, bypassing the man, who had been constituted the “keeper” of Eden. Creation order mattered nothing at all to this devilish snake. As we see in Genesis 3:1–5, the serpent upended everything that God had established to this point:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

This was no ordinary animal. It could both talk and exercise shrewdness. The devil in his first manifestation is no bumbling fool but a very “crafty” twister of words. His first question implicitly accuses God of ungenerous stinginess, which is the opposite of what is true about the character of God. The woman does not answer with full specificity here, and she adds a detail about touching the forbidden tree that is not recorded in the original prohibition.

The passage truly explodes with audacity, however, when the satanic snake directly counters God’s own word: “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). The serpent entices the woman to make the very mistake he made: to put herself on the level of God, and judge God, and go against God, seeing herself as the rightful authority of her existence. Here is the creature rebelling against the Creator, trying to jump the gulf between them. God made Satan and invested him with great power and agency. But Satan could never stand in heaven on the level of God. Satan was, is, and always will be a created being. Satan found no comfort or peace in this truth. Satan despised this truth and rebelled against it. He wanted to “be like God” (v. 5).

Eve’s temptation proceeded from Satan’s fall. Hating his natural state and wanting to be like God, Satan convinced the woman—and the passive man by her side—to make the very same decision and enact the very same fall from grace. Commenting on the human rebellion here, Henri Blocher says it nicely: “what is at stake is independence from the Sovereign Father. To seek to have it meant revolt for mankind.”[7] Emulating the fall from grace of Satan, the woman believed the wicked snake over the wise Creator. She rejected divine revelation and embraced the devil’s antirevelation. She trusted the wicked promises of a malevolent being over her gracious Father. She took the fruit, ate it, and gave it to Adam. He ate it without a word recorded in the biblical text, offering no rebuke to the snake, no protest, and certainly no head-crushing response.

Immediately, the curtain fell. The man and the woman acquired self-knowledge that was not theirs to unlock. They felt shame instantaneously about their nakedness, and undertook a physical remedy—leaf coverings—for a spiritual malady (Gen. 3:7). All this transpired because the serpent had waged war. We talk today about culture war, but that is a distant fragment of the conflict that rages beyond: it is cosmos war, which began in earnest in Eden. All history to come will unfold as a great battle between God and the devil, a clash impossible to overestimate in spiritual measure.

As the book of Revelation will unveil, Satan has become “the deceiver of the whole world,” a description that helps us unearth a great truth about his accusation: it is a deception as well (Rev. 12:9). God gives truth, but Satan brings only deception. Instead of the reign of reality as defined by God, Satan ushers sinners into a shadow realm, an empire of lies built on crafty counterrevelation. As in heaven, as in Eden, so now: the war of the worlds is truly a war of words.

When the Lord Comes Around

In Genesis 3, the snake spoke first. But the snake did not have the last word in Eden, just as the devil will not have the last word in history. The God of heaven and earth came down and spoke second. He showed something vital about his character: the biblical God is the God who is there. This God judges the earth, just as he said he would; he does so by coming close. This God is transcendent but hair-raisingly immanent.

The true God sets up a courtroom in the garden. He does so, though, by engaging his image-bearers in a series of questions and answers—a process by which they retain their dignity and return to moral responsibility. There is no escaping this; God will have justice whether Adam wants it or not. Indeed, Adam did not want it, for he hid with his wife from the Lord, fully aware of his transgression. So God called Adam to the stand, not letting him shirk responsibility any longer: “Where are you?” The “you” here is singular in the Hebrew, and the Lord issued this call “to him” (Gen. 3:9). This matters theologically: though both Adam and Eve sinned, Adam was held to account in a representative sense. This mirrors creation order: Adam was made first by God, and Adam was the “head” or authority of his wife, as the New Testament will substantiate (Eph. 5:22–33).

Adam could not hide from God. He responded to the Lord by indicating fear and shame over his nakedness (Gen. 3:10). The Lord then asked two more questions, asking Adam who had told him of his nakedness and whether he had eaten of the forbidden tree (v. 11). Adam answered by blaming the woman and the Lord himself: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (v. 12). A more shameful sentence we can scarcely imagine. The man who had relinquished his divine call to protect his wife and his home was still, even in the presence of God, relinquishing it. It was the woman’s fault, first, and God’s own fault, second, and only at the end of the sentence did Adam’s role in the whole awful affair emerge.

The Lord next addressed the woman, asking what she had done. The woman blamed the serpent, putting his action first and her action second, though she spoke truly—far better than she knew, in fact—when she said: “The serpent deceived me” (Gen. 3:13). Yes, deception won out, and has been advancing ever since. It was just one scene in Eden, but the dynamics of sin that played out in that garden have yielded nothing less than an entire cosmos under bondage, every living thing affected, every square inch now fallen.

Owen Strachan is the author of The Warrior Savior: A Theology of the Work of Christ.

Owen Strachan (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is provost and research professor of theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. He is the former president of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, the former director of The Center for Public Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a senior fellow of the Center for Biblical Worldview at Family Research Council. He has authored books on a wide range of topics; his works include Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of MankindThe Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (coauthored with Kevin J. Vanhoozer), and The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America’s Greatest Theologian (coauthored with Douglas Allen Sweeney). He is married and the father of three children.

[1] G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 66–67.

[2] Raymond Ortlund Jr. suggests that the sense of “keep” here is best understood as “guard.” Raymond Ortlund Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 100 (see chap. 2, n36).

[3] Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 69.

[4] R. Kent Hughes addresses the richly kind nature of this word to Adam: “God’s word to him was first permissive: ‘And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden”’ (v. 16). Adam was to partake of everything in the garden to his heart’s content, which included the tree of life. This is lavish, extravagant abundance, and Adam could take from the tree of life if he wanted it. Everything was there for him—everything he could possibly want.” R. Kent Hughes, Genesis: Beginning and Blessing, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 54–55.

[5] Henri Blocher concludes, “All the trees of the garden represent all the riches of the earth, placed at mankind’s disposal.” The God that the biblical text reveals is a God of great kindness: “God reveals himself in this first provision as the God of superabundant grace, the opposite of the castrating father of our pitiful fantasies, the bestowing Father who rejoices in the happiness of mankind.” Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 121.

[6] These texts read: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Rom. 16:20) and “And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:2).

[7] Blocher, In the Beginning, 137.

Assurance by Mark Jones

“I am not at all surprised at this strange and absonous language; it is a false and dangerous conclusion, yet such as naturally results from, and, by a kind of necessity, follows out of their other errors.” —John Flavel[1]

The doctrine of assurance has received copious attention from Reformed theologians.[2] The debates within the Reformed world on this subject have also been examined.[3] Therefore, this chapter will not simply rehash the basic issues that relate to the assurance of salvation. There is the curious fact that theologians have typically missed an important aspect of this subject, namely, the matter of Jesus’ own assurance. The manner in which Christ received assurance of his messianic calling is not unrelated to the manner in which we receive assurance of our salvation. So in assessing the basic points of contention between Reformed and antinomian theologians, we will attempt to advance the discussion in a Christological direction. We will see that the objective and subjective aspects of assurance are not only necessary, but also complementary to each other. They were for Christ, and they should be for his people.

Antinomian Assurance

Scholarly works on seventeenth-century antinomianism all give attention to the problem of assurance.[4] The antinomian reaction to orthodox Reformed views on assurance was not, of course, an isolated topic of disagreement. Antinomianism, considered in its seventeenth-century context, whether in England or New England, showed that disagreement on one vital doctrine inevitably led to disagreements on other doctrines. The nature of systematic and confessional theology made this inevitable. Because their view that God sees no sin in the elect was a core belief, the antinomians had to formulate their doctrine of assurance in accordance with it. Their rejection of the idea that God can be pleased and displeased with his people, based on their obedience or disobedience, also had implications for their doctrine of assurance. And their aversion to the necessity of good works, as well as their rejection of the orthodox view of the moral law, caused them to understand assurance of salvation in a manner that was essentially opposed to the Reformed view. One of the major issues was whether sanctification provides evidence of justification.

By and large, the antinomian theologians rejected the idea that believers may be assured of their justification by the evidence of their sanctification.[5] As noted earlier, the New England elders during the theological controversies in the 1630s rejected as “unsafe” the antinomian view that to find evidence of justification in sanctification savors of Rome. Regarding the situation in England, Stoever notes that John Eaton held to the view that sanctification was in itself repulsive to God, but nevertheless assured men of their salvation. Eaton “denied . . . that sanctification is such an evidence to the justified, who rely for their assurance solely on the persuasion that the ‘main proposition of the gospel’ is effective for them.”[6] Moreover, Stoever claims that for Tobias Crisp, “the only adequate ground of assurance is faith in Christ.”[7] At bottom, the solution to the problem of assurance was to believe in our justification more. Those who have the strongest assurance are not necessarily those who are most righteous, but those who most strongly believe they are justified. As Como notes, the criticism that emerged from antinomian pulpits and pens was that mainstream Puritans, “instead of promoting justification by faith, . . . instilled a deep dependence on legal works of sanctification. . . . The result was rampant legalism and formalism.”[8]

These claims made by antinomians were not entirely untrue. Sometimes well-known Puritan ministers did in fact preach legalistic sermons. Even Thomas Watson was guilty of this. In Heaven taken by storm (London, 1669), he explains how Christians must press into heaven with the utmost vigor, but he fails to mention the person and work of Christ. Nonetheless, the antinomians overreacted, and in so doing they committed their cardinal error of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As will be shown, the Puritans almost always grounded assurance principally in the promises of God. And they did not see such a discord between the works of believers and God’s promises. As Joel Beeke notes, “Scholars who assert that assurance is essential to faith in Christ and that sanctification cannot forward assurance in any way are guilty . . . of separating Christ and His benefits.”[9]

So averse were the New England antinomians to the idea that good works are evidence of being justified that the New England elders had to condemn the idea that believers know they belong to Christ, not because they mortify the misdeeds of the flesh, but because they do not mortify them, and instead believe that Christ crucified their lusts for them. Rutherford refers to this precise issue in New England and sums up the various ways of stating that position as “to be rich in works of sanctification is to be poor in grace.”[10] John Saltmarsh gives a typically antinomian view of assurance in Free Grace. He is an example of how the radical substitution of Christ in all areas of the Christian life has deleterious consequences for the doctrine of assurance. Saltmarsh writes: “Christ has believed perfectly, . . . repented perfectly, . . . obeyed perfectly, [and] mortified sin perfectly.”[11] Thus, with regard to assurance, we must “believe more truth of our own graces than we can see or feel . . . so we are to believe our repentance true in him, who hath repented for us.”[12]When this view is understood in relation to assurance, Saltmarsh affirms that a Christian must “see everything in himself as nothing, and himself everything in Christ. . . . All other assurances are rotten conclusions from the Word; and such things as true legal Teachers have invented.”[13] More than that, the Christian who looks to his habitual graces, such as repentance, love, and obedience, and not to the blood of Christ, “must needs believe weakly and uncomfortably.”[14]Again, this is a classic example of the either-or fallacy. As far as Reformed theologians were concerned, to look at habitual graces as a ground (not the ground) for assurance of salvation was not necessarily anthropocentric, but could in fact be Christocentric (Eph. 3:17–19).

The debate between the antinomians and the orthodox Reformed over whether a man may evidence his justification by his sanctification was complex. The issue, as Samuel Rutherford states, is whether we may evidence to ourselves, in our own conscience, our justification by our sanctification.[15] Formally speaking, faith evidences justification. The debate is not whether sanctification formally evidences justification; that is, “Love and works of sanctification do not so evidence justification; as if justification were the object of good works.”[16] Reformed theologians did not make sanctification a cause of justification; rather, sanctification inseparably follows justification.

In relation to this point, as noted in chapter 4, the manner in which we speak of justification as the “cause” of sanctification must be carefully understood, especially given its significance for the doctrine of assurance. The antinomians gave a priority to justification that went far beyond what Scripture teaches. That had a number of consequences, to the point that justification essentially swallowed up sanctification. In light of this, we cannot deny that our experience of having been justified will assist our sanctification. The fact that the sentence has been passed provides a great motivation for our sanctification and great assurance of our salvation (Rom. 5:1). The existential experience of the believer does not always match up with the order of salvation. Union with Christ is the ground of both justification and sanctification, and Christ is the meritorious cause of both. Just as sanctification does not cause justification, so justification does not cause sanctification, understood in terms of the order of salvation. Sanctification would be utterly impossible, apart from having been justified. But that does not mean that justification, as an applied benefit, can cause another applied benefit. Rather, the peace that we have with God because of our justification enables us to live out the sanctified life as a child of God.

Furthermore, Anthony Burgess, while vigorously opposing the antinomians, nevertheless suggested that the doctrine of justification, unlike any other, inclines God’s people to increased humility and self-emptiness, “for by this we are taught even in the highest degree of our sanctification, to look out of ourselves for a better righteousness.”[17] Thus, in the matter of assurance, the truth of Christ’s imputed righteousness is essential to Christian living, according to Reformed theologians such as Burgess.

Orthodox Response

A summary of the orthodox view on assurance may be found in chapter 18 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is an excellent summary of how British Reformed theologians understood the difficult doctrine of assurance. In the first section of this chapter, the Confession notes that those who “truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace.” These words require some analysis and unpacking. Following the outline of questions provided by Joel Beeke,[18] there are a number of areas in the doctrine of assurance where the Puritans recognized the need to be specific. The first question considers whether the seed of assurance is embedded in faith. Faith and full assurance of faith are not strictly synonymous. Our faith does not save; only Christ saves, who is the object of faith. Of course, there is always some degree of assurance in faith, but the main issue is whether full assurance is of the essence of faith.[19] As Beeke notes, “They differentiate between the faith of adherence to Christ and the faith of assurance (or evidence) in Christ, whereby the believer knows that Christ has died specifically for him.”[20] The Westminster divines, by noting that infallible assurance does not belong to the essence of faith (18.3), affirm the distinction between adherence and assurance.

The primary foundation for assurance is provided by the promises of salvation. As WCF 18.2 says, the certainty of assurance is “an infallible assurance of faith founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation.” The Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order (1658) rewords this sentence by adding “founded on the blood and righteousness of Christ, revealed in the gospel,” which is more explicitly Christocentric than the Westminster Confession. If God makes a promise, it is yes and amen in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). One of the “mainstream Puritans” who opposed antinomianism was Thomas Goodwin. He, perhaps more than any other English Reformed divine, gave copious attention to the doctrine of assurance.[21] He discusses a problem that afflicts so many Christians, namely, that they separate Christ’s benefits from his person. Christians are in no position to love Christ’s work without first loving his person. There is a priority of Christ’s person over his work. Thus, Goodwin argues that “whensoever we would go down into our own hearts, and take a view of our graces, let us be sure first to look wholly out of ourselves unto Christ, as our justification, and close with [him] immediately.”[22] Goodwin was not alone. The idea that the Puritans “botched” the doctrine of assurance by giving sanctification a priority over God’s promises is untrue, and is a claim typically made by those who have not done the requisite reading to be in a position to make such a claim. Goodwin opposed antinomian theology while at the same time giving a priority to the person of Christ as the immediate ground for our assurance. To be sure, the antinomians attempted to do that, but only by excising other means of assurance.

The Westminster Confession’s teaching on assurance does not simply end with the promises of God as the only ground for assurance. The both-and principle is affirmed, with the idea that God’s promises and inward evidences of grace are not opposed to each other (see WCF 18.2, “the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made”). A practical syllogism establishes this point:

Major Premise: Those who keep God’s commandments love Christ.

Minor Premise: By the grace of God, I keep God’s commandments.

Conclusion: I love Christ.

Or consider how Theodore Beza puts it:

Qu. But how does a person know if he has faith, or not?

By good works.[23]

The practical syllogism, however offensive to some, fits perfectly with the teaching on good works in WCF 16.2, where we read: “These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, [and] strengthen their assurance” (emphasis added).[24] In dealing with this point, Rutherford states that God has promised to cause his people to walk in his commandments. “So all the peace we can collect, for our comfort, from holy walking is resolved on a promise of free-grace, and the duty as performed by the grace of the covenant, may and does lead us to the promise and no wise from Christ but to Christ.”[25]

Besides the practical syllogism, the Westminster Confession also affirms what has been called a “mystical syllogism.” Beeke sets forth a type of mystical syllogism:

Major Premise: According to Scripture, only those who possess saving faith will so experience the Spirit’s confirmation of inward grace and godliness that self decreases and Christ increases.

Minor Premise: I cannot deny that by the grace of God I experience the Spirit’s testimony confirming inward grace and godliness such that self decreases and Christ increases.

Conclusion: I am a partaker of saving faith.[26]

This type of reasoning is also present in the Westminster Confession (18.2), where assurance is grounded in the promises of God and “the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God.” Thus, Beeke is surely correct to argue that the “best resolution of the objective-subjective tension in assurance is that both owe everything to Christ, receive all from Him, and end with all in Him. In Christ, objective promises and subjective experience are complementary.”[27] Christ is not only for us (i.e., objective), but also in us, the hope of glory (i.e., subjective). In connection with this, Richard Muller makes a number of important observations regarding Beza’s doctrine of assurance. He particularly contends that Beza, like Calvin, “did anchor assurance in Christ and, specifically, in union with Christ. Arguably the basic point made by Calvin and shared by Beza was that the basis for personal assurance is not Christ standing extra nos in the sufficiency of his saving work, but rather personal or subjective recognition of the effects of Christ and his work in the believer as the basis for assurance.”[28] Thus, a focus on good works as a ground for assurance of faith does not necessarily turn the believer away from Christ. Good works may enable the believer to subjectively focus on the work of Christ in him or her. Subjective assurance necessarily takes place in the life of the believer because Christ’s work is not only objective, but also subjective. Indeed, as we are about to see, even Christ’s own assurance was both objective and subjective, with both complementing each other in the most perfect way.

Christ’s Assurance

As noted above, the topic of Christ’s own personal assurance does not receive much, if any, attention in discussions of assurance. Obviously, Christ’s assurance and our assurance are not strictly the same. He is the Savior; we are the saved. But that does not mean that there are not parallels that help us in framing a biblically coherent doctrine of assurance.

Christ trusted in the promises of God (Isa. 49:1–7); he was, as Goodwin claims, “the highest instance of believing that ever was.”[29] As the faithful, obedient servant of the Lord, Jesus looked to many promises made to him by the Father. From the gift of the Spirit to the inheritance of the nations to the name that is above every name, Christ received assurance from his Father that the promises made to him would one day (after his resurrection) be his. Not only that, but Christ was obedient, and his obedience would naturally have assured him of his messianic calling as the second Adam. Whether reading as a young man the third servant song in Isaiah (50:4–9) or daily committing himself to the Father (Ps. 31:5), which culminated at his death (Luke 23:46), Christ was assured of his special task because of inward graces. Indeed, as John writes in his gospel, Jesus kept his Father’s commandments, and so abode in his love (15:10). In addition, Christ would have had a healthy fear of the Lord, knowing that if he shrank back just once, his Father would not have been pleased with him (Heb. 10:38). Assurance, for Christ, was not simply looking to the promises, but also looking to the inward graces communicated to his human nature by the Holy Spirit.

More than that, returning to the objective side, Christ received assurance at his baptism and at the Transfiguration (Mark 1:9–11; 9:2–8). The Father assured Jesus that he was God’s Son, and was well pleasing to him. But Christ would also have received assurance that he was God’s Son in the subjective realm as he prayed. Surely what is true of believers, namely, that the Spirit enables us to cry “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15–16), is true of the man who was endowed with the Spirit above measure (John 3:34). It was as natural for Jesus to cry “Father” during his times of prayer—indeed, the course of his life, even right before his death, shows this to be true—as it was for him to breathe. In addition, there can be little doubt that every time that Christ prayed, he was assured of his special relationship with his Father in heaven. As Sinclair Ferguson notes, the Spirit of sonship and assurance bore witness with Christ’s spirit that he was the Messiah: “The Spirit thus seals and confirms the bond of love and trust between the Father and the incarnate Son.”[30]

Believers are commanded to look to Christ for their assurance, and rightly so. If the foregoing has any merit, we may be assured of our salvation, not only because of the beauty and excellence of his person and work, but also by looking to his life as a pattern of how we may likewise be assured of our eternal destiny. To the degree that we look to Christ for us and in us, including his example to us in his earthly sojourn, we will find ourselves not only assured that we are the children of God, but also convinced that the objective-subjective approach to assurance is more Christ-centered than perhaps initially thought.

Multifaceted, Christocentric Assurance

Just as Christ’s assurance was multifaceted, so the believer will also experience assurance of salvation in many different ways. The promises of God, which are many (literally hundreds), assure Christians that, for example, nothing can separate them from the love of God (Rom. 8:31–39). The promises of God require, moreover, that his people look to the person and work of Christ. Some Christians lack assurance because they have an inadequate understanding of Christology. Not only that, but a failure to understand and love God’s attributes, such as his wisdom, immutability, power, and goodness, will also lead to a lack of assurance. These attributes, which are all harmonious with one another, so that, for example, his immutability is his goodness, and vice versa, should provide Christians with the assurance that God’s love for them cannot change because God cannot change. On the subjective side, obeying God’s commandments (1 John 2:3–6), which necessarily includes loving God and his people (1 John 3:11–24), cannot but aid a believer in the quest for full assurance. To deny this would be to overthrow the Christian religion. Connected with that, Christians who pray receive the Spirit of adoption, which enables them to cry—as Christ cried out on the cross (Matt. 27:50, where the same Greek word, krazein, is used)—“Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15–16). Christians who struggle with their lack of faith should also be reminded that their struggle with unbelief is a sign of belief (Mark 9:24). It may seem obvious to most, but unbelievers do not struggle with unbelief; Christians do, however, because they are concerned that their faith wavers. Moreover, the point should be made that our worship experience should incorporate all that has been said about how to attain assurance. Specifically, Christians should sing, not only good hymns, but especially the Psalms, for in singing many of the psalms you are left with little doubt whose side you are on!

There is another important aspect of assurance that is rarely touched upon by pastors and theologians. The person of Christ, in his heavenly ministry as our sympathetic high priest (Heb. 4:14–15), has much value to the Christian who seeks assurance of salvation. The incarnation of the Son of God enabled God to be compassionate and merciful in a manner that would have been impossible had the Son not assumed a human nature. As Thomas Goodwin remarks, “His taking our nature at first clothed with frailties, and living in this world as we, this has forever fitted his heart by experience to be in our very hearts and bosoms; and not only or barely to know the distress . . . but experimentally remembering the like in himself once.”[31] Because the Son has a true human nature, he had affections and experiences that were proper to that nature in the context in which he lived. He also remembers those experiences, even now in his exalted state in heaven (Heb. 5:7–10). But because Christ is exalted, having received the gift of the Spirit in the greatest measure possible for a human being, the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.) in his human nature are greater in heaven than they were on earth. These truths about Christ’s person in heaven are invaluable for the believer. As Goodwin notes, our sins “move him to pity more than to anger.”[32] Goodwin continues:

The object of pity is one in misery whom we love; and the greater the misery is, the more is the pity when the party is beloved. Now of all miseries, sin is the greatest. . . . And [Christ], loving your persons, and hating only the sin, his hatred shall all fall, and that only upon the sin, to free you of it by its ruin and destruction, but his bowels shall be the more drawn out to you; and this as much when you lie under sin as under any other affliction.[33]

Christians live with the ugly reality of their sin on a daily basis. In fact, in some respects, our sin is worse than the sins of unbelievers, for we have greater knowledge and greater powers to resist.[34] But believers must know, based on Christ’s office as priest in his exalted state, that Jesus feels more pity than anger toward us as sinners.

There are a number of “ordinary means” in which believers may gain infallible assurance of faith (WCF 18.3). God’s objective promises should always be uppermost in our minds, for without them the subjective elements of assurance would be impossible. But there is the real danger of making these two elements enemies, when in fact they are friends because Christ and his benefits are friends. All of this shows that the Christian life is complex. Calls to trust God, who justifies the wicked, are essential to the pastoral ministry, but if that is all that preachers speak about with regard to assurance, then they are preaching like antinomians. And, I would say, they are pastorally insensitive to the fact that God is gracious and has given his people many means by which they may have the infallible assurance of salvation, which God and Christ desire for all their people. More than that, preachers have a duty to preach the whole Christ. So many stop at his death, and remind their people that Christ uttered the words, “It is finished,” but the better way is to preach not only Christ’s death and resurrection, but also his intercessory work as our merciful high priest. Again, the antinomian error is one of failing to do justice to the totality of Christ’s person and work. It is, above all, a Christological error.


Reformed and antinomian theologians have significantly different views regarding assurance. However, the question of assurance spills over into Christology. Christology, including Christ’s own experience as God’s servant on earth, has much to teach us about the multifaceted nature of assurance. Besides that, Christ’s own role as a merciful high priest gives believers abundant reason to believe that Christ is even more merciful to his bride while he is in heaven than when he was on earth. These Christological truths are often completely missed by pastors with antinomian tendencies. In their desire to exalt Christ, they often fail to do just that. Antinomian preaching in the past and today often fails to extol the grace of the gospel extensively enough. They diminish the power of the gospel and vitiate the glory of Christ in large measure.

The debate between the two parties was never, as Rutherford notes, “touching the first assurance of justification”; it was axiomatic to Reformed theology that believers are first assured of their justification by faith, not by good works.[35]However, that does not mean, of course, that good works play no role in assurance. The antinomians could not give a role to good works in assurance, other than to say that they are frequently dangerous signs, because of their denial of conditions in the covenant of grace, their view that Christ repented, believed, etc., for his people, and their view that God sees no sin in his people. In doing this, they went too far. But Reformed theologians were sensitive to the dangers of their own “qualifications.” Nonetheless, that did not stop them from affirming that good works are a lawful means for attaining assurance. As Flavel says in his response to this particular antinomian error,

I will further grant, That the eye of a Christian may be too intently fixed upon his own gracious qualifications; and being wholly taken up in the reflex acts of faith, may too much neglect the direct acts of faith upon Christ, to the great detriment of his soul.

But all this notwithstanding, The examination of our justification by our sanctification, is not only a lawful, and possible, but a very excellent and necessary work and duty. It is the course that Christians have taken in all ages, and that which God has abundantly blessed to the joy and encouragement of their souls.[36]

The truth is, to the degree that a person fixes his or her eyes upon Christ, he or she will burst forth with gospel obedience. And obedience, if it is gospel obedience, cannot help but draw us back to Christ in faith, hope, and love. For this reason, the objective and subjective aspects of the Christian life are complementary and necessary. Indeed, by looking inward, Christians may trace the hand of God in their lives and return in thanksgiving and praise. To say “Just look to Christ” does not mean that we should not look inward, for Christ dwells in our hearts by faith (Eph. 3:17).

Mark Jones is the author of Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest?.

Mark Jones (PhD, Leiden University) is Senior Minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA) and Research Associate at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He has written and edited several books and most recently coauthored A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life.

[1] John Flavel, The Works of the Rev. Mr. John Flavel (1820; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1997), 3:590.

[2] See the massive bibliography in Joel R. Beeke, The Quest for Full Assurance: The Legacy of Calvin and His Successors (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1999), 311–79.

[3] See Michael S. Horton, “Thomas Goodwin and the Puritan Doctrine of Assurance: Continuity and Discontinuity in the Reformed Tradition, 1600–1680” (PhD diss., Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and Coventry University, 1995); Joel R. Beeke, “The Assurance Debate: Six Key Questions,” in Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism, ed. Michael A. G. Haykin and Mark Jones (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 263–83.

[4] See Theodore Dwight Bozeman, The Precisianist Strain: Disciplinary Religion and Antinomian Backlash in Puritanism to 1638 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), passim; David Como, Blown by the Spirit:Puritanism and the Emergence of an Antinomian Underground in Pre-Civil-War England (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), passim; William K. Stoever, “A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven”: Covenant Theology and Antinomianism in Early Massachusetts (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1978), passim.

[5] See Flavel, Works, 3:557, 589–91.

[6] Stoever, “A Faire and Easie Way,” 141.

[7] Ibid., 146.

[8] Como, Blown by the Spirit, 136–37.

[9] Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 593.

[10] Samuel Rutherford, A survey of the spirituall antichrist (London, 1647), 2:91.

[11] John Saltmarsh, Free Grace (London, 1645), 84.

[12] Ibid., 84–85.

[13] Ibid., 85.

[14] Ibid., 86.

[15] Samuel Rutherford, Christ dying and drawing sinners to himself (London, 1647), 108.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Anthony Burgess, The True Doctrine of Justification Asserted and Vindicated, from the Errours of Papists, Arminians, Socinians, and more especially Antinomians, 2nd ed. (London: Tho. Underhil, 1651), 149.

[18] See Beeke, “The Assurance Debate: Six Key Questions,” 265–83.

[19] The connection between faith and assurance is wonderfully described in the Canons of Dort (V.9): “Believers themselves can and do become assured in accordance with the measure of their faith. By this faith they firmly believe that they are and always will remain true and living members of the church, and that they have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.”

[20] Beeke, “The Assurance Debate: Six Key Questions,” 266.

[21] See Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, D.D. (1861–66; repr., Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), vols. 4 and 8.

[22] Ibid., 4:4.

[23] Cited in Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 258.

[24] See also Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A 86 (Lord’s Day 32), “… so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits.”

[25] Samuel Rutherford, The Tryal and Triumph of Faith (London, 1645), 183.

[26] Beeke, “The Assurance Debate: Six Key Questions,” 274.

[27] Ibid., 276.

[28] Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 267.

[29] Goodwin, Works, 4:9. Goodwin also comments, “Christ thus trusted God upon his single bond; but we, for our assurance, have both Christ and God bound to us.” Ibid.

[30] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 47.

[31] Goodwin, Works, 4:141.

[32] Ibid., 4:149. James Durham rightly says that many Christians are ignorant of the value of Christ’s intercession. Taking a view similar to Goodwin’s, he writes: “We will find that this intercession and sympathy is not broken off and made less because of the believer’s sin; but is in some respect the more stirred and provoked, because this sympathy flows from the relation that is between Head and members, which sin does not cut off; and it is as with a tender natural parent, who cannot but be affected with the child’s straits, even though he has shamefully brought them on himself; yes, his very failings do touch and affect: so our high Priest’s sympathy, is not only in crosses, but it is to have pity on the ignorant, and compassion on these that are out of the way, Heb. 5. And thus the very sin of a believer affected Him so, that He cannot but sympathize and be provoked to sympathize with him. O what a wonder is this, the more sin, the more sympathy! which ought to make believers humble, and yet exceedingly to comfort them under a sinful condition.” A Commentarie upon the Book of the Revelation (Amsterdam, 1660), 411.

[33] Goodwin, Works, 4:149.

[34] Johannes Maccovius also points out that unbelievers sin more seriously insofar as they “rush into sin with great desire, [but] believers with a broken will; . . . the faithful feel sadness about their committed sins, unbelievers are pleased by them.” Scholastic Discourse: Johannes Maccovius (1588–1644) on Theological and Philosophical Distinctions and Rules (Apeldoorn: Instituut voor Reformatieonderzoek, 2009), 193.

[35] Rutherford, Christ dying and drawing sinners, 110.

[36] Flavel, Works, 3:590. Reformed divines typically speak of a “double act of faith.” The direct act of faith refers to the person’s act of relying upon the promises of God in Christ. The reflex act of faith enables the person to look at a subjective work (e.g., love for neighbor) and thereby gain assurance. As Flavel notes elsewhere, “The soul has not only power to project, but a power also to reflect upon its own actions; not only to put forth a direct act of faith upon Jesus Christ, but to judge and discern that act also.” Ibid., 2:330.

Introduction to The Pilgrim’s Regress by Mark Jones

There is no such thing in the New Testament as a believer whose perseverance is so guaranteed that he can afford to ignore the warning notes which are sounded so frequently.
(Sinclair Ferguson)[1]

The great nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologian William Plumer tells of someone accusing a minister of opposing the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. The minister affirmed that he was in fact against the perseverance of (unrepentant) sinners, while fully supportive of the perseverance of the saints. Not satisfied with that, the accuser replied, “Do you think that a child of God cannot fall very low, and yet be restored?”[2] Without denying the possibility, the minister calmly remarked that it would be “very dangerous to make the experiment.”[3] Plumer agrees and adds, “He who is determined to see how far he may decline in religion and yet be restored, will lose his soul.”[4] While I might prefer to say “will likely lose his soul,” Plumer’s instinct appears correct: it is a dangerous thing to willfully drift away from God, otherwise known as Christian backsliding.

Christians generally accept the plain teaching of the Scriptures that, once in Christ, they are to become like him in holiness (Rom. 8:29), as they die unto sin and live unto righteousness. The life of faith (Gal. 2:20)—the sanctified life—is a journey “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). But Christians also realize that remaining, indwelling sin keeps us from pursuing Christ as we should and, worse yet, sometimes leads us to pull away from him. Such a drift, left unchecked, we call backsliding.

A pull away from living well for God, and by God’s grace, seems a constant thorn in our flesh. Speaking on backsliding, Charles Spurgeon said to his congregation on March 13, 1870, “I fear the disease is so rife among the people of God that there is scarcely one of us who has not at some time or other suffered from it.”[5]

If there is one consideration more humbling than another to a spiritually-minded believer, it is, that, after all God has done for him,—after all the rich displays of his grace, the patience and tenderness of his instructions, . . . the tokens of love received, and the lessons of experience learned, there should still exist in the heart a principle, the tendency of which is to secret, perpetual, and alarming departure from God.

So wrote Octavius Winslow, a nineteenth-century pastor and contemporary of Charles Spurgeon and of J. C. Ryle, in his outstanding work Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul.[6] Truly, few children of God are exempt from the humbling acknowledgment that we quickly and easily depart from living for God as we turn away from our Savior and thus grieve the Spirit.

Do you sense a general decline in faithful biblical zeal toward God in the church today? I do not think we can argue that things are worse now than they have ever been. This seems hard to prove and reveals a naive understanding about church history and people. Naturally, we tend to think that we are now living in a time of real spiritual distress. And in a sense, we are! If statistics are to be believed, as well as common observations, since roughly 2015 we have been facing a “de-churching crisis,” so to speak.

We are living in precarious times. Yet the Puritan John Owen felt the same way in his day. In his work On the Nature of Apostasy, he opens “To the Reader” by arguing:

That the state of religion is at this day deplorable in most parts of the Christian world is acknowledged by all who concern themselves in any thing that is so called. . . . The whole world is so evidently filled with the dreadful effects of the lusts of men, and sad tokens of divine displeasure, that all things from above and here below proclaim the degeneracy of our religion, in its profession, from its pristine beauty and glory.[7]

One wonders what Owen might have to say today (probably a lot!).

We should not think that we are the worst of all, but we also need to be careful not to think that we are experiencing an age of unprecedented blessing. Speaking as a pastor, I see the reality of the recent worldwide global pandemic (COVID‑19) as exacerbating certain issues that were likely present in the church but are now openly manifest in unique ways (e.g., lack of or indifference to hospitality).

Many Christians are lamenting their own personal declension during the past few years. Some seem genuinely concerned about their continued personal apathy and lukewarmness toward the things of the Lord, but they are not quite sure how to “rebound” and rediscover their first love. Others appear to be aware that their Christian living does not look or feel as it used to, but they seem indifferent about their malaise. Many willfully miss corporate worship, and their consciences don’t appear to prick them as they may have in the past because these people are living off various excuses that no longer seem entirely justifiable. Some still claim to watch online services, but even those who do so will admit that they tend to watch when convenient and often with little attention.

We can have some sympathy for how difficult many aspects of Christian living have become because of the pandemic. Christian fellowship and hospitality, for instance, were relegated to Zoom meetings in many countries, which simply catalyzed a struggle with being inhospitable toward others and so toward the Lord (Matt. 25:40). Even so, that does not change the reality for many that they are backsliding. Indeed, many parents are realizing how their children have not made great progress in the past few years, and so their concern is heightened by the stress they feel about the spiritual condition of their beloved offspring—and many of these parents will humbly acknowledge that they share some blame for the spiritual lethargy, indifference, and ignorance in their children.

Such manifestations of spiritual lethargy and unfaithfulness reveal a spirit of backsliding that must be repented of. Indeed, backsliding of any sort is extremely serious in God’s eyes. In the words of Thomas Adams, “backsliding has ever been a sin most odious to God; yes, it is a pack or bundle of sins trussed up together, all derogatory to his honor, and contrary to his nature.”[8] We reveal our hypocrisy to a God of truth; we reveal our inconstancy to a God who does not change; we reveal our infidelity to a faithful God; and we reveal our ingratitude to a gracious God.[9]

There must (and can) be a return to God and Christ by the Spirit. Hosea, concerned with Baal-worship in the northern kingdom that primarily manifested itself in sexual idolatry, pleads, “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity” (Hos. 14:1). Repentance leads to life and promises:

I will heal their apostasy;

I will love them freely,

for my anger has turned from them. (Hos. 14:4)

God’s love is a drawing, wooing love to himself for the repentant backslider; it is a free love: “I will love them freely.” But repentance is not a guarantee, as the Scriptures plainly testify. There are some who either slowly or quickly depart from the Lord and apparently never return. Peter and Judas jumped into a cauldron of sin, but only Peter emerged from it. As Andrew Fuller notes in his perceptive work The Backslider, “But whatever difference there be between a partial and a total departure from God, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the party himself at the time to perceive it.”[10] Similarly, Richard Baxter wisely remarked that “partial backsliding has a natural tendency to total apostasy, and would effect it, if special grace did not prevent it.”[11] The slippery slope does exist, and some who slide continue on it till they fall off into eternal darkness and despair.

We must reckon with the fact that the Scriptures offer plenty of salient examples of total abandonment from the faith. This is called apostasy. “After having made a profession of the true religion,” says Fuller, “they apostatize from it.” He adds: “I am aware it is common to consider a backslider as being a good man, though in a bad state of mind: but the scriptures do not confine the term to this application. . . . Backsliding, it is true, always supposes a profession of the true religion; but it does not necessarily suppose the existence of the thing professed. There is a perpetual backsliding, a drawing back unto perdition.”[12] We cannot merely consider backsliding without therefore also considering the consequence of unrepentant backsliding: apostasy.

The goal of this book is not merely to establish the fact of backsliding and apostasy, but to diagnose it in such a way that we are aware of the dangers and symptoms of drifting from the Lord and so apply the various remedies offered by God in his Word for healing the backslidden soul. I am incapable of preventing the total apostasy whereby it is impossible to be restored again to repentance (see Heb. 6:4–6). I can only hope to assist in alarming and awakening the backslider to the real threats and dangers of personal declension that lead to apostasy. So while the diagnosis is crucial, the remedy is even more so—and it must be one that wins backsliders back to God from their turning away.

If you are reading this book, you may be concerned about your own spiritual condition or the spiritual condition of others you love, and so you are seeking help. Or you are someone, perhaps even a pastor, who senses that something is not quite right with some of your people, and you are looking for help on how to recognize and deal with the dangers you are witnessing. May God be pleased to help all pastors develop such a caring sensitivity toward their wayward congregants. Or you may be a concerned family member who fears for the soul of a loved one. Many of us find ourselves in that position at some point in our lives. Take comfort; the Lord’s arm is not too short to save (Isa. 59:1), and his arm is his Son, Jesus Christ, who finds his sheep and brings them back into the fold. But those who wander must be identified so that they may be found.

“I once was lost, but now am found,” from the hymn “Amazing Grace!,”[13] could in fact have some application to the returning backslider, who, we pray, can again sing those words with a newfound fervor for God’s patient, unchanging, amazing grace.

Mark Jones is the author of The Pilgrim’s Regress: Guarding against Backsliding and Apostasy in the Christian Life.

Mark Jones (PhD, Leiden University) is Senior Minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA) and Research Associate at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He has written and edited several books and most recently coauthored A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life.

[1] Sinclair Ferguson, The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1981), 174.

[2] William S. Plumer, Vital Godliness: A Treatise on Experimental and Practical Piety (New York: American Tract Society, 1864), 148.

[3] Plumer, 148.

[4] Plumer, 148.

[5] Charles Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: Sermons (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1871), 145. The remainder of Spurgeon’s sentence adds: “and I fear that the most of us might confess if we judged our own hearts rightly, that in some measure we are backsliding even now.” I think I understand the sense of what Spurgeon says here, especially considering his phrasing “in some measure.” Yet my definition of backsliding as something more obvious and sustained rather than our general failures as Christians leads me to say that I likely wouldn’t try to cast such doubt on my own flock that they are all basically backsliders. If everyone is a backslider, then nobody is a backslider.

[6] Octavius Winslow, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 9.

[7] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. W. H. Goold, 24 vols. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1850–53), 7:3.

[8] Thomas Adams, An Exposition upon the Second Epistle General of St. Peter (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848), 570.

[9] Adams, 570.

[10] Andrew Fuller, The Backslider (London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1840), 19. Sinclair Ferguson likewise notes: “The solemn fact is that none of us can tell the difference between the beginning of backsliding and the beginning of apostasy. Both look the same.” “Apostasy and How It Happens,” March 14, 2023, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/apostasy-and-how-it-happens.

[11] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor [. . .] (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1860), 125.

[12] Fuller, The Backslider, 16–17.

[13] John Newton, “Amazing Grace!” (1779).

“Man in the Image of God” by John Frame

From Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief

In part 7, we will look at ourselves and the historical beginning of the great biblical story of redemption.[1]

Genesis 1 teaches that after God brought the world into existence from nothing (chapter 10), he populated the heavens and the earth in six days. On the first day, he made light and separated it from the darkness. On day 2, he made the sky and separated the waters above from those below. On the third day, he made plants. On the fourth day, he gathered the light into heavenly bodies: sun, moon, and stars. On day 5, he filled the waters with aquatic life and the stars with winged creatures. On the sixth day, he populated the land with “livestock and creeping things and beasts” (Gen. 1:24). All the creatures were to reproduce “according to their kinds” (vv. 21, 24, 25). And “God saw that it was good” (v. 25).

But then something even more remarkable happens:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,

   in the image of God he created him;

   male and female he created them.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Gen. 1:26–31)

This passage emphasizes the uniqueness of man in many ways. The first is what John Murray called the “unique engagement of God’s counsel.”[2] Murray says:

The formula is not that of simple fiat as in the case of light (Gen. 1:3). Nor is it that of command in reference to existing entities—“let the earth bring forth tender herb” (Gen. 1:11); “let the waters swarm swarm[3] of living creature” (Gen. 1:20); “let the earth bring forth living creature” (Gen. 1:24). The terms “let us make”[4] indicate that there is unique engagement of divine thought and counsel, and bespeak the fact that something correspondingly unique is about to take place.[5]

The Image of God

The second indication of man’s uniqueness in the passage is that he is made, God says, “in our image, after our likeness.” The animals are made “according to their kinds,” that is, according to a pattern prescribed by God. But man is made after the pattern of God himself. Murray comments:

But the exemplar itself was not something willed to be; it is that which belongs to God himself intrinsically. Intelligent response to this datum of revelation is one of amazement, and we exclaim, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him!” (Ps. 8:4). Man’s origin is not only the unique subject of God’s counsel; man is from the outset the recipient of unique endowment and dignity.[6]

Theologians, however, have long puzzled over what exactly the image of God consists of. Some have referred it to man’s unique intellectual power, others to the soul as distinct from the body, others to man’s relationship to God. Karl Barth found a parallel between “image” and “male and female” and so argued that the image consists in sexual differentiation, and therefore, more broadly, social relationships. Others have thought the image consists in man’s dominion over the rest of creation (Gen. 1:26, 28) because that is a mirror of God’s lordship. Still others, with NT justification, have identified the image with ethical qualities such as knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). Some have sought a Christological interpretation of the image, since the NT presents Christ as the image in a preeminent sense (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3) and the image in which we are to be renewed (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18).

There is truth in all these representations. But there are so many of them that it is important for us to try to understand the conceptual patterns that bring them together.

“In our image” and “after our likeness” are more or less synonymous, using the Hebrew terms tselem and demuth, respectively. The passage makes no reference to nuanced differences between these terms, but pairs them to magnify the greatness of this particular creative act.[7] The writer evidently expects readers to understand these concepts without definition. It is worth reminding ourselves that “images” were common in the ancient world. Images were simply statues or pictures, intended to represent someone, often a god or a king. In the second commandment, God forbids worship of images. Yet there is an image of the true God—ourselves.[8]

The Hebrew terms themselves refer to a similarity[9] between God and man, but the nature of that similarity must be obtained from other passages. So if we are to speak of this image as more than an isolated title, our theological task is to determine the most theologically significant similarities between God and man, similarities that lift man above the other creatures. Those similarities will explain the use of “image” in this passage by showing that man’s relationship to the rest of creation is analogous to God’s relationship to the whole creation. But of course, man’s relationship to the creation cannot be exactly the same as God’s, because man himself is only a creature. The analogy between God and ourselves will always have disanalogy with it. So we are looking for qualities in man that constitute finite replicas of God’s infinite qualities.

In Genesis 1:26, what immediately follows the references to image and likeness is God’s appointment to man to “have dominion over” the rest of creation. This is also God’s first command to men (v. 28) after he blesses them. This is surely an important datum for us to consider in interpreting the image language.

In this book, I have discussed the doctrine of God (part 3) as an exposition of God’s lordship. His nature and attributes are what qualify him to be Lord of everything he makes, and they are, indeed, what his lordship looks like from the vantage point of his covenant servants. What Genesis 1:26–28 says is that God has made man like himself to equip him for his task as lord, a lord subordinate to God’s ultimate lordship.

So the image of God consists of those qualities that equip man to be lord of the world, under God.[10] What can these qualities be, but analogies of God’s own lordship attributes? As we consider these, I will also draw parallels between the three lordship attributes and the three anointed offices of Scripture: king, prophet, and priest. God, particularly Christ the Anointed One, is the original bearer of these offices. Man bears analogous offices in relation to the lower creation, and as redemptive history progresses, God appoints some individuals to be kings, prophets, and priests over his people.

Control (Kingly Office)

In Genesis 1:26, the image of God equips man to exercise great power: “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” In verse 28, God says that to have dominion over the earth, man will have to “subdue” it (kabash, “make subservient”). This dominion extends to everything God made in the fourth through sixth days of creation. In verses 29–30, God gives his work of the third day, the plant kingdom, to be food for man. It is interesting that God does not place the work of the first day (light and darkness) and that of the second day (heaven and the waters) under man’s power. In Scripture, “light” is closely connected with God himself. He is light according to 1 John 1:5, and in him is no darkness at all. He alone is the One who brings light to the world—not only physical light, but also light as a figure of salvation:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6; cf. Eph. 5:8, 13–14; 1 Thess. 5:5; 1 Peter 2:9; Rev. 21:23–24; 22:5)

As a metaphor for salvation, light comes from God alone and therefore serves as an image of the gracious character of redemption.

As for the work of the second day, God also keeps that to himself. Heaven is his own dwelling place, the location of his archetypal tabernacle, “the true tent that the Lord set up, not man” (Heb. 8:2). And God also maintains control of the waters of the second day, both those under and those above the expanse of heaven (Gen. 1:7). When he brings judgment on the ancient human world, Scripture says, “the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened” (7:11). Here God removes the separations between waters that he erected on the second day of creation. Human beings have no power to deter the waters or the judgment. As with the light, God is sovereign in his disposition of the waters. After the judgment of Genesis 7, God still retains the power of sending or withholding rain. In an agricultural society, rain is a continually pressing need. Man cannot produce it for himself. He must keep coming to God for it (1 Kings 8:35–36). When God sends rain, it is a blessing, a mercy (Lev. 26:4; Deut. 11:11; 28:12; 2 Sam. 23:4; Ps. 147:8). When God withholds it, it is a judgment (Deut. 11:17; 28:24; 1 Kings 17:1ff.).

So man’s dominion does not extend to the work of God’s first two creative days. But the fact that he subdues and rules the creations of the last four is immensely significant. Man is not omnipotent as God is (chapter 16), but he is able to accomplish amazing things by his physical strength, intellectual acuity, and linguistic ability (see next section), abilities that no animal can match.

Man’s responsibility to fill and subdue the earth is sometimes called the cultural mandate.[11] That language brings out the fact that man’s task is one of turning the earth into a habitat for man, one suited to the needs and purposes of man. This task involves not only the cultivation of crops for food, but also the arts, sciences, and literature, by which human life becomes more than mere subsistence. And at the deepest level, man’s labor has the goal of bringing praise and glory[12] to God. So he is to structure his life and culture according to God’s standards.

Theologians have asked whether the image of God pertains to man’s body or only to his soul. I will discuss the soul-body distinction at a later point. But it should already be evident that the image of God does pertain to the body. Man’s physical strength is a major aspect of his power to subdue the earth and take dominion of it. Some have objected that the human body cannot be God’s image because God is incorporeal. But God’s incorporeality does not mean that he can never take physical form, only that he is sovereign in his choice of whether or not to take a physical form; and if he chooses to take one, he is sovereign in choosing the form he takes (chapter 18).[13] He is superphysical—more than physical, not less. Further, whether or not he chooses to take a physical form, he is able to do everything that we can do with our bodies, and far more. Psalm 94:9 asks, “He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see?” Human beings hear with their physical ears and see with physical eyes. God, however, is master of the processes of hearing and seeing. He does without physical organs what we do with them, and far more.

So man serves as a king over God’s creation. But he is a king under God, responsible to worship and obey God, the King of kings.

Authority (Prophetic Office)

I mentioned above that man is to build his culture according to God’s standards. Thus, he brings God’s word, God’s language, to his fellow men and to the world.

In chapter 23, I argued that God’s language, his word, is one with himself, an attribute essential to his nature. God is a speaking God. In chapter 33, I referred to the work of the angels, bringing God’s word to human beings, and to the devils as those who distort and pervert God’s speech. Language is also fundamental to human nature in the image of God. In Genesis 1, man’s first experience is linguistic: hearing God’s words (Gen. 1:28–31). In Genesis 2:18–20, when God first gives Adam a specific task under the general mandate to take dominion of the earth, he gives him a linguistic task: that of naming the animals. This task is not simply attaching a sound to an object. It is rather the scientific task of understanding the nature of each animal, for the overall purpose is to determine whether any of these can be Adam’s “helper” (2:18). The “names” that Adam gave the animals, therefore, were a system of sounds declaring the nature of each creature.[14] Adam’s research determines that there is no helper for him in the animal kingdom, so God makes him a partner by special creation (2:21–25).

Emphasizing further the centrality of language in human life, James 3:1–12, building on many of the proverbs, tells us that if a man can control his tongue, he can control his whole body. In Genesis 11:1–9, God judges the builders of the Tower of Babel by confusing their language. He says:

Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. (Gen. 11:6)

Language is such a powerful capacity that a common language allows sin to run rampant. God determines that it must be checked. So sins of the tongue take prominence in biblical lists of sins, such as Romans 3:10–18. Scripture abounds in admonitions to speak for edification (Eph. 4:29), rather than speaking lies, blasphemies, and foolishness (1 Cor. 14:3, 12, 17, 26). Jesus says, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36–37). Redemption is often presented as a cleansing of the lips (Isa. 6:5–7) or of language (Ps. 12; Zeph. 3:9–13). Pentecost partially reverses the curse of Babel, so that the message of grace can be heard in the languages of all people (Acts 2).

So Adam’s cultural task can be seen from a linguistic perspective: the work of developing a language analogous to the word of God himself, building throughout the world a culture in conformity with it. This is the root of the concept of prophecy that we looked at in chapter 24. As God first spoke words to him, Adam is to speak those and similar words to his family and to impose upon the earth cultural institutions that observe God’s standards and bring glory to him. To the extent he does that, he speaks with God’s authority.

What divine standards or norms were known to Adam before the fall? Of course, God told him to name the animals and to abstain from the forbidden fruit, but these commands were for a specific time and place. God also gave Adam and Eve broader ordinances, which rule human beings in all ages and places. Theologians have often called these creation ordinances: laws and institutions given to Adam and Eve before the fall, analogous to the laws of later covenants. John Murray lists among them “the procreation of offspring, the replenishing of the earth, subduing of the same, dominion over the creatures, labour, the weekly Sabbath, and marriage.”[15] I have advocated two additions to this list: worship and respect for human life,[16] making the point also that

the creation ordinances, like other biblical laws, have a threefold, indeed a triperspectival focus: on God (worship, Sabbath), on the natural world (replenishing, subduing, and dominating the earth), and on man himself (marriage, procreation, labor).[17]

According to the cultural mandate, man is to develop a culture through the whole earth that observes these creation ordinances, teaching them through his gift of speech, and through a life consistent with those words. Such speech is a necessary element of the “image of God.” It makes man to be like God in an important way, and it lifts man above the other creatures so that he may have dominion over them. His physical might gives him de facto rule over the world, but it is the divine speech that makes his rule de jure. Power is might and authority right. By setting forth and observing God’s norms, man shows himself to be the legitimate ruler of the world. His prophetic office and work legitimize his kingly office and work.

Presence (Priestly Office)

But Adam is not to be an absentee king. He is not only to subdue the earth and have dominion over it, but also to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28; cf. 9:1). As God transcends the world by his control and authority, but becomes immanent in the world by his covenant presence, so Adam, God’s vassal king and prophet, is to fill the world over which he rules. Since he is not omnipresent as God is, he can fill it only by marrying and having children. So the cultural mandate is a historical, gradual process in which man progressively blesses every part of the earth with his presence.

Since he constructs his culture according to God’s words, he brings with him God’s goodness. So when we read of God’s restoring his image to fallen men in Christ, Scripture describes the image in ethical terms:

But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:20–24)

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Col. 3:9–10)

Man blesses every place to which he comes, appreciating and enhancing the good. To an extent, that means, as I said, man’s making the world a fit habitation for himself. But that does not mean exploiting the earth in a selfish way. God has made the world for his glory, but the glory of God is also what is best for the world itself. So man seeks to humanize his environment, but not in a way that trashes the beauty and integrity of the creation. Being made of dust, man has an affinity with the creation. Since he lives by the air, water, and fruit of the earth, he has an interest in rotating crops, resting the land, maintaining clean air and water.

And Adam is to do all of this to the glory of God, fulfilling God’s own purpose in creating the world. He is to pray and worship God in every place, consecrating his labors and seeking God’s continued blessing. So God called upon Adam not only to work, but also to rest in celebration of his own divine rest (Gen. 2:2–3; Ex. 20:11).

Such is Adam’s priestly work. The ministry of a priest is to pray for others and lead them in worship, and thereby to bring God’s blessing upon the people he serves. So Adam is a priest to his people, in whatever territory they are led to settle. His blessing upon them will also be a blessing upon the earth.

After the fall, to be sure, the priest must also make sacrifice for the sins of the people. But he is still the one through whom God draws near to his people. Jesus Christ, God’s Great High Priest, is the One who comes nearest, taking human nature upon himself, living our life, dying the death we deserve (Heb. 2:10–18; 7:1–10:18).

Man as God’s Son

Another pervasive biblical model of man’s relationship to God is that of sonship. In Luke’s genealogy, Adam is “the son of God” (Luke 3:38). Scripture sometimes describes angels (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Dan. 3:25[18]) and human kings (Gen. 6:2, 4)[19] as sons of God. Israel is God’s son (Deut. 1:31; 8:5; Hos. 1:10). Jesus is the eternal Son, the Son who succeeds to his Father’s throne (Matt. 14:33; 16:16; 27:54; and often elsewhere—see chapter 21). In and through Christ, believers are redeemed from sin to be sons of God (Rom. 8:14, 16, 19; Gal. 4:1–6; Phil. 2:15; Heb. 12:7; 1 John 3:1–2).

The content of sonship is very similar to that of image. The son resembles his father as the image resembles the thing it reflects. In the Hebrew idiom, to say that someone is “son of” something is to say that it has the same characteristics. In Mark 3:17, Jesus named his disciples James and John “Sons of Thunder,” indicating perhaps their loud and violent spirit. Barnabas (Acts 4:36) means “son of encouragement,” which suggests a nurturing, comforting character. So a son of God is someone who resembles God, who is like God. Of course, there are many ways of being like God. The similarity of angels to God,[20] though genuine, is not the same as the resemblance of human kings to him, or Israel, or NT saints, or Jesus.

We also saw that man’s status as the image of God gives to him an authority subordinate to God. Sonship, too, entails royal qualities. Like kings, the sons of God have power, authority, and presence within their domains. So God describes the church as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9, reflecting language used of Israel in Exodus 19:6).

In chapters 4–6, I summarized the biblical story as a story of God’s covenants (chapter 4), the kingdom of God (5), and the family of God (6). We have seen through the figures of image and son that God made man to be his covenant servant, his vassal king, and sons within his family. So the three biblical stories come together as the story of God’s dealings with man, the highest of his creatures.

Male and Female[21]

It is certainly significant that right after Scripture describes God as creating man in his image, it adds: “male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). I don’t agree with Karl Barth’s view that our sexual differentiation is the meaning of “image,”[22] but certainly we should take some trouble to understand how sexual differentiation and image are related to each other.

In the previous section, I described the image under three perspectives, as control, authority, and presence, reflecting the lordship attributes of God. In none of these respects is there any difference between men and women. Both sexes image God’s control, for he charges men and women together to have dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:28). Thus, they are both vassal kings under God, bearing his authority. They are both subject to God’s authoritative ordinances, both charged with building culture according to those ordinances. And filling the earth with children, bringing the presence of human beings throughout the world, is obviously a joint responsibility of the sexes.

In the fall, as we will see in more detail later, both the man and the woman disobey God, and God brings curses, mingled with blessing, upon them equally (Gen. 3:14–19). It is significant that the curse applies somewhat differently to the man and the woman. The woman will have pain in childbearing; the man will have pain and toil as he works the ground. But both are cursed and equally fallen. Although Scripture mentions that the woman was first deceived (1 Tim. 2:14), it never suggests that women are more or less sinful than men. Christ’s redemption, therefore, applies equally to both. Scripture never suggests that women are more or less sanctified than men by the grace of Christ.

Positively, Scripture teaches:

Both Men and Women Are Made in God’s Image

Genesis 1:27 makes this point quite explicitly, and 2:20 niv (“suitable helper”) and 2:23 (“bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”) underscore the man and woman’s unity of nature in contrast (2:19–20) to the relationship between man and animals. See also 5:1–2. James Hurley points out that “man” in 1:26 and 27 is a collective noun (adam = “mankind”). The plural membership is indicated by the phrase “male and female” in verse 27, and then to both male and female is given the task appropriate to those created in the image of God (v. 28).[23] This is the uniform teaching of Scripture. Re-creation in the image of Christ applies equally to all believers without distinction (Col. 3:9–11); in fact, that renewal, that sonship (Gal. 3:26), is given to believers so indiscriminately that in this respect “there is no male and female” (v. 28).

Men and Women Are Equally in the Image of God

Nothing in Genesis would lead anyone to suppose otherwise. But some have come to another conclusion based on Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 11:7, “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.” Why does Paul omit speaking of woman as “image of God,” after he has applied that title to man? One might even suppose that Paul is here denying that woman is the image of God and is attributing to her a lesser image, that of man.

I agree with C. K. Barrett that “in this context Paul values the term image only as leading to the term glory.”[24]The reference to “image” is incidental to Paul’s purpose, and therefore not applied to woman; but it notifies his readers of the OT basis for saying that man is the glory of God, “glory” and “image” being roughly, but not entirely, synonymous. Paul’s emphasis is on “glory,” which focuses on the honor that one person brings to another. Man, he says, was made to honor God. Of course, woman was also made to honor God; but in addition, she is made for a second purpose, namely, to honor man. God made her specifically to be a helper for Adam (Gen. 2:18, 20; cf. Prov. 12:4; Eph. 5:25–29).[25] Man honors and glorifies God by uncovering his head, for covering the head connoted subservience to another creature.[26] Such subservience to men is especially inappropriate for a male prophet, whose whole function is to speak for God. Woman, however, must not only honor God, but also honor man. Indeed, she honors God when she honors the specific task of “helper” for which God made her. Unlike the man, then, she honors God best by displaying her subordination to her fellow creature.

So Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 11:7, then, is not that woman does not image God; it is rather that in addition to imaging God, she is also made to honor man, and that her appearance must be appropriate to that latter function. Nor is there any need to speak of her imaging God in some lesser sense than does man.

Does her subordination itself detract from her capacity to image God? That is an important question for us to ask at this point. But the answer must surely be negative. Men, too, are always placed in relations of subordination to other people (Ex. 20:12; Rom. 13:1; Heb. 13:17),[27] but that fact does not prejudice their being the image of God.

Jesus himself became subordinate to his Father, even subordinate to human authority structures, in order to redeem us. Human authority, therefore, imaging Jesus, is to be a servant-authority (Matt. 20:20–28). A willingness to subordinate oneself to others for God’s sake is, indeed, itself a component of the image, not a compromise of it.[28]Even submission to unjust authority shows a special likeness to Christ (1 Peter 2:12, 19–25; 3:14–18).[29] It is often by submitting to others that we best display the ethical components of the divine image. How better to demonstrate God’s love, his long-suffering, his gentleness, his self-control, than by submitting to others?

Sexual Differentiation Itself Images God

As indicated earlier, I don’t agree with Karl Barth that sexual differentiation is the image of God. But I do believe that our sexual qualities, like all other human qualities, image God. The point is not that God is male, female, or both. To say that our eyes image God, remember, is not to say that God has eyes; it is rather to say that our eyes picture something divine. Similarly, our sexuality pictures God’s attributes and capacities:

1. Human sexuality mirrors God’s creativity. By sexual capacities, we bring forth sons and daughters; God does the same by other means (John 1:12; Rom. 8:14ff.; Gal. 4:4ff.; Heb. 2:10; 1 John 3:1f.).

2. Love between husband and wife pictures God’s love for his people (Ezek. 16; Hos. 1–3; Eph. 5:25–33), which begins with a love within the Trinity itself (John 17:26).

3. The covenant relationship between husband and wife (Prov. 2:17; Mal. 2:14) pictures the covenant relation between God and man.

4. Scripture describes God both in male and in female terms, though the overwhelming preponderance of imagery is male. The reason, I think, is basically that Scripture wants us to think of God as Lord, and lordship, in Scripture, always connotes authority.[30] Since in the biblical view women are subject to male authority in the home and the church, as we will see, there is some awkwardness in speaking of God in female terms. Our need today, in my opinion, is for a far greater appreciation of the lordship of God and of Christ. Therefore, in my view, the movement to use unisex or female language in referring to God is fundamentally wrongheaded from a biblical perspective.

5. Nevertheless, the very submission of the woman also images God. God the Lord is not too proud to be our “helper.” Christ the Lord is not unwilling to be a servant. Godly women stand as models, often as rebukes, to all who would be leaders (Matt. 20:20–28).[31]

Men and Women Equally Represent God

I argued earlier that the primary meaning of image is resemblance rather than representation. But because of images’ resemblance, they often do represent the things or persons they resemble. The distinction is between structure and function, between nature and task.

King Nebuchadnezzar set up an image of himself to represent him. When people worshiped the image, they were thereby expressing loyalty to the king (Dan. 3:1–6). Images were understood this way in the ancient world. Clearly, a similar notion is expressed in Genesis 1:28, for there God gives Adam the task of filling and subduing the earth.

These tasks are similar to what God himself does in the world. God wants to be known as Lord, which I have expounded in terms of control, authority, and presence. In Genesis 1:28, God gives to Adam a “dominion,” a kind of lordship subordinate to God’s own. Man (generic!) is the vassal king of the universe. Subduing the earth is to extend human control over the world. It also involves authority: God gives Adam the right to name the animals, which is in the ancient world an exercise of authority (Gen. 2:19–20; cf. 2:23; 3:20). Mankind is also to “fill” the earth, that is, to make his presence felt everywhere.

That this dominion mandate continues after the fall is clear from Genesis 9:1–3. Yet sin greatly hinders the accomplishment of God’s purpose in the mandate, which was to fill the earth with, and put it under the control of, people who would glorify him. Thus, the NT puts emphasis on the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20), also a command about filling and subduing, but in this case by the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. Through the sovereign authority of Jesus (v. 18), the people of God are to extend their control, authority, and presence throughout the earth. We are God’s “ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20 niv; cf. Phil. 2:14–15).[32]

Hence, we have the biblical doctrines of sonship, adoption, and inheritance (John 1:12; Rom. 8:14–17; Gal. 3:26–29; Heb. 2:10; 1 John 3:1–3). In these respects, man and woman share equally. Scripture makes no sexual distinction. Indeed, Galatians 3:26 (“in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith”) precedes by two verses the famous “there is no male and female.” And as we have seen, “male and female” are equally given the original dominion mandate (Gen. 1:27–28).

Does this fact conflict with the authority of men over women in the home and in the church? I think not. Authority and subordination are not, in the abstract, inconsistent with each other. Someone may have authority over one sphere but not over another; or he may be an authority in one respect, subordinate in another. Men individually rule in some areas, but must be subject to those in authority over them. Jesus himself is both Lord and servant.

So human authority itself is always a servant-authority, an authority with responsibility for those under authority (as in Matt. 20:25–28; John 13:12–17; Eph. 5:22–6:9). So when Scripture speaks of the primacy of man over woman, it often coordinates that teaching with reflections on the mutual dependence of the sexes (as in 1 Cor. 7:3; 11:11–12).

Women certainly share in the authority given to Adam. Together with men, they are made to rule the earth (Gen. 1:27–28; 1 Cor. 3:21).

Individually, they are given authority in various spheres: mothers over children (Ex. 20:12), older women training the younger (Titus 2:4). In some cases, women manage a family business (Prov. 31:10–31). Women exercise authority over everyone as prophets of God (Judg. 4:4; Acts 2:17; 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5, 10 [“symbol of authority”]). They are also under human authority, to be sure; but so are men.

Citing Matthew 8:9, Stephen B. Clark well observes that one’s own authority, far from conflicting with submission to higher authority, often finds its source in such submission.[33] The prophets had authority because they stood under God’s authoritative word. Kings, priests, and parents also have authority because God has ordained it. The apostles had authority because of their obedience to Jesus’ commission. Recall my earlier note to the effect that the head-covering of the woman (1 Cor. 11:10), a sign of submission, is also a sign of her own authority as a prophet.


Women and men equally image God, even in their sexual differences, even in their differences with regard to authority and submission. The reason is that the image of God embraces everything that is human. Both men and women, therefore, resemble God and are called to represent him throughout the creation, exercising control, authority, and presence in his name. This doctrine is not at all inconsistent with the subordination of women to men in the home and in the church. All human beings are under authority, both divine and human. Their submission to authority, as well as their authority itself, images God.

Body, Soul, and Spirit

Traditionally, theologians have discussed the relation between man’s body, soul, and spirit. “Dichotomists” have claimed that man consists of body and soul, “trichotomists” that he consists of body, soul, and spirit.

Scripture does not, however, address such questions, nor does it ever reflect specifically on the nature of spirit, soul, or body or the relations between them. Further, these are only three of the many terms that Scripture uses to refer to aspects of human nature. Vern Poythress says:

We find words like sarx (“flesh”), soma (“body”), psyche (“soul”), pneuma (“spirit”), nous (“mind”), kardia(“heart”), zoe (“life”), bios (“life”), suneidesis (“conscience”), sunesis (“understanding”), dianoia(“understanding”), splanchna (“bowels”), chros (“skin”), not to mention verbs describing various bodily and mental actions and states.[34]

He adds:

I have glossed each Greek word with a corresponding English word. But the correspondences are only approximate. A close examination shows that no one English word matches exactly the full range of meaning and connotative associations of a single Greek word. When we bring in classical Hebrew of the Old Testament, we deal with still a third language whose vocabulary has still different properties, matching neither Greek nor English exactly.[35]

So one might ask why theologians have been so preoccupied with three of these categories, spirit, soul, and body, and why they have tried to define them precisely granted the imprecise correlations between the English terms and those of the original languages.

A large part of the reason has been concerns about the intermediate state (what happens to us between our death and the final resurrection at Christ’s return). Scripture teaches that when a person dies, though he lies in the grave, either he is also experiencing blessing in fellowship “with Christ” (Phil. 1:23) or he is “in torment” (Luke 16:23). Trying to understand this dual existence, many theologians have said that it is the “body” that lies in the grave, but the “soul” or “spirit” that has gone to heaven or hell. In other words, each of us consists of a material part and an immaterial part; and at death, the material part goes to the earth, but the immaterial part goes to the afterlife.

This traditional view correlates with some biblical data, but more should be said. These expressions should be traced back to Genesis 2:7:

Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

Now, the “dust” describes the original state of our physical nature, our original “body.” God’s “breath” (neshamah) describes the process by which God turns the material being into a “living creature” (nephesh hayyah). Nephesh is often translated “soul,” but in Genesis 2:7 nephesh is not a component of man, but the whole person, the man himself constituted by the divine inbreathing. God’s inbreathing itself may be the root of the idea of a “spirit” in man, but (1) the usual word for spirit in Hebrew is ruach, not found in Genesis 2:7, and (2) the breath of Genesis 2:7 is divine breath, not human. The passage makes no mention of a human spirit corresponding to the divine inbreathing. So Genesis 2:7 does not list any elements of the human constitution. It merely says that God’s creative act turned dust into a living person.

Still, given the description of man’s creation in Genesis 2:7, it is not surprising that later texts should refer to man’s body, his soul (the life of the body), and his spirit (focusing on the divine origin of his animate life). And it is not surprising that in texts that speak of human death, the body is what is placed in the grave, and soul and spirit refer to man’s ongoing life:[36]

And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. (Eccl. 12:7)

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect. (Heb. 12:22–23)

For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:26)

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. (Rev. 6:9; cf. 20:4)

These references may be correlated with passages such as Matthew 27:50 and John 19:30 that refer to dying as “yielding” or “giving up” one’s spirit. Note also Matthew 10:28:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

The point here is not that a murderer can destroy one component of a person’s being, but not another part. Rather: a human murderer can put someone’s body in the grave, but cannot destroy him as a living person (a soul). But it is possible for someone to “lay down” or “save” his life/soul. Cf. Matt. 16:25; 20:28; Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9; John 10:11–15; 12:25; Acts 15:26; 1 John 3:16.

But there are also passages in Scripture that refer to body, soul, and spirit, as continuing aspects of our earthly existence. For example, in Matthew 26:41, Jesus tells his disciples:

Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

“Flesh” here is the body, undergoing weariness and moral weakness, susceptible to temptation. “Spirit” is our inclination, by grace, to obey God, no matter how weary and weak we may be. Elsewhere, “body,” “soul,” and “spirit” are brought together to comprehensively describe a person’s moral or spiritual character:

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. (2 Cor. 7:1)

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 5:23; cf. 1 Cor. 7:34)

The idea here is not that these terms designate separate entities within us, so that, for example, the soul might be morally perfect while the spirit is still wicked, or that after we have perfected the soul we might then work on the body. Rather, in these passages Paul piles up terms to describe the character of the whole person.

So spirit, soul, and body should not be understood as metaphysical components of man, as distinct entities within us, battling for supremacy. Rather, each refers to the whole person from a particular perspective. What the body does is not distinct from, let alone in conflict with, what the soul and spirit do. When the disciples disobeyed Jesus and fell asleep as Jesus prayed in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:41, quoted above), it was not that their bodies sinned while their spirits remained pure. Rather, their spirits (i.e., the disciples themselves) sinned by failing to persevere through physical weakness. So each person fell asleep, and we can describe that action from physical, psychical, and spiritual perspectives.[37]

But if spirit, soul, and body are not separate metaphysical components of human nature, then how is it possible to say that a person’s spirit or soul is in heaven while his body is in the grave? To say that a person’s spirit or soul is in heaven is simply to say that he, the person, is there. And to say that his body is in the grave is to say that he, the person, is there.

It seems paradoxical to put it this way, but in Scripture it is not a material part of the person that lies in the grave; rather, it is the person. It is the person who returns to the dust (Gen. 3:19). While in the grave, Lazarus was Lazarus (John 11:43), Jesus was Jesus (Matt. 28:6). Jesus says, “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice” (John 5:28). So the bodies in the tombs are people, not former parts of people that have been discarded.[38] It is not, then, a material part of the person who goes to the tomb; it is the person.

Similarly, Scripture never says that immaterial parts of us (our souls or spirits) go to heaven or hell. Rather, we go there. The other Lazarus, the one of Luke 16, went to Abraham’s side, while the rich man who despised him in life went to Hades (v. 23). The rich man also “was buried” (v. 22). So the rich man had a dual existence. He was really in the tomb, and he was also, really, somewhere else, in torment. Lazarus also had a dual existence: he was in the grave, and he was with Abraham.

How can a person be two places at once? I don’t know. But that’s the way Scripture presents the matter. Of course, as I indicated earlier, Scripture typically uses soul and spirit to speak of people in their heavenly location and body (as Matt. 27:58–59) to designate the person in the grave. So there is nothing wrong with believers’ using the same language. But they should not forget that it is the person, not some part of the person, who is in heaven or hell, and it is the person who is in the grave.

In God’s time, however, this paradox will be removed. When Jesus returns, there will be a physical resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. Paul says that then “the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:16). (Notice: he does not say that their bodies will rise, but that they will rise.) So God will reconstitute the original unity of the person, the unity between the person in the grave and the person who is with Christ. Similarly, but of course differently, for the wicked.

The notion of soul and body as metaphysical components of human nature goes back to Greek philosophy. In Plato’s thought, the body is material and emotional, the soul intellectual and immaterial. Plato (and especially his successors, such as the Neoplatonists and Gnostics) associated unreason and evil with matter and so presented the body-soul dichotomy as a conflict within each of us. We fare better, he thought, when the immaterial/intellectual prevails over the material. Hence his view of the primacy of the intellect that I discussed in chapter 32. Descartes, in the seventeenth century, also saw the soul as purely immaterial and the body as purely material, and this dichotomy led to the mind-body problem in early modern thought: how can an immaterial mind affect a material body?[39]

Given this history, it is not surprising that Christian thinkers sometimes confused Plato’s and Descartes’ ideas with those of Scripture. But the Bible never says that the soul is entirely immaterial or that the body is purely material. Nor does it say that the soul must gain control of the body. Rather, in Scripture soul and body equally describe the whole person. Both, therefore, are equally fallen, both equally in need of redemption.

Dichotomy and Trichotomy

If we reject the idea that the terms spiritsoul, and body designate metaphysical components of the human person, then we can avoid taking sides on two theological controversies: dichotomy-trichotomy and creationism-traducianism. Let us consider these in order.

I referred very briefly to dichotomy and trichotomy at the beginning of the previous section. Dichotomists have claimed that man consists of body and soul, trichotomists that he consists of body, soul, and spirit. Trichotomists say that the body is our material existence, soul is our intellect, will, and emotions, and spirit is our God-consciousness. On the trichotomist view, the spirit is dead or dormant in the sinner. Redemption restores it to life and primacy over our other faculties.

There are passages in which such terms as spiritsoul, and body are set alongside one another (as Rom. 8:10; 1 Cor. 2:14–3:4; 1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 4:12). But often the biblical writers multiply such terms so as to describe the completeness and fullness of human nature. These passages do not make precise distinctions between these terms—certainly not precise enough to define metaphysical components of human existence. Scripture typically uses “spirit” and “soul” interchangeably.[40]

More seriously, the trichotomist view that sin shuts down the spirit and that redemption reawakens it is without biblical basis. Further, it contradicts the biblical emphasis that the whole person is fallen into sin (e.g., Gen. 6:5) and needs the deliverance of Christ. Redemption is not a rearrangement of human faculties, putting one of them on top of the others. Plato imagined something like this, but it is not a biblical view. Rather, redemption turns the whole person, including all aspects of his personality, from hating God to loving him. Salvation, as Cornelius Van Til used to say, is ethical, not metaphysical.

Creationism and Traducianism

Similarly, we can deal with the traditional controversy over the “origin of the soul” rather quickly, since we have rejected the idea of soul as a self-contained metaphysical component of human nature. Wayne Grudem formulates the issue thus:

Creationism is the view that God creates a new soul for each person and sends it to the person’s body sometime between conception and birth. Traducianism, on the other hand, holds that the soul as well as the body of a child are inherited from the baby’s mother and father at the time of conception.[41]

Traducianism draws especially on the biblical texts that set forth the solidarity of the human race in Adam. Creationism emphasizes God’s action in the giving of children (Ps. 127:3), particularly his knitting a baby together in his mother’s womb (139:13). Cf. Isa. 42:5; Zech. 12:1; Heb. 12:9.

Now, in Scripture, the sovereignty of God generally works together with secondary causes within the creation. God makes the crops grow, but he usually accomplishes this through the hard work of the farmer. We will explore further the relation between divine sovereignty and human responsibility in the following chapter. But as we bring together the various biblical texts on human conception and gestation, it is clear that both divine sovereignty and human/natural causes are at work. Like nearly every other event in the world (creation itself and redemptive grace are exceptions), human children are both a gift of God and the result of their parents’ actions.

As we have seen, the soul is not a separable part of a person. It is rather the person himself, seen from a particular aspect. So there is no particular period in time when the body exists without a soul, nor any point in time when a soul is added to a soulless body. The soul exists from conception, for it is an aspect of the total person, who exists from conception.[42]

The Creation of Adam and Eve

At the beginning of this chapter, I noted the strong emphasis of Genesis 1–2 on the distinctiveness of man over against the rest of creation. Man’s creation was the result of a “unique engagement of God’s counsel,”[43] and his nature, the image of God, was also unique among the creatures. That nature is correlative to man’s distinctive task, to fill and subdue the earth. Underscoring man’s uniqueness, too, was “God’s procedure in the formation of man.”[44]

In Genesis 2:7, we are told:

Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

The “dust” is inanimate matter from the earth. In this respect, man’s formation is similar to that of animals, for God also forms them from the ground, according to Genesis 2:19. But unlike the animals, the existence of man does not result from God’s commands to the earth itself, as in 1:24 (“Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds”). Adam becomes a living creature not by the earth’s bringing him forth, but by a second distinct act of God: God’s breathing into his nostrils the breath of life. No other creature is the result of this inbreathing.

The two events described in Genesis 2:7 are often called formation and impartation.

Scripture does not describe this inbreathing except by stating its result: by it, man became a living creature.[45] So the picture of this verse is not that God chose some creature already living—an animal—and made him man; rather, he chose dead matter and gave life to it, and by that life the dust became man, with all of man’s distinctiveness as God’s image. Genesis 2:7, taken literally, describes an event quite incompatible with the theory of evolution, even theistic evolution.

That is even more obviously the case in Genesis 2:21–22, which describes the creation of woman:

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.

Again, this creation is a supernatural event, with no parallels in the animal kingdom. Indeed, it was the lack of any suitable helper for Adam in the animal kingdom that made the creation of woman necessary (Gen. 2:18–20).

So the biblical description of the creation of Adam and Eve reinforces the emphasis of Genesis 1–2 on the uniqueness of man as God’s image and vassal king.[46]

The Historicity of Adam and Eve

Scripture, in a number of ways, affirms the historicity of Adam and Eve, beyond asserting their existence in Genesis 1–5. Later references to them in Scripture always presuppose that they are historical figures. In 1 Chronicles 1:1, Adam is first in a genealogy leading to King David. In Luke 3:38, he is the last man in a backward genealogy leading from Jesus to God. If Adam were a legendary figure, it would have been inappropriate to include his name in a genealogy, counterproductive to the purpose of such a passage.

In Romans 5:14, Paul says that “death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.” This verse refutes the claim of Barth and others that Adam is “everyman,” that we all sin as he did. Paul says that not everyone sins as Adam did, that there was something unique about Adam’s sin.

In the context of this verse, Romans 5:12–21, Paul sets forth at length the unique significance of Adam’s sin, which I will explore in chapter 36. Paul’s main point is to draw a parallel[47] between the work of Adam, who plunged the race into sin, and Jesus, who redeemed us from the sin of Adam. In 1 Corinthians 15:22 he again mentions Adam as the one through whom we die, parallel to Christ, in whom we live. Both Adam and Christ, as we will see, acted as covenant heads of their people, so that their actions are imputed to their people. If the story of Adam is unbelievable, is not the story of Christ unbelievable for the same reasons? And if the sin of Adam never occurred, what can it mean to say as Paul does that Christ saved us from that particular sin and from its consequences?

In 1 Timothy 2:13–14, Paul gives directions concerning the relationships of men to women in the church, basing these instructions on the relations of Adam and Eve.[48] His argument is not that these relationships should reflect or imitate the relations of Adam and Eve. Such an argument would be compatible with a view that these are fictional characters, as someone might say, “Be courageous, like Frodo.” But Paul doesn’t tell the church to be like Adam and Eve, though he often urges believers to imitate God-given models. Nor does he tell them to be unlike Adam and Eve. Rather, he says that the church should impose certain restrictions on women because (gar) Adam was first formed and Eve was first deceived. The implication is that if the story of Genesis 1–3 is fictional, the reason for Paul’s command carries no weight.

Similarly, Jesus, in Matthew 19:4–6, replies to the Pharisees’ question about divorce by saying:

Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.

Here, Jesus says that man and wife are one flesh because God declared them to be so in Genesis 2:24. Husbands and wives today are one flesh because God declared them to be so in the time of Adam and Eve. This argument would have no force if the Genesis narrative were fictional.

Today the claims of evolutionary theory present a special challenge to the historicity of Adam. I addressed the subject of evolution briefly in chapter 10, and here as there I will protest my lack of expertise in any matter dealing with science. But we have seen in this chapter that a literal reading of Genesis 1–2 cannot be reconciled with an evolutionary account of man’s origin. And I have shown above that there are broader theological reasons for affirming the historical existence of Adam and Eve as our first parents, as opposed to evolutionary hypothesis.

Recently, however, there has emerged another level of conflict between evolution and the Genesis record, this time from the sequencing of the human genome. Richard Ostling summarizes the problem:

Over the past decade, researchers have attempted to use the genetic diversity within modern humans to estimate primordial population sizes. According to a consensus drawn from three independent avenues of research, [Dennis Venema] states, the history of human ancestry involved a population “bottleneck” around 150,000 years ago—and from this tiny group of hominids came everyone living today. But the size of the group was far larger than a lonely couple: it consisted of several thousand individuals at minimum, say the geneticists. Had humanity begun with only two individuals, without millions of years for development, says an ASA paper, it would have required God’s miraculous intervention to increase the genetic diversity to what is observable today. A BioLogos paper by Venema and Falk declares it more flatly: The human population, they say, “was definitely never as small as two . . . . Our species diverged as a population. The data are absolutely clear on that.”[49]

It’s discouraging to read comments such as this from professing Christians who don’t even consider the Word of God as part of the “data.” It is true, however, that when we encounter an apparent conflict between Scripture and a scientific consensus, we should reconsider our interpretation of Scripture as well as the meaning and truth of the scientific theory.

As to the interpretation of Scripture, we should consider the possibility that Adam and Eve, though historical figures, were not literally the first parents of all present-day human beings. C. John Collins considers the suggestion[50]that Adam and Eve may not have been the first human beings, but rather “king and queen” of a tribe. In this case, the passages referring to their special creation (Gen. 2:7, 21–22) would likely (though not necessarily) be intended figuratively, representing God’s investiture of this couple with special qualities (the image of God[51]) and a special vassal kingship, including the covenant headship of Adam over the existing human race. Covenant headship in Scripture does not necessarily presuppose biological parenthood: the relation of Christ to his people is adoptive. And such a hypothesis would more adequately explain some perplexing data of the Genesis history: (1) Cain’s fear in Genesis 4:14 that someone might kill him to avenge his murder of Abel; (2) Cain’s obtaining a wife in 4:17; (3) Cain’s founding a city in 4:17 and the rapid development of culture, agriculture, and technology thereafter. These data are not impossible to explain if we assume (as theologians have traditionally done) that Adam and Eve had many, many sons and daughters in addition to Cain, Abel, and Seth. But the supposition of a tribe or community contemporary with Adam and Eve makes the history somewhat easier to understand.

On such an interpretation we would also have to take figuratively the statement in Genesis 3:20 that Eve “was the mother of all living.” Of course, in Scripture, “father” and “mother” do not always refer to biological parentage.[52]Scripture sometimes refers to kings and other authority figures as fathers and mothers, and certainly adoptive parents have the right to these titles. So it is not inconceivable that Genesis 3:20 refers to Eve as the mother of the human nation, given that status and title by God’s covenant investiture.

But the development of such interpretative hypotheses is in its infancy, and certainly no such interpretation should be made normative in the church.

On the other hand, we must also consider the possibility that the scientific consensus in favor of an original human race of thousands is wrong. Science constantly changes, and there is no place for the cocksureness with which some have insisted on this consensus view. The genetic arguments, like all other scientific judgments about the past, are based on models, and the assumptions governing these models can be and are being questioned. It is interesting to note that the consensus among evolutionary scientists is that the numbers of original humans have actually decreased—from millions to thousands. And if it is true that 150,000 years ago[53] there were, say, 10,000 modern humans on the earth, that is a remarkable fact. Evolutionary scientists have generally thought that common characteristics imply common ancestry. Why should they not seek a genealogy of human characteristics earlier than the 10,000 that would account for the 10,000? If the 10,000 sprang out of nowhere, their genesis begins to sound much like special creation. But if their genesis had a backstory, a backstory presumably different from the usual process of genetic transmission, couldn’t that backstory lead to a single couple?

In any case, it does not seem to me that the hypothesis under consideration calls into question the special creation of Adam and Eve in God’s image, their distinctive lordship over creation, or the historicity of the fall.

Key Terms

  • Image
  • Likeness
  • Helper
  • Naming the animals
  • Creation ordinances
  • Cultural mandate
  • Son
  • Body
  • Soul
  • Spirit
  • Intermediate state
  • Mind-body problem
  • Dichotomy
  • Trichotomy
  • Creationism
  • Traducianism
  • Formation
  • Impartation

Study Questions

  1.  List some of the ways in which man is unique among all the creatures of God. How and why are these important?

  2.  “So the image of God consists of those qualities that equip man to be lord of the world, under God. What can these qualities be, but analogies of God’s own lordship attributes?” Explain; evaluate.

  3.  “So man’s dominion does not extend to the work of God’s first two creative days. But the fact that he subdues and rules the creations of the last four is immensely significant.” Explain; evaluate.

  4.  Explain Frame’s parallel between the offices of prophet, priest, and king and the three lordship attributes.

  5.  Discuss “the centrality of language in human life,” citing Scripture.

  6.  Discuss the power of human language according to Genesis 11:6 and James 3:1–12.

  7.  What does it mean to describe human beings as “sons” of God?

  8.  “Sexual differentiation itself images God.” Explain; evaluate.

  9.  Given the many terms in Scripture designating aspects of man, why has so much attention been given to bodysoul, and spirit?

10.  “It seems paradoxical to put it this way, but in Scripture it is not a material part of the person that lies in the grave; rather, it is the person.” Explain; evaluate.

11.  Discuss the biblical cases for dichotomy and trichotomy. What is your conclusion? Why?

12.  Same for creationism and traducianism.

13.  Frame says that Genesis 2:7 and 2:21–22 literally exclude theistic evolution. Explain why. How is it the case that “the biblical description of the creation of Adam and Eve reinforces the emphasis of Genesis 1–2 on the uniqueness of man as God’s image and vassal king”?

14.  Is it important to believe that Adam and Eve were historical persons? Cite some biblical considerations.

15.  Describe the problem for the historicity of the Genesis account recently raised by the sequencing of the human genome. Suggest a response to that problem.

Memory Verses

Gen. 1:26–27: Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,

   in the image of God he created him;

   male and female he created them.

Gen. 2:7: Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

Matt. 12:36–37: I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

Eph. 4:20–24: But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Col. 3:9–10: Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

Resources for Further Study

Collins, C. John. Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011.

Hurley, James B. Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981.

Kline, Meredith G. Images of the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980.

Murray, John. MCW, 2:3–46.

Ostling, Richard. “The Search for the Historical Adam.” Christianity Today, June 26, 2011, 22–27.

Poythress, Vern S. “Adam vs. Claims from Genetics,” WTJ 75, 1 (2013): 65–82.

John M. Frame is the author of Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief.

John M. Frame (BD, Westminster Theological Seminary; AM, MPhil, Yale University; DD, Belhaven College) is J. D. Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy, Emeritus, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando. He is the author of many books, including the four-volume Theology of Lordship series, and previously taught theology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) and at Westminster Seminary California.

[1] As I have generally done in the rest of this book, I will use the term man generically in my discussion, referring to both men and women. Similarly with generic pronouns hehis, and so on. I choose this terminology not intending at all to demean women, though some will take it that way given today’s politically correct usage. (See later in this chapter the subsection “Male and Female.”) To summarize my reasons: (1) This usage is acceptable grammatically in English and in the original languages of Scripture. (2) Alternative locutions, such as humankind and he/she, are awkward. (3) This usage reflects the biblical pattern in which men represent women in the family and in the church. (4) Genesis 5:2 tells us that when God created man “male and female,” he blessed them and “named them Man” (Adam). So at this point I am simply following God’s example.

[2] MCW, 2:4.

[3] Here the editor comments, “Here and elsewhere John Murray employed his own translation to bring out the precise force of the original.”

[4] On the use of plurals in God’s resolution here, see my brief comment in chapter 20. It more likely refers to the “heavenly council” than to the Trinity as such, but like other OT passages it presents God not as a solitary monad, but as a dynamic society. The OT presents these social pictures of God without explanation or embarrassment. That is relevant to the doctrine of the Trinity.

[5] MCW, 2:4.

[6] Ibid., 2:5.

[7] Although theologians have sometimes drawn distinctions between “image” and “likeness,” I believe that the terms both refer to the same thing: our resemblance to God. See MCW, 2:34, where Murray argues that the second term is “explanatory or definitive rather than supplementary” to the first.

[8] In DCL, 460–61, I argue that that the second commandment upholds the dignity of man as well as God, by making man God’s only true image.

[9] A number of writers have said that “image” denotes representation as well as resemblance. In idolatry, the image represents the god it images and the idolater worships it as a representation of his god. I do not disagree with this argument, but I believe that representation is based on resemblance. So resemblance is the main fact about images, and representation is based on that.

[10] In part 2, I discussed three perspectival ways of understanding the Bible’s story: God’s covenants, his kingdom, and his family. These suggest that man’s vassal lordship is at the same time a vassal kingship and a vassal fatherhood. In my discussion I will focus on man’s lordship. But of course, that discussion can be broadened to fit the other two models, and later in this chapter I will attempt to do that.

[11] For an extended discussion of this mandate and a comparison between it and the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20, see DCL, 307–11, and chapter 47 of the present volume. I disagree with the theory of Meredith Kline and others that the cultural mandate is canceled after the fall. Kline, Kingdom Prologue (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006), 156. I argue the point in my The Escondido Theology (Lakeland, FL: Whitefield Media, 2011), 215–18.

[12] “Image” and “glory” are closely related, as in 1 Corinthians 11:7: “For a man ought not to cover his head [in praying or prophesying], since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.” God’s glory (chapter 18) is the visible light shining from his presence. Human glory reflects that, images it. Our good works broadcast that glory to others (Matt. 5:16). So WSC 1 says that man’s chief end is “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Cf. 1 Cor. 10:31: “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” See also DCL, chap. 17.

[13] Meredith G. Kline, in Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), argues that “image” is primarily a real physical resemblance. Addressing the question how man can have a physical resemblance to God, Kline argues that the “Spirit of God” who hovered over the waters in Genesis 1:2 was actually a theophany, the divine glory-cloud that I mentioned in chapter 18. I think myself that the Spirit mentioned in verse 2 is too distant to be the referent of “image” in 1:26–28. But it would not be unscriptural to say that our bodies bear a physical resemblance to God’s theophany, because of course they bear resemblance to the incarnate Christ. The human form is an accurate revelation of God, as accurate a picture as God can give us of himself using finite materials. For the perfect image of God, Christ, is a man.

I mention also that although Kline takes a different approach from mine in a number of ways, his conception of the aspects of the image is similar to mine. On verse 27, he distinguishes the “formal-physical” aspect, the “official-functional” aspect, and the “ethical dimension.” I would distinguish these as representing man’s control, authority, and presence, respectively, though Kline’s correlations with the anointed offices are a bit different from mine. I correlate authority with the prophetic office, while Kline correlates it with the kingly. But the nature of perspectives is such that they interpenetrate. I’m sure Kline would agree that a true king must have both physical power and legitimate authority, and the same is true of priests and prophets. The distinctions that both Kline and I make are distinctions of emphasis.

[14] Typically, names in Scripture are not mere sounds, selected for their attractiveness. Instead, a name is a meaningful sound, intended to say something about the person or object receiving it. Abram, for example, means “high father,” and his later name, Abraham, means “father of a multitude,” reflecting God’s covenant promise to him (Gen. 17:4–8).

[15] John Murray, Principles of Conduct (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 27.

[16] DCL, 202–3.

[17] Ibid., 203.

[18] Or is this being a preincarnate manifestation of God’s eternal Son, Jesus?

[19] The phrase in this passage is often thought to denote angels, but I think Meredith Kline’s view that the phrase refers to human kings is more likely. See his “Divine Kingship and Genesis 6:1–4,” WTJ 24, 2 (1962): 187–204.

[20] Scripture does not describe angels as the image of God, indicating some difference between the metaphor of image and that of sonship.

[21] Portions of this section are taken from my article “Men and Women in the Image of God,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), 225–32. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois 60187, http://www.crossway.com. In DCL, chap. 33, I abridged the article and supplemented it with discussions of the roles of men and women in the family, church, and workplace.

[22] I argue against this view in the article “Men and Women” cited above.

[23] James B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), 172. He points out further that Genesis 1 is concerned about the creation of various types of reality, not with hierarchical differentiations within those types. Therefore, Genesis 1:27 grants the image to the whole human race, not to man as distinguished from woman.

[24] C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 252.

[25] I agree with those who say that “helper” does not in itself connote any subordination. God is himself the helper of Israel (Ps. 30:10; etc.). It is, however, significant that Eve was made after Adam, for the specific purpose of helping him. That cannot be said of God’s relationship to Israel. That fact, I believe, lies behind Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 11:8–9 and 1 Timothy 2:13.

[26] Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), on 11:4. Also James B. Hurley, “Did Paul Require Veils or the Silence of Women?” WTJ 35, 2 (Winter 1973): 205.

[27] Even kings are usually answerable to someone, and even “absolute” monarchs get toppled if they do not succeed in pleasing other powerful members of society.

[28] Underscoring this point: the head-covering of the woman, by which she honors male authority, also establishes her as an honorable woman. Thus Paul is able to speak of that head-covering as a sign of (her own!) authority (1 Cor. 11:10). That head-covering gives her the moral authority to prophesy in God’s name. See Morris, First Corinthians, on v. 10.

[29] Noel Weeks chides the feminist movement for confusing worth with ruling power. See his The Sufficiency of Scripture (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1988), 137. The reader might also usefully peruse Royce Gruenler’s The Trinity in the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), in which he explores the relations of “mutual deference” within the Trinity. I don’t agree with some of his points, but there is much stimulus here. Cf. DG, 694–96.

[30] Scripture also, of course, emphasizes God’s masculinity over against the polytheism and degradation of pagan goddess-worship. For more considerations on this question, see DG, 378–86.

[31] For this reason I disagree with Hurley’s statement that according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, “the woman is not called to image God or Christ in the relation which she sustains to her husband.” Man and Woman, 173 (emphasis his). The imaging is not precise, but as we have seen, imaging never is. I think there are better ways to handle the problem of 1 Corinthians 11:7; see my earlier discussion.

[32] For a fuller account of these mandates, see chapter 47.

[33] Stephen B. Clark, Man and Woman in Christ (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1980), 171.

[34] Vern S. Poythress, “Body and Soul: The Metaphysical Composition of the Human Individual” (unpublished notes), 2.

[35] Ibid., 2–3.

[36] But in Luke 24:39, the risen Jesus emphasizes to his disciples that he is not merely a spirit, as if he were a bodiless ghost. Rather, his resurrection is physical, the raising of his body as well as his spirit: “For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

[37] I’m not sure that it would be wise to line these three terms up with the general set of perspectival triangles employed in this book, especially since these are only three of a great number of terms that could be called aspects of human nature: consider those we cited in chapter 32, such as heartmindunderstanding, and will. If pressed, however, I would suggest that spirit is normative, referring to the God-ordained direction of human life; body is situational, focusing on our interactions with our environment; and soul is existential, the self as experiencing himself, the world, and God.

[38] John Murray said in his class lectures, “The corpse is the person as respects his body.” On that principle he urged us to treat the dead body with dignity and care.

[39] Descartes’ answer: the mind can after all affect the body, but just a tiny bit, in the pineal gland. But to admit that is to admit that the mind has just a little bit of physical power, which is inconsistent with Descartes’ fundamental principles. This inconsistency of Descartes has become a common philosophical joke. A Cartesian mind that can move the body just a little is like a woman who is “a little bit pregnant.”

[40] For a very thorough exegetical analysis, see GST, 472–82.

[41] Ibid., 484. As with the question of dichotomy and trichotomy, Grudem’s exegetical analysis is thorough and helpful.

[42] It is therefore wrongheaded to address the question of abortion by trying to figure out when the soul enters the body, as if it would then be permissible to abort the child during its time of soullessness. The child is a person from his conception. See my discussion of abortion in DCL, 717–32.

[43] MCW, 2:4.

[44] Ibid., 2:5.

[45] The kjv says “living soul.” But we saw earlier in this chapter that the word in Genesis 1:27 translated “soul” in the kjv is not a portion of man, but man himself as a living being.

[46] Murray mentions some other features of the early chapters of Genesis that corroborate the emphasis on man’s uniqueness: (1) the sacredness of human life (Gen. 4:10–15; 9:5–6), in contrast with the killing of animals for clothing and sacrifice (3:21; 4:4); (2) the commands and special probation given to Adam but not to any lesser creature (2:15–17); (3) the NT parallel between Adam, in whom we die, and Christ, in whom we are made alive (1 Cor. 15:45–47). No animal lives or dies on the basis of his covenant relationship to another being.

[47] Actually, he is mostly concerned with a nonparallel: what Christ did was far greater than what Adam did (Rom. 5:15–19).

[48] For my analysis of the application of this passage, see DCL, 635–47.

[49] Richard Ostling, “The Search for the Historical Adam,” Christianity Today, June 26, 2011, 22–27. This discussion was provoked by a series of articles in American Scientific Affiliation, Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith 62, 3 (September 2010). See also Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins, The Language of Science and Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011); C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011). Collins defends the historicity of Adam and Eve while trying to account for the genetic evidence. The other authors deny the traditional doctrine of Adam’s historical existence, believing that the authority of the Bible is only for “faith,” not for science. But see my discussion of the comprehensiveness and sufficiency of Scripture in chapter 26 of this volume. See also Vern S. Poythress, “Adam vs. Claims from Genetics,” WTJ 75, 1 (2013): 65–82.

[50] Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?

[51] By solidarity with Adam, the image would be given to the rest of the existing human race, as Christian believers are renewed in the image of Christ.

[52] See DCL, 583–90.

[53] Of course, on a “young-earth” view, this estimate would be rejected at the outset, together with a wide range of other models and hypotheses used to reach such a number of years.

“God, the Lord” by John Frame

From Concise Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief

Who is God? The Bible most often describes him as LordLord is the name of a profoundly holy person in covenant relationship with us. This chapter will explore the meaning of God’s lordship in terms of his control, authority, and presence, as well as the related concepts of transcendence and immanence.

In this book I will introduce you to the discipline of systematic theology. I’ll discuss the nature of systematic theology itself in chapter 6. But I think we need to do some systematic theology together before we try to define it. Just for now, however, let me say that theology is the human attempt to apply the Bible to people’s questions and, indeed, to all human needs.

Systematic theology is topical theology. It studies the Bible not by going from Genesis to Revelation but by exploring topics treated in various parts of Scripture, like the topics of God, man, revelation, Christ, the last days. Theologians have sometimes called these topics loci, the Latin plural of locus (“place”). So systematic theology asks “whole Bible” questions: What does the whole Bible teach about God? About sin? About justification by faith? These are some of the topics we’ll be looking at.

This book is an introductory survey of systematic theology, and therefore it will not cover each topic in great detail. Many theologians give book-length treatment to, say, God and man, or the person and work of Christ, or the events of the last days.[1] In this book, however, we will be covering briefly, in twenty-five chapters, the whole content of systematic theology. I’ll try to give you the main gist of each doctrinal area, so that you will have a good foundation. I hope it will motivate some of you to study some specific areas more intensively.

This first chapter, not surprisingly, is about God. In fact, we’ll spend three chapters on the doctrine of God, what some theologians call theology proper, because even in a survey this is the foundation for everything else.[2] How important it is to know God! Jesus prayed to his Father, “This is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Who is God, anyway? The WSC in one of its most famous definitions says, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (WSC 4). That’s an excellent statement. I think that everything in that statement is biblical. But it’s interesting to note that the Bible doesn’t contain this kind of definition of God.

How, then, does the Bible introduce us to God? It begins with an act of God: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). I believe Moses wrote the book of Genesis, and he wrote it for the benefit of the people of Israel, whom God had delivered miraculously from slavery in Egypt. These people didn’t need a definition of God. They already knew who God was. He was the one who led them out of Egypt. So the book of Genesis does not include a definition. It begins by telling the people that the God they know already, the God who led them out of Egypt, is also the one who created the heavens and the earth.

How did the Israelites of Moses’ generation come to know God? First through the stories of their forefathers. When God spoke to Moses, he identified himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But to the Israelites these three patriarchs were ancient history. God had helped them centuries earlier. When Moses was born, Israel had been in Egypt for four hundred years. Originally the Egyptians had been friendly to them, but later pharaohs arose who hated them and subjected them to slavery. Israel cried out to God for help, but for those four hundred years God was silent. Many Israelites must have wondered why God did not answer their cries for help. Perhaps some of them even doubted whether the old stories were true.

Yet God did answer their prayers. He began by appearing to Moses. We learn about this meeting between Moses and God in Exodus 3, and I think that passage is the real beginning of the biblical doctrine of God. We read about God in Genesis, but the author of Genesis met God in Exodus 3.

In this passage Moses sees a bush that burns but doesn’t burn up. The flames do not consume it. It turns out that the burning bush is a place where God is, a place where God wants to talk with Moses. God is everywhere, of course, but sometimes he makes his presence known in a very intense way. So God calls Moses and tells him to remove his shoes, for the area of the bush is holy ground. God identifies himself as the God of Moses’ father and of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He says that he has seen the affliction of Israel and has heard their cry. He now intends to bring them out of Egypt to the land of Canaan, which he promised to their forefathers. Moses is to be his prophet, his spokesman.

Understandably, Moses is overwhelmed by this responsibility. God assures him that he will be successful. God will deliver Israel, and they will worship God on this very mountain, the mountain of the burning bush. But Moses has another question: “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Ex. 3:13).

It seems like an odd question to us. What is God’s name? Why would Moses ask something like that? Today, we give our kids names like Billy or Susie without much thought of the meaning of those names. You might call your daughter Elizabeth because you think the name sounds good or because it was your grandmother’s name. But in the ancient Near East, names had meaning. Abram meant “high father,” and Abram’s new name, Abraham, given him by God, meant “father of a multitude.” Usually, when a father gave a name to his son, he chose a name that didn’t just sound good but conveyed something of his hopes for the child, or his feelings about the child, or the circumstances of the child’s birth. So to ask about God’s name is to seek information about him. To seek God’s name is to ask what kind of God he is.

We should be interested in God’s answer to Moses’ question. How does God identify himself? How does God say who he is to the author of the first books of the Bible? We wait with bated breath, on the edge of our seats, to hear God’s name.

God’s name is, at first, rather bewildering. “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I am has sent me to you”’” (Ex. 3:14). God here gives his name in a long form, “I am who I am,” and in a short form, simply “I am.” The long form is difficult Hebrew. It can be translated in present or future tenses, and the relative pronoun translated “who” in the English Standard Version of the Bible (esv hereafter) can be translated in a variety of other ways as well. I can’t explore all these translations here, but the main point is that God’s answer to Moses is mysterious, to say the least. Even the short form of the name, “I am,” is difficult. It is a familiar phrase, as when one says “I am John” or “I am a teacher.” But what can be meant by “I am” just by itself?

It will help us, however, to go on to verse 15: “God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”’” Here we see the mysterious name in still a third form. We’ve seen it in a long form, a short form, and now a very short form, a one-word form translated “Lord.” The word Lord in the esv represents the word Yahweh in Hebrew. Yahweh is derived, evidently, from a form of the verb “to be,” so it is connected with the repeated “I am” in verse 14. Some older English Bibles render this word as “Jehovah,” but most of them now follow the example of the kjv and translate it “Lord.”

Verse 15 says that this is the way God wants to be known, the name by which he is to be remembered for all generations. So the English word “Lord”—representing the Hebrew Yahweh, another Hebrew word, adon, and the Greek kyrios—occurs over seven thousand times in our Bibles, mostly referring to God the Father or, and this is important, to Jesus Christ.

Our Jewish friends today often use Deuteronomy 6:4–5 as a kind of confession of faith: “Hear, O Israel: The Lordour God, the Lord is one.” This is a confession of lordship. There is only one God, and he is Yahweh, the Lord. The Christians of the NT also confessed lordship: Jesus is Lord (Rom. 10:9–10; 1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:11). We should notice, too, that over and over again in Scripture, God says he is going to do this or that so that people “shall know that I am the Lord” (as Ex. 6:7; 7:5, 17; 8:22; 14:4; 29:46; Isa. 45:6; 49:23, 26; Jer. 16:21; 24:7; etc.). So we may say that “God is Lord” is the fundamental confession of the people of God in the OT. The fundamental confession of the NT people of God is “Jesus is Lord.” That is a way of summarizing the main content of the Bible: “God is Lord” is the message of the OT; “Jesus is Lord” is the message of the NT.

So if we want to know the God of Scripture, we must come to know his lordship. There are, of course, many other concepts that are helpful in understanding God, such as the “infinite, eternal, unchangeable” of the WSC, and we will look at some of those. But we need to start somewhere, and it would be hard to find any starting point more appropriate than that of lordship. So we ask, what does it mean for God to be Lord?

To begin with, I should emphasize that Lord is a personal name. So our God is a person. That is a tremendously important fact. We know that in our world there are personal beings, like Joey, Cindy, Yo-Yo Ma, Sammy Sosa, George Bush, and so on. The world also contains impersonal beings, like rocks, trees, the law of gravity, tornadoes, Brussels sprouts, matter, motion, space, time, and chance. Secularists usually try to argue that the personal reduces to the impersonal: in the end, Joey, Cindy, and Yo-Yo Ma are ultimately just matter, motion, space, time, and chance. But the Bible teaches the opposite: the impersonal reduces to the personal. Matter, motion, space, time, and chance are, ultimately, tools used by one great Person to organize and run the universe he has made.

Another point that we can get from Exodus 3 is that the Lord is a supremely holy person. That is, he is separate from us and transcendent over us. We may not approach him without supreme respect. Holiness also means that God is supremely righteous and good, and that he must cross a great barrier to have any fellowship with sinners like you and me. But more of that later.

The main meaning of the name Lord is that he is the head of a covenant. In a covenant, God takes a people to be his. The heart of it, often recorded in Scripture, is his saying, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Heb. 8:10; cf. Ex. 6:7; Lev. 26:12; Jer. 7:23; 11:4; 2 Cor. 6:16; Rev. 21:3). He rules them by his law (in a written document, as we will see), and he delivers them from destruction and death. So the covenant includes both law and grace. We’ll think some more about covenants in chapter 9.

The name Lord also tells us about his nature, what kind of God he is. Scripture typically associates three ideas with the idea of lordship, to which I’ve given the names controlauthority, and presence. I warned you that this book would include a lot of threefold distinctions. This is the first of them, and there will be a lot of others that coordinate with these. I will call these the lordship attributes. Let’s look at them in turn.


When God comes to Moses and identifies himself as Lord, he comes in power. He heard the cry of the Israelites, and he comes to deliver them from the oppression of the Egyptians, with a mighty hand and a strong arm. Pharaoh is the most powerful totalitarian ruler of his day, and the might of Egypt is thought to be invulnerable. But God works powerful miracles and gains a decisive victory over Egypt’s land, its rulers, its armies, and its gods (Ex. 12:12; 15:11; 18:11). He is gracious to whom he will be gracious, and he shows mercy to whom he will show mercy (Ex. 33:19). So he judges Egypt but saves Israel. What he intends to do, he accomplishes. Nothing is too hard for him (Jer. 32:27; Gen. 18:14). His word is never void of power (Isa. 55:11). His prophecies always come to pass (Deut. 18:21–22).

This is what we often call the sovereignty of God. Everything that happens in the world comes from him. He is the one who sends rain, thunder, and lightning (Pss. 65:9–11; 135:6–7; 147:15–18). He makes things freeze, then melts the ice. The smallest details of nature are under his control: the falling of a sparrow, the number of hairs on your head (Matt. 6:26–30; 10:29–30). And the events that we call random, that we ascribe to chance, are really God at work. Look at Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Just roll dice. Whether you get a six or an eight or a twelve, the number comes from God; it’s God’s decision.

God rules not only the little things but the big things, too. How could it be otherwise, since the big things are combinations of little things? He determines what nations will dwell in which territory (Acts 17:26). He decides what king is to rule, when, and where (Isa. 44:28). He decides whether the purpose of a nation will stand or fall (Ps. 33:10–11). And he decided, once, that wicked people would take the life of his own dear Son, so that we, we sinners, might live (Acts 2:23–24).

God rules not only the important events of human history but also the lives of individual people like you and me. He knits us together in our mothers’ wombs (Ps. 139:13–16). He decides whether we will travel or stay home (James 4:13–17).

Does this mean that God controls even our free decisions? Certainly he does. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in order to harm him. That was their free decision, and they are responsible for it. But ultimately, it was God who used their evil deed to accomplish his good purpose (Gen. 45:5–8). Indeed, Scripture often ascribes to God even the sinful behavior of human beings. He made Israel’s enemies to hate her (Ps. 105:24–25). He hardened Pharaoh’s heart against his people (Ex. 4:21; Rom. 9:18). He moved Judas, Herod, and Pontius Pilate to bring about the death of Jesus (Acts 2:23; 4:28).

But God also works wondrously to bring good! God’s power, God’s control, also brings about our faith and repentance, so that we can have eternal life in Christ. Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8–10). Faith is not something we work up in ourselves. God gives it to us as his gift. He opens our heart to believe (Acts 16:14–15). We believe because he appoints us to eternal life (Acts 13:48). He draws us to himself (John 6:44), gives us faith (John 6:65; Phil. 1:29). Yes, we also choose him, but he chooses us first (Eph. 1:4; John 1:12).

God’s control means that he is sovereign over everything that happens in the whole universe. Hear these passages:

Who has spoken and it came to pass,

   unless the Lord has commanded it?

Is it not from the mouth of the Most High

   that good and bad come? (Lam. 3:37–38)

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Rom. 8:28)

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will. (Eph. 1:11)

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

   “For who has known the mind of the Lord,

         or who has been his counselor?”

   “Or who has given a gift to him

         that he might be repaid?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom. 11:33–36)

Here, in the very first chapter of the survey, I am teaching you the doctrine of predestination. I know predestination is difficult. We ask, for example, if God predestines everything, what happens to human freedom? Good question. We’ll deal with it in chapter 7. Another important question is, how can God bring evil things to pass if he is holy, just, and good? That’s a real difficult one, and it has brought a lot of grief to some people. We’ll have to look at that carefully, but we can’t do it now. I hope you can wait until chapter 8 for our discussion of the problem of evil. For now, I will say only that when God brings about human sinful actions, he does it for his own good purposes. We may not always know what those purposes are, but God assures us that they are good. And he assures us of his goodness and justice by sending his own Son to die for our sins.


The second of the three lordship attributes is his authority. God’s authority is his right to tell his creatures what they must do. Control is about might; authority is about right. Control means that God makes everything happen; authority means that God has the right to be obeyed, and therefore we have the obligation to obey him.

God’s authority is part of his lordship. When God meets with Moses in Exodus 3, he gives him an authoritative message—Let my people go, that they may serve me—which has authority even over Pharaoh (Ex. 4:12). When God meets with Israel at Mount Sinai, he identifies himself as Lord (Ex. 20:1–2) and then tells them to have no other gods before him (v. 3). God’s lordship means that we must obey his Ten Commandments and any other commandments he chooses to give us. So God calls us to confess his lordship and then go on to obey all his commandments (Deut. 6:4–6). Jesus, too, says over and over again, in various ways, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:21, 23; 15:10, 14; 1 John 2:3–6; 3:22, 24; 5:3; 2 John 6; Rev. 12:17; 14:12). “How,” he asks, “can you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ when you don’t do the things I say?” (Luke 6:46 paraphrased; cf. Matt. 7:21–22).

God’s authority is absolute. That means, first, that we shouldn’t doubt or question it. Paul says that Abraham “wavered not” in his belief in God’s promise (Rom. 4:16–22). Abraham was certainly tempted to waver. God had promised him the land of Canaan, but although he lived there, he owned not one square inch. God had promised him a son, who would in turn have more descendants than the sand of the sea. But Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was beyond the age of childbearing, and Abraham was over one hundred years old before the promise was fulfilled. Nevertheless, Abraham clung to God’s authoritative word, even against the evidence of his senses. And so should we.

Second, the absoluteness of God’s authority means that his lordship transcends all our other loyalties. We are right to be loyal to our parents, our nation, our friends; but God calls us to love him with all our heart, that is, without any rival. Jesus told his disciples to honor their parents (Matt. 15:3–6), but he told them to honor him even more (Matt. 10:34–38; cf. Matt. 8:19–22; 22:37; Phil. 3:7–8).

Third, to say that God’s authority is absolute means that it covers all areas of human life. Paul says that “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31; cf. Rom. 14:23; Col. 3:17, 24; 2 Cor. 10:5). Everything we do is either to God’s glory or it is not. God has the right to order every aspect of human life.

Covenant Presence

God’s lordship means that he controls everything and speaks with absolute authority. There is also a third element to God’s lordship, and in some ways this is the deepest and most precious. That element is his commitment to us and, therefore, his presence with us.

As noted earlier, the essence of the covenant is God’s word, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” God said that to Israel under Moses (Ex. 6:7) and to the NT people of God (2 Cor. 6:16). He declared this promise many times throughout Scripture (Gen. 17:7; Ex. 6:7; 29:45; Lev. 26:12; Jer. 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; Ezek. 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; 37:27; Heb. 11:16; Rev. 21:3). This means that the covenant Lord is one who takes people to be his own.

When God takes us to be his people, he fights our battles, blesses us, loves us, and sometimes gives us special judgments because of our sins (as Amos 3:2). Most importantly, he is with us. He places his name upon us (Num. 6:27), so that he dwells with us and we with him. In the OT, God literally dwelled with Israel, as he placed his theophany, his visible presence, in the tabernacle and then in the temple. In the NT, Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us” (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23; cf. Gen. 21:22; 26:28; 28:15; 39:3–4). He is God “tabernacling” among us (John 1:14). And after his resurrection, he sends the Spirit to dwell in us, as in a temple (1 Cor. 3:16).

Control, authority, presence. Those are the main biblical concepts that explain the meaning of God’s lordship.

Transcendence and Immanence

These lordship attributes, as I call them, will help us to get a clear idea of the concepts of transcendence and immanence that theologians often use to describe the biblical God. These are not biblical terms, but the Bible does speak of God’s being “on high” (Ps. 113:5, cf. 123:1; Isa. 5:16) as well as “with us.” He is both “up there” and “down here.” He is exalted, and he is near. When Scripture uses the “up there” language, theologians call it transcendence. When Scripture speaks of God “down here” with us, the theologians speak of immanence.

There are dangers, however, in the concepts of transcendence and immanence. I think, for example, that some theologians have misunderstood God’s transcendence. They think it means that God is so far away from us that we cannot really know him, so far that human language can’t describe him accurately, so far that to us he’s just a great heavenly blur without any definite characteristics. This concept of transcendence is unbiblical. If God is transcendent in that way, how can he also be near to us? Furthermore, according to the Bible we can know definite things about God. Despite the limitations of human language, God is able to use human language to tell us clearly and accurately who he is and what he has done.

So I urge you to reject that theological concept of transcendence. If you are going to use that word at all, use it to describe God’s enthronement. When Scripture speaks of God as “high,” “exalted,” “lifted up,” it is not saying that he lives far away from us so that we can’t know him. Rather, it’s saying that God is King, that he is Lord. In other words, biblical transcendence is God’s lordship attributes of control and authority.

Similarly, you should use the word immanence, if you use it at all, to describe God’s covenant presence. Some theologians speak as though when God becomes immanent he becomes immersed in the world, hidden in the world, so that he cannot be distinguished from creaturely reality. But that is not biblical. God is always distinct from the world, for he is the Creator and we are the creature. Yet he is clearly revealed in the world (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:18–21). God does come to be with creatures, and that’s something wonderful and precious.

Objections to Lordship as a Central Focus

There are, of course, a lot of perspectives by which to look at Scripture, and I think that lordship is an especially valuable one, simply because it is so central to the Bible itself. But some theologians have preferred other approaches. Some, for example, prefer to focus on God’s love and mercy. I agree that these are important, but I think their importance is most obvious from a lordship perspective. God’s love and mercy are aspects of his covenant presence with his people. Furthermore, God’s sovereignty magnifies his love and mercy, displaying their power, assuring us that his love always accomplishes his purpose.

To some, of course, the very emphasis on divine sovereignty is to be avoided. They want to leave more room for human free will (see chap. 7). But divine sovereignty, with the doctrine of predestination, is an important part of the Bible.

Others may object that the idea of lordship suggests medieval feudalism. It is important that we understand lordship first in biblical terms, not in terms of human cultures. The biblical view of God’s lordship is very different from feudalism, though there are some things in common. The main difference is God’s absolute control and authority, coupled with his presence with his people.

Another objection is that to focus on lordship obscures other biblical emphases. Certainly, any model emphasizes some biblical truth somewhat at the expense of other truth. The reason is that theology is not the Bible. Theology restates the truths of the Bible, so inevitably its emphasis will differ from Scripture itself. The only way to remedy that problem is to restrict theology so that it does nothing but read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

Certainly, lordship may profitably be balanced with other models, such as God as Father, Husband, and Redeemer. Of all these, I believe that lordship is most comprehensive, both in its pervasiveness throughout Scripture and in its ability to include and explain other models.

The first thing to remember about God is that he is Lord, Yahweh, the I am. As the Lord, he is the personal, holy, head of the covenant. He is in full control of the world he has made, speaks to us with absolute authority, and commits himself to us as Immanuel, God with us.

Key Terms

  • authority
  • control
  • covenant presence
  • God
  • immanence
  • Lord
  • lordship attributes
  • sovereignty of God
  • systematic theology
  • theology proper
  • transcendence
  • Yahweh

Study Questions

  1.  Frame uses three terms to describe God’s lordship. What are these lordship attributes, and how does he explain each one?

  2.  How did the Israelites of Moses’ generation come to know God?

  3.  What is the fundamental confession of the people of God in the OT? In the NT?

  4.  Describe what the title Lord means in the Bible—especially what is meant by the English word Lord in the Bible.

  5.  Frame says: “The main meaning of the name Lord is that he is the head of a covenant.” Discuss.

  6.  In what senses is God’s authority absolute?

  7.  Frame says: “God rules not only the little things but the big things, too.” Give biblical evidence.

  8.  Give an example from Scripture where you see the control aspect of God’s lordship.

  9.  If control is about God’s might, then authority is about God’s ______________.

10.  Give an example from Scripture of God’s authority being demonstrated.

11.  Why does Frame make presence (or covenant presence) a necessary part of God’s lordship? Why is this significant?

12.  What do the terms transcendence and immanence mean? Describe these, using everyday language.

13.  Discuss Frame’s statement that “the impersonal reduces to the personal.”

14.  Why does Frame believe that lordship is the best model for understanding who God is and for organizing a systematic theology?

15.  What are the main objections to using lordship as a central organizing principle for systematic theology?

Memory Verses

Ex. 3:13–15: Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”

Rev. 21:3–4: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Resources for Further Study

In addition to the specific suggestions that I make at the end of each chapter, it will be valuable for the student to compare the discussions here with those of other systematic theologies, such as those of Charles Hodge, Herman Bavinck, Louis Berkhof, Wayne Grudem, Robert Reymond, Douglas Kelly, and Richard Gamble.[1]

Frame, John M. DG. The first seven chapters present a fuller exegetical defense of my triperspectival understanding of divine lordship.

———. DKG. This book develops in detail my triperspectival epistemology, in contrast with non-Christian views of knowledge.

John M. Frame is the author of Concise Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief.

John M. Frame (BD, Westminster Theological Seminary; AM, MPhil, Yale University; DD, Belhaven College) is J. D. Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy, Emeritus, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando. He is the author of many books, including the four-volume Theology of Lordship series, and previously taught theology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) and at Westminster Seminary California.

[1] For my own efforts along these same lines, see my DKGDG, and DCL.

[2] The word theology literally means “study of God,” so it is applied to this locus in a “proper” way. But of course, the word is used more broadly to cover any exposition of the content of a religion, in this case the Christian faith.

[3] Ed. Note. Also those by Joel Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, and Robert Letham.