The Image of God and the Cultural Mandate


God’s stewards
To understand fully God’s intentions for Christians in this world, we need to grasp what it means that we are made in the image of God. As we have seen in earlier articles, the term “image of a god” in the ancient near east referred to someone who was a representative or regent of that god; for us, it means that our primary identity as human beings is that we are God’s stewards over the world He has made.

In a broad sense, it also includes the gifts and abilities God has placed in us that enable us to carry out this work, including gender and marriage, spirituality and physicality, creativity, rationality, freedom and morality. 

Our call as stewards is to continue the work that God began. He started with a world “without form and void” and set it in proper order; we are to “tend the Garden,” including both the cultivation of beauty through the arts and the production of food and other necessities.

We are also to engage in the process of learning and discovery through coming to understand the natural world. And we are to do all of this in obedience to God, recognizing His authority over the world so that we cultivate it as stewards, not owners, and do not abuse His property. 

Authority misused
The reality, however, is that we misused our authority. The story of the Fall points out that we were not willing to live within the limits God placed on us, resulting in broken relationships with God, with each other, with ourselves, and with nature itself. The blessing of children becomes a source of suffering for women, and the blessing of work becomes a source of suffering and frustration for men.

Yet neither Adam nor Eve was cursed; children continue to be a blessing and our call as God’s regents in the world was never withdrawn. We continue to be God’s image, His face in the world, even in our rebellion. 

But God had a recovery plan for our disobedience: through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the ultimate image of God, through His death, resurrection, and ascension, the penalty due to our sin is paid in full and the power of sin in our lives is broken, thus restoring our relationship with God. This provides a solid foundation for reconciliation with each other and for dealing with the problem of guilt and shame in our own lives.

But it also restores our work and purpose to their proper place. Under the influence of the Biblical worldview, the western world was unique in using our creativity to develop technologies to eliminate drudgery and to enhance productivity, making western cultures the most prosperous in human history—with both good and bad consequences because of the lingering effect of sin. 

What shall we say in response to this?
To put this differently, in Christ, our ability to live out our call as the image of God is restored. Sin isn’t gone, but it doesn’t have the same hold over us, and we are now free to carry out our mandate to develop culture as stewards of God. This has enormous implications for how we live our lives. 

First, it means that Christianity is far more than what most people—including Christians—think of as “religion” (which typically means little more than religious activities plus morality). Rather, Christianity is a worldview, a vision of the world and our place in it where every facet of our life—family, occupation, recreation, relationships, finances, everything—finds its meaning and end in God’s purposes for us and for the world. The Gospel affects all of life, and includes the stewardship of all that God has entrusted to us, whether time, talents, treasure, or relationships. 

Second, Christians need to be active in every sphere of life, and should infuse everything they do with the sure knowledge that they are fulfilling God’s call on their lives to be stewards wherever God has placed them. And while they need to work from the foundation provided by Christ’s redemption, they do not necessarily need to wear this on their sleeve.

C. S. Lewis once commented that “we don’t need more Christian writers, we need more great writers who are Christian.” The point is that not everything we do needs to be overtly “Christian.” Instead, we need to do whatever we do with excellence, because by so doing we are being good and faithful servants in fulfilling God’s purposes for the world. This is what it means that we are to do everything as unto God, not man, and to do it in the name of Christ. 

Third, we need to get rid of the idea that only clergy are involved in “full time Christian service.” When we understand that all of culture is under God’s authority and that He equips each of us to follow our unique calling, it becomes clear that all work should be considered Christian service. Christians in the “secular environment are fulfilling God’s call to be His stewards by developing culture. To be sure, some are called to vocational ministry as members of the clergy, but their work is no more or less sacred than the business owner or laborer who does her or his work as a calling from God. 

Fourth, although evangelism is critically important, it is only the first step for Christians. The Great Commission tells us that wherever we go,[1] we are to make disciples who obey everything that Jesus taught. Evangelism must lead to discipleship, to teaching people how to live for Jesus in their own walks of life. Jesus only called twelve to be apostles; he left his other disciples in their own professions.

We need to learn what it means to be a Christian in our own calling and to help others learn what it means in theirs—and not only in our employment, but in our family, neighborhood, community, and nation, in our friendships, our recreation, even in the care of ourselves. And for this, we need the support and fellowship of other Christians, our fellow members of the body of Christ. 

Lastly, to do all of this, we need to catch a vision of why we matter. The entire universe is “the theater of God’s glory,” as Calvin put it, and yet in this amazing, mysterious, and beautiful universe we occupy a unique place. We alone bridge the gap between time and eternity, matter and spirit, and we have a unique calling to bring to fruition the things God has begun. Each of us is individually designed and equipped to play a key part that only we can do in bringing about God’s purposes for His creation.

God saved us when we could not save ourselves so that we would carry out the work that He uniquely prepared us to do (Eph. 2:8-10). John 3:16 tells us that God loved the world (Greek cosmos, the entirety of creation) so much that He gave His son to save those who believe in Him. Our salvation is thus not only for ourselves personally, but for the good of the entire created order. 

So let us take up the challenge to live out our identity as God’s image on earth, bringing the lordship of Christ to bear in all areas of life, and recognizing that we have a unique and critical role to play, however small it may look to us, in fulfilling God’s purposes for the world. And whatever we do, whether in word or deed, let us do it as unto God, not men, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For more insight to this subject, get Glenn’s book,
Why You Think the Way You Do, from our online store. Or read the article, Reclaiming Occupied Territory,” by Charles Colson and Anne Morse.

[1] The word “go” in the Greek is not a command, it is a participle. The sense is more “in your going” or “as you go” rather than a command to go.



You must be logged in to comment on Christian Worldview Journal articles.