“What is man?” asked the psalmist David, centuries ago. It is striking that this is also the burning question of the 20th Century and the Space Age. Is man merely a glorified animal? Is he merely the sum total of all his chemicals and their reactions? Or is he more than this?
As the genetic code is deciphered and the electronic aspects of the brain’s functioning are understood, the problem becomes increasingly urgent.
“Who am I?” The piercing question of identity must be answered by every person. Our answer, whether we realize it or not, has enormous influence upon our thinking and acting, our outlook, and our living. Never was it more important for a Christian to understand what the Bible says about man in order to have an anchor on the sea of human speculation.
The first question to be answered is that of man’s origin. Where did he come from? “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. 1:1), says the Bible, and, “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 fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’ So God created man is His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them” (vv. 26, 27).
Scripture consistently teaches that neither the universe nor man himself is the product of blind chance. Man, especially, is the result of careful and purposeful deliberation on the part of the members of the triune Godhead.
Adam, the first man, was created in God’s image. Adam is a proper name, but the Hebrew term from which it comes also has the connotation of “mankind.” It is frequently so used in the Old Testament.
God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone,” and to complement man He made a woman to be Adam’s helper (Gen. 2:18, 22).
“Through faith we understand that the worlds [universe] were framed by the Word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear” (Heb. 11:3) .In other words, God created matter ex nihilo (out of nothing). He then formed matter into inanimate objects – plants, animals, and man.
The Bible does not claim to tell us how man and the universe were created. It does, however, assert emphatically and unambiguously that God brought them into being. Nowhere does the Bible attempt to prove God. It assumes Him. A Christian unashamedly begins with the assumption that God exists. He is convinced that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ clearly bear out this assumption. Such assumption is not naive or unintellectual, and we should keep in mind that unbelievers who reject the biblical view of Creation also begin with presuppositions and assumptions on which they base their claims. Everyone begins somewhere with an assumption that is not provable in the scientific sense. For a helpful, brief, contemporary discussion of the issues involved, see The Creation of Matter, Life, and Man, by Addison H. Leitch.
It is also important to realize that New Testament writers saw Adam as a person as historical as our Lord Himself. Paul clearly considered Adam to be a distinct individual as well as the prototype of fallen man (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:22). Our Lord spoke about the creation of man, confirming the Genesis account (Matt. 19:4). There is no room for mythical or allegorical interpretations of the historicity of Adam’s creation and subsequent fall.
Man was distinct and unique from the rest of creation. He was to subdue it and have dominion over it. He is at the top of all living beings. Man’s self-consciousness, his capacity for intelligent reasoning, and, above all, his moral and spiritual sense, set him completely apart from all other creatures. No creature other than man has ever been observed building a chapel.
Genesis 2 gives further information on the creation of man: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (v. 7). It is clear that two elements were involved in man’s creation. One is “the dust of the ground.” The other is “the breath of life,” which was given by God. The union of these two elements makes man a living being.
Man is clearly more than one substance. But are the components of his being three ( body, soul, and spirit) or two ( body and soul)? The Old Testament does not have a fixed term for the immaterial part of man’s nature. The terms “soul,” “heart,” and “spirit” are used as counterparts of the material side. Along with the term “body,” they include the whole man. The psalmist says, “My soul thirsteth for Thee, my flesh longeth for Thee” (63:1). But not all such biblical expressions indicate a twofold nature of man. Others just as plainly speak of three aspects of man’s being: “My soul longeth…for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God” (Ps. 84:2).
Should the God-breathed part of man be viewed as two parts – i.e., soul and spirit separately – or as one? Hammond observes, ” ‘Soul’ and ‘spirit’ are certainly not to be regarded as synonymous in scriptural language. But, on the other hand, they are not kept invariably distinct. Compare Psalm 74:19 with Ecclesiastes 3:21; Matthew 10:28 with Luke 23:46; Acts 2:27 with 7:59. The references invoked in suggesting [threefold] division are those of 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 4:12; cf. Luke 1:46, 47….But those who suggest [such a division] admit that soul and spirit, in the body, are separable only in thought. It would seem best to regard them as differing aspects of the same essence, and to remember that whatever distinctions are made for the spiritual purposes of scriptural teaching, there is a substratum which is common to both soul and spirit.”30
Man a Unity
In any case, the Bible always views man as a unity, both material and immaterial. The Resurrection shows that man is as essentially body as he is essentially soul or spirit. The notion that man is a soul imprisoned in a body is a Greek concept, not a biblical one.
What does it mean that man was created in the image and likeness of God? It certainly does not mean that he has any physical likeness to God. Scripture clearly teaches that God is a Spirit and does not have physical parts like a man (John 4:24) .The Bible uses anthropomorphic expressions, such as “the hand of God,” only to accommodate our human incapacity to think in any other terms. The strong prohibition against man’s representing God by graven images was given because no one had ever seen God and therefore could not know how He looked. Nothing on earth could represent Him (Deut. 4:15-23; Ex. 20:4).
The image of God in man has to do, rather, with personality. Man has “a free, self-conscious, rational and moral personality like that of God — a nature capable of distinguishing right and wrong, of choosing the right and rejecting the wrong, and of ascending to the heights of spiritual attainment and communion with God.”31
The original man was intelligent. He could give names to all the animals when they were presented to him (Gen. 2:19, 20). He had the power of reasoning and thought. In speaking, he could connect words and ideas. He had moral and spiritual qualities. He could and did commune with God and had the power to resist moral evil or yield to it (Gen. 3).
Because man has been created in the image of God, human life is inviolate. God instituted capital punishment (Gen. 9:6) for this reason.
The new man is renewed in the image of God in righteousness (Eph. 4:23, 24; Col. 3:10). The implication of “renewed” is that man once had a moral likeness to God, but that it was lost. Originally man was holy and the basic inclination of his nature was toward God. He was not neutral toward God, for the creation of the “new man” is after the pattern of the original. Nevertheless, from the beginning man had freedom to choose evil, and so to sin.
At the same time it is important to realize that man was also free not to sin. He had no original inward tendency to sin, as we have. Though he was capable of being tempted, he was not either compelled or impelled to sin. Adam chose to do so deliberately, as a free act. In the words of the famous phrase, man did not have inability to sin; he had ability not to sin.
Image vs. Likeness
Roman Catholics and some others distinguish between “image” and “likeness” because both words are used in Genesis 1:26. They have suggested that the image of God in man is only in his personality , and that the likeness of God is a supernatural gift given man by God in creation – i.e., “an original righteousness and perfect self-determination before God which could be, and indeed was, lost in the Fall. The image, on the other hand, consists of what belongs to man by nature, i.e., his free will, rational nature, and dominion over the animal world, which could not be lost even in the Fall. This would mean that the Fall destroyed what was originally supernatural in man, but left his nature and the image of God in him wounded, and his will free.”32
This distinction, however, is not borne out by Scripture. The word “image” is used alone in Genesis 1:27 to describe what is meant by the two terms together in verse 26. In a similar construction elsewhere (Gen. 5:1), the word “likeness” is used alone.
Had things remained as they were in the original creation, all would have been well. Sin and death, with all their disastrous consequences for the human race, would never have come into being if Adam and Eve had chosen to obey rather than disobey by asserting their wills against God. But they did assert themselves against God, and their rebellion brought titanic disaster to all their descendants.
It is significant and intensely interesting that most, if not all, primitive religious traditions have, in one form or another, a belief in such a cataclysmic event. The Fall permanently altered what previously was an idyllic relationship between God and man. Man is generally viewed as having intimate fellowship with his Creator. But ever since he offended Him he has suffered from God’s displeasure as well as from the loss of fellowship that resulted from his estrangement. Even in primitive animistic societies, which worship many gods, there is belief in a high-sky God who is the Creator. Since the passing of the golden age of intimate contact, this God is aloof from man. He now deals with human beings only through the lesser gods. All of these ideas seem to be echoes and reflections – distorted, faint, or mutilated by the passage of time – of the event, clearly described in the Bible (Gen. 3), which we call the Fall.
The sin of Adam and Eve, as we have seen, was something for which they were personally responsible. They did not have sinful natures such as we have, so the temptation to sin must have come from outside them. The Bible describes this source as “the serpent” (Gen. 3:1), a term scripturally identified with Satan (Rev. 12:9). The Fall really explains how sin entered the human race, rather than how evil got into the world.
The ultimate answer to the profound question of the origin of evil is wrapped in the mysteries of God’s counsels. Why did God not prevent evil from entering the universe, since He knew in advance what would happen? Why did He not make man incapable of sinning? He could have, but had He done so, we would not be human beings with freedom of choice. We would be robots, or “chatty dolls” that always speak the same word when someone pulls the string.
Though we have no final answers to sin’s origin, God knew what would happen and, as someone has said, “thought it was worth the risk.” C. S. Lewis observes that it is useless to speculate endlessly about the origin of evil. Each of us, however, faces the fact of evil, and the whole of God’s redemptive program has to do with combatting it. God is not the Author of sin. Had our first parents not disobeyed Him, sin would never have entered the human race.
The several facets of sin are clear in the progression which is described in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve are first tempted to doubt God’s Word (“Yea, hath God said?”), then led on to disbelieve it (“Ye shall not surely die”) , and finally to disobey it (“They did eat”).
The results of man’s disobedience were immediate and obvious – separation from God and awareness of guilt. The curse which God pronounced involved, for mankind, both physical and spiritual death, hard physical labor, and sorrow. Man’s fall involved the whole natural creation as well (cf. Rom. 8:21,22).
As a result of the Fall, the image of God in man was badly marred in both its moral and its natural dimensions. Man lost his original inclination toward God and became a perverted creature, inclined away from his Creator. His personality was sadly marred. His intellect became bound, his emotions corrupted, and his will enslaved. He lost his true manhood. Men speak about man as “evolving” from a primitive condition, but the Bible (Rom. 1:18-32) graphically portrays his descent rather than ascent.
The result was “total depravity.” This expression of man’s condition after the Fall has been widely misunderstood, with the result that the Christian position regarding man’s sinful nature has sometimes been unjustly caricatured. The doctrine of depravity “was never intended to convey the meaning that man is as bad as he possibly can be and that every trace of moral rectitude has been lost in fallen man. ‘Total depravity’ is intended to indicate that the evil principle…has invaded each part of human nature, that there is no part of it : which can now invariably perform righteous acts or invariably think righteous thoughts.”33 In other words, man’s total depravity means that every area of his life is blighted – not that everything about him is totally bad. His depravity is also total in that apart from God’s grace he is forever lost.
The tragedy of the Fall went far beyond Adam and Eve. It was race-wide in its effect: “wherefore as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin,…death passed upon all men, for all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12).
Men have held to three kinds of appraisals of the effect of the Fall on the human race:
1. The British monk, Pelagius, said that all men could be sinless if they chose, and that some men have lived free from sin. Pelagius reasoned that since a man can live free from sin, he must have been born into the world free from sin. Consequently, Adam’s sin must have affected only Adam. In other words, Pelagius denied “original sin.” Carrying his line of thinking further, he asserted that man has no need of supernatural help to live a righteous life. Pelagius did, however, recognize sin’s force of habit and its harmful example to others.
2. Augustine, the great bishop of North Africa, rose to do battle with Pelagius’ heretical view, and it is with his name that the second view of the Fall is connected. Augustine insisted that Adam transmitted to his posterity, because of the unity of the human race, both his guilt and the corruption belonging to it. The nature that man now has, said Augustine, is like the corrupted nature of Adam. Man has lost his freedom not to sin. He is free to carry out the desires of his nature – but since his nature itself is corrupt, he is really free only to do evil. Augustine used the phrase “the will is free, but not freed.” Though he has a free choice, man chooses a perverse course.
3. Roman Catholics hold a halfway position, called semi-Pelagianism – that in the Fall man lost the supernatural gift of righteousness which was not his by nature anyway, but had been added by God. In the Fall, man reverted to his natural state, without this righteousness that God had given him. So he is only half sick. Man, according to this view, still has a special gift of the Spirit which is sufficient to enable him to be righteous if he allows his will to cooperate with God’s Spirit.
The Scripture is clear that though there may be a difference between men in their degree of sin, there is no difference in the fact of sin (cf. Rom. 3:9, 10, 22, 23; Isa. 53:6). The whole world is under judgment (Rom. 3:19), and because all men are apart from Christ, they are rebels against God, “children of disobedience,” subject to His wrath (Eph. 2:2-4).
History and experience bear testimony to the universality of sin. The Augustinian view is closest to the biblical view – that man inherits a tendency to sin which always, to some extent, makes itself manifest. “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually….The imagination of man’s heart is evil .from his youth” (Gen. 6:5; 8:21). When David said, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity , and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5), he was not speaking of the act of conception as sinful, but of the inherited bias to sin that is transmitted at conception.
Anyone who has ever had children recognizes clearly that self-centeredness shows up in the next generation at a very early age. You don’t have to teach a child to be selfish. A great deal of effort, on the part of Christian parents, goes toward trying to overcome this tendency. The only one who has ever escaped this inherited bias toward sin is our Lord Himself.
Adam Our Representative
The Bible clearly teaches that Adam was our representative when he sinned (Rom. 5:12-19) . Adam represented us just as, when our government declares war, it represents, affects, and involves us. As a result of Adam’s sin, all who are in Adam die. This includes each of us. We tend to think that things might have turned out differently if we had been in Adam’s place. But each of us, by doing as Adam did, has ratified the decision our first parents made to rebel and disobey God. Who would claim he had never sinned? And so we are justly condemned today not only for Adam’s sin, but for our own sins.
But believers are also represented in Christ. The Bible teaches that as in Adam all die, so in Him all (believers) will be made alive (Rom. 5:19). The glory of the Gospel is that God did something for us in Christ that we could not do for ourselves. Because Adam’s original sin is charged to us, we inherit a corrupt nature. Through Christ, the second Adam, we inherit a new nature. From Adam we received sin and guilt. From Christ we receive forgiveness and righteousness.
Sin, it is important to realize, does not begin with overt acts, nor is it limited to them. The acts proceed out of a corrupt heart and mind. In other words, we are not sinners because we sin – we sin because we are sinners. An apple tree is not an apple tree because it bears apples; it bears apples because it has the nature of an apple tree. Sins are the acts (or the apples); sin in our corrupt nature (the nature of the apple tree).
Through Christ we are not only forgiven our individual acts of sin, but we receive a new nature. The Gospel solution is radical, not merely one of outward reform. Someone has said, “Christ puts a new man in the suit – not just a new suit on the man.” When the man himself is changed, his clothing (his particular actions) will tend to change as well.
Why We Are Responsible
But how can we be responsible for being sinners if God gave us a hopeless start in life? How can He then condemn us? The answer is twofold. First, as we have seen, we share Adam’s sin. But beyond that, God has made full provision, through the sacrifice of Christ, for us to escape judgment. Scripture emphasizes man’s ability to receive Christ if he wants to. As Jesus told Nicodemus, “This is the judgment: that light is come into the world, and man loved darkness rather than light” (cf. John 3:19). It has been said that the entrance to hell is guarded by a cross. No one comes into hell without walking past it. In other words, at Calvary Cod did everything necessary to keep man from judgment. If he refuses God’s provision. man must himself bear responsibility for judgment.
But isn’t it true, many people ask. that men are not all equally bad? Of course this is true. That “all have sinned” does not imply that all are as bad as they might be. But in relation to God’s standard of holiness, all come short. You probably know honest. kind, and upright people who are not to be compared with the derelicts of Skid Row or with vicious criminals behind bars. Humanly, there are great differences.
But suppose we were to put one person in Death Valley, 280 feet below sea level; one in Denver, the mile-high city; and one on the peak of Mount Everest. altitude 29,000 feet. Let’s suppose that the person in Death Valley represents the dregs of society and the kind of life such people live. The person in Denver is the “average man.” and the one on Mount Everest is the best person you can imagine. The enormous differences in their altitude, or elevation, are apparent. But let’s suppose Cod’s standard of holiness is represented by the distance to the moon. Recently we have had an opportunity to see how Mount Everest, Denver, and Death Valley look from the moon. They’re all the same!
From our human standpoint, there are great differences in men’s sinfulness, but – contrasted with the infinite holiness of God – all men are equally lost
Sin Is Against God
Sin is always primarily directed against God. It is more than mere self-centeredness. David, though he had wronged Bathsheba in adultery, and had murdered Uriah, cried out, “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight” (Ps. 51:4).
The Bible defines sin variously as “transgression of the Law” (1 John 3:4), as falling short of the mark (Rom. 3:23 ), and as failure to do the good we know we should do (James 4:17). Sin has both an active, overt aspect (transgression of the Law) and a passive aspect (failure to do good). There are sins of commission and sins of omission. The Book of Common Prayer adequately summarizes, in its General Confession, ‘We have done those things we ought not to have done and we have left undone those things we ought to have done.”
The first sin was the prototype of all other sins. The seriousness of the first sin lies in the fact that Adam and Eve broke a commandment of God that showed His authority, goodness, wisdom, justice, faithfulness, and grace. In their transgression, they rejected His authority, doubted His goodness, disputed His wisdom, repudiated His justice, contradicted His truthfulness, and spurned His grace. Then and now, sin is the opposite of God’s perfection.34
The seriousness of sin is based on man’s alienation from and broken fellowship with God. It brought disastrous consequences to Adam, and to humanity and society in general. The root problem in the world today is not ignorance or poverty, as great as these are. The root problem is sin. Man is alienated from God, and hence is self-centered. The tensions between racial groups, economic classes, and nations are nothing more than the self-centeredness of the individual blown up on a wide canvas to include all men.
The Good News
If no power is strong enough to change human nature, there is no hope for man. But the good news of the Gospel is that there IS such power – in Christ. “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Rom. 5:20).
Unless we understand what the Bible teaches about the nature of man in creation and the devastating effects of the Fall, we cannot understand the grandeur of the grace of God. Many problems in understanding God’s grace stem from an inflated view of man and his character and a shrunken view of God and His holiness.
These issues are matters of life and death. Man does not live and die like an animal. Death does not end man’s existence. The soul and spirit survive the body. Jesus Himself spoke clearly of this continued existence for both the saved and the lost: “I am the Resurrection and the Life; he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die” (John 11:25, 26). In the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), Christ clearly taught the continued conscious existence of the unjust. The whole teaching of the New Testament about future judgment rests on the assumption that the soul survives after death. “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27; cf. Rom. 2:5-11; 2 Cor. 5:10).
The Resurrection applies not only to those who will be raised to be with Christ forever (1 Thess. 4:16), but also to the wicked, who will be raised for judgment. Jesus said clearly, “The hour is coming in the which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice and shall come forth; they that have done good unto the resurrection of life, and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation” (John 5:28,29).
The sobering truth that we exist forever makes it imperative that we give thought to our nature, condition, and destiny while we are still able to do what is needful.
In answer to the question “Who am I?” the Bible clearly answers that each of us is a personality created purposefully by God in His own image. It teaches that we have eternal significance and that our souls are worth more than the whole world (Mark 8:36). God Himself says that He has a plan and a purpose for each life, that we are morally responsible to respond to Him, and that we can respond in faith. We have an eternal destiny – either in His presence forever, or in everlasting separation from Him.
The Bible is the most realistic book ever written. It not only describes God as He really is, but us as we really are. It gives us a clear vision of our own nature and destiny, and that of the human race.
For Further Reading
Laidlaw, J. The Bible Doctrine of Man. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1905.
Leitch, Addison H. The Creation of Matter, Life, and Man, fifth in the “Fundamentals of the Faith” series. Washington: Christianity Today, Sept. 16, 1966.
Machen, J. G. The Christian View of Man, London: Banner of Truth, 1965.
Orr, James. God’s Image in Man. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948.