More Like Jesus: In God's Likeness (Part 1)

July 19, 2016

by Peter Amsterdam

(This article is based on key points from the book Classical Arminianism, by F. Leroy Forlines.1)

As brought up in earlier articles in this series, being more like Jesus requires effort in two directions—we are to “put off” sin and “put on” Christ. We’re to cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,2 put on the Lord Jesus Christ,3 put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life,4 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.5 To pursue godliness, we must put focus on both positive and negative aspects—the positive being putting on Christ, and the negative being overcoming sin in our lives.

I don’t like to talk about sin, but sin is a part of the life of every human, and in the course of putting on Christ, we must face sin and strive to overcome it. Of course, we will never fully eradicate sin from our earthly lives, but we can have a measure of victory, by God’s grace and with His help. Salvation releases us from the strong grip sin has on our lives, making it possible for the Spirit of God to transform us.

In order to understand the change salvation brings to our lives in regard to overcoming sin, we need to look back to before sin entered into humanity, as well as the result of sin’s entrance, and lastly the change that took place in sin’s grip on humanity through Jesus’ death for our sins. To do this, we begin with humankind being created in the image of God.

Scripture tells us:

God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.6

This tells us that human beings are patterned after God. God is personal, and, like God, we are rational, self-aware, intelligent, and have a will, emotions, and knowledge. We can think, reason, and learn.

We also have a moral likeness to God. Scripture teaches that every human being has God’s law “written on their heart.”7 Everyone intrinsically knows the difference between right and wrong, because they have a conscience which accuses them when they do wrong. It’s not given to us to decide whether or not we ought to live according to God’s moral standard, as God already set that parameter when He created us. We may decide that we don’t want to live by His standards, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that we need to, and that there are consequences to acting contrary to God’s moral law. When individuals are held accountable before God at the end of their lives, no one will be able to say that they didn’t know it was wrong to murder, to lie, to steal, etc., for God has implanted basic morality in every human being.

Scripture speaks of the role our mind plays in our faith life and moral decision-making:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.8 Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.9 I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.10

The Bible uses the word think 54 times, reason 50 times, understand and understanding 145 times. We use our minds to think, reason, make judgments, draw conclusions, size up situations, etc.

Scripture also speaks of our hearts. The heart represents the seat of our emotions, the place within us from which we feel. We read of joy in the heart,11 as well as anguish,12 hatred,13 love,14 courage,15 and sorrow.16

Scripture also refers to our power of choice, our will, the fact that we can act according to our desires. Jesus spoke of individuals having choices:

If anyone desires to come after Me…17 How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!18If anyone wants to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine…19 

We are beings with free will, and the ability to choose is part of our personhood.

One aspect of being made in the image of God is that we have minds which think, reason, and understand. We also have feelings and emotions, and self-determination. In our totality, we are thinking, feeling, and acting beings. We think with our mind, feel with our heart, and act with our will. While these are listed as functioning independently, jointly our mind, heart, and will are integral to who we are.

The concept that humans are rational, moral persons is often referred to as the constitutional likeness of God. The image of God within humans as they were first created (Adam and Eve) also included functional likeness. Functional likeness means that humankind, as originally created, thought and felt and acted in a way that was pleasing to God. Constitutional likeness has to do with personhood. Functional likeness refers to the way a person thinks, feels, and acts, and is also referred to as personality. (Personality in this sense does not refer to character traits, as in “she has a good personality.”) Humans as they were first created, before the fall, were made in the likeness of God with respect to both personhood and personality.

Personality functions on two levels: the conscious level and the subconscious level. The first humans, as they were created and as they developed until the fall, functioned both on the conscious and subconscious level in the likeness of God.

The subconscious mind (used here in the broad sense to include mind, heart, and will) contains ideas, attitudes, and responses which have become part of who we are and which influence our thoughts, actions and reactions—often without us realizing it. Mind in this sense involves our total personality—our mind, heart, and will. We unconsciously or automatically store knowledge or ideas in our subconscious mind, which is available for recall when needed. Very little of all the knowledge we have garnered resides in our conscious mind at any given moment.

While Scripture doesn’t use the words “subconscious mind,” it does allude to parts of our memory, experience, and heart which are not directly accessible to our conscious minds. David asked God to cleanse him from secret faults.20 Such faults wouldn’t be secret to God, so David could have been referring to faults that were secret to himself. Things which were hidden away deep within himself which he was unaware of and wasn’t able to access. We see something similar when he prayed:

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!21 Elsewhere he states: Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.22

Other versions translate “secret heart” as “hidden part” or “inmost place.” David refers to our internal hidden part. While the wording is different, the ancient writers knew that there was a part of our mind/heart/inner being which is deeper, or hidden from, our conscious mind.

Before the fall, the subconscious minds of Adam and Eve only knew ideas and attitudes that were in the likeness of God. They didn’t know evil. Both consciously and subconsciously they only knew goodness; so they thought, felt, and acted in a godly manner. This state is known as “original righteousness.” The original condition of the first humans was one of positive holiness, not a state of innocence or moral neutrality. Adam and Eve possessed innate righteousness. Righteous thoughts, feelings, and actions were inherently part of them as part of their being made in the likeness of God.

As explained in The Heart of It All series:

Prior to the fall Adam and Eve were pure and were “posse non peccare,” a theological term meaning “able not to sin.” While they could choose to sin, they could also choose not to sin, and thus to remain sinless. After the fall they were different. Their moral purity was gone, and the desire and ability to stay aligned with God’s will was distorted. Their ability to not sin and thus remain sinless was no longer there, as from that point on they, and all of subsequent humanity, were “non posse non peccare,” meaning “not able not to sin.” From that point on, humans were sinners by nature, and while they can refrain from sinning sometimes, by nature they sin and don’t have the ability to not sin. Though we are still in the image of God, that image has become altered due to sin. Thankfully, as Christians, we can counter some of the effects of our fallen nature through believing, abiding in, absorbing, and applying God’s Word; and at the time of the resurrection of the dead, when Christians are raised in glory and reunited with their bodies, we will be freed from the effects of our fallen human nature.23

Before Adam and Eve sinned, the framework of possibilities within which they operated included either remaining in the practice of complete righteousness or committing sin. After they sinned, operating within that framework was no longer possible—it became impossible for them to practice uninterrupted righteousness as they were no longer able not to sin. They lost their “original righteousness” as a result of disobeying God. Ever since the fall, humans have been born with an innately sinful nature, meaning that we are inherently prone to sin. This condition we are born with is called “original sin.”

After the fall of humanity, God’s constitutional likeness remained within us, though it has been somewhat damaged. We are still rational beings who think, feel, and act. However, we have lost the functional likeness of God in that we no longer naturally think, feel, and act in the likeness of God. Our subconscious mind is no longer oriented toward God with righteous thoughts, feelings, and actions; thus we are prone to sin.

Salvation through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection breaks the power of sin in our lives. It doesn’t bring a cessation of sin, but it alters the power that sin has had over us. Salvation changes our relationship with God. Through Christ’s living a sinless life, and His sacrificing Himself through His death on the cross, we are no longer under the bondage of sin. God no longer looks upon us as guilty; we are no longer alienated from Him.24 Before this, we were under sin’s power; however, through salvation, that power is broken. We have been delivered from the sphere where sin reigned and moved to the sphere of God’s grace.

Salvation sets Christians apart from the rest of humanity in that we no longer stand before God as guilty; we have been declared righteous. We are changed through a new birth and through the renewal of the Holy Spirit.

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.25

Having a new birth and being renewed by the Holy Spirit means that there has been change in our lives. This change includes being conformed to the image of his Son.26 Conforming to the image of the Son can be seen as adjusting our lives in a manner which produces changes in how we think, feel, and act, so that we take on the likeness of Christ. In a sense it requires a change in our subconscious mind, a rewiring of how we are programmed; as while our thoughts, words, and actions take place on a conscious level, they are expressions of our inner basic nature, which exists on a subconscious level. The theological term for this change or transformation in our lives is sanctification, which refers to the gradual and progressive growth toward godliness brought about by the Holy Spirit.

Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.27

The apostle Paul speaks about the process of being transformed into the image of the glory of the Lord:

We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.28

The root of the Greek word which is translated as transformed refers to an internal change rather than an external one. In using this word, Paul is speaking about a deep, fundamental change in the inner nature of Christians. It is a change in our personality (as defined above—meaning the way we think, feel, and act), a rewiring of our inner selves. A change at this fundamental level brings our thoughts, feelings, and actions into alignment with the nature of God. Such a change in our inner life (our mind, heart, and will) should be manifested in our outer life. Our outward actions emanate from the inward realities of our personality.

Being transformed into and conformed to the image of Christ is possible because of salvation, which frees us from the grip of sin on our lives and allows us to consciously and subconsciously think and act in a more godly manner. It doesn’t mean we don’t sin, but it enables us to grow in Christlikeness, so that we can move away from our former position of being in bondage to sin. While there is still sinful behavior within us, sin no longer has the same power over us. We sometimes fall, because we are human, but in our deepest being, we desire to do what is right. Sin no longer has dominion over us, but rather we desire to draw closer to God, which we do by moving away from sin.

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.29

To move toward God is to move away from sin.

(To be continued)


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1 Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2011.

2 Romans 13:12.

3 Romans 13:14.

4 Ephesians 4:22.

5 Ephesians 4:24.

6 Genesis 1:26–27. See also Genesis 9:6.

7 When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (Romans 2:14–16).

8 Matthew 22:37.

9 Romans 14:5.

10 Hebrews 8:10.

11 Psalm 4:7.

12 Romans 9:2.

13 2 Samuel 6:16.

14 Matthew 22:37.

15 Psalm 27:14.

16 Psalm 13:2.

17 Matthew 16:24 NKJ.

18 Matthew 23:37 NKJ.

19 John 7:17 NKJ.

20 Psalm 19:12–13 NKJ.

21 Psalm 139:23–24.

22 Psalm 51:6.

24 In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him (Colossians 1:19–22).

25 Titus 3:3–7 NIV.

26 Romans 8:29.

27 Romans 6:22.

28 2 Corinthians 3:18.

29 James 4:8.