Man as the Image of God and in the Covenant of Works

by Louis Berkhof

In the discussion of the moral and spiritual condition of man, it is of the utmost importance to consider first of all his original state. The two subjects that call for special consideration here are man as the image of God, and man in the covenant of works.

A. Man as the Image of God.

1. THE SCRIPTURAL TEACHING RESPECTING MAN AS THE IMAGE-BEARER OF GOD. The Bible represents man as the crown of God's handiwork, whose special glory consists in this that he is created in the image of God and after His likeness, Gen. 1:26, 27. Attempts have been made to distinguish sharply between the terms 'image' and 'likeness.' Some were of the opinion that the former referred to the body, and the latter to the soul. Augustine held that they had reference respectively to the intellectual and to the moral qualities of the soul. And Roman Catholics regard 'image' as an indication of the natural gifts bestowed on man, and 'likeness' as a designation of the gifts with which he was supernaturally endowed, that is, his original righteousness. In all probability however, the words are used as synonyms and both refer to the same thing, though from a slightly different point of view. The following passages clearly show that they are used interchangeably, Gen. 1:26, 27; 5:1; 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7; Col. 3:10; Jas. 3:9. The words 'after our likeness' in Gen. 1:26 apparently serve to stress the fact that the image is most like or very similar. The doctrine of man's creation in the image of God is of the greatest importance, for the image is that which is most distinctive in man, that which distinguishes him from the animals and from every other creature. As far as we know even the angels do not share that honour with him. They certainly are not the image-bearers of God in the sense and to the extent that man is.

2. HISTORICAL CONCEPTIONS OF THE IMAGE OF GOD IN MAN. There are especially three important historic conceptions of the image of God in man.

a. The Roman Catholic View. Roman Catholics believe that God at creation endowed man with certain natural gifts, such as the spirituality of the soul, the freedom of the will, and the immortality of the body. These natural endowments constitute the image of God. In this purely natural condition of man, however, there was a tendency of the lower appetites and passions to rebel against the higher powers of reason and conscience. This tendency was not in itself sin, but would naturally become sin as soon as the will yielded to it and it passed into voluntary action. In order to enable man to hold his lower nature in check, however, God endowed man with a supernatural gift, called original righteousness. And this is supposed to constitute man's likeness to God.

b. The Lutheran View. The Lutherans are not all agreed as to what constitutes the image of God. The prevailing opinion, however, is that it consists only in those spiritual qualities with which man was endowed at creation, and which are generally called original righteousness. These qualities consist in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. In taking this view of the matter, they do not sufficiently recognize the essential nature of man, as distinct from that of the animals on the one hand, and that of the angels on the other hand. If the image of God, consisting in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, constitutes the very essence of man, the question arises, how can man lose this image, as he did by sin, and still remain man. And, again, if the image of God so understood determines the essential nature of man, what essential difference is there between men and the angels, who also possess these spiritual qualities?

c. The Reformed View. The Reformed have a far more comprehensive view of the image of God than either the Roman Catholics or the Lutherans. They usually distinguish between the image of God in a restricted, and the image of God in a more comprehensive sense. The former consists in the spiritual qualities with which man was created, namely, true knowledge, righteousness and holiness. That these belong to the image of God, follows from Eph. 4:24 and Col. 3:10. The image of God in the more comprehensive sense of the word is found in the fact that man is a spiritual being, rational, moral, and immortal, in the body, not as a material substance, but as the organ of the soul, and in his dominion over the lower creation. Notice that Scripture links up this dominion immediately with man's creation in the image of God, Gen. 1:26. It is only in virtue of the image of God in this broader sense that man, even after he has lost the image of God in the restricted sense, consisting in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, can still be called the image-bearer of God, Gen. 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7; 15:49; Jas. 3:9.

B. Man in the Covenant of Works. The natural relationship between God and man was supplemented by a covenant relationship, in which God made the future perfection and bliss contingent on the temporary obedience of man. This covenant is known as the covenant of works.

1. SCRIPTURE PROOF FOR THE COVENANT OF WORKS. In view of the fact that some deny the existence of the covenant of works, it is highly desirable to examine its Scriptural basis. The Scripture proof for it is found in the following:

a. All the elements of a covenant are indicated in Scripture; and if the elements are present, we have not only the right but also the duty to combine them and to give the doctrine so construed an appropriate name. There are clearly two parties, God and man, entering into an agreement; there is a condition, the condition of obedience, which God imposes on man, Gen. 2:16, 17; and there is also a promise, the promise of eternal life. This is implied in the alternative of death as the result of disobedience, in such passages as Rom. 10:5 and Gal. 3:12, and in the symbolical significance of the tree of life, Gen. 3:22.

b. The parallel which Paul draws between Adam and Christ in Rom. 5:12–21, in connection with the imputation of sin on the one hand and the imputation of righteousness on the other hand, can only be explained on the assumption that Adam, like Christ, was the head of a covenant. If we share in the righteousness of Christ, because He is our representative, then it follows that we share in the guilt of Adam for the same reason.

c. There is one passage in Scripture which speaks of Adam as having transgressed the covenant. In Hosea 6:7 we read: 'But they like Adam have transgressed the covenant.' (Am. Rev.) This rendering of the text corresponds with that in the Dutch Bible. The Authorized Version, however, renders: 'But they like men have transgressed the covenant.' The other rendering is clearly to be preferred, and is also favored by the parallel passage in Job 31:33.

2. THE ELEMENTS OF THE COVENANT OF WORKS. The following elements must be distinguished.

a. The Covenanting Parties. A covenant is always a compact between two parties. In the case of the covenant of works there was, on the one hand, the triune God, the sovereign Lord of all creation, binding Himself by an act of condescending grace to give to man, on the condition of obedience, the blessings of eternal life and perfect happiness. And, on the other hand, there was Adam, the representative of the human race, absolutely dependent and without any claim on God, graciously permitted to covenant with God for himself and his posterity, and assuming the responsibility of obeying God implicitly.

b. The Promise of the Covenant. The great promise of the covenant was the promise of life in the fullest sense of the word, that is, not merely a continuance of the natural existence of man, but life raised to the highest development of perennial bliss and glory. Adam was indeed created in a state of positive holiness, and was not subject to the law of death. But he did not yet possess the highest privileges in store for man; he was not yet raised above the possibility of erring, sinning, and dying. He did not yet possess the highest degree of holiness, nor enjoy life in all its fulness.

c. The Condition of the Covenant. The promise in the covenant of works was not unconditional. The condition was that of perfect, unconditional obedience. The divine law can demand no less than perfect obedience, and the positive command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was clearly a test of pure obedience. In it the demands of the law of God converged, so to speak, in a single point. The great question had to be settled, whether man would obey God implicitly, or follow the guidance of his own insight.

d. The Penalty of the Covenant. The penalty that was threatened in case of transgression was death in the most inclusive sense of the word, physical, spiritual, and eternal. The fundamental idea of death is not that of extinction of being, but that of separation from the source of life, and the resulting dissolution of misery and woe. It consists in the separation of body and soul; but also, and this is even more fundamental, in the separation of the soul from God.

e. The Sacrament (s) of the Covenant. Opinions vary a great deal respecting the sacrament(s) of the covenant of works. Though some speak of two, three, or even four sacraments, the most prevalent opinion is that the tree of life was the only sacrament. This would seem to be the only one that finds any warrant in Scripture. In all probability the tree of life was an appointed symbol and pledge or seal of life. The words in Gen. 3:22 should then be understood sacramentally.

3. THE PRESENT VALIDITY OF THE COVENANT OF WORKS. The Arminians of the seventeenth century maintained the position that the covenant of works was wholly abrogated by the fall of Adam, so that his descendants are entirely free from its obligations. In opposition to them the Reformed took the position that it is partly a thing of the past, and partly still in force.

a. The Sense in Which it is Not Abrogated. The demand for perfect obedience still holds. The curse and punishment pronounced on the transgressor still apply to all those who continue in sin. And the conditional promise is also still in effect. God might have withdrawn it, but did not, cf. Lev. 18:5; Gal. 3:12. It is evident, however, that after the fall no one can comply with the condition.

b. The Sense in Which it is Abrogated. The special obligations of this covenant have ceased for those who really live in the covenant of grace. This does not mean that these obligations are simply set aside and disregarded, but that they were met by the Mediator for all His people. Moreover, the covenant of works is abrogated as an appointed way or means to obtain eternal life, for as such it is powerless after the fall of man.

Questions for Review:
Why is the doctrine of the image of God in man important? Do the words 'image' and 'likeness' denote different things? What is the Roman Catholic view of the image and likeness of God in man? What the Lutheran view of the image of God in man? What objection is there to this view? What distinction do the Reformed apply to the image of God in man? What constitutes the image of God in the restricted sense? In the more comprehensive sense? What Bible proof have we for the covenant of works? Which are the parties of the covenant? What is the promise, the condition, the penalty, and the sacrament of the covenant? In what sense does the covenant still hold? In what sense is it abrogated?

References for Further Study:
Berkhof, Reformed Dogmatics, I, pp. 191–206; Hodge, Outlines of Theology, pp. 296–314; McPherson, Christian Dogmatics, pp. 201–210; Orr, Side-Lights on Christian Doctrine, pp. 75–89; Kuyper, De Leer der Verbonden (in the series, Uit het Woord), pp. 107–229; A. Kuyper, Jr., De Vastigheid des Verbonds, pp. 33–45.



From Manual of Christian Doctrine by Louis Berkhof


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