What does it mean to live a holy life?

Jesus alone has lived the perfectly holy life and imaged God perfectly. Many New Testament Scriptures, and even Jesus himself, declare this:

  • Christ, who is the image of God.1
  • He is the image of the invisible God.2
  • He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.3
  • Whoever sees me [Jesus] sees him who sent me.4
  • Whoever has seen me [Jesus] has seen the Father.5

Practically speaking, this means that we are completely incapable of knowing anything about mirroring God until we look to the Trinity, in general, and Jesus Christ during his earthly incarnation, in particular. As Harold Best has written:

Because God is the Continuous Outpourer, we bear his image as continuous outpourers. Being made in the image of God means that we were created to act the way God acts, having been given a nature within which such behavior is natural. The difference between God and humankind, merely and mysteriously, is one of singular finitude and unique and multiplied finitude. Whatever character or attribute God inherently possesses and pours out, we are created finitely to show and to pour out after his manner.6

Jesus’ mirroring of God the Father and God the Spirit results in his continually and ceaselessly pouring himself out for the glory of God and the good of others. Therefore, to understand what a life of love, grace, mercy, justice, truth, compassion, holiness, righteousness, grief, suffering, poverty, pain, loneliness, and friendship that mirrors God is supposed to look like, we must look to Jesus Christ. Sadly, too often we look at sinful people—cracked mirrors—as our standard for what a truly holy imaging life is. Or we define noble qualities apart from Jesus and then aspire to them rather than imitating him by reflecting him by living through the power of the Holy Spirit. But, it is possible for us to look to Jesus, be filled with the Holy Spirit, and increasingly live a life patterned after and a reflection of his.

As sinners we remain God’s mirrors, but mirrors that have been thrown to the floor and broken and scattered into numerous shards and bits. Consequently, we reflect the glory and goodness of God infrequently and poorly.

The restoration of the image of God, or proverbial collecting of the pieces and restoration of our mirror, is found only in the renewing power of the gospel. On this point Martin Luther says:

The Gospel has brought about the restoration of that image. Intellect and will indeed      have remained, but both very much impaired. And so the Gospel brings it about that we     are formed once more according to that familiar and indeed better image, because we   are born again into eternal life or rather into the hope of eternal life by faith, that we         may live in God and with God and be one with Him, as Christ says (John 17:21).7

This is precisely what Romans 8:29 means when it says, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” To be conformed to the image of Jesus means God by his grace and through his Spirit by his gospel, bit by bit, causes the mirror of our life to be increasingly like Jesus Christ’s so that we image God increasingly well.

The renewal of the image of God in man is a process that God works in believers over the course of their lifelong sanctification by the Spirit. Importantly, this is not merely something passive that God does for us, but something that, by his grace through his Spirit, we have the honor of participating in as an act of mirroring him.8 Colossians 3:9–10 speaks of the “new self . . . renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” In 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul says, “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. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Admittedly, as Christians we do sin, chase folly, and in our worst moments seem to be breaking our mirror while God is repairing it. Regardless, to image God requires ongoing humble repentance and a fiercely devoted steadfastness to change as God commands and with God pick up the pieces of our life shattered through sin.

In this valiant effort we must constantly choose to believe the truth— that this reflecting God alone is a great life. It is not an easy life, or a simple life, or a perfect life. But it is a wonderful life in that it is filled with evidences of God’s grace, healing from our past, and hope for our future. Furthermore, because mirroring God is the essence of our true humanity, as we reflect his glory we discover the source of our deepest joy, even when life hurts the most.

Amazingly, upon death this life not only continues but is perfected, and the mirror of our life, along with all of creation, is fully restored and will reflect the light of the glory of God perfectly, beautifully, magnificently, unceasingly, and unendingly. Paul describes this mirroring we will experience to God’s glory and our joy in the resurrected and perfected state: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.”9 In addition, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”10

Humans worship or “outpour” continuously, as Harold Best writes:

We were created continuously outpouring—we were created in that condition, at that instant, imago Dei. We did not graduate into being in the image of God; we were, by divine fiat, already in the image of God at the instant the Spirit breathed into our dust. Hence we were created continuously outpouring.11

Therefore, a life that images God is one in which we are increasingly sanctified by the Holy Spirit to be more and more like Jesus, thereby enabling us to mirror the glory of God in a way that is akin to how Moses radiated the glory of God after meeting with him on Mount Sinai. This worshipful reflecting of the glory of God is done in multiple ways:

  1. We image God by connecting with God in an informed and passionate way through repenting of sin, believing in Jesus Christ, and living in an ongoing humble and repentant relationship with God.
  2. We image God by submitting to godly authority and ultimately to God’s authority. In this way we are reflecting the nature of the Trinity: “For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.”12 This submission to godly authority includes wives submitting to husbands, children submitting to parents, church members submitting to church leaders, players submitting to coaches, employees submitting to employers, citizens submitting to governments, and so on. This submission to authority     is ultimately done in submission to Scripture, which is our highest authority as God’s Word (this does leave open the rare exception when not submitting to a lesser authority is required because the lesser authority has commanded someone to sin and thus violate the higher authority of Scripture).
  3. We image God by serving him in ways that advance his kingdom, including making culture that honors him. This also includes fighting injustice, evil, and oppression by working for justice and mercy. On this point, theologian D. A. Carson says, “As God’s image bearers we have peculiar responsibilities toward the rest of the created order—responsibilities of governance and care, as we recognize our oneness with the created order and our distinguishing place within it.”13
  4. We image God by respecting all of human life, particularly the weak, oppressed, sick, elderly, and unborn. Because people bear God’s image, we are not only to promote life but also not to commit the sin of murder. As Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Practically speaking, this means that racism is absolutely inexcusable and that previous attempts in America’s history to define blacks as only partly human and also partly animal were nothing short of false teaching that maligns Scripture and mocks God.
  5. We image God by refusing to live autonomous lives and by contending for community. This includes fellowship with Christians in our church and other churches, honoring our parents, forgiving our enemies as God in Christ forgave us, and practicing hospitality by welcoming strangers into our homes and lives as God has welcomed us.
  6. We image God by suffering well. When the clouds of trial, pain, loss, hardship, hurt, and tears roll in, we must never forget that our Lord Jesus Christ imaged God well even when suffering. When Jesus was hurting the most, as he hung on the cross for our sins, he reflected the mercy and justice of God perfectly. Jesus invites us to not waste the worst moments and seasons of our life but rather consider them treasures to be invested purposefully in glorifying God by imaging the character of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is Jesus’ point when he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”14 Thankfully, unlike so many half-true theologies that speak only of the victories of Christian life and how to image God when we are winning, Jesus shows us that if our aim is to image God, then when we win and lose and as we live and die, every moment is a sacred opportunity to be captured for his glory, our joy, and others’ good.

Once we understand that all of life is supposed to be lived reflecting something of the character of God through the power of the Holy Spirit, then all of life becomes an opportunity to do just that. When we are winning and losing, healthy and sick, rich and poor, living and dying there are tremendous opportunities to learn more about Jesus through our experience and show more of Jesus through how we respond to it.

When we understand what it means that God made us to reflect his image through the power of the Holy Spirit, the issue of our identity is settled. Once we know who we are, then we know what to do. This frees us from living out of an identity that has been created for us by others, or even by ourselves, and instead live solely out of the identity God has created for us. In this way, we are free to stop living for our identity, and instead start living from identity. This frees us from trap of thinking that what we do determines who we are, and allows us to live in the liberating truth that who we are determines what we do. Once we know who we are in Christ, then we know what to do in life.

Sadly, many if not most people, do not really and truly know who they are. This is even true of Christians who believe the Bible and love Jesus. This epidemic identity crisis started in Eden when the Serpent told our first parents that they could be “like” God if they simply lived life according to their own plans and created for themselves their own identity apart from God. Our first parents, and every one of us since, has bought this lie and forgotten that we do not need to do anything to create our identity to become “like” God. Why? Because God has already graciously created us in his “likeness”. Thankfully, in the opening pages of Scripture, God graciously tells us not only who he is, but also who we are and how our relationship with him is to be one in which we reflect him. This insight is one only revealed in to us from God and literally transforms how we see ourselves and how we live our lives.

The God of the Bible wants us to know both who he is, and who we are. These two understandings are critical to all of life which is why he has made these two of the opening themes of the Bible that continue through all of the Scriptures.

What aspect of Jesus character are you most wanting the Holy Spirit to help you grow in? Have you simply asked the Holy Spirit to do just that? If not, ask him today.  

12 Cor. 4:4.
2Col. 1:15.
3Heb. 1:3.
4John 12:45.
5John 14:9.
6Harold M. Best, Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 23.
7Martin Luther, “Lectures on Genesis Chapters 1–5,” 1:64.
8Eph. 4:22–24; Col. 3:1–10.
91 Cor. 15:49.
10Phil. 3:20–21.
11Best, Unceasing Worship, 23.
121 Cor. 11:7.
13D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 46.
14Mark 8:34.

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