The Chief End (and Beginning) of Man

By: Paul J. Morrison

“What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” These words, written in 1646, launch the Westminster Shorter Catechism. These words have resonated in the halls of protestant churches for nearly four centuries. I have heard them declared in sermons, written in books, and post-scripted in email signatures and twitter bios. 

These words stick with you. Their, now uncommon, phrasing and diction makes them hum in your ears when you hear them, and their simplicity allows for quick recall. But when I hear them, I pause to think, is this the chief end of man? 

The Westminster Assembly did not pluck this statement out of some ethereal plane. It echoes much of Scripture. Psalm 86, Isaiah 60:21, Romans 11:36, 1 Corinthians 6:20, 10:31, and Revelation 4:11 footnote the Catechism’s opening line. They establish it firmly as a claim of the full council of God’s Word. 

It seems plain enough, “… whatever you do, do it allfor the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31). There is all of man’s purposes and ends bound up in the word “all,” and consequently built around the glory of God. A God who is worthy of all honor, power, and glory. 

My contention is not with the task, but the place given to that task. Sarah and I desire to glorify God, we look forward at the eternity we will spend in his presence with great anticipation. How do we glorify God in our situation? I’ve written in the recent past on the ways the Lord looks beyond our metrics and expectations to do incredible things. I still hold this firmly. But to see the chief end of man as the conceptual glory of God with no mention of how to achieve this is to shortchange the plan and instruction of God. 

To glorify God and enjoy him forever is an unequivocally good and worthy aspiration, but I believe it to misrepresent the chief end of man as portrayed in Scripture. I believe to glorify God and to enjoy him forever is instead a consequence of man’s chief end. Man’s true and chief end is to image God. 

Genesis 1:26-28 records the creation mandate of man. God makes man in His own image to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, and to rule over the rest of creation. 

The definition of the image of God, or imago Dei as it is often referred, has been debated for centuries. Millard Erickson gives the cleanest categories for the conversation in his 1983 work, Christian Theology(pg. 498-510). These categories are that of the image as structural, relational, or functional. 

The structural view argues that the image refers to man’s capacity to reason, his morality, or other intrinsic patterns of the mind and soul, the relational view argues that the image has more to do with man’s communion with God in prayer and worship, and the functional view argues that man represents or images God in the world through actions consistent with the creation mandate. The functional image further combines the structural and relational components in its definition as the ability and goal of imaging God. The image is assumed as a noun and applied verbally.

To image God, as made clear in Genesis 1:28, is directly connected to the task of ruling and subduing the earth. While I often have heard this verse as a joking justification of why vegetarianism or veganism is unfitting for the Christian, the heart of the text ironically points immediately to vegetables. Well, Adam’s tending to them at least.

Work as part of man’s purpose is made clear from the earliest pages of Scripture. Even before sin and the fall, work was the good and necessary task given to man. Man imaged God well, as God himself walked in the garden that man cultivated. And after the fall, man in opportunity after opportunity is given the chance to image God or to rebel once more. The full narrative of Scripture details every failed and flawed attempt to image God well, because the image of God has been marred by sin. The image needed to be restored. 

The functional image is a declaration of both intrinsic being and intended action, of present obligation and future result. It is affirmed not only in the creation mandate, but ultimately in Christ himself. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Col. 1:15). 

Man images God in looking to the example and person of Christ as the complete image and form all thought and action to and within him. In this moment, the believer structurally resembling the God he communes with is able to display this image missionally as the ethic of his faith. Man is not simply the image in essence or relation, but in action.

The neon cloth bracelet from Vacation Bible School and its bumper sticker companions force their way back into our memories. What Would Jesus Do? The, now trite, cliché grasped quite well the chief end of man. To have Christ, the image of God, lived out through us in act and being. 

Looking back at 1 Corinthians 10:31, the emphasis is equally placed on the action as well as the result. “… whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” To glorify God is the necessary overflow of imaging Him. It is the example and person of Christ made known through imitation which defines the chief end of man.

Our mission and care for this church are to love and serve it as Christ does. We image Christ by taking on his nature and character and stepping out in obedience to Him. Faithfulness to the task He has given us is no longer an option. No matter the pain or anguish of the task, we image Christ by saying, “not our will, but Your will be done, in Cleveland, as it is in heaven.” 

What is the Lord’s will for us? I don’t altogether know that answer. But I know a portion. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” This is what we intend to do. We have chosen Cleveland. It is the staircase the Lord has put in front of us. Its treads seem narrow and poorly lit at times, but the Lord has placed us here. So we will climb. We will work in and for the place in which he has deposited us. We will seek to image God here.

The task of imaging God in our work is not one that is unique to our calling or location. It is the ideal and paramount task for all man. Notice the task is not vocational ministry, nor is it necessarily vocational. It is found in the auto-factory and in the home. It is good and faithful work. This is more than the concept of a hard days work, which is revered by so many.

To sweat and toil does not automatically make the work good, though we should give great effort to what we have been assigned. Instead, good work is defined by the excellence with which it is done and the manner in which that excellence is achieved. Our work should be moral, diligent, and we should integrate our faith into it. Our work should provide for the temporal needs of ourselves, our families, and the local church. Our work should be the vehicle of our faith in the world. Our work is to image Christ.

To image Christ is to grasp fully the great commission to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded. To image Christ is to recognize the fuller narrative of life and Scripture and pursue good work as its own reward and to the benefit of the kingdom of God. To image Christ is to recognize that God is glorified most when we image him well. To image Christ is to enjoy God fully. 

To image God is the chief end of man. 

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