Personality and Rationality
By Peter Amsterdam
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As Christians, 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,”1 “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,”2 “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life, … and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”3
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.
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.4 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.”5 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-making6; 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 refers to our power of choice, our will, the fact that we can act according to our desires. We are beings with free will, and the ability to choose is part of our personhood.
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. Humans as they were first created, before the fall, were made in the likeness of God with respect to both personhood and personality.
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.7 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.
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.”8 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.
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.”9
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. 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.10
To move toward God is to move away from sin.
This article is based on key points from the book Classical Arminianism, by F. Leroy Forlines.11 Originally published July 2016. Excerpted and republished April 2019.
Read by Jerry Paladino.
1 Romans 13:12. Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the ESV.
2 Romans 13:14.
3 Ephesians 4:22–24.
4 Genesis 1:26–27.
5 Romans 2:14–16.
6 Matthew 22:37; Romans 14:5; Hebrews 8:10.
7 Colossians 1:19–22.
8 Romans 8:29.
9 2 Corinthians 3:18.
10 James 4:8.
11 Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2011.