God has created us in his image so that we may carry out a task, fulfill a mission, pursue a calling,” — Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image
When most people think about the book of Genesis, certain questions usually come to mind:
- Did God create the world in six ordinary days?
- Were these “days” great ages or epochs?
- How should we understand the theory of evolution in light of Genesis 1?
Moses was probably not concerned with these questions when he wrote the opening chapters of Genesis. He was trying to prepare God’s people for the mission they were created to carry out—a mission Christians in the twenty-first century are also called to carry out.
In Genesis 1, God describes the purpose for which he created man:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Gen. 1:26)
In the next verse, he relates this mission to Adam and Eve:
God blessed them and said to them, be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground (Gen. 1:28).
This passage, often called the cultural mandate, calls all Christians to partner with God in his work. We are to fill the earth with God’s redeemed images and subdue it.
Writing about this passage in her book Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey explains:
The first phrase “be fruitful and multiply,” means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, “subdue the earth,” means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, and compose music. This passage is sometimes called the Cultural Mandate because it tells us that our original purpose was to create cultures, build civilizations—nothing less.
The significance of all of our work, in our jobs, our homes, our communities, and our churches, is directly related to its connection with God’s work. Pearcey writes:
The lesson of the Cultural Mandate is that our sense of fulfillment depends on engaging in creative, constructive work. The ideal human existence is not eternal leisure or an endless vacation—or even a monastic retreat into prayer and meditation—but creative effort expended for the glory of God and the benefit of others.
The Garden of Eden was perfect but not finished. Adam and Eve would not have stayed there forever, even if they had never fallen into sin. Following the commands of the cultural mandate, they would have moved out into the world, filling it with God’s images and subduing it.
Theologian Wayne Grudem suggests that the Hebrew word translated “subdue” in verse 28 (Hebrew kabash) literally means to make the earth useful for human beings’ benefit and enjoyment.
The idea behind the cultural mandate is that God entrusts us with something and expects us to do something worthwhile with it, something he finds valuable. This mandate implies an expectation of human achievement.
Richard Pratt’s claim in his book Designed for Dignity that “God ordained humanity to be the primary instrument by which his kingship will be realized on earth” leads him to a down-to-earth description of how the cultural mandate works:
The Great King has summoned each of us into his throne room. Take this portion of my kingdom, he says, I am making you my steward over your office, your workbench, your kitchen stove. Put your heart into mastering this part of my world. Get it in order; unearth its treasures; do all you can with it. Then everyone will see what a glorious King I am. That’s why we get up every morning and go to work. We don’t labor simply to survive, insects do that. Our work is an honor, a privileged commission from our great King. God has given each of us a portion of his kingdom to explore and to develop to its fullness.
It is the gospel of Christ that brings us back to this first calling. As biblical scholar Michael Williams writes:
The first calling of the biblical story is a calling to the world, a calling that comes for the sake of God’s purpose to bless all things that he has made. And this calling informs and shapes the people of God throughout the entirety of the biblical story. Should we miss our first calling, a calling that informs the nature and purpose of our very existence, we will in fact impoverish the biblical portrayal of calling.
This calling is clear—it’s what we were made to do. And it is where we will find real purpose and fulfillment.
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from God’s Purpose in Creation: A Study in Genesis 1, a seven-day study guide available in both paperback and digital versions in the IFWE bookstore.