This excerpt is from the blog back in November 2010; it was first published in the July 2005 issue of Tabletalk magazine. Phil fleshes out the practical implications of Luke 10:29.
God's image in every person is the moral and ethical foundation for every commandment that governs how we ought to treat our fellow humans. Scripture repeatedly makes this clear. Why is murder deemed such an especially heinous sin? Because killing a fellow human being is the ultimate desecration of God's image (Gen. 9:6).
In the New Testament, James points to the image of God in men and women as an argument for allowing even our speech to be seasoned with grace and kindness. It is utterly irrational, he says, to bless God while cursing people who are made in God's own likeness (James 3:9-12).
That same principle is an effective argument against every kind of disrespect or unkindness one person might show to another. For example, to ignore the needs of suffering people is to treat the image of God in them with outright contempt. Proverbs 17:5 says, "He who mocks the poor reproaches his Maker." Neglecting the needs of a person who is "hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison" is tantamount to scorning the Lord Himself. That's exactly what Jesus said in Matthew 25:44-45: "Inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me."
Who is our neighbor? That's the question a lawyer asked Jesus when He affirmed the priority of the first and second commandments (Luke 10:29). In response, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, poignantly making the point that anyone and everyone who crosses our path is our neighbor—and truly loving them as ourselves means seeking to meet whatever needs they might have.
One of Jesus' main points in that parable was this: we're not to love our own brethren and fellow believers to the exclusion of strangers and unbelievers. God's image was placed in humanity at creation, not at redemption. Although the image of God was seriously marred by Adam's fall, it was not utterly obliterated. The divine likeness is still part of fallen humanity; in fact, it is essential to the very definition of humanity. Therefore every human being, whether a derelict in the gutter or a deacon in the church, ought to be treated with dignity and compassionate love, out of respect for the image of God in him.
The restoration of God's image in fallen humanity is one of the ultimate goals of redemption, of course. God's paramount purpose for every Christian involves perfect Christ-likeness (Rom. 8:29; 1 John 3:2). That will consummate the complete restoration and utter perfection of God's image in all believers, because Christ himself is the supreme flesh-and-blood image of God (Col. 1:15).
But if you're a believer, your conformation to Christ's likeness is gradually being accomplished even now by the process of your sanctification (2 Cor. 3:18). In the meantime, Jesus taught that one of the best ways to be like God is to love even your enemies. Not only do they bear God's image, but (more to Jesus' point) loving them is the best way for us to be like God, because God Himself loves even those who hate Him.