Romans 1:18–32 is perhaps the clearest explanation in Scripture of just how desperate human beings are outside of God’s kingdom. Our predicament is great indeed, for the problem is not simply that we know what is right and refuse to do it. To be sure, Paul does say the Creator’s witness in creation is plain enough that all people know they have failed to honor and thank Him (vv. 18–21), and it is true that we will refuse to worship the Lord unless He graciously intervenes (John 6:44). Still, even though we have an innate knowledge of God, our primal sin in refusing to love Him has made it so that we enter the world as those “futile in their thinking” (Rom. 1:21). Our minds and hearts are broken; we have difficulty understanding what is right and knowing what the Lord desires the world to look like.
The problem is so deep that apart from Christ we do not even know what it means to be truly human. This is an implication of Colossians 3 and the other Pauline texts that speak of believers becoming a new humanity in Christ Jesus (Rom. 5:12–21). Adam, the father of the human race, was the son of God who embodied true humanity only temporarily (Luke 3:38). Jesus is the new Adam, the real Son of God who embodies true humanity forever because He did not sin (Rom. 5:12–21). In Him we put on the new humanity — the true humanity — not the false state of being into which we were born, a state that is full of lust, malice, covetousness, and idolatry (Col. 3:5–11).
Consequently, we must become what we already are, and we need guidance in this because sin’s presence continues to color our idea of what it means to be human. Jesus Himself reveals what a true person looks like, and Paul shows us real humanity as well in his list of the qualities that we must put on as God’s chosen people. These include compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, which are all hardly qualities that the world associates with success (vv. 12–13). Putting these spiritual fruits into practice, in fact, may actually mean that we are unable to get ahead in the world because we refuse to stab others in the back, gossip, pay back in kind what has been done to us, and more. Yet Jesus never said that following Him would be easy, and being His disciples — the new humanity — means that we are compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient even when it is costly (Mark 8:34).
John Calvin offers these comments on today’s passage: “We, who have so frequently and so grievously offended, have nevertheless been received into favor, so we should manifest the same kindness towards our neighbors, by forgiving whatever offenses they have committed against us.” Being a Christian means forgiving other people even when it costs us monetarily, emotionally, and physically.