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The Christian Life – Do Christians Feel ‘Wretched’?

Category Articles
Date August 10, 2012
Who is the Wretched Man of Romans 7?

In Romans 7 we find the statement, ‘O wretched man that I am!’ It is made by no one less than the Apostle Paul. A question that is often asked is, does he speak here as a regenerate or unregenerate person? The answer to this question is important, for it impacts one’s views on several key doctrines of the Christian faith. The history of the interpretation of this passage is both interesting and instructive and shows that with few exceptions all those whose theology may be classified as Augustinian or Reformed have interpreted Romans 7:14-25 as referring to the experience of an experienced Christian. On the other hand, those holding to the view that Paul is speaking here of an unregenerate man, either himself or someone else, have generally been Pelagian and Arminian in their theology.

Three Views

Historically there have been three main positions regarding this passage. These may be summarized as follows:

  1. Romans 7:14-25 is Paul’s autobiographical account of his own pre-conversion experience.
  2. Romans 7:14-25 is not autobiographical, but depicts religious man in general, or Jews in particular.
  3. Romans 7:14-25 describes Paul’s own experience as a mature Christian.

Position (1) was a widely held interpretation of this passage until the early decades of the previous century, but it has since been largely discarded in favour of (2), mainly due to the work of the German scholar W. G Kummel. In his Romer 7 Und Die Bekehrung Des Paulus (1929), Kummel contends that Romans 7:14-25 does not refer to Paul’s own experience under the law, but to the struggle of an unregenerate man seen through the eyes of a regenerate man. The frequently used ‘I’ and ‘me’ in the passage does not refer to Paul himself, but is a rhetorical device used by the apostle to dramatize the account.

The Dutch theologian, Herman Ridderbos, who basically follows Kummel’s interpretation of Romans 7, sees a reference here to ‘the moral man shackled by the law’ with whom Paul can so easily identify because ‘he was once so himself.’ Anthony Hoekema, agreeing with Ridderbos, puts it this way: ‘What we have here in Romans 7:14-25 is not the description of the regenerate man, but of the unregenerate man who is trying to fight sin through the law alone, apart from the strength of the Holy Spirit.’ This leaves position (3), or the classic interpretation of Augustine, Luther and Calvin, according to which the passage before us must be understood as referring to Paul’s present experience as a believer.

This third interpretation commends itself most strongly, I believe, for the following reason.

Paul’s Experience

In the light of the fact that the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘me’ are used some twenty times in Romans 7, strong evidence is required to indicate that Paul was not speaking of himself throughout this chapter. Certainly, the unprejudiced reader would have difficulty with Ridderbos’ statement that the passage before us is not to be taken in a biographical sense as a description of Paul’s personal experience.

Romans 7 and 8, it may be argued, are not concerned with individual experiences but with the unfolding of redemptive-historical matters. But why couldn’t the apostle interrupt his argument and insert a reference to himself to illustrate the point he is making? Paul does this several times in this epistle, e.g. in 9:1-2 and 10:1, where the context may also be described as redemptive-historical. Also, the change of tense between verses 7-13 and 14 and following supports the view that the same person is speaking. The difference is that whereas in 7-13 Paul speaks in the past tense about his experience, he changes to the present tense in verse l4 and following to indicate that what he is going to say next concerns his present experience as a Christian.

It seems rather arbitrary therefore, to discount the possibility of Paul’s speaking about his own experience, whether in the past or present tense, while there is nothing in Romans 7 itself to suggest that he is not doing this, except if one is trying to prove the hypothesis or theory that Paul’s language in Romans 7:14-25 cannot possibly be the language of a justified and sanctified believer.

According to Ridderbos, there is too great a contrast between the condition portrayed in Romans 7:14-25 and that described by the apostle in Romans 6:1-7, 14 and Romans 8. The ‘wretched man’ of 7:23 laments, ‘I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.’ But he has just said in 7:6, that he had died to the law to which he had previously been bound so that now he could serve God in the newness of the Spirit and no longer in the old way of the written law. How can this possibly be the same person speaking?

Anthony Hoekema sums up the problem this way: ‘The mood of frustration and defeat which permeates Romans 7:13-25 does not comport with the mood of victory in terms of which Paul usually describes the normal life of the Christian.’ Conclusion: Romans 7:14-25 describes the experience of an unregenerate man, more specifically a Jew (Ridderbos) who tries to ‘go it alone’ (Hoekema).


The problem with this interpretation is that it ascribes to the unregenerate man powers and desires which the Bible clearly and emphatically states he does not possess. The unregenerate man, who according to this view is able to discern the spiritual character of the law (v. 14), condemns the evil which he does (v. 15), wills the good and hates the evil (vv. 15, 19), wills not to do the evil (verses 16, 20), and delights in the law of God (v. 22). But these are all activities of the mind and will, which according to Scripture are completely unattainable for the unregenerate man. Apart from God’s grace, man is ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ (Eph. 2:1), unable to do any good and unwilling as well, because he is a slave of sin.

Ridderbos is on dangerous ground when he contends that it is wrong ‘to deny zeal for the law or desire for the good to every man outside Christ, or to consider such impossible in him.’ He is thinking here of the Jew who knew the law and tried to keep it as best he could. But the New Testament emphatically states that the obedience of even the strictest Jews, the Pharisees, extended only to the outward letter of the law, but never to its spirit. It was precisely when Paul recognized that the law was spiritual that he saw his own carnality. Before this he had no such insight into his depraved nature.

Paul’s Testimony

‘I was alive without the law once,’ he tells us in 7:9, meaning that as long as he knew only the outward character of the law he had not thought it such a difficult task to obey its precepts. He was alive then, in good shape morally, in his own opinion at any rate. ‘But,’ he goes on to say, ‘when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.’ When God showed him the tenth commandment, which governs not outward actions, but inward thoughts and desires, he realized that he was a sinner. He saw now that here was one commandment he could not possibly keep. In fact, the more the law said, ‘Thou shalt not covet,’ the more he started to crave forbidden things. So far was this Pharisee from delighting in the law at that time that he deeply resented it for its impossible demands.

As one commentator on this passage points out, ‘The effect of the law upon our depraved hearts is akin to the effect of the sun on any putrid organism. It provokes resentment of God’s authority. It creates a slavish fear of penalty which is itself incompatible with love, the very essence of obedience.’

The Conflict in the Christian

It is therefore only the Christian who will say what we read in verse 14, ‘We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin.’ This cannot be the language of an unregenerate man, because his eyes are closed to the real nature of the law, until the Spirit regenerates him. Thus Paul shows that the function of the law, both before and after his conversion, had been to identify sin and to condemn it by pointing out God’s perfect will. But in neither case had the law given Paul strength to overcome sin. The result was a tremendous conflict in his soul. He wanted so much to obey the law, but he realized again and again that he fell far short of that perfect obedience that was required of him.

This conflict in the believer is not to be compared with that which takes place in the life of the unregenerate. The latter will, indeed, experience anguish at times when he sees how far his conduct is from what he perceives as the ideal. But that his experience can come anywhere near to what we read in Romans 7:14-25, I deny emphatically. In the unregenerate man the conflict is at best between his flesh and his conscience. But in the believer it is rather a conflict between flesh and Spirit. Calvin says therefore that the conflict depicted by Paul here is found only in the recipient of the Holy Spirit. In the natural man, he says, there is never any hatred of sin. God’s people, on the other hand, condemn their sins, because they abhor them with genuine feeling of the heart and detest their conduct in committing sin.

Ridderbos and others object to the strong language used in our passage and maintain that this cannot possibly be descriptive of believers.

Paul’s Strong Language

It must be admitted that Paul does indeed use very strong expressions: ‘I am carnal, sold under sin’ (v. 14). How can Paul describe himself as ‘carnal’ if he is a regenerate man? Is it true of a child of God that he is still ‘in the flesh’? Romans 8:8 seems to rule this out, for ‘in the flesh’ is clearly applied to the unregenerate. Yet there are references in Scripture that indicate that ‘fleshly’ or ‘carnal’ are used as adjectives to describe believers. Paul accuses the Corinthians of being carnal because of their conduct, which was unbecoming Christians. There seems to be a difference, then, between being ‘fleshly’ and ‘in the flesh,’ the former being descriptive of a child of God considered from the point of view of his old nature and indwelling sin, while the latter term is applicable only to the unregenerate man. Paul laments the fact that he is still ‘fleshly, because he is keenly aware of the presence of sin in him (verses 14, 17, 20).

Therefore, as John Murray says, ‘If the flesh still dwells in him, it is inevitable that in respect of the “flesh” in him he should be called “fleshly” and it is not inconsistent with his being regenerate that he should so characterize himself because of the flesh which is still his.’ As for the expression ‘sold under sin,’ these words are often compared with 1 Kings 21:20, where Elijah says to king Ahab: ‘I have found thee, because thou hast sold thyself to do that which is evil in the sight of the Lord.’ There is, however, a big difference between the ‘sold’ in Romans 7 and the ‘sold’ of 1 Kings 21. Paul says that he has been sold under sin, whereas Elijah charges that Ahab has sold himself.

As Berkouwer explains: ‘In the case of Ahab we have simon-pure hostility to God and an unconditional surrender to the Evil One. In the case of Paul we have sin as an overpowering force, which makes him cry out against it . . . Even in his being sold under sin in the daily experience of being overpowered, Paul is not a slave to sin. Servants of sin is what believers used to be; now they are servants of righteousness.’ Berkouwer cautions against all attempts to explain this ‘intolerable contradiction,’ considering them doomed to failure, and concludes that ‘the subject of Romans 7 is not the natural man as seen by the believer, but the believing child of God as by the grace of God he has learned to see himself.’

Is Paul Exaggerating?

Is Paul perhaps exaggerating or using hyperbole when he refers to himself before as a slave of sin and a wretched man? No, I don’t think so. No more than Job was exaggerating when he said, ‘I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes’ (Job 42:6), or when David cried, ‘iniquities prevail against me’ (Psa. 65:3), or Isaiah, who confessed, ‘We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags’ (Isa. 64:6).

What all these saints had in common was a deep awareness of God and his holy law and of their own sinfulness. Let no one think this was a slavish, grovelling kind of fear. No. It was a childlike fear consisting of love, adoration and respect. Paul, like all true saints, loved God and delighted in his law, but he was painfully aware of his inability to keep that law, as he ought and desired. He simply did not measure up to the high standards set before him in that holy, just and good law of God. Why not? Hadn’t the Holy Spirit given him a new nature whereby he was enabled to keep the law? Yes, ‘the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus [had] made [him] free from the law of sin and death,’ enabling him to fulfil ‘the righteousness of the law . . . [in the strength] of the Spirit'(Rom. 8:2-4).

Paul’s Ongoing Struggle Against Sin

Yet Paul knew he was far from perfect. He was aware of indwelling sin. The old nature in him, though dead in principle, still made its presence felt, opposing the law of God. Whenever he wanted to obey that law of God, there was that other law or principle which overpowered him, so that he could not do what he sincerely wanted to do.

Does this mean Paul never obeyed the law? No, not at all. Few if any other saints ever lived a holier life than the Apostle Paul. Yet it was not a perfect life, and this is what made him lament as he did in Romans 7. Horatius Bonar puts it this way:

A right apprehension of sin, of one sin or fragment of sin, (if such a thing there be), would produce the oppressive sensation here described by the apostle, a sensation which twenty or thirty years’ progress would rather intensify than weaken. They who think it is the multitude of sins that give rise to the bitter cry, ‘I am carnal,’ are greatly mistaken in their estimate of it. One sin left behind would produce the feeling here expressed. But where is the saint whose sins are reduced to one? Who can say, ‘I need the blood less and the Spirit less than I did twenty years ago’?

Perhaps Arthur Pink offers the best explanation of all.

The closer the Christian draws to Christ, the more he will discover the corruption of his old nature and the more earnestly will he long to be delivered from it. It is not until the sunlight floods a room that the grime and dust are fully revealed. So it is only as we really come into the presence of him who is light that we are made aware of the filth and wickedness which indwells us, and which defile every part of our being. And such a discovery will make each of us cry: ‘O wretched man, that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’

As long as believers are in this life they will sin. This becomes clear from what Paul says in 7:25. Although he answers his own question as to who will deliver him, he is keenly aware that this deliverance through Christ, his Lord, still lay in the future, for he goes on to say, ‘So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.’ Even after his shout of thanksgiving, Paul realizes that his battle with sin will continue. The ‘I’ will continue to be divided; the struggle between the renewed mind and the old flesh will not be over until the latter will be completely destroyed. Of this ‘body of death’ nothing good can be expected in this life. As Luther puts it in his inimitable way:

Paul, good man that he was, longed to be without sin, but to it he was chained. I too, in common with many others, long to stand outside it, but this cannot be. We belch forth the vapours of sin; we fall into it, rise up again, buffet and torment ourselves night and day; but, since we are confined in this flesh, since we have to bear with us everywhere this stinking sack, we cannot rid ourselves completely of it, or even knock it senseless. We make vigorous attempts to do so, but the old Adam retains his power until he is deposited in the grave.

Present and Future Deliverance

That the deliverance from ‘the body of this death’ is indeed a future event is taught throughout Romans 8. True, the believer is completely delivered from the condemning power of sin in the here and now (v.1). He is also liberated from sin’s dominion in this life (v. 2). But as far as indwelling sin is concerned, it is here to stay until the Christian’s last breath.

But this fact should not unduly depress us. There is a better day coming. After carefully distinguishing between saved and unsaved, and teaching us how we may prove our regeneration by our desire and determination to ‘mortify the deeds of the body’ (v. 13), and our obedience to the Spirit (v. l4), which should result in assurance of faith (v. 16), the apostle goes on to hold before us the comforting and encouraging promise of our glorious deliverance which will take place at the last day when our bodies will be raised from the dead.

To this day, not only believers, but also the whole creation looks forward with great anticipation. For then God’s people will receive the ‘adoption, to wit, the redemption of [their] body’ (v. 23). That this full redemption is still to come appears also from what Paul says in verses 24 and 25: ‘For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.’ Meanwhile, believers continue to groan within themselves on account of indwelling sin as well as other trials and afflictions.

As Christians we are related to two ages: the new age to come and the old age of sin. The Christian lives in the tension of ‘the times between,’ and the paradox of the ‘already-not yet.’ To put it another way, ‘the believer is caught between fulfillment and consummation: he lives in the overlap of the ages, where the new age of resurrection life has already begun, but the old age of existence in the flesh has not yet ended, where the final work of God has begun in him but is not yet completed’ (Phil. 1:6).

The Victory is Guaranteed

Every Christian is a new creature: old things have passed away; all has become new (2 Cor. 5:17). But he is still related to this old sinful and dying age. He lives in the same wicked world like everyone else; he has a sinful nature like everyone else, and faces the same prospect of death as everyone else. Yet he is different from everyone else, because he understands that this age is doomed to destruction; he knows that ‘the fashion of this world passeth away’ (1 Cor. 7:31). He lives towards the new age and yearns for its full manifestation. Until that happy day he has to fight the good fight of faith. Though he loses many a battle against the devil, the world and his own flesh, he knows that he cannot lose the war. For that war has already been won in principle. That is why the cry of frustration (not despair!): ‘O, wretched man that I am!’ is always followed, and at times even preceded by the shout of victory: ‘I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord,’ because ‘we are more than conquerors through him that loved us’ (8:37).

‘Yes,’ says R. Murray M’Cheyne:

. . . We can give thanks before the fight is done. Even in the thickest of the battle we can look up to Christ, and cry, Thanks to God! The moment a soul groaning under corruption rests the eye on the Lord Jesus, that moment his groans are changed into songs of praise. In Christ you discover a fountain to wash away the guilt of all your sins. In Christ you discover grace sufficient for you – grace to hold you up in the end – and the sure promise that sin shall soon be rooted out altogether. How often a Psalm begins with groans, and ends with praises! This is the daily experience of all the Lord’s people. Is it yours? Try yourselves by this. If you know not the believer’s song of praise, you will never cast your crowns with them at the feet of the Lamb.

Taken with permission from The Messenger, July/August 2012.

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