O Wretched Man that I Am
Who is the Person of Romans 7 and why It is so Important?
Romans 7:24, 25a: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
In our second message on distinctives of a reformed spirituality, of the kind of Christian life and thought which should be characteristic of those who believe as we do about the Bible and its great message, I want to speak to the matter of the consciousness of sin, of sinfulness, of unworthiness in the Christian soul. Chad spoke last week of the greatness and majesty and glory of God. Now, what view ought we to have of ourselves before God?
Our passage this week, Romans 7:14-25, is of crucial importance to this question. It is not the only passage in the Bible which speaks of the continuing sinfulness and great sinfulness of Christian people, but it is, without question, the main text. In the modern period it has become fashionable to argue that Paul here is speaking not of himself as a Christian, but as an unbeliever before he became a Christian, and this interpretation has influenced the way in which Christians today perceive themselves.
Far removed from a classical, historical form of Christian spirituality, with its strong emphasis upon penitence, self-abhorrence, humility, and the combat of the soul with its own flesh; these new views emphasize the cultivation of a positive self-image, are critical of any effort to illuminate the continuing sinfulness of the Christian’s life, and foster a self-assertiveness and self-confidence that are quite similar to what has become popular in the circles of contemporary psychology.
Certainly, some good people have and do favor the interpretation of Romans 7:14-25 as that of an unsaved man, for reasons which have nothing to do with any interest in contributing to the de-emphasis upon the great sinfulness of even the best Christian life. Nevertheless, it seems that to interpret this text as the confession of a man not yet saved is to play into the Devil’s hand.
C.S. Lewis somewhere warns us that the temptation of every age and a method by which each age rationalizes its sins, is to put people on guard against the sin which it is in the least danger of committing. Hence, brutal societies warn against the sin of sentimentality; promiscuous societies warn against the danger of Puritanism, and today also, a man-worshiping society and man-worshiping church, such as the American evangelical church, calls us constantly to beware of morbid and negative depictions of the sinfulness and guilt of man.
We need to maintain Romans 7:14-25 as a bulwark against this virulent cancer of man-worship which is eating the heart and soul out of the American church. The church must be reforming!
This, however, is not a difficult thing to do; for the arguments for the classical interpretation of this text (that it is Paul’s confession as a believer and as a mature believer of his still abiding and great sinfulness) are as persuasive today as they have ever been. Tim Keller summarizes four evidences that Paul is talking here as a believer (see Romans for You: 1-7).
- There is a change in verb tenses. The verbs of 7:7-13 are in the past tense, but from verses 14-24 all the tenses are present.
- There is a change in situation. Verses 7-13 talk about sin ‘killing’ him. He’s dead. But in verses 14-24 he describes an ongoing struggle with sin, in which he struggles but refuses to surrender.
- Paul delights in God’s law (see v22), even though sin is nevertheless at work within him. Unbelievers cannot delight in God’s law in their heart of hearts (the sinful mind is hostile to God, see Rom. 8:7).
- Paul admits that he is a lost sinner (v18). Unbelievers are unaware of being lost and so sinful that they can’t save themselves. In fact, even immature believers tend to be over-confident, unaware of the depths of the depravity of their own hearts. But here Paul is keenly aware that in his flesh he is unable to satisfy the law; it is only the work of the Holy Spirit within that he can overcome.
Let us take Paul at his word when in Romans 6 he speaks of our deliverance from sin and be careful not to slander God’s grace; but let us also hear him as he speaks of the terrible sinfulness and the titanic struggle which will ever mark the life of even the most consecrated and devout Christian. Here is Paul, an apostle and believer of many years, reminding us of the warfare in which we are to be engaged.
This Lord’s Day we will focus on why we ought not to shrink from what Paul says about himself and about us in these important and powerful verses, and why their message is so crucial to a godly life. Join us as we pick up arms and become the church reformed and always reforming. Do pray for our day together as we study God’s Word and feast in the marketplace for the soul.
I want to say a big thank-you to Chad for preaching and leading last week in my absence, and to you for granting Michelle and myself time to visit with our oldest daughter and her family. We had a blast with the boys. Remember to join us for our first Reformation party at the Byrd’s this Saturday evening. I have it on good authority that Luther, and perhaps his dear Katy, may visit.
Soli Deo Gloria,