Romans 7:14-25 – Who is the Wretched Man?

When Paul talks about the struggle to do what the Law requires in Romans 7, is he reflecting his own experience as a Jew?  Alternatively, Paul may be speaking of his post-conversion struggle with sin. It is even possible that Paul speaking hypothetically, not using his own experience as a guide at all.

Cranfield (Romans 1:344) lists 7 possible interpretations of the “I” in chapter 7:14-25:

  1. That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own present Christian experience.
  2. That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own past Christian experience.
  3. That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own pre-conversion experience in the light of his current Christian faith.
  4. That it presents the experience of a non-Christian Jew, as seen by himself.
  5. That it presents the experience of a non-Christian Jew, as seen through Christian eyes.
  6. That it presents the experience of a Christian who is living at the level of the Christian life which can be left behind, who is trying to fight the battle on his own strength.
  7. That it presents the experience of a Christians generally, including the very best and mature.

Cranfield sets aside the second possibility as impossible in the light of Philippians 3:6b and Gal 1:14.  The fourth possibility is rejected because it is contrary to the view of the Jewish “self-complacency” described in chapter 2.  The use of the present tense tends to argue against the second and third option.  The present tense to too sustained throughout the section for this to be an historical present for vividness.  The order of the sentences argues against 2-6.  If verse 24 is the cry of an unsaved man, then all of the preceding material ought to be before salvation as well.

The Wretched Man

There are problems with thinking that the “Wretched Man” is Paul’s pre-Christian experience based recent studies of Judaism by E. P. Sanders and others.  This “New Perspective on Paul” argues that Judaism was not a “works for salvation” religion and that “rabbi Saul” would not obsessed about his lack of perfection in following the Law.  I suppose  it is possible that Paul was a particularly obsessive follower of the Law, but it is also popular scholarship reads Luther’s own struggle into the passage.

The problem, for Cranfield, in accepting either the first or seventh option is that they present a dark view of the Christian life, and one that seems to be incompatible with the concept of the believer’s liberation from sin as presented in 6:6, 14, 17, 22, and 8:2. But it is important to understand that the very fact that there is a struggle indicates that the Spirit of God is present in the writer’s life, for without the Spirit he will never realize that he is in sin and struggle to remove himself from that state.  He notes that it is “relatively unimportant” that we choose between the first or seventh option since they are virtually the same thing.  If it is autobiographical then Paul, as a very mature Christian struggled with sin.  Is that possible? While we might think a mature Christian has risen above the wretched struggle, that is simply not the case.

What is the significance of this passage to the believer?  We can learn from this passage, it is clear that if Paul himself struggled with sin, then we should realize that we too will struggle with sin.  In fact, I think there is more danger in “not struggling” than being contented in your walk with God.  The sin of Complacency is far more dangerous than we might think!

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9 thoughts on “Romans 7:14-25 – Who is the Wretched Man?

  1. Augustine’s later position of Romans 7:13-25, as we see too in Calvin and Luther has certainly been the majority position, experientially, in the Reformed, and even some Catholic theolog’s. I know it has been my own experience also! When I was working my Th.D. I started off trying to place this “man” as under the Law, before conversion. But before long, I ended up with the late Augustine’s position, as Calvin and Luther. This is just mainstay both theologically and exegetically, and St. Paul! 🙂

  2. This is very interesting too look at Paul’s words in Romans 7. Just a chapter earlier he writes about being dead to sin and being alive in Christ. Verse 6 says, “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” For me it is easy to read this as if we are truly in Christ then we have no reason to be mastered to any sin. Although I think this is a true statement, I am confused by what Paul was saying in Romans 7: 14-25. If we read this text as it was Paul’s own Christian experience or the experience of all Christians, then it seems that Paul is stressing the sin is always going to plague mankind. Even though Polhill doesn’t think Paul was referring to himself he says the main point of the text is that, “the sinful self cannot do what is right” (291). Due to our sinful nature since Adam, sin has always had an effect on us. But the text closes with the best news of all. Paul says, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Even though we may always struggle with sin, Jesus will be able to deliver us from it. I also agree with P. Long when he talks about just how dangerous the sin of complacency can be. We should realize that we are bound to have struggles in our walk with Christ but we need to make sure we strive to walk closer to Him every day.

  3. This passage is a one that I have always enjoyed looking at because it is one that so accurately reflects my own struggle, and indeed that of every Christian. I think that when Paul wrote it he was describing himself, while still knowing that it was something that his readers would be able to relate to and understand. Every Christian is at war with themselves, the new creation vs. the old. I think that the phrase in being examined, “O wretched man I am!” (Romans 7:24a), is Paul’s frustration with his own personal self-war. He desires so much to follow after God and to become the perfect image of Christ but he is trapped in his physical body and is continuously afflicted by the sin nature within it. But, he goes on to give thanks for the salvation and hope he has through Christ. He takes comfort in the fact that there is “now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit,” (Romans 8:1). We, too, have that assurance, that we believers are not condemned by the old self but are saved by the grace of God through Christ and now have the Spirit to guide us.

    • Agreed, this portion of Scripture is simply one that every Christian should experience! And the Law of God, and thus our own fallen nature are exposed and expressed. Romans 7 verses 24 & 25 sum it up… “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” We then we have chap. 8 and verses 1 thru 2, etc. to express our great theological position and freedom, which we have as believers “In Christ”. And this is certainly what our Reformers called both our forensic position and argumentation, and our place of spiritual ability and sanctification, which are both and as “In Christ”. These verses (chapters 7 and 8) make and keep me a Protestant, Reformational and Reformed Christian!

  4. “If it is autobiographical then Paul, as a very mature Christian struggled with sin. Is that possible? While we might think a mature Christian has risen above the wretched struggle, that is simply not the case.” I absolutely agree. Mature Christians can struggle just as much as “baby” Christians. Just because they have walked with God longer, or perhaps even just dealt with God with more intensity, doesn’t mean mature Christians are by any means exempt from the pressures and temptations of this fallen world. If anything, one could reason that the longer a Christian walks with God, the harder Satan tries to get that Christian to succumb to temptation! For Paul, if we think of this passage in terms of Cranfield’s first or seventh options, as a mature Christian himself, we can see that he struggles a great deal with the depth of his depravity. Although, even though Paul says he is the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15) and “a wretched man” (Rom. 6:24), from what I know from his letters, I do not really see what sins he might be struggling with. I know he is not perfect by any means, but I do not know of any Scripture that identifies Paul’s sins… For me, this seems to indicate that we could also still interpret this passage in light of Cranfield’s other options as well.

  5. I really like the discussion going on here. I am reminded so much of the struggles Paul faced when he was in Prison. Lauren makes a good point, mature Chrstians most certainly struggle with sin. This is why Christ died on the cross so that we do not have to bear that guilt and shame. The truth is, we have an awesome savior who loves us so much. GOd knows we are going to sturggle with sin. even those who are morally straight. i tell you, it is a good thing we are not under the law anymore. The law condemns. We are instead under grace.

  6. Philip,

    Can you elaborate on the following?

    “The order of the sentences argues against 2-6. If verse 24 is the cry of an unsaved man, then all of the preceding material ought to be before salvation as well.”

    I’m unsure what this means. Do you mean that one would expect verse 24 to precede verses 15-23 if Paul was referring to the state of the unsaved?

  7. What Cranfield meant was something like this: if verse 24 is the cry of an unsaved man, then the options listed under 2-6 seem unlikely, since the man is not yet saved. On the other hand, if the cry in verse 24 is from a saved man, then points 2-6 are at least an option.

    Essentially, if the wretched man is not yet a believer, then this cannot be a Christian Paul struggling with sin.

  8. Well! no one can understand Chapter 7:14-25 without first studying thoroughly chapter 6 and 8. In chapter 6 Paul says that the believer is dead to sin and in the beginning of ch: 7 he is dead to the Law and Ch.8 makes it clear the way of deliverance and the liberty in the Holy Spirit. We have to know that Paul is not trying to give license for sin to the Romans. In the contrary he wants to show them the only way to walk in victory is to walk in the Spirit.

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