Who is the Wretched Man? – Romans 7:24

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 seven 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

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 observes 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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11 thoughts on “Who is the Wretched Man? – Romans 7:24

  1. “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.” – Amen. I totally agree.

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  2. Complacency certainly is far more dangerous of a place to be in a believer’s walk with God. For our walk to be real and to know that we are truly following God’s commands, we have to have a sense of conviction about sin in our lives and our known wretchedness of sin will lead us to repent and find grace and forgiveness from God. 2 Corinthians 7:10-11 talks about how a godly grief about the conviction of sins is good for the believer. This grief leads us more to salvation and the one who provides it. This then leads us to a better ability to worship God because we have realized that no attempts of our own can bring us more towards God. Once we are brought into that light, we can further bring glory to God in our having been convicted and know that God is working in our lives since none of our own efforts aside from God can allow us to go against such sin in the first place. This is why we need the conviction of sin and that it is completely acceptable to have such feelings as Paul did.

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  3. Contentment is a scary thing indeed. Every struggle, strife, and affliction makes us stronger people. The Christian’s life should never be an easy and comfortable one. That’s why, during prayer request, I cringe at people who say that they don’t need prayer. I believe it is important to realize our challenges, and bring them forward. We all are struggling with the effects of sin, and if we claim that we’re “all good” and “don’t need prayer” then doesn’t that lead us into believing that we can handle our sins? That we don’t need prayer because we, in ourselves, can take care of our own problems? When, in fact, we cannot work hard enough to get rid of the sin in our lives. We need to inform others of our internal struggles. This fights complacency because asking for prayer realizes that we are not without sin, that our lives aren’t all good, and we need God’s help in all areas of our lives.

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  4. The significance of this passage is in the fact that even Paul struggled with sin. To the people receiving this letter, would have been encouraged knowing they are not alone in there struggle with sin. Some people may have even thought that once they were saved, temptation would never be a problem for them. And if Paul himself struggled with sin they would be able see that the fight against sin is still there. However, a mistake can be made that the struggle will always be there so why try to fight it. In a sense, becoming complacent. The way I see it, if I am not striving forward with my walk with Christ, I am falling back. There is no sitting in the middle hoping for my state of being to change. Christians are to be continually refined to be more like Christ. This process takes time and effort. If the effort is not there, growth will not be happening on its own. A Christian should see struggle as a joy because through trials comes perseverance. James 1:2-4. Knowing that even the leader of the Church, Paul, was struggling with sin would have given the church in Rome an idea that struggle will happen but fighting against temptation is a must.

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  5. The fact that even Paul sinned, despite being chosen by God to preach among the Gentiles, is very important to be aware of. Many a time I have encountered people who believe that Paul was the second best example of what the ideal person should look like. This always surprised me, because although Paul laid down the guidelines Christ wants us to follow, it did not mean that he was the “perfect follower” or the “perfect example.” Most Roman Catholics believe that Paul, as well as the others classified as saints, have been elevated to a position that is of higher status than the average Christian, as well as they are more holy than the rest of us Christians, Catholics in this case. I think it is dangerous to place faith in ideas like those. Believing that Paul or a saint somehow rose above the struggle of sin, which is so often brought up in Paul’s letters, leads to misconceptions. Thinking Paul easily avoided sin, because he was a “mature” Christian, can lead to present-day Christians thinking that they are more righteous than they really are. People may downplay their own sinful natures, or be oblivious to their struggles with sin. This is due to complacency, and a human tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. However, just because some Christians might grow complacent about facing off against their sins and temptations, does not mean all Christians of our day have grown complacent. Additionally, because everyone is wired differently, we all deal with and struggle with sins differently. Some people may find it easier to live a moderately sinless life, or at the very least, find it a lot easier to live out the life Christ asks for, than other Christians do. Both new Christians and mature Christians struggle with sin, but there are also Christians in both categories who can push sins aside easier than others. Moo supports this point when he says, “And so they conclude that constant struggle with sin and even defeat by sin is the norm in the Christian life. Now it is clear that Christians do struggle with sin…And I do not think that the negative outcome of the struggle depicted in Romans 7 should be typical of the Christian life” (Moo, 104). Moo was not trying to say Paul believed Christians do not struggle with sin, but that in this Romans 7 passage the struggle with sin had to do with those bound under the Law, and it was not primarily supposed to be perceived as “Christians struggling with sin” per say. Paul was trying to speak to the Jews following the Law and new believers who thought they needed to obey the Law as a Christian, in order to deal with their sinful past and present selves. A modern day reader needs to be aware of the context in which a passage is written, as well as be careful when discerning the meaning of a passage. Skimming the Bible and making hasty conclusions is likely part of the complacency problem gradually spreading throughout the Christian churches in America. We all need to be more vigilant concerning not only our temptations, but need to be aware of what our own struggles with sin are. We also need to be more thorough in reading our Bible, to avoid being unprepared, or detached, or ignorant.

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  6. “The sin of complacency is far more dangerous than we might think.” I have seen this struggle in my own life and in many others. One way it has shown itself in my experiences was a few years ago when i was just cruising along to get my homework done and ‘learn’ more about God. I justified my actions and decided i didn’t need to actually fix anything sinful in my life because i was at Bible college and was devoting so much time to God already. When i realized my error, it still took time for me to turn upright again. I’m no Paul, but i feel that i am a relatively mature Christian and i think Paul’s statements clearly have traction in the lives of Christians both back then and today. The Christian life should always be about getting better, moving out into new areas and spreading the gospel with more boldness. if we aren’t moving forward, then where are we going?

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  7. I believe that there must be a balance in the way a believer views himself. We must reconcile “oh wretched man that I am” with “I am set free!” This seems to be an oxymoron. How can we be still fallen and yet free? As Paul says, there are two wills at work in our lives. If I focus too much on the fact I am sinful and unworthy and evil, then I begin to forget my redemption and new life. I make my sin nature too big for God. However, if I only focus on the fact that I have been set free, it is easy to overlook sin in an unhealthy way: “oh, I’m forgiven, so I don’t need to worry.” I believe when we swing the pendulum too far either way they both result in complacency, which as you say, is very dangerous.

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  8. Paul’s letters to the Romans and so many others provides us with such a great, important and helpful guidelines on how to live our lives in a way that Christ would be happy and proud of. Paul’s life and testimony is not necessarily one of a kind. Certain things he lived through may be unique to him and his story, but when you think about it, we are all similar to Paul. Complete sinners, lost in darkness, yet when we came to know Christ he gave us new life and we are to proclaim it and be proud that our Father is the creator of the universe. “Coming to Christ means, in effect, to experience a totally new change of status with respect to sin and the law” (Moo, 2464). I often times find myself thinking that Paul is somewhat arrogant and wants to show off how close and spiritual he is. I am missing the point. I get caught over thinking and judging Paul’s character when i should be focusing on what he is saying. As human beings we need to be careful with complacency. As stated above, it is far more dangerous than we think. We all struggle with sin and are at different levels. The beauty of it is that Christ accepts us as we are, loves us and is willing to work with us and through us and out testimonies to bring others to him (similar to Paul and his letters that we read and learn from even now).

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  9. This is an especially fascinating discussion for me since I was always taught and interpreted Romans 7 as Paul talking about his own struggles with sin. I found it interesting how Longenencker, for example, interprets this passage as Paul presenting the experiences of a Jewish person trying to live out the Law faithfully (p. 184-185). Regardless, however, I find the arguments that this is Paul’s own self-analysis the most compelling. After all, Paul does mention elsewhere that he does not believe that he is yet perfect in this life (Phil. 3:12), nor are the rest of us as Christians expected to be flawless (1 John 2:1). But this passage is powerful. If Paul, a spiritual leader who was confident enough in his spiritual life to encourage less mature believers to imitate him (1 Cor. 11:1), struggled with sin, then we can realize that we will struggle with sin as well. Just because we struggle with sin does not mean that we are horrible Christians or that we need to be unsure of our identity in Christ (John 10:27-29). Rather, because we are fighting against this is sin is an indication that we may be on the right track. Now, of course, this is not to say that because we know that we will struggle with sin that we should just give up (see Romans 6). Instead, we need to be living for God to the best of our abilities even though we know that we will fail at times.

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