Who is the “Wretched Man” of Romans 7:14-25?

|

Read: Romans 7:7–25

There are two basic answers to the question, “Who is the ‘wretched man’ of Romans 7:14–25?”

The first answer says that Paul intended Romans 7:14–25 as a description of himself in his on-going struggle against the power of indwelling sin as a mature Christian apostle and missionary (e.g. John Calvin, Charles Hodge, John Murray, C.E.B. Cranfield, John MacArthur).

On the other hand, the second answer says that Romans 7:14–25 is Paul’s description of himself in his pre-conversion days when he tried to keep God’s Law but was defeated by the power of indwelling sin (e.g. J. Wesley, Adam Clarke, H.A.W. Meyer, F. Godet, W. Sanday, A.C. Headlam, J. Denney, A. Hoekema, M. Lloyd-Jones).

It is interesting that the two views do not align themselves with any particular system of theology. Calvinists and Arminians are found in both camps. I am convinced that the wretched man of Romans 7:14–25 cannot be a description of a saved individual and must be the testimony of Paul in his pre-conversion days for the following reasons.

Paul’s Unregenerate State

The preceding passage in Romans 7:7–13 is clearly autobiographical. In those verses Paul is relating his experience as an unsaved Pharisee and tells us how he finally came to see his need for Christ.

Before the Holy Spirit opened his eyes to his true spiritual condition, his estimate of himself is given in Philippians 3:6, where he says, “touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.” As a strict Pharisee he thought he was right with God because he faithfully kept God’s law (Phil. 3:9).

After the Holy Spirit opened his eyes to the covetousness of his heart (Romans 7:7), he felt that he died spiritually (Rom. 7:9). This is obviously a comparative statement: he once thought he was spiritually alive, but when he became aware that he was guilty of covetousness, which is a violation of the law, he realized that he was actually spiritually dead. Paul continues giving his own history in Romans 7:14–25.

He says in Romans 7:11 that his sinful human nature, seizing the opportunity provided by the commandment’s unrelenting demand of obedience, “killed” him. He then asks the question, “Did that which is good [the law] then become death to me?” (7:13). In other words, was the law the “killing thing”?

He answers, “Absolutely not,” and declares again that “it was his sinful human nature, through the ‘good’ commandment that forbade coveting, that both produced death in him and showed, in its willingness to use the holy law for such a purpose, its ‘utter sinfulness’ (7:13).

It is both this last point—the ‘utter sinfulness’ of his sinful nature—and the impotency of the law in the struggle against sin—that Paul develops in 7:14–25, arguing that even when as the convicted Pharisee he wanted to do the good and obey God, his sinful nature would not let him, and the law did not help him; to the contrary, the sinful nature ‘waged war against the law of his mind [his desire to do good] and made him a prisoner of the law of sin at work within his members.’

His conclusion: his unregenerate state had been a ‘wretched’ existence; so wretched, in fact, that he cried for deliverance from it!

Not knowing where to turn (for he still did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah or that Jesus could help him), however, he continued in his impotency to struggle against sin’s potency until his Damascus Road conversion finally brought him deliverance from his slavery to sin (8:1-4)!” [1]

Notice the contrasts between the saved man of Romans 6 and 8 and the wretched man of Romans 7.

The Saved Man of Romans 6 and 8

  • He has died to sin and cannot live any longer in it 6:2).
  • He walks in newness of life 6:4).
  • He is no longer the slave of sin (6:6).
  • His union with Christ in His death to sin means that he is freed from sin (6:7).
  • He is no longer to let sin reign in his body and is not to obey it (6:12).
  • Sin no longer has dominion over him (6:14).
  • He used to be the slave of sin, but he has been delivered from the slavery of sin (6:17).
  • He has been set free from sin and is now the servant of righteousness (6:18).
  • He is no longer the slave of sin (6:20).
  • He has been set free from sin, is the servant of God, and produces the fruit of holiness (6:22).
  • He experiences no condemnation because He lives in Christ (8:1).
  • He has been set free from the law of sin and death that used to control him (8:2).
  • He fulfills the righteous requirements of the law as he walks in the Spirit (8:4).
  • He does not walk in the flesh, but in the Spirit and the Spirit dwells in him (8:9)

The Wretched Man of Romans 7

  • He is carnal, sold under sin and therefore is still being controlled by sin (7:14).
  • He does what he hates and knows is displeasing God (7:15, 19).
  • He is not able to do what he knows is right (7:15, 19).
  • There is a desire to do right, but no accompanying power to do right (7:16, 18).
  • The law of sin is controlling him (7:20) and resisting the law of his mind (7:23).
  • He is a captive of the law of sin (7:23).
  • He is a wretched man who is miserably unhappy because of his sin (7:24).
  • He is a divided person: His mind serves God, but his flesh serves the law of sin (7:25).

Frequently Asked Questions

What about Paul’s statements that he delighted in the law of God after the inward man (Romans 7:22)? Can an unregenerate man delight in the law of God? Answer: Any Pharisee would have said that he delight ed in the law of God in his heart. Through the enabling of prevenient grace, Paul admired the Law and desired to obey it. But as an awakened sinner, Paul found that he did wrong despite the grace-enabled desire of his mind to do right.

What about the present tenses in Romans 7:14–25? Answer: The shift of verb tense from past tenses in Romans 7:7–13 to present tenses in Romans 7:14–25 in no way affects the autobiographical character of his testimony. Nor must the present tenses in 7:14–24 necessarily indicate Paul’s present experience at the time he is writing Romans as the mature Christian apostle and missionary.

The “historical” or “dramatic” present tense is a well-known use of the present tense in Greek when the writer wished to make a past event or experience more vivid to his readers. [2] Although the historical present tense occurs usually in narrative literature and not in the epistles, through the use of autobiographical information Paul has introduced personal narrative into his epistle.

What about the parallel between this passage and the struggle many Christians find in their life? Answer: There is no dispute as to whether believers, before they are entirely sanctified (1 Thes. 5:23, 24; Rom. 6:11, 13, 19) struggle with indwelling sin.

However, the struggle is quite different. The “wretched man” of Romans 7:14–25 cannot stop sinning. He is a slave of sin. This is not the case of a true Christian. A Christian may have periodic struggles and failures, but his life is not one of slavery to the law of sin and death. The Christian is united with Christ and is set free from the power of indwelling sin (Rom. 6:1–10).

Conclusion

The wretched man of Romans 7:14–25 is not a Christian. A man can not simultaneously be free from sin and be a slave of sin. A man cannot be God’s slave and sin’s slave, for as Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters” (Mat. 6:24; Luke 16:13).

The language of Romans 7:14–25 stands in direct antithesis to the assertions of Romans 6 and 8 concerning the believer’s emancipation from slavery to sin. Therefore, 7:14–25 is a continuation of the description of an unregenerate person’s relation to sin and to the law that was begun in Romans 7:1–13.


Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.

[1] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Pub., 1998), p.1132.
[2] E. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament, trans. Robert W. Funk (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1961), 167, para. 321.

Allan Brown
Dr. Allan Brown is Professor and Chair of the Division of Ministerial Education at God's Bible School & College. He holds his PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of several books and articles.