“O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” —Romans 7:24
When Paul speaks of a desire to do that which is pleasing before God, but instead, doing that which is sin against God, e.g., “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:19), he is expressing in the portions of Romans 7:15-24 that which is taking place in every true disciple of Christ: a struggle between the corruptions of humanity in our fallen nature, which I still have, and the renewed and continually renewing understanding of His Word that cleanses our minds because we have been regenerated as new creatures in Christ. This is certainly not speaking of willful sin. “Why not?” someone may object in horror, “Do you mean to say that someone who is saved by God’s grace does not sin willfully?” God forbid, I answer, using the language of Romans.
The teaching that is sometimes called the doctrine of the “carnal Christian,” being that doctrine which states that a person may continue in a habitual lifestyle that reflects no desire for change and conformity to Christ’s righteousness, yet, is still saved, is not a doctrine that is consistent with scripture; and it certainly does not apply to our passage in Romans 7. Does that mean that a Christian disciple, now being freed from sin, will never commit sin as a result of a determined act of choice? It most certainly does not; yet, the apostle didn’t have to explain that in Romans 7:14-24 because he had already given instruction pertaining to willful sin in Romans 6:18-19, et al,
“Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness. I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.”
Having given commandment not to yield to sin implies personal volition with a propensity toward sin. Having walked through this truth, building precept upon precept in Romans 6, Paul didn’t have to repeat it in Romans 7. The apostle presents another dimension of reality within our Christian lives: the desire to please God, yet, failing miserably to do so. That’s what Romans 7:14-24 is about.
I can relate to these portions of scripture much, much more than I could ever imagine before. I believe that all my readers know (yes, I’m talking about all three of you) that my family and I could no longer minister in remote bush Alaska because symptoms of ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) began to manifest a few years ago. Because the onset has progressed rather slowly and is not degenerating as quickly as typical ALS it had prompted us to look elsewhere for the cause (which we now believe to have been Lime’s disease). Although I have been enjoying much better health for the past thirteen months, there were times, after nearly seven years with the ALS-like symptoms, that I experienced loss of dexterity and coordination to such an extent that I had to use crutches to walk or a wheelchair to get around.
During those days, I had moments when my muscles just would not do what I wanted them to do. There had been times when I wanted to go one way and one of my legs wanted to do something else entirely. I wanted to walk a straight line, but sometimes I didn’t. I didn’t want to drop that jug of milk, but occasionally I did. I didn’t want to knock things off the shelf or knock them over on the table, but it happened time and again. Does that sound pretty close to what the apostle tells us? “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:19).
My physical ailments were blessed illustrations of what takes place spiritually in a mature believer’s life. The cramps that occurred in my muscles from the Lime’s disease mimicking ALS, especially those in my hands and feet, reminded me that, although I didn’t mean to, I may tend toward obstinacy when I should be obedient to Christ; that I tend toward stubbornness when I should be submissive to Him. I say, “especially of my hands and feet,” because where do I find myself most resistant to the will of God? —in the gospel of grace, upon which I stand (feet); and in the work of the ministry and service to Christ and His people (hands).
The twitches and spasms that occurred in my muscles reminded me that there are still outbursts in my flesh from the corruptions that still remain. The fatigue and weakness in my muscles comes and goes, just like the fatigue and weakness of my flesh, though desiring to please God and serve Christ.
“O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24).
Who is my Deliverer?
“I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25).
Not only does my wrestling and wretchedness keep me embracing grace, clinging to His cross, and cleaving to Christ alone for mercy, rest, and comfort, but my struggle also stirs within me that longing for the day when Christ shall come, and “we shall be like Him; for we shall see him as He is” (1 John 3:2). O, to be with Christ and behold the fullness of His glory!
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Listen to the sermon preached on this text, Romans 7:24-25, “O Wretched Man!,” on December 6, 2009 at Sovereign Grace Baptist Church.
Read the previous article in this series, “My Wretchedness” (Romans 7:24).