The Wretched Man
Scripture: Romans 7:13–7:25
13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 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’ve often had a conversation in our home about whether a certain action is sinful or not. As we consider controversial issues that Christians have different opinions about, we first look to see what God has revealed to us about those issues in his Word. However, even in God’s revelation of his will, we sometimes discern complexities that take some time to unravel.
The relationship between God’s law—his commandments and instructions—and sin is a relationship that is complicated. For example, in Romans 7:12 we are told that the law is good, holy, and righteous. However, in verse 6, we are told that, because sin has become so intertwined with the law, we need to be released from the law.
That is why Romans 7 can be a puzzling chapter to understand, because it is dealing with this complicated relationship between God’s law and sin. In the passage before us, we are told that the law of God has an important role to play in the history of redemption and in the overthrow of sin. The law of God creates a target for sin, entraps it, and then ultimately triumphs over it.
The Target of the Law
First, the target of the law. In verse 13, Paul takes up another question about the law. “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me?” This is another logical conclusion one might come to. “Sure, the law is good—it is God’s law after all—but isn’t it functionally evil for us human beings?” Paul said in verse 9 that he “was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive, and I died.” So, isn’t it better to just do away with the law since it is the weapon sin uses to kill me?
The Enemy’s Weapon
Again, Paul’s response is the emphatic, “By no means!” Getting rid of the law does not get rid of the problem and would in fact make it worse. It is not the law of God that should concern us but sin. And by sin Paul would have us think, not of the collection of all human transgression, but of a dark, mysterious entity that exists in God’s world and has corrupted every part of it, including all humanity. This Sin is the same thing as the Satan figure. Paul only mentions that name or title (“the adversary”) of this entity ten times in his writings, but the same figure is clearly in view here. And Paul is telling us how this dark figure works, the weapon he uses to bring death into God’s good world. So, Paul tells us, “No, it was not the law that brought death into the world. The law itself does not kill. Sin kills. Yet this Sin has no power of its own. It has to make use of God’s law to bring about its deadly aims.
In the Old Testament we find this story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den. Daniel’s enemies, jealous of his promotion within the kingdom, sought a way to take him down, but
They could find no ground or complaint or any faults, because he was faithful, and no error or fault was found in him. Then these men said, “We shall not find any ground or complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God” (Dan 6:4-5).
So, they set Daniel up to have to choose between obeying the law of God or the law of the pagan king. Were it not for the existence of God’s law, Daniel would not have been in any danger. But being forced to choose between two competing laws put him in jeopardy. Daniel was not thrown into the lion’s den because of God’s law but because of his evil adversaries.
This is how Sin works. It is not the law but sin—again, sin is viewed here as a sinister power, an entity that has a will—it was Sin that “deceived me,” Paul says in verse 11, “and through it (the law) killed me.” God’s law is not our problem. Sin is our problem. And we should hate it more than we hate anything else.
We should hate Sin because here we can see how particularly perverse it is. It has no power of its own. It has to co-opt God’s good law in order to achieve its devious scheme. Sin is a power, but it is not a competing power, some rival or equal to God and his goodness. Sin is a cancer, a deadly disease living off the sustenance of God’s good law. Can anything be done about it? Can anything be done about this great evil, this power that Paul says in verse 13 produced death in him?
Read on in verse 13 and you’ll notice that there are two purpose statements, two reasons why sin produced death in him through the good law of God. But these are not Sin’s purposes. The first purpose is, “in order that sin might be shown to be sin.” Now Sin is not interested in revealing its particular heinousness. It is not interested in letting us see how ugly it is. The purpose stated here is not sin’s purpose but God’s purpose. God ordained that sin would make use of his good law in this way. It was one of the primary reasons that God gave his law. He did so in order for sin to show its true color, to be shown for the evil that it really is. This power in the world is no friend but is the consummate enemy, making use of God’s good things in order to bring about our destruction. God gave his law in order to expose sin’s true character.
The second purpose God had for giving his law is stated next. He did so in order that “through the commandment [sin] might become sinful beyond measure.” Now this will raise some eyebrows. To speak of sin becoming “sinful beyond measure” signals that God intended for sin to grow, to increase in some way. He gave his law, his good law, knowing that sin would feed off it and grow large. Looking at this statement, we would not be surprised to find some concluding that God himself is evil. For why would a good God give a law which only seems to enlarge the horrors of sin? Why would a good God give a law that would serve to feed such a monster called Sin and allow it to grow into such a force? Why would he do such a thing?
But surely, we can at least suspect that if God is good he is up to something here. And we’ve already been told back in chapter five that, yes, “the law came in to increase the trespass,” but at the same time, “where sin increased, grace abound all the more” (Rom 5:20). God has never allowed the horrors of sin to have a field day without flooding the same field of horror with abundant grace. Yes, God is up to something. And Paul wants us to know that though Sin has taken advantage of God’s law, it is God who is in control, and the giving of his law is part of his great plan to overthrow Sin once and for all. God gave his good law in order to lure Sin into one place, allowing it to do its worst in that one concentrated place, so that he could then deal the deathblow to Sin once for all.
Where was that one place? It is the “I” that Paul speaks of in the following verses.
The Trap of the Law
This “I” is the trap that God, by his law, had set for Sin and its ultimate overthrow.
Common Human Experience
Could there be a simpler word than the word I? With just one letter, it would seem this little word could hardly be misunderstood. Doesn’t it simply mean “me,” that is, the one who is speaking?
Well, it certainly couldn’t mean “not me.” There should be no doubt that Paul is saying something about his own experience in this chapter. Many of us can relate to that experience. Can’t you relate to verse 19: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing”? Does that sound familiar to you?
It seems clear to me that Paul intends for us to think of the experience he describes here as representative of others’ experience as well. The “I” and the “me” in these verses is not just Paul but us as well. But first we ask, what is the experience here described? Paul is talking about our complicated relationship with the law of God. God’s laws—his revealed will, his ways—are good, but Sin feeds off it and ends up brining about death. No matter who you are, God’s law by itself can only end up producing death in you.
This is certainly true for those who are not Christians, and it is possible that Paul is reflecting in the verses on his pre-Christian days. Back in verse 5, he speaks of pre-conversion as the time when we were living in the flesh, that is, prior to the time of conversion and its different way of living described in verse 6. Accordingly, verses 7-25 may be referring to the life of the unregenerate introduced in verse 5 while chapter 8 then takes us into the life of the regenerate that is introduced in verse 6. To be “sold under sin” (v. 14) sure sounds like how Paul describes the non-Christian since in Romans 6:7 he speaks of a Christian as having “been set free from sin.”
On the other hand, there are plenty of arguments in favor of understanding Paul to be speaking of Christian experience in these verses. Many who favor this interpretation admit that verses 7-13 describe pre-conversion, but the striking change from the past to the present tense in verse 14 seems most naturally to be read as a change from what was once true for Paul to what is now true of him. The kind of inner turmoil depicted in verses 15 to 19 may more accurately reflect the Christian experience; again, many of us would resonate with this kind of struggle. Verse 18 even suggests that there is a duality in the “I” in these verses, since Paul clarifies that it is “in my flesh” where no good seems to dwell. Paul knows that the Holy Spirit himself resides in the Christian, so he is careful to say that he is only addressing the human condition apart from the indwelling Spirit where no good is found. Surely it is only the Christian who agrees with the law that it is good, as verse 16 says, only the Christian who delights in the law of God as verse 22 says.
How do we decide whether Paul is referring to Christians or non-Christians in these verses? There are numerous other arguments in favor of either position. And each seems to have solid counter arguments to the strongest arguments the other side presents. I think that the essential point Paul is making is true whichever view of the “I” one holds, for his point is that the law has no power to deliver one from sin or to prevent one from sinning. Perhaps we’re asking the wrong question here, a question the text is not trying to answer.
The Fall of Adam and Eve
There are clear echoes in these verses of the story of Adam and Eve in Eden, with Sin present there as well in the figure of a serpent. The serpent seizes the opportunity that came with just one command of God given to the man and the woman. The serpent cast doubt on the goodness of God’s commandment and coaxed them into death. So, there are plenty of reasons to suspect that the I who speaks in these verses certainly does not exclude Paul, nor you or me for that matter, because it was by the one man’s disobedience that sin and death spread to all of us, since we are all and Adam. That Paul wants us to think of all of humanity united to Adam—and therefore, to sin and to death—is clear since he specifically brings this up in Romans 5:12-21. This is what Paul is still addressing here in chapter 7. He is talking not just about his story but about the human story, the story of all of us descended from the fallen Man.
The Fall of Israel
But, in speaking of God’s purpose for giving the law he is also speaking of Israel’s role in that same story. Because the hope of Israel in the biblical story—indeed the very promise of Israel in the biblical story—is that in Israel we would find the solution to the problem of Adam and the fall of the entire creation. In Israel we would find the defeat of Sin, of the Satan, of evil. So, when the Mosaic Law came, we found ourselves right back in Eden, full of expectation and hope.
But what happened? Though the Mosaic Law came with the promise of life, “do this and you will live” (Lk 10:28), the result was death, not life. And that’s because with the coming of the commandment came a temptation which proved to be irresistible. And just like in Eden, the hope of the world is dashed.
But God is up to something, and the giving of the Law and the creation of Israel as God’s covenant people is not the problem here. The problem is not with the desire to “do” the Torah or any other commandment of God. It is good to “delight in the law of God,” as verse 22 says, a reflection of what is stated repeatedly in the longest psalm. But the problem is that Sin has gotten within “me” (vv. 17, 20). Yes, within me, Ben Jansen, and within you as well. But the problem is worse than that. It is in Paul. It is in Israel. And if it is in Israel, if Israel is in Adam, too, then Israel needs to be saved before Israel, Israel needs to be delivered, before Israel can offer hope to the world.
And that is exactly what God planned to do.
The Triumph of the Law
Paul had come to see that everything was going according to plan, that is, according to God’s plan. The law of God, far from being a disaster, had done exactly what God intended for it to do. It had come in to target sin, exposing it for what it really was. And it had come in to trap sin within Israel so that sin would have no more place to hide. All that is left now is the triumph over sin. And the law would play its part here as well.
The Waging of the War
The inner turmoil described in verses 22-23 is rightly described as a great battle, the waging of a war whose outcome will be a decisive victory for whichever side wins. On one side stands the law of God, which is holy and righteous and good (Rom 7:12). On the other side is “another law,” seeking to enslave us all “to the law of sin.”
Again, it is true that this reflects the kind of inner turmoil so many people experience, a battle within between right and wrong, between good and evil. But the battle Paul seems to be describing is the greater over-arching story of history, the battle between humanity and the mysterious power of evil.
This is a battle which we are all fighting, all of us members of the human race. We end up fighting against one another, but surely we all know deep down inside that the real battle is not with flesh and blood. The enemy is not another human being.
O Wretched Man!
The wretched man in verse 24 is all of us, whether you struggle with self-respect or not. We long for a world the way God designed for it to be, and we’re all trying to push for it one way or the other. This is a good desire. The law of God, the way of God, is a way of life. We are right to want it.
And the agony we experience east of Eden is meant to draw out of us the exasperated cry of verse 24. Where we see brokenness within or without, we are right to cry out in agony. We Christians ought to be able to see the wrongs of the world and to sigh at the horrors. And we ought to know that the solution does not lie within us nor with the way we see things nor with the opinions we hold about how things ought to be.
The Great Deliverer
We know that the Savior has to come from without. And we know that the Savior has come, so we express our thanks to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (v. 25).
The next chapter will spell out in detail how Jesus has brought to all of us the salvation we long for. But given what we’ve seen in this chapter, we can see already that the salvation came just as God had planned. It came in Israel, the one place where God through his law had lured sin so that it could be overthrown, condemned, and defeated right there. Israel, now re-constituted around her plainly-revealed Messiah, would once again become the hope of the world. In Christ God’s law would be fulfilled, and therefore vindicated from sin, and Sin itself would be defeated. A new Adam would prevail over Sin, the accuser would be cast down once for all. And peace would come to our world again.
This is the message of Christmas. Rejoice in it!