Pastor David B. Curtis


The Wretched Man

Romans 7:21-25

Delivered 09/11/2011

We have been looking at Romans 7 for several weeks now, we will finish this chapter this morning. One of the biggest problems with this text is that it sounds so much like our experience. Believers read this passage and say, "That's me, that's my experience." I'm sure you all have felt that way in the past when reading this text.

You have those times when you seem to almost have the Christian life under control--or so it seems. Then suddenly, sin throws you down. You have your quiet time and feel the intimate fellowship with God, but then someone crosses you the wrong way and you blow up. This is our experience, so we see this text as talking to us. But this argument is not exegetical but existential. Just because we have similar experiences does not mean that this text is talking about Christian experience.

As we said in our last study, the majority of teachers and commentators see this passage as Paul's autobiography. They see this as Paul as a mature Christian. They see this as the normal Christian life. There are some serious problems with this view. The main one being that it teaches us falsely that the body is evil. Verse 24 says, "Who will set me free from the body of this death?" This view also teaches us that we have two natures fighting each other.

There are several misunderstandings that cause people to see this text wrongly. The main problem being that we read this text as though it applies individually instead of corporately. We have talked about this many times, it is something we must grasp.

The importance of community in Ancient Near East thought and life and a corporate understanding of the nature of humanity provides an important perspective on the interpretation of the text.

An individualistic reading of Paul has long been the overwhelmingly dominant approach until only recently with the appearance of the work of E. P. Sanders and the ensuing "new perspective on Paul." Sanders' work helped to usher in a far greater appreciation of the concept of covenant in Paul's thought resulting in a far greater emphasis on corporate over against individual concerns, particularly concerning the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the Church. Now, the corporate perspective is widely accepted and may even be called the firm consensus among New Testament scholars.

We must recognize that Paul's thought was thoroughly covenantal, focused on the fulfillment of the covenant purposes of God in Christ and their consequences for Jews and Gentiles. Second, for Paul, and virtually all Jews (and non-Jews in Mediterranean and Hellenistic culture) of his time, the group was primary and the individual secondary. This is an essential point to grasp for interpretation of Paul and the New Testament. Modern westerners tend to view social reality in the opposite way: the individual is primary and the group secondary. So the individual is viewed as standing on his own, and corporate concerns are subordinated to individual concerns.

Paul's (and his culture's) perspective was essentially corporate. The individual was not viewed as standing on his own, but was seen as embedded in the group to which he belonged. Corporate concerns generally took precedence over individual concerns, and when it did not, this was judged as wrong. Such corporate interest can be seen in

Paul's primary concern for love and unity dominant in all his letters. The Pauline corporate perspective found individual identity based in the group rather than vice versa.

The NIV's individual perspective corrupts their translation:

For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. Romans 7:18 NIV

To translate sarx as "sinful nature" assumes that the argument is about individual human experience and leads the reader in the direction of an inherited human nature rather than to a federal understanding.

So Paul is speaking corporately, not individually in this text. We must understand this. We also must see that Paul uses "I" as a rhetorical device. One of the biggest disagreements over this text is who this man is. Whose experience is Paul describing? Is this the experience of Paul, the believer? Or is this the experience of Paul, the unbeliever? It is neither!

Paul uses the term, I, about thirty times in this section, but he is not talking about himself. He uses "I" as a rhetorical device, personifying both Adam and Israel. In Romans 7 Paul is talking about Israel under Torah. In 7:7-12 we see the arrival of Torah in Israel, and in 7:13-25 he speaks of Israel's life under Torah. Paul is telling here the story of Israel in the first person singular. He is identifying himself with his people Israel, so he cannot be accused of being anti-semitic.

Alright, so we need to see that Paul is speaking corporately and rhetorically in this text. We also must understand the context. In hermeneutics context is king. And many see this text to be the struggle of the saint trying to live a godly life. This is because they see the context here as sanctification. This comes from a misunderstanding of:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? Romans 6:1 NASB

Most people look at this verse as saying that we should not personally go on sinning once we are saved. This interpretation is fueled by the NIV, which says:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? Romans 6:1 NIV

Paul is not talking about personal sin or sanctification, he is talking about "the sin" that he brought up in 5:12. Paul's question is: Shall we continue to live under the Old Covenant Law? Paul's subject is not sanctification, but the Law and believers relationship to it. He says in verse 14, "you are not under law but under grace."

I read a statement over twenty years ago. I believe, but am not sure, it was Bernard Ramm who said: "If we take the Scripture out of the context for which it was originally intended, it no longer remains the Word of God." This should motivate us to study in context.

What we have in this text is a Christian theological analysis of what it was like for those who lived "under the Law." This is explaining Israel's life under Torah.

I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. Romans 7:21 NASB

Paul is drawing his conclusion from the argument he has been making. In effect he is saying, "This, then, is what I discover about the Law."

The word "principle" here is the Greek word nomos. John MacArthur writes: "Some of your translations may say "law," it really means the principle, the operative principle." This is the same exact Greek word that Paul has been using for the Torah since this argument began in 5:20. From 5:20 till now he has used it 20 times to refer to Torah. And does he now at the climax of his argument about Torah switch uses of the word nomos to now mean principle? No, this is all about Torah, Israel's Law. Paul uses the definite article here: the Law. Paul is summing up his argument here, and he is not going to change the meaning of nomos in the summary.

I'm sure that you understand that when you read the Bible you are reading a translation. Here the NASB translators decided to change the translation of nomos from Law, to principle. This confuses the text.

Paul opened this chapter speaking about the law of marriage. He said that the woman was under the law of her husband. This is the law of Sin and Death, from which man cannot escape. Man, under the Old Covenant, was married to sin and death. The offspring of Adam is like the helpless woman who is married to an abusive husband. Evil was present because they were married to the Law which increased sin.

"Evil is present in me"--contrary to popular opinion this is not referring to a "sin nature." This is like the last phrase of verse 20: "I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me." "Sin which dwells in me" and "evil is present in me" if not understood corporately will lead to wrong theology.

Bob Deffinbaugh writes: "The problem of the Christian is that he has within him two natures, each drawing him in a different direction. The sin nature Paul calls the 'old man' (Romans 6:6) or the 'flesh' (Romans 7:14,18)." The "old man" and "flesh" are not referring to a sin nature; these are historical redemptive terms that refer to man in Adam.

Most Christians believe that personal sins come from indwelling sin, or man's sinful nature. Such an understanding of sin is Hellenistic, not biblical. The Hebraic view of man as holistic has no place for the dualism of the Greeks who see man as being tripartite: body, soul, and spirit.

As I have said before, I don't believe that man has a corrupted nature or a sin nature. All men are born into the sinful condition or status of Adam. We are born in covenant union with Adam. Instead of thinking of man as having a sinful nature, we must see him as in a fallen condition. Now some of you may be thinking, "Aren't there verses in the Scripture that support the idea of man having a sin nature?"

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me. Psalms 51:5 NASB

Many would say that this teaches that David was born with a sin nature. And this passage is often used to teach that all men are born with a sin nature. Could this passage possibly mean something else? James L. Mays, in his book Psalms, 200, notes that the idea of being conceived in sin has led to a very negative attitude to human procreation and claims that the statement is not about David's conception in sin but the rebellious, spiritual, and social environment that characterized Israel.

A question that we need to ask: Is David talking about his biological mother or is he talking about Zion? The idea of Zion being a mother and bearing children is found throughout the First Testament (Isa 3:16; 37:22; 62:11; Lam 1:6; Mic 1:13; 4:10):

For I heard a cry as of a woman in labor, The anguish as of one giving birth to her first child, The cry of the daughter of Zion gasping for breath, Stretching out her hands, saying, "Ah, woe is me, for I faint before murderers." Jeremiah 4:31 NASB
But of Zion it shall be said, "This one and that one were born in her"; And the Most High Himself will establish her. Psalms 87:5 NASB

So David could be saying that because he was born into a community which constantly broke Yahweh's commandments, he was set on the path of disobedience and sin. In other words, being born "in sin" is a reference to the type of community into which David was born, and he is conscious that his behavior has followed the national characteristic of unfaithfulness to Yahweh.

Okay, well what about what Jeremiah says about the heart? He talks about the human heart being sinful:

"The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9 NASB

Again we must interpret this in context. The statement concerning the deceitful and sick heart refers to the idolaters of Judah:

The sin of Judah is written down with an iron stylus; With a diamond point it is engraved upon the tablet of their heart And on the horns of their altars, Jeremiah 17:1 NASB

Judah's idolatry is engraved upon their heart. In verses 5-8 he gives us a contrast between those who trust the Lord and those who don't:

Thus says the LORD, "Cursed [awrar] is the man who trusts in mankind And makes flesh his strength, And whose heart turns away from the LORD. "For he will be like a bush [arow'er] in the desert And will not see when prosperity comes, But will live in stony wastes in the wilderness, A land of salt without inhabitant. Jeremiah 17:5-6 NASB

Then Jeremiah compares this cursed man whose heart has turned away from God to the blessed man:

"Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD And whose trust is the LORD. "For he will be like a tree planted by the water, That extends its roots by a stream And will not fear when the heat comes; But its leaves will be green, And it will not be anxious in a year of drought Nor cease to yield fruit. Jeremiah 17:7-8 NASB

After reading this proverb about the cursed tree and the blessed tree, it is easy to imagine what the blessed tree must look like: thick green leaves; branches covered in large, luscious fruit; abundant growth even when everything is dry all around.

What do you think this cursed tree would look like? The one whose heart turns away from the Lord is like an arow'er tree. The word "bush" is the Hebrew word arow'er. When you see green in the desert you are attracted to it. The arow'er tree can grow in the middle of the desert where there is nothing else. It is said to have roots that go down 150-180 ft. It has huge green grapefruit size fruit on it that feel like they are full of juice.

According to Nogah Hareuveni, an expert on plants of the Bible, in Hebrew the name of this tree is called the arow'er, which sounds similar to the word for cursed (awrar) and is part of a wordplay which is central to this poem. Why is it called "cursed"? Because if a thirsty, hot traveler approaches the tree and picks a nice big fruit, he will find a nasty surprise. When opened, the fruit makes a "pssst" sound, and is hollow and filled with webs and dust and a dry pit. A little white juice comes out of the skin that is poisonous. The man trusting the flesh may look good, but he is empty.

So there are two men in the text in Jeremiah, a cursed man and a blessed man who trust the Lord. The cursed man has turned his heart away from the Lord. He keeps saying,"Where is the word of the LORD? Let it come now!" (17:15) It is clear that Jeremiah sees himself as having been faithful to Yahweh, he has been a faithful shepherd (17:16) and one who has been planted by the water (17:8). It is those who have turned away from God who are described as being desperately sick, and they are contrasted with those who seek to walk in the ways of the Lord and who will be rewarded with blessing (17:7, 14).

The blanket statement which says the human heart is continually and permanently wicked is not well-founded. There are times when it is wicked, and there are times when it is not:

Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart. Psalms 37:4 NASB

How could God give you the desires of your heart if it is always wicked?

For Paul, "sin dwelling in me" and "evil being present in me" are the consequence of being Adam's offspring. It is relational. We were born outside of the covenant with God, which man was created to enjoy, and into a covenant of sin and death. The consequence of Adam's disobedience was universal, as all his decedents were driven out of God's presence with him.

In Romans 7 Paul's argument has a corporate dimension and its language should be read in terms of man's condition in Adam rather than seeing sin as dwelling inside of each person.

For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, Romans 7:22 NASB

"Joyfully concur"--is from the Greek word sunedomai; this is the only place it's ever used in Scripture. This could be translated "delight." We must understand that Israel, even Adamic Israel, delighted in God's Law. If you were to read Psalm 119, you would see again and again how the psalmist delights in God's Law:

May Your compassion come to me that I may live, For Your law is my delight. Psalms 119:77 NASB
If Your law had not been my delight, Then I would have perished in my affliction. Psalms 119:92 NASB
O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. Psalms 119:97 NASB
I have inherited Your testimonies forever, For they are the joy of my heart. Psalms 119:111 NASB
I long for Your salvation, O LORD, And Your law is my delight. Psalms 119:174 NASB

This is David and his life under Torah. He delights in the holy and good Law of God. So for 175 verses he affirms his love for the Law of God, but then he ends with this:

I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Your servant, For I do not forget Your commandments. Psalms 119:176 NASB

This is the same thing we see in Romans 7, there is a delight for the Law of God, but the constant inability to keep it.

I joyfully concur with the law of God in the "inner man"--what does he mean by the "Inner man"? Phil Newton writes: "What does he mean by 'the inner man'? It is the regenerated man: that aspect of his being that lives on in eternity because the Holy Spirit applied the work of Christ to him. He distinguishes inner man from the body subject to decay."

MacArthur writes: "Inner man is reserved to refer to the redeemed nature. This is the new creation. This is the new man. This is the new heart. This is the new spirit. This is our new life in Christ. And even, according to 2 Corinthians 4:16, 'When the outer man is decaying, the inner man is always being renewed day by day.'"

Again we see here the dual nature. MacArthur says it's the redeemed nature. But then he uses 2 Corinthians 4:16 to explain the inner man. Let's look at that verse:

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. 2 Corinthians 4:16 NASB

So is this teaching two natures? Is this teaching that the "inner man" is the new nature and the "outer man" is the body? The context of this is a contrast between the Old and New Covenants, not two natures:

who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 2 Corinthians 3:6 NASB
For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory. 2 Corinthians 3:11 NASB

So we have a contrast of covenants, one is fading away and one remains. We looked at 4:16 that talked about the outer man decaying, now look at:

while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:18 NASB

The outer man is the Old Covenant and the inner man is the New Covenant. This is not what Paul is talking about when he uses "inner man" in Romans 7. The inner man is simply another way of denoting the mind which agrees with the Law and wants to practice it:

but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Romans 7:23 NASB

"A different Law"--this different law functions in a different way. It is also the Law of Moses that was given to rule the life of Israel. This war is between the Torah as it appears in 5:20 and 7:5 and the holy, just, and good Law of God. The Law can become a different one in that it is used by sin and brings about death.

The Law seems to have two different sides to it. The Jews delighted in the Law of God. But at the same time there was another Law in my members.

"Members of my my members"--It is easy to read the statement: "the members of my body," as a reference to Paul's physical body if an individualistic perspective for interpreting the passage is adopted. This is a reference to individuals within the corporate body of Moses.

Then he uses military terms to describe the struggle--"waging war," "making me a prisoner." The Greek word for "waging war" means: "to line up the troops and go out on a military campaign."

The law here is identified as the law of the mind, while in verse 25 it says, "So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God." Israel serves the Mosaic Law with its mind, while in verse 23 the law is identified as the law of the mind. The law of the mind and the Law of God are therefore the same. This text is all about the Law God gave to Israel, the Torah.

Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Romans 7:24 NASB

MacArthur writes: "And this is a very mature man. And any mature Christian lives with a sense of misery with a sense of overwhelming disappointment, with a grief and a groaning and a longing, a longing that expresses itself in the words of Paul, verse 24, 'Who will set me free from the body of this death?'"

What is the mature Christian crying out for deliverance from? His physical body? Is he then crying out for physical death? Kill me Lord and take me to heaven?

MacArthur goes on to say: "When he says, 'Wretched man that I am,' he tells us that we are prefect in our position before God, we are perfect because we've been declared so by justification. But our sanctification is still a work in progress." Does that make sense to anyone? It is really confusing to me. We are perfect in our position and yet we are wretched, crying out for deliverance.

Piper writes: "The 'wretched man' is Paul himself, spontaneously voicing his distress at not being a better Christian than he is, and all we know of Paul personally fits in with this supposition." Paul is distressed that he is not a better Christian? Seriously!:

"And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. "But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God. "And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will no longer see my face. "Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. "For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. Acts 20:22-27 NASB

Note how costly his ministry is. He knows that he is facing danger, trial, hardship, affliction. Everywhere he had gone the Holy Spirit had witnessed to him, through circumstances and through other Christians, that he was heading for trouble, and he knew it. But note also the commitment of his heart. He says that it does not matter.

Believer, please get this, the last thing on Paul's list of priorities was self preservation. That is usually number one on our list. Rather than preserve his life at all costs, he chooses to pursue the purpose the Lord Jesus has for him: the task of testifying to the Gospel of God's grace.

If Paul is distressed at not being a better Christian, we are all in trouble!

He uses a present tense to describe a present reality of wretchedness. "Wretched man that I am," not "I was" or "I used to be." Would a believer call himself a "wretched man" and then cry out for someone to rescue him? Is he looking for a second work of grace?

One writer says: "Here is the evidence of the regenerate life: the Christian longs for deliverance." And I ask, From what?

For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, Colossians 1:13 NASB

"Rescued," is aorist and suggests that which is an accomplished event. We were rescued at a point in the past--our conversion. This deliverance is absolutely finished. There is no progress in this rescue. It is an event.

So who is the wretched man here? It is corporate unregenerate Israel. Vincent says that "wretched" from the Greek word talaiporos originally meant "wretched through the exhaustion of hard labor." Boy that sure pictures Israel under Torah.

The words "set me free" are the word "rescue." It's used to denote the act of a soldier who runs to his comrade in the midst of a battle, and he rescues him from the enemy.

This is the lament of the Jew under Torah. The question is; who is going to raise me from the dead? How will I get out of this body of death?

"The body of this death"--sadly most Christians see this as a reference to the physical body. In attempting to illustrate what Paul is saying here it is often said that

near Tarsus where Saul was born there was a tribe of people who inflicted the terrible penalty upon a murderer. When a person murdered someone, it was their custom to fasten the dead corpse to the murderer face to face, nose to nose, chest to chest, thigh to thigh, foot to foot, that was the punishment until the decay of the dead body had killed the murderer. So tight were the bonds that he could not free himself. And a few days is all it took for the corruption of death to pass to the living and take his life. And so they see Paul looking at himself and he sees that in his own case and senses that he is face to face, chest to chest, thigh to thigh to something that is dead and corrupt and killing and cries, "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me?"

John MacArthur writes: "And what happens when you die and go to heaven is you are liberated, you are separated from the body, the corpse, the rotting flesh that's tied to you and you are set free to be everything you were created to be when you were created in Christ."

He goes on to say: "The problem now is not that there's something wrong with the new nature, with the inner man, with the new heart, the new spirit with that eternal life, but rather that this new person is still incarcerated in this fallen body." This is Gnostic dualism, treating the physical life, the body as inherently evil. You will not find this idea anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures.

So what is the body of this death? The argument continues to address the corporate aspects of Sin. "This body of death" is nothing less than the body of Moses, which was a body of sin. So Paul's cry could be interpreted: "Who will deliver me from the kingdom of darkness?"

Look at how the "body" is used figuratively in the New Testament:

And answering they said to Him, "Where, Lord?" And He said to them, "Where the body is, there also the vultures will be gathered." Luke 17:37 NASB

The context of Luke 17 is the judgment of Israel and the Old Covenant. It's the same thing he had in mind in:

For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 Corinthians 5:1 NASB

"We have"--here is a present active indicative, which means we already have a house not made with hands. So there are two houses existing at the same time, the earthly tent and an eternal house not made with hands. Remember what we have said about the transition period: "The Old and New Covenant existed together for a period of forty years." Can these be two biological bodies?:

For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven; 2 Corinthians 5:2 NASB

The "this house" here is the "earthly tent" of verse 1. They were groaning in the house they were in and longing for a new home from heaven. I see Paul in this text as comparing two covenants, the Old and the New. The Old Covenant caused groaning:

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. Romans 7:25 NASB

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!--this shout of praise will be unfolded in chapter 8. He's looking ahead at the time of redemption, and he says I see it and it's coming and I'm living in hope that indeed it will come. This is an eschatological view; that is, Paul is looking for the final day of redemption when Israel is redeemed out of the body of Moses and into the body of Christ.

Notice what Paul says in:

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:56-57 NASB

This parallels our text so closely that it is clear the subject is the same. The victory is not from our sin nature, but from life under the Law.

Thanks be to God--this looks back to:

so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 5:21 NASB

"So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin"--The mind of the "I" loves and delights in the Law of God, but the flesh of the "I" resists God's Law and serves sin. This is Israel under Torah; loving God's Law and yet continually serving the flesh. The one and only solution for Israel and us is the Lord Jesus Christ.

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