Romans: The Clearest Gospel of All
by E.H. “Jack” Sequeira

#20 – O Wretched Man
(Romans 7:14-25)

In this study we’ll be talking about whether Paul in Romans 7 was referring to the pre-converted Christian or the post-converted.  In other words, is he talking about the believer or the unbeliever?  Then, in our next study, we’ll deal with Romans 8:1-3, one of the key passages in the New Testament that deals with the human nature of Christ, and that’s a big issue.

I’m convinced that the reason there is so much controversy over this passage is because the devil knows that these passages are crucial to an understanding of the gospel, and especially the doctrine of righteousness by faith.  And when a pastor refuses to touch these passages, the devil is rejoicing.  But I am not going to leave these passages alone because I know what it meant to my ministry and to my Christian life and I want the same thing to happen to you.

But I would like to request something from you.  I want you to put aside all your preconceived ideas, because they are the greatest hindrance to an understanding of the truth.  I want to read you a statement that Ellen G. White made to the brethren when we as a church struggled over the 1888 Message.  It’s found in the Review and Herald, 10 June 1890:

“It is not for us to bring the word of God to our feelings and ideas...”

We have a special word in theology for this; we call it eisegesis (in other words, to put into a text what we want it to say).  I’m afraid that problem still exists today.

“...but we are to bring our feelings and ideas to the Word of God.”

In other words, what she’s saying is that we must allow the Word of God to control our ideas.  Then she quotes that statement:

“To the law and to the testimony, if they do not preach according to the word, it’s because there is no light in them.”

So our concern for today and our next study is to ask ourselves, “What exactly is Paul trying to say here, in Romans 7:14-22?”

As I mentioned when we first began Romans 7 three studies ago, the issue of this passage we’re covering today is, “Is Paul talking about the believer or the unbeliever?”  If you look at verse 14, because that’s the key statement in this passage, Paul says that:

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.

That word, “I,” the personal pronoun, appears 25 times in this passage of verses 14 to 25 of Romans 7.  Twenty-five times! The impression one gets is that Paul is talking about himself.  I mean, that is the understanding we would get in English.  But, please remember, Paul wrote this in Greek, and he had a Middle-Eastern mind.  He was not referring to himself.  Look at the statement in verse 14.  He says:

I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.

Is this true only of Paul, or is this true of mankind?  He has already told us in Romans 3:9 and 21 that the whole world is under sin, the whole world is under law, and, therefore, the whole world is guilty before God under the law.

So the “I” doesn’t refer to Paul as an individual.  He uses the word “I” to refer to corporate man.  In other words, he’s using the word “I” in a generic sense.  What Paul is saying is, “This is true of every human being who tries to live the life of the law INDEPENDENT of God.”  Why?  Because the law is spiritual and I am unspiritual (or “carnal”) and these two cannot conform.  The flesh cannot conform to the law in and of itself.  Therefore, the issue is not whether Paul is talking about the believer or the unbeliever.

Let me quickly remind you of what I said in the previous study.  Romans 7:14-25 has divided the Christian church from almost Apostolic times.  You have men like Origen, who died in about 254 A.D.  You have men like John Wesley, the great English Reformer of the 18th century; Weiss, the German scholar; Moffat; C.H. Dodd, the British scholar — all of these men have taken the position that Paul is referring here to his pre-converted experience.  On the other side, you have Augustine, Luther, Calvin, the great Swedish theologian Nygren, and the British scholar John Stott, who take the position, “No, Paul is talking about his converted experience.”  But modern research is coming to the conclusion more and more that Paul is speaking of neither the converted nor the unconverted.  He has one thing in mind:  the person who tries to live a good life independent of God.  And that can apply to the believer or the unbeliever.

To understand this passage, we must keep in mind the key passage of Romans 7, and that is the first six verses.  What is Romans 7 all about?  We must keep the concept, the main theme of Romans 7 in mind to understand this passage.  What is the main theme?  “We Christians have been delivered, liberated from under the jurisdiction of the law.”  Look at Romans 7:4:

So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ....

Then in Romans 7:6:

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

Paul is telling us that, as Christians, we are no longer under the jurisdiction of the law.  And remember, when we dealt with this passage we saw that the law Paul had primarily in mind was the moral law, because in verse 7 he says that it was the law that told him he was a sinner, because he did not know what real sin was until he heard the law say, “Do not covet.”  That is the moral law.  But, of course, Paul, being a Jew, he had the whole law system in mind, but, primarily, the moral law.

But what does it mean to be released from the law?  It means that a Christian is no longer depending on his performance in regards to the law for salvation.  He is not dealing here with Christian living; Paul is going to lay the foundation here for Christian living.  Chapter 8 is the life through the Spirit.  But if you don’t understand Romans 7, Christian living will become meaningless, or will become futile, will become a struggle without hope and without peace.

In verses 7 to 13 Paul explains that the problem under law was not the law.  The law is holy, it is good, it is spiritual.  The problem is me.  I am “unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.”  What he does in verses 15 to 25 is prove that a holy law and sinful flesh are always incompatible.  Whether it’s before conversion or after conversion, the two will never be able to live in harmony.

Please remember that there is no change that takes place to your nature when you experience the new birth.  There is a change in your mind, in your attitude, you have experienced the new birth.  But there is no change to your nature.  The nature of a believer and the nature of an unbeliever are identical.  That is why, when we come to Romans 8:22-23, Paul is saying that we have been “groaning ... as we wait ... the redemption of our bodies.”

We as Christians are saved, but our nature has not yet been redeemed.  We have to wait until the second coming of Christ “when the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” [1 Corinthians 15:54], then we shall be free from this sinful nature which is a struggle to live the Christian life.  So keep that in mind.

Now I want to look at some key statements in Romans 7:14-25.  He has made the statement in verse 14 that the law is spiritual and he — or man — is unspiritual.  Then he says that this is what happens when you put the two together:  you may choose to do good, you may choose to keep the law, but how to perform it, you cannot find that.  That is what his argument is.  Romans 7:15-16:

I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.  And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.

Please notice, there is a conflict here between my mind, which wants to do good, my will, which has chosen to do right, and my nature, which will not comply.

If you haven’t had this struggle, you better question your conversion.  Because I believe — if I had a choice — that Paul had the believer in mind.  But I believe that is true of either the believer or the unbeliever.  The reasons why I believe that Paul had the believer in mind (and I gave the reasons before) are at least four reasons because:

  1. Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8 of Romans are dealing with the Christian, not with the pre-converted man.

  2. Beginning in verse 14, Paul moves from the past tense, which he has been using in verses 7 to 13, to the present continuous tense, which means he is not referring to a past experience but to a present issue.

  3. In Romans 7:22 he makes this statement:

    For in my inner being I delight in God’s law.

    There are two things I would like to say about this verse 22. 

    1. First, his phrase “inward man” or “inner being” is a phrase Paul will use only to the believer.  For example, let me give you a couple of incidents.  Turn to 2 Corinthians 4:16 and you will find that Paul is talking here about the believer when he uses that phrase “inward man” or the “inner man” or the “inner mind”:

      Therefore we [believers] do not lose heart.  Though outwardly [i.e., the flesh, the body] we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.

      You see, he’s talking about the converted mind.  If you turn to Ephesians 3:16, you have the same idea there.  Paul will never use that phrase for the unbeliever, he will use it only for the believer.  Ephesians 3:16:

      I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you [i.e., the Christians of Ephesus] with power through his Spirit in your inner being....

    2. Secondly, if you look at Ephesians 2:3, Paul will tell us there that the mind and the flesh of the unbeliever are in harmony with sin:

      ...gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts....

      That is the pre-converted man.  But when it comes to the believer, his mind has been turned towards God.  He has a renewed mind.  And that is what the Greek word “repentance” means:  a change of mind.  But his flesh is unchangeable.  That is what Jesus tried to convince Nicodemus in John 3:6 where He said:

      Flesh gives birth to flesh....

      You cannot change the flesh.  The only time the flesh will change is at the second coming of Christ.  So Paul here is obviously referring to the believer.

  4. I want to give you one more argument.  There are statements that Paul makes in his epistles (he wrote almost half of the New Testament) where he does touch on his preconverted experience.  Galatians 1:14 is an example:

    I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.

    Or another good example is Philippians 3:6.  Wherever he talks about his preconverted experience as a Pharisee, he mentions nothing about a struggle.  For example, Philippians 3:6 he says:

    ...As for legalistic righteousness, [I was] faultless.

    There’s no mention of a struggle.  Only as a Christian does he talk about the struggle.  He does it in Romans 8:3, he does it in Galatians 5:17 — the struggle between flesh and Spirit.  Galatians 5:17:

    For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.  They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.

But I want you to notice that Romans 7:14-25 is not the end of the Christian experience.  The real experience of a Christian should be Romans 8, “Life Through the Spirit.”  But, to prepare us for that life through the Spirit, he has to do something that is extremely important, and that is:  destroy in the believer every confidence that you may have, or that you may cling to, in your natural ability.  Because the gospel formula, whether you talk in terms of imputed or imparted righteousness, is always the same:  “Not I, but Christ.”  And the hardest part is the “not I.”

He wants to make it very clear, because he goes on to say that “we know” and that is the conclusion he wants you to come to, that’s in verse 18, “I know.”  What is it that we should know?  Romans 7:18:

I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.

He doesn’t say, “I am partially bad” or “I’m 80 percent bad” or even 99 percent bad.  Nothing good lives in me. And the greatest evidence is that, even though I choose to do right, I cannot perform it.

Now I want to go to that very next point, which is very important.  I want you to let Paul speak.  The reason why the flesh [or our sinful nature] is incapable of conforming to the law is because it has something in it that makes it impossible.  I want you to notice how Paul addresses the problem.  He doesn’t call that “a bent towards sinning.”  He doesn’t call it “an inclination” or “a propensity.”  He calls it, “sin dwelling in me.”  Look at Romans 7:17:

As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.

He calls it sin.  I’m not calling it sin, Paul calls it sin.  Please don’t tell me he was off his mind when he wrote Romans 7.  He was in his full senses.  Look at verse 20, he repeats it:

Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

Let’s read verse 22 with verse 23 to get the context.  Romans 7:22:

For in my inner being I delight in God’s law....

My mind, which has surrendered to the gospel, which has accepted Christ, loves the law, wants to keep the law, has chosen to keep the law.  Romans 7:23:

...But I see another law [another force, another principle] at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.

Folks, sin is not only what you do, but sin is what you have in you, what you are.  But I have some good news for you:  there is no condemnation for those of you who are in Christ Jesus.  And that’s our next study, Romans 8:1.  That statement, Romans 8:1, is made in the context not of “sins” plural, but of “sin” dwelling in you.

The reason why I’m emphasizing this is because I want to make something very clear which is the plain teaching of the New Testament.  Even if God were to give you total victory over sins — and I believe He can do that — you are still a sinner because your nature doesn’t change in sanctification.  All that changes is your character.  Therefore, you’re still a sinner and your only hope is the umbrella of justification by faith.

Now I want to make it very clear, and I want to go on record, that I am a great believer in sanctification.  Anyone who accuses me of not teaching sanctification needs their ears hosed out with pressure water.  I believe in sanctification, BUT I am like a farmer who’s trying to grow apples.  When you try to grow apples, where do you concentrate on, the fruit or the tree?  The tree.  The fruit becomes natural if the tree is right.  And the tree in Christianity, the tree in the gospel, is justification.  The fruit is sanctification.  That’s how even Ellen G. White defines the 1888 message.  She called it “justification by faith, whose fruits are holiness of living.”

And if you have the tree wrong, I don’t care how long you spend or how much time you hash and you preach and you proclaim sanctification, if the tree is wrong, I can guarantee you that the fruit will be wrong.  It becomes a futile, frustrating experience for the pastor to produce works out of his congregation when the tree is wrong.  It’s absolutely futile.

I am convinced that where we have gone wrong as a people is in the tree.  I’m spending much time on the tree because I know, when the tree is right, when you have finally come to the point, “Not I, but Christ,” the fruits will come, and the earth will be lighted with His glory.

Because when God looks at Christian living, He does not look at Christian living like man does.  Man looks at the outward performance.  God looks at the motivation, at the heart.  You cannot have the right motivation if you are still under guilt, and insecurity, and living in fear whether you’ll make it to heaven or not.  It’s impossible, it’s part of the law of nature.

That is why Paul wants to destroy any idea that you can make yourself acceptable before God, or improve your standing before God, by your performance.  Salvation is totally of God; it’s a gift.  Yes, everything else in this world we have to work for, but, thank God, salvation is a gift! That is the Biblical teaching.

Paul is saying there is sin dwelling in you.  It is not an act, it is a force.  He calls it a law, a principle, which you and I even with our willpower cannot conquer.  Yes, we can defy it for a few moments, for a few days, maybe for a few months depending how strong a willpower you have, but you cannot conquer the law of sin.  It is because of this Paul cries out in Romans 7:24:

What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me [not from sins but] from this body of death?

Now I want to expose you to something that you may not have noticed:  the word “wretched” there.  Look at it in verse 24.  Do you know that that word appears only twice in the whole of the New Testament, at least in the original?  Some English translations may have it more than twice, but in the original it appears only twice.  And each time it is used in an opposite sense.

In Romans 7:24, Paul is talking about the person, which includes himself, who has discovered that in him there is nothing good.  So he cries, “What a wretched man I am!  Who will deliver me from this body that has dwelling in it the law of sin which one day will take me to death?  Who will deliver me?  O wretched man that I am.”

Do you know where the same word is found?  Have you ever discovered where the other word is found?  It’s in the book of Revelation, chapter 3 and verse 17.  There it isn’t Paul speaking, it is Christ speaking to a group of people called the Laodiceans.  Now I won’t have to define who they are, I think you know who they are.  These Laodiceans are saying to themselves, and about themselves, “We are rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing.”

But, the True Witness, Christ, says, “You do not know, that’s your problem.  Your problem is subconscious.  You do not know.”  And what is it that you do not know?  “That you are wretched.”  Revelation 3:17:

You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.”  But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.

That’s the second time.  If we knew, there would be hope, but the trouble is we do not know.

Do we have to learn it the hard way, like Peter?  [See Mark 14:27-31 and Mark 14:66-72.]  Jesus said to the disciples, “You will all forsake me.”

Peter said, “Yes, you may be right about these other fellows, but you are wrong about me.  I will die for you!”

He did not know; he was sincere.  The issue is not sincerity; the issue is:  he did not know that there was nothing good in him, that he was incapable of keeping, of fulfilling that desire.  He really meant what he said, but he did not know that there was a law of sin in him which made it impossible to carry out that resolution.  So, when the test came, he denied his Lord — not once, not twice, but three times.  And the third time he did it with cursing and swearing, which to the Jew was an unpardonable sin.

Do we have to go that Peter experience for us to say with Paul, “O wretched man that I am”?  But I’ll tell you, folks, if you do not come to that position, in you heart — I don’t mean speaking out with your mouth, because it’s easy to say, “I’m wretched,” but in your heart say, “I’m not too bad” — can you say from the heart, “O wretched man that I am”?  If you cannot, you cannot say what Paul says in Romans 7:25:

Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!

That is the whole purpose of Romans 7:  to destroy whatever confidence we may cling to in ourselves, so that we can say, “Not I, but I thank God for Jesus Christ.”

Those who teach that we are justified by Christ alone, but that we are sanctified by Christ plus me, need to read Paul, need to wrestle with this passage.  Because all through Paul’s writings, from beginning to end, he says, “my part is faith, God’s part is righteousness.”

And now we conclude Romans 7.  I want you to notice the conclusion.  He says, “So then, this is the truth about me apart from Christ.  This is my position if I try to live independent of Christ” [the end of Romans 7:25]:

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

Now the word, “I myself” in the Greek is “ego.”  But Paul did not use simply the word “ego,” he used another word, “autos ego,” which is much more emphatic than the English brings out.  It means, “Left to my own, in and of myself, apart from Christ.”  Whether before or after conversion it doesn’t matter, apart from Christ I am totally incapable of keeping the law in practice, because my flesh will only serve the law of sin, my human body will only serve the law of sin.  I can only keep the law in terms of desiring to keep it, delighting in it, and wanting to keep it, and choosing to keep it.  But in actual practice, I myself, left on my own, cannot keep it.

But we will discover when we go to Romans 8 that the righteousness of the law can be fulfilled in us if we walk no longer in the flesh, in our own strength, but in the Spirit.  And that’s the glorious picture of Romans 8.

But before we can go to Romans 8, I want to ask you one question:  Have you come to the conclusion that the great Apostle Paul came to, have you come to the position that “there is nothing good dwelling in me?”  Are you willing to say with Paul, “All those things that I have achieved, ever since I was a Christian, all those things that I thought would improve my standing before God, I am now willing to count it but dung and throw it away into the garbage pit, that I may find Christ, not having my own righteousness, which is of the law, but the righteousness which comes through faith, the righteousness of God, which is mine, made effective only by faith alone.”

My prayer is that you will wrestle with Romans 7 and realize that Paul is talking about you, about me, and saying, “Look fellows, if you want Christ to be your Righteousness, you have to say good-bye to all your confidence in yourself, and let Christ be your Righteousness.”

I hope that this will be true.  And when we take that position, I can assure you, we won’t have to promote for things.  As we walk in the spirit, the desire to live for self will go — not only the confidence, but the desire — and we will live for Christ.  It is my prayer that our young people will say that “Christianity is not dos and don’ts, but Christianity is Jesus Christ.  He’s everything to me.”

May God bless us as we wrestle with Romans 8 in the next study.  It’s dealing with a very difficult area; I want you to wrestle with it and look at what Paul is trying to say.  Because we have a Savior Who doesn’t only redeem us from our sins — thank God for that — He also delivers us from sin that dwells in me.  We have a complete Savior in Jesus Christ.  And that’s the Savior I want to present to you.  May God bless you.

Study Materials