Paul’s “Wretched Man” Revealed
Whenever we speak about the “Abundant Life” or getting set free from sin and becoming more and more Christ-like, sooner or later someone will bring up that notorious passage at the end of Romans seven, where Paul describes a man who wants desperately to do what is right but is continuously sabatogued by sin in his flesh. And this man becomes so distraught that he cries out “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
The passage sounds so much like a personal account that everyone thinks Paul must be talking about himself. And furthermore, we all seem to be able to identify quite readily with this wretched man . So it seems only logical that Paul must be talking about the experience of Christians everywhere. And if this is the case with Paul, then what hope do we really have of becoming like Christ?
The great debate about this passage (which has gone on for centuries) generally boils down to one question:
Is Paul speaking autobiographically as a frustrated Christian, or is he speaking rhetorically in some way, perhaps as a non-Christian who is trying to do good and is unable to?
Most laypersons today have adopted the Regenerate View, that Paul is speaking about his own experience as a Christian. The primary reason for this is that the text is easily read as a first-person account. A significant number of Evangelical theologians take this position as well, and have argued at length for its validity.
What most Christians fail to realize is that the arguments favoring the Unregenerate View are far more sound and fit the context far better. In fact, I believe a careful analysis of the two opposing viewpoints leaves little doubt that Paul is speaking rhetorically as part of his lengthy argument for the New Covenant, and he is not describing the normal Christian experience. What’s more, when we finally put this passage to rest we discover something very incredible. The entire New Testament is unanimous in regard to the Christian’s freedom from sin and the hope of becoming more and more Christ-like!
A Summary of Arguments for the Non-Regenerate View
For a complete analysis of this issue, including all the reasons why the arguments for the Regenerate View are extremely weak, I would encourage you to download the longer article covering this topic (coming soon). But as a preview, let me point out a few of the obvious issues.
1. What is the Wretched Man trying to do?
Everyone on both sides of the argument agree: the wretched man is trying to keep the law. But this brings up an interesting question: Where in any of Paul’s writings does he suggest that a Christian should strive to keep the law?
The correct answer is, of course, nowhere. Quite the contrary — Paul is the single most vocal opponent of Christians keeping the law in the entire first century. The book of Galations was written specifically to correct Christians who believed keeping the law was required. He says many times in his writings that keeping the law fails to do any good. And his main point a bit earlier in Romans 7 was that keeping the law can only bring us condemnation and death. If that is the case, what would you expect might be the actual experience of someone trying to keep the law? Well it would sound exactly like that of the wretched man at the end of chapter seven!
It would seem to me that this argument alone should be enough to silence the Regenerate View. But it is only the beginning.
2. Paul’s descriptions of the Christian life are diametrically opposed to his descriptions of the wretched man.
Take a look at the incredible differences in terminology that Paul uses to describe these two identities:
[ coming soon ]
No matter what the evidence, something inside us still wants to object.
If Paul is talking about someone other than a Christian, why is it that I identify so well with the wretched man?
For answers to this and other interesting questions, plus a more comprehensive discussion of the opposing points of view, please see my complete article on this topic (coming soon).
In the mean time, we can take heart that the New Testament really does teach freedom from sin for the Christian. We do not mean to say that Christians do not sin; only that the power of sin has been broken by the New Covenant, and by birthright we have been given the necessary resources to destroy the power of sin in our lives! And that is Good News!