O Wretched Man That I Am!
by Rev. Maurice Roberts
Preacher: Rev. Maurice Roberts, Inverness
Sermon: O Wretched Man That I Am!
Text: Romans 7:24
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"O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver
me from the body of this death?" -Romans 7:24.
What we find in these words is a man who is groaning, a man who is crying out because there is something which is deeply troubling him. It is always a moving experience to see a person who is crying out, or else sighing or groaning, or heaving with emotion. We do see in scripture persons who are deeply moved. You read of David in a certain place, who was informed of the death of his son Absalom, and David cries out, you remember: "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son! (2 Samuel 18:33. And we see also the Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, weeping over Jerusalem: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" (Matthew 23:37. Tears were running down his face, we understand, as our Lord saw this distressing sight: a godless society, a society who had not the love of God within it. Well, these things are moving, perhaps most of all moving in a man. We are troubled when we see a child weeping; we are more troubled when we see a woman weeping; but when we see a strong man deeply moved with emotion, then we know there is something profoundly at work within his soul. And here we see Paul crying out, "O wretched man that I am!"
So, we ask the question: why should Paul be so moved? What is constraining this great apostle to cry out with groanings and expressing his wretchedness? - this towering Christian, this world-shaping theologian, this man who was caught up to the third heaven and saw unspeakable things, which it was not lawful to utter; this man who saw the vision of Christ in his exalted majesty and glory - what can this man be crying out for? Well we are told he cries out for deliverance. "Who shall deliver me", he says, "from the body of this death?"
He is not calling out here because he is unconverted. There have been interpreters and preachers who have imagined that the only explanation for this verse and the verses before it must be that Paul was speaking of himself in an unconverted state, or as though he were in an unconverted state. He is, as it were, taking on the persona or the character of an unconverted man and he is calling out. No, no, that cannot be the explanation, and I want to tell you why. It cannot be, when you look at Romans 7:14, when he tells us there, "For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin." And then, when we go on a little bit further and see what he has to say about himself, we see he says, in Romans 7:21, "I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me." And Romans 7:22, "For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:" So that verse 22, taken with other verses, makes it very clear that whatever his problem was, it was not that of an unconverted man. He is not crying out therefore for deliverance from guilt, as a man who has not yet experienced justification.
And let me go on to say, he is not here calling out in this way because he has fallen as a Christian into some particular sin. It is all too easy for us as Christians to fall into particular transgressions. We see various cases of that very thing in the Word of God, as you all very well remember - David's case, and Peter's case, and many other cases of men who were eminent for godliness but who slipped into a backslidden state for a time. But there is no reason whatever to suppose that the apostle Paul had fallen to some such condition as that. He delights, he says, in the Word of God. And yet, even though he is a converted man, yet he groans waiting for some deliverance, and we need to discover what this deliverance is.
Well, there are some thinkers, writers and preachers, especially those who belonged in the past to the Keswick Convention, who believed that the real explanation for Paul here is that in chapter 7 he is describing the character of a defeated Christian who spends too much looking at himself, and too much time looking at the moral law; and not enough time looking toward Christ, and not enough time in the spirit. So the old Keswick way of looking at Paul here in Romans 7:24, and all this context, is to say this: that there in chapter 7 we have the defeated Christian; but in chapter 8 he moves now into the victory. The difference is because in chapter 7 he was, as I say, too much looking at himself, too much bothered about the law, whereas in chapter 8... ah, now he remembers his justification, he looks now afresh to Christ, his mind receives relief and he sees it as a spiritual solution. So from being a defeated Christian in chapter 7, he now becomes a victorious Christian in chapter 8, and we must follow the same path.
But no, I do not believe for a moment that that is a correct explanation as to why Paul is calling out in this way. I am convinced, after many years of looking at this passage, that in chapter 7, and in these verses that we have read, the apostle Paul does not take on the character of a defeated Christian but that his speech and his language and his groaning is entirely consistent with the mature, and the advanced, and the godly spiritual condition. I believe these groans and these sighs and this explanation here in which he says "O wretched man that I am!" is entirely consistent with the view that this is the normal Christian life - Christian life as it is in its reality, not Christians in their backslidden state, not Christians in their defeated state or in their depressed states of mind, but the Christian as he is in his normal state of mind: "O wretched man that I am!"
But then, we may say, but why should Paul cry out in this way for deliverance? After all, we know full well that he has already long since been delivered from the condemnation of sin. We also know that he has been delivered from the superstition and pride of his pharisaical background. He has had many wonderful providential deliverances from all manner of dangers that he mentions in 2 Corinthians 11 - dangers on land, dangers on the sea, dangers from friends (false friends), dangers from enemies, dangers from Jews, dangers from Gentiles - and he has been delivered out of them all. So what is this deliverance now that he calls upon God for? Why is the apostle groaning? Well, my friends, let me make this point before I go on. It is a perfectly healthy thing for a Christian to groan in this life, and to groan indeed for many reasons. We are right to share with other Christians the view that we should be rejoicing; it is right to think of the Christian being joyful and filled with the spirit of gladness, thankfulness, peace and all of that - that's perfectly right that we should have all of that doctrine and practice in our own experience; but with it all, and alongside it all, it is perfectly healthy for a Christian in his best frames of mind and soul also to groan. So that is what we need to understand now.
Why does the apostle Paul groan? The answer is, he groans for deliverance from something in his life that he does not wish to be there. He has told us what that is, and it is something which he calls in verse 14 "being carnal": "but I am carnal, sold under sin" (Romans 7:14). He doesn't mean there that he is unconverted; he doesn't mean he is a godless worldly man or a hater of the truth. He means that in spite of the fact he is a Christian, in spite of the fact he is a justified man, there is still something about him which deeply troubles him; there is something wrong which is still there in his life. The best way I can put it is, to call it a 'spiritual frustration'. If you study the verses here you will see that the word frustration is the best way of explaining his experience. He says: '...when I would do good, evil is present with me" (Romans 7:21) I find a law and another law; I am caught in between two contrary forces within my soul. In one way, I have a law which loves God and loves his Word; I long to be perfect in my obedience to God; I approve of the Ten Commandments, they're absolutely right. My difficulty, however, is this,' he says: 'I cannot perfectly keep them because there is another law in my members - my body, my soul - whereby I am frustrated and cannot keep perfectly what I know I ought to keep perfectly, and what indeed in my true heart of hearts I long to keep perfectly, but which I am unable to keep perfectly.'
So in that way, he expresses to us these two laws. One is the law of God, and the other is the law of sin in his members. The result I say is this frustration. The frustration he speaks about is the inability to keep God's law absolutely perfectly in his own personal life. The frustration arises from failure to obey God as he longs to obey God. That is how he describes his reaction to that frustration. He says, 'I long for deliverance.'
We must define then precisely what it is that gives rise to this frustration in the apostle Paul who is a great man of God, a great theologian, a great apostle, a great preacher, and everything else. What causes this frustration? It is one single thing: it is indwelling sin in his own life. That indwelling sin is the cause of this cry: "O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (text). He cries out in his anguish. We must not say that that is despair; he is not speaking like a despairing man but as a man in anguish. He longs to be perfectly holy. Now, in his justification he is perfectly reconciled to God. Please don't fail to understand, it is not that the apostle lacks assurance of his justification - that's a different condition from the one we're speaking of here. It is possible to be fully justified and yet not to be fully assured of that justification. That's not the apostle Paul's problem here, though it can be the problem of others. The problem is, he longs to be in his own performances, in his own practices, he longs to be 100% obedient for God, in every way - in action, in speech, and in thought, and in his secret emotions, and his secret inner reactions. He longs to be 100% perfect and conformable to the law of God. His problem is, however, he cannot reach that standard; he cannot do what he longs to do because of indwelling sin in himself, not as a backslidden Christian but as a Christian in his best condition. At his very best he falls short.
I have to qualify all the way through because it is possible to misunderstand and to mis-define what the apostle Paul is expressing here. He is not a man who has a psychological or psychiatric problem with sin; it is not that he is a depressive sort of man. This is a distinctly religious experience, nothing to do with his psychological makeup as such. This is something which the Christian, as a Christian, may expect to go through. It's not a guilt mania, as some people sadly sometimes are afflicted with, and they become gloomy and depressed, and perhaps need treatment for this very thing. That's not what the apostle Paul is referring to. He is referring to this experience as a saved man, a justified man, a man fully assured, who can in his writings tell us about the wonderful experiences that are possible to the believer, such as to be "filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:19) - what a phrase - and to tell us about "the love of Christ which passes knowledge, in all its breath and length and depth and height" (Ephesians 3:18-19). He had that and he experienced that. I don't know whether he experienced it all the time, but he knew it from time to time, and he knew that wonderful deliverance from fear of condemnation. But my friends, notwithstanding all this spiritual excellence of the apostle Paul, he tells us here: 'Though I am saved, yet I must devoutly groan because I am not the man I long to be.'
There is only one way to understand this cry and groan of the apostle Paul, and I can define it very simply. It is that he is a man who hates sin for what it is. He hates sin because he knows that it is that one thing that God hates; sin is nothing less than hatred of God, and we have it in ourselves. As Christians, it isn't our master, thank God. It used to be our master; we used to live our whole life, when we were unconverted, under the power of the hatred of God. That's why the world is the place it is, that's why when our beloved brother Mr Morrison goes into the High Street with literature to help people's souls: 'No thank you' -they want to go their own sweet way - it's hatred of God; they don't recognise it as that but we do. The Christian is delivered from that hatred of God as his ruling principal but alas, alas, it is still there as a minor principal, it's not yet wholly gone. That's why the apostle groans, that is the cause of his frustration. He longs to be not just a justified man but to be an absolutely perfect man; he yearns for total sanctification, entire purity of conduct, of life and of thought.
Well now, I can imagine that many modern thinkers and writers and speakers and preachers, would shake their head at the apostle Paul. I don't know how often people preach on this verse but I can imagine that many of our modern Christian leaders would shake their heads if they were to hear Paul talking like this. They would say, 'But Paul, you're forgetting yourself, you're becoming unbalanced. You're already safe, you're all right. Though you're a sinner yet God is not going to judge you for your sin, you're in Christ. You are a man who is on the way to heaven. Why, Paul, are you so upset about sin?' And the reason why I think people would say this to Paul is because in our generation we have a very low view of sin, and he didn't. His religion is Bible religion; and modern religion isn't as it should be. If we knew sin as he knew sin to be that depravity which it is, we would be far more acquainted with this experience that Paul has here, because the closer we come in our knowledge of God to perfection, the more we see the hatefulness of sin, the more we hate it in ourselves; not to say as it is manifested in the world at large. So, I say, the more sanctified the Christian becomes, the more he is aware of this bondage, and of this frustration, and of this disappointment. But when we do our utmost to obey God in thought and word and deed... "yet when I would do good, evil is present with me." And it comes out, perhaps not visibly to others, but it comes out to our souls, we are conscious of it. Let a preacher preach a fine sermon one day, once in a while - not every time but let him preach a good sermon once in a while - he is the first one to congratulate himself with pride; aren't we all the same? We can't do anything but we love to boast about it, even though it is for a split second. There is something in us that makes a god of ourselves. It ought not so to be. The more sensitive we are to the motions of our own fallen spirit, the more we grieve before God for what we are not, and what we ought to be.
Yes a Christian can live at ease with himself and with his indwelling sin if he doesn't take sin very seriously. If the Christian's great aim in life is really to enjoy this world - I say 'Christian' in inverted commas because there is a lot of it around - if the 'Christian' is in this world to please himself then he will hardly be aware of any indwelling sin, and it certainly won't trouble him as it troubled the apostle Paul. How many men do you know today who cry out, 'O wretched man! Would to God I could get rid of this sin from my life, this sin from my heart, this depravity of my nature! Would God I could be as I ought to be!' Do you meet many? Thank God there are some; thank God there are some right here, and I respect that profoundly. I am speaking to wise men and women in front of me, I am well aware of that. But dearest friends, this is the apostle's concern.
How then, as I close, can the Christian get relief from this frustration? What is the outlet of his emotions in this condition? How is he to find assurance and deliverance? Well, like this: by looking to the future. "Who shall deliver me?" Notice the future-tense. "Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord." Now I believe he means: 'I thank God that when I leave this world and lay my body in the grave, as soon I must do, then I shall be wholly delivered from this problem because as soon as the soul leaves the body it leaves indwelling sin behind.' That's what happens at the death of a Christian, and we can refer to it at his or her funeral. They have left their body behind, yes, and they've left the body of this death behind. No more sin of any kind for the soul of a believer in the glory. So "who shall deliver me?" he says. God will deliver me when he brings me to a state of glory.
I can summarise the whole in a word or two. It is only in a state of grace that a man or woman has this experience. Adam in a perfect state knew nothing of this. He didn't need to groan, he was perfect in every way. Ah but, when he fell into a state of sin he had plenty of groans and fears and tears then, like every other unconverted man, but he didn't groan as Paul groans here because of his indwelling sin. The sinner doesn't care for his indwelling sin any more than it causes him trouble because of the consequences of it. He doesn't hate the sin, he hates the sad consequences of being a drunkard or caught on some evil of some kind - the consequences of which are painful because the way of transgressors is hard - but the sinner as such does not hate his indwelling sin, he's a stranger to this experience here. What the sinner is concerned about is to have his sin, and not to be punished for it - which is impossible, because the way wages of sin always follow. "The way of transgressors is hard" (Proverbs 13:15). In a state of glory, of course, no one there will have this experience.
So as I close, this experience of Paul, in which he groans for perfection, is confined to a state of grace. It has this glorious hope attached to it: all those that have this experience will also have the deliverance, and all of them will cry out at last: 'Thanks be to God who gives us total deliverance, in a state of glory, from all the miseries of indwelling sin.'
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