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Wretched Man

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We have seen that the apostle Paul continues to answer the question created by the gospel of grace. Gentiles are under sin. Jews are under sin. They are both under sin. God promised to remake the world through Abraham, and God did this by sending a final Adam. This glorious message can be twisted and distorted in various ways, and so Paul has to answer objections. Won’t this introduce moral chaos? No. Won’t this render the Torah as a superfluous moral distraction? No, not at all. The Torah had a pivotal role to play in our salvation, as we will see.


“Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful . .  .”  (Rom. 7:13-25).


Paul’s purpose here is two-fold. He intends to vindicate the Torah (v. 12), and also to show how the Torah worked within Israel to reveal and exacerbate the reality of sin (3:20; 5:20; 7:13). Was the problem the Torah itself? God forbid (v. 13). The point was to have sin use the Torah in order to grow up to its full wicked maturity (v. 13). More on this shortly. Paul then continues to illustrate the problem of Israel in the vividness of a first-person narrative—Israel’s Torah is spiritual, but Israel is not (v. 14). Israel is a slave—to sin, and to Rome because of sin. The national ideals are good, but they don’t really get done (v. 15). The hypocritical failure reveals the goodness of the standard (v. 16). The national conscience doesn’t want to go that way, but the national “id” has other ideas (v. 17). So Paul comes to a conclusion—Israel is in the flesh, and cannot do what Israel knows is right (v. 18). The good remains undone; the evil is pursued and embraced (v. 19). Don’t blame the Torah, and don’t blame Israel’s conscience—there is something deeper going on (v. 20). That deeper thing is a law deeper than Torah, responding to it (v. 21). Israel really does delight in the Torah “in the inward man” (v. 22). But that is not all; there is another law there as well—it is the law of sin, using the law of God, in order to plunge Israel into exile and captivity (v. 23). Wretched man! Who will deliver (v. 24)? Paul thanks God for the Messiah, the new Israel (v. 25), and then sums it all up again. With the theological conscience, Israel was right to bind the Torah to itself (v. 25). And Israel was then right to be dismayed to find that this lawful binding resulted in spiritual disaster for Israel (v. 25).


The first qualification is that Paul is not describing this problem as a detached theological spectator. He is certainly talking about Israel (because he is discussing Israel throughout the entire epistle). But he himself was right in the thick of this problem; he was not one of the glorious exceptions of grace that we find described elsewhere (Heb. 11). He was a Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil. 3:5), and to personify Israel’s problems in his own unconverted voice was not at all a stretch. Because of this we find that law and grace are always relevant categories.

Second, the Reformed doctrine of sanctification including a genuine internal moral struggle is correct. While it is not found here in Romans 7 (which way overstates the problem), that doctrine is found and well-grounded in Galatians 5. Too often Reformed exegetes take this as a description of the process of sanctification because those who deny it are usually theological perfectionists, which is clearly an error.

And third, to apply this to Israel in this way does not make this an irrelevant passage for us to meditate on.  As Paul would say, God forbid. We are Christians, and in various places Paul tells us that as the new Israel we are called to learn the lessons that the old Israel failed to learn. We will see this clearly when we get to chapter 11 (cf. 1 Cor. 10). And God willing, that lesson is one that we will in fact learn.


Paul is simply digging deeper here. Romans 7 is simply the next pass at Romans 2:17-24. Romans 8 is the next pass at Romans 2:28-29, which explains why he needs to address the same, identical question at the beginning of chapter 3 and at t he beginning of chapter 9. “What is the point of being a Jew, then?”


Israel received the Torah, and then failed to keep it, meaning that Israel was another failed Adam. The fact that Christ was the final Adam should not blind us to the fact that Scripture shows us a series of Adams—founders who fail, founders who fall. Think of Noah, for example, or Solomon. Think of Israel, adopted at Sinai and given the very words of life. What did they do with this? They did what every Adam still in the flesh must do—they rebelled against those words of life and turned them into instruments of death. So it was not the case that Israel successfully escaped from Adam while the Gentiles did not.


Why did God want sin to grow to its full maturity? Why did God give a Torah that He knew sin would take full advantage of? Why did God deliberately grow sin up to its full height? He did this so that He could deal with sin once and for all. Israel was a greenhouse, enclosed by Torah’s glass, and heated by the sun of God’s holiness, so that the most noxious weeds could grow up to their worst potential, in stark contrast to the sign outside that proclaimed it a greenhouse full of rare and exquisite orchids.

God did this so that He could deal with sin foundationally. Just as He did not send Israel into Canaan until the iniquity of the Amorites was full (Gen. 15:16), so He did not send the new Israel into our Canaan until our evil had reached its full maturity. When Jesus collided with sin, He met it in full force. When Jesus took it all onto Himself, He took the full measure of it.

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