O Wretched Man

Romans 7:24  O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?


The identity of the tormented figure in 7:14-25 has long sparked debate among theologians. Indeed the pervasive influence of this passage upon the Western church and culture is hard to overestimate.   

Romans 7:15  For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.
16  If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good.
17  Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
18  For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.
19  For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.
20  Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
21  I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.
22  For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:
23  But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
24  O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?

Most Bible teachers hold that Paul is describing his own experience. The question is this: Is Paul describing his state as a Jew and Pharisee before his conversion? Or is he sharing his state after his conversion?   

Could it be that neither of these answers does justice to Paul’s Hebraic worldview nor to the historical context of his letter? 

If we say that Romans 7 describes Paul before his conversion, then we are guilty of a deep-seated but shameful prejudice against Jews and Judaism that has plagued Christianity. If we say that the passage describes Paul’s state as a Christian, then it follows that Paul as a Jew and Pharisee had more firmness of mind and heart, more resoluteness in his character, than he did as a Christian! 

What’s the solution then? The solution is to regard Romans 7 as not descriptive of Paul’s own experience.

First, if Paul were speaking of his life as a Pharisee, prior to faith in Messiah, this text would be inconsistent with—even contradict—statements he makes elsewhere, such as his vivid recounting of his life in Philippians 3:4-6. He explicitly declares that “as to the Law [he was] blameless (without fault)” (v.6). 

For one who was a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and “circumcised on the eighth day” (v.5), how could he possibly say, “I was once alive apart from the Law…” (Rom 7:9)? When would that have been? 

Paul, unlike Augustine and Luther (an Augustinian monk), was not besieged with inner turmoil and guilt. He was fervent and zealous in his faith and continued to honor the Torah and the traditions of the fathers even as an apostle in the Jesus Movement.  

Second, consider the target audience. Given comments within the letter itself as well as its first-century setting, Paul writes principally to Gentile believers in Rome: “I am speaking to you Gentiles” (11:13). He repeatedly emphasizes his identity and mission as a Jewish apostle called to bring the Gentiles to the “obedience of faith” (1:5; 15:18; 16:26). 

The Gentiles most receptive to the gospel were found by Paul in the synagogues. These “God-Fearers” were non-Jews (Greeks and Romans) attracted to the ethical monotheism of Judaism and the worship of the true and living God. Like Cornelius (Acts 10), they were noted for their piety, prayers and almsgiving.

Though not proselytes to Judaism, per se, the “God-fearing” Gentiles were Torah observant in many respects, even if within the framework of their own Greco-Roman moral ideals of self-mastery, of overcoming the desires and passions of the lower nature. Thus, they could find themselves in spiritual turmoil, delighting in the Torah in their “inmost selves,” but finding their “fleshly” impulses justly condemned and even inflamed by it (Rom 7:22-23). 

Paul assures them that the Torah truly is spiritual (v.14) and its commandments, “holy, righteous and good” (v.12). Further, united with Messiah, the frustrated Gentile believers can die to “this body of death” (v.24) and be raised up in the power of the Spirit to “fulfill the righteous requirements of the Torah” (8:4).  

Third, as a native, educated Greek speaker, Paul sometimes employs classical rhetorical skills in his writings. The “I” (Gk: ego) of Romans 7 is a “fictive I” that Paul assumes for dramatic effect. He speaks to the audience as if he were one of them—a Gentile believer struggling with issues of the moral life and the Torah. The technique is known as “speech-in-character” and was recognized as such by the early church theologian and Greek scholar, Origen (Stowers, Rereading of Romans). First-century Greek speakers, like Paul’s audience, would have recognized the “wretched man” not as autobiographical but as rhetorical. 

In the centuries following, this historical context was displaced by caricatures of legalistic, prideful Jews assiduously laboring under an onerous Law. Paul the Pharisee became a stereotype of Judaism’s miserable “religious man” and Paul the Apostle, a model of Christianity’s “spiritual man” heroically struggling in the perennial internal conflict between intellect and will.     


%d bloggers like this: