The Wretched Christian

In a Brief Survey of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans
Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, July 2003 to Sep 2005
Part 31a of 83

24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?  25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25a).

More than thirty years ago, I was queuing up to buy a ticket at a cinema for a group of friends. I cannot remember anything about the show. But I remember vividly someone asking me a question when I was standing at the queue. “How are you?” she asked. I answered: “Wretched!” I don’t remember exactly why I said that. But I know that round about that time, my conscience was beginning to trouble me about going to a cinema.

My friend, who was a believer, was quite shocked at my reply. She asked: “Why, do you say that? Shouldn’t you be happy? Christians should be happy!”

This morning, we want to ask the apostle Paul the same question: “Why do you say you are wretched, Paul?” Shouldn’t you be happy? As a Christian, shouldn’t you be happy as can be? Paul’s answer is found in our text. If you have read Romans 7 carefully or the previous study in this series, you would already know the answer. But it is good for us to take a look again at Paul’s heart, because it is revealed as a mirror to help us understand our own heart.

Now, it may not be immediately apparent to you, but if you read our text carefully, you will realise that Paul is not just wretched. He is indeed wretched, but he is also blessed. He has a wretched heart, but at the same time, he has a seeking heart and a thankful heart!

This is the portrait of a regenerate soul. He is wretched, seeking and thankful at the same time. But…

1.  Why is He Wretched?

Paul says, “O wretched man that I am!” The word ‘wretched’ speaks of a consciousness of deep misery and affliction of the soul. Paul has burden in his heart that he cannot shake off. He feels miserable whenever his mind takes up that burden. But what is this burden? Why is he so miserable?

There are many people who are miserable in this world. There are many who would cry “O wretched man that I am!” But why are they miserable? Many are miserable because of natural suffering. Someone is struggling to make ends meet, and he feels the world is unfair. Another fails her exams, and she is full of regret. Another cannot find a job and he feels miserable. Yet another loses a loved one, and she is depressed.

Is the apostle Paul miserable because of such burdens? Well, it does not appear to be so. He says in chapter 5—

“We glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience” (Rom 5:3).

Paul is no stranger to trials of this present life. But his solid faith in a sovereign God ensures that the cares of the world do not trouble him very much.

What about persecution? Paul certainly faced much persecution. As human, Paul surely did not enjoy being persecuted. Is he miserable because of the persecution he faced? Again, no! For he says elsewhere,—

“I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor 12:10).

He takes pleasure in persecution! Whatever that means, we know that he is certainly not miserable because of persecution.

What about the consequence of sin? Is Paul suffering as a consequence of sin? We need have no doubt that there are many who are suffering because of the consequences of sin. Some are in prison for crimes they committed, and they feel miserable. Some are addicted to alcohol or drugs or cigarette, and they feel terrible. They feel miserable because they cannot break out of their habit,—and it is affecting their health and burning a hole in their pocket.

It is sin that brings the painful consequences, and they justly cry out: “O wretched man, that I am.

But is this why the apostle Paul is feeling miserable? The answer is no! There is no record of Paul being overcome by any habitual sin. There is no record of him suffering the consequences of a sinful lifestyle. Nor do we have any indication that Paul is miserable because of lost of wealth, or status or honour in the eyes of men because of sin.

Rather, we have Paul’s testimony that he does not care for these things. He doesn’t care to please men. He doesn’t care for wealth or status in the eyes of the world!

Why are you wretched then, Paul? “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” says Paul.

Do you see it? His words give us an indication of why he feels wretched. He is wretched because of the “body of this death” which he hates.

What is this “body of this death?” Well, notice, first of all, that he is not speaking about “the death of this body.”

There are many professing Christians who feel miserable on their deathbed because they fear that they are not saved. They lived a life of sin or hypocrisy; so they feel terrible as they near the grave. Not so for Paul.

Paul was not wretched because he was afraid of death. He knew that to depart from this present life is to be with Christ, which is far better. He was wretched not because of the fact that he had to die. He feels wretched because he is trapped with “the body of this death!”

But still, what is “the body of this death”?  Commentators are disagreed as to what the apostle Paul mean. Some say he is speaking metaphorically about sin as a body. But we know that this cannot be the case, for Paul speaks of sin dwelling in his flesh (v. 18) and in his members or body parts (v. 23).

Paul is surely thinking of the remnant of his corruption or his old nature. He is speaking of his fleshly body as a representative of the old man as we say last Sabbath.

According to Paul, sin dwells not in his regenerated heart. It does not dwell in his new man. It dwells largely in his fleshly body. It is not confined to the body, but it dwells largely in the body. The body, after all is not yet made incorruptible. Moreover, the body is, today the greatest contributor to sin. We are tempted because of our hands, feet, ears, eyes and tongue. We sin largely with our hands, feet, ears, eyes and tongue. It is no wonder that the apostle Paul speaks about his body as a representative of his old nature.

Paul is thinking of his old nature, or his old man as a whole. He is thinking of the remnant of corruption that is in his body and soul. The corruptible body that he is trapped with is the most visible and tangible representative of this old man.

This is “the body of this death.” Paul feels entrapped by this body. The body is dead. It was crucified with Christ. Paul knew he would be rid of it one day. But today he must carry it. He hates it. He hates the smell of it. He hates the thoughts of it. He hates it whenever he is influenced by it.

It is said that near the city of Tarsus where Paul grew up, there was an ancient tribe of people who had a gruesome practice concerning the punishment of murderers. They would take the corpse of the murdered person and bind it tightly to the murderer,—tying shoulder to shoulder, back to back, arm to arm, and then drove the murderer from the community. The bonds are so tight that the man could not free himself from it. After a few days, the decay on the corpse transfers itself to the living flesh of the murderer. As you can imagine, it must have been a slow and horrendous death for the murderer. Oh how many of them, would have cried: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from this body of death?”

Perhaps Paul had such a torture in mind as he cried out “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Paul is conscious that his old man, though crucified and dead, is strapped to him. He abhors it and feels utterly miserable because of it. He has lived with it for many years, but he can never get use to it.

His desire is rather that it be removed from him. He not only struggle with sin, he feels wretched because of sin.

This is the desire of the regenerate man. This is why the regenerate man is a wretched Christian. He desires to be rid of any inclination and ability to sin. He desires to be perfect and holy. But his corrupt nature taints everything that he does, and he hates it. He feels miserable because of it.

The natural man will never regard himself as miserable on account of the fact that he still sins. He may feel miserable because sin brings misery, but he says in his heart: “If only I can sin safely, I would not mind it. If only I can sin and not face the consequences, I will sin.” This is the heart of the natural man.

But not so the converted man. The converted man feels miserable at the very fact that a remnant of corruption remains and he still sins against the God he loves.

But the converted man does not only feel miserable, for he is not a man without hope. Rather, he is a seeking man.

…to be Continued Next Issue

—JJ Lim