The longer I am a Christian, the more I realize of how great a sinner I am. This realization is not necessarily a virtue in and of itself: if I am only acutely aware of my sin, I will wallow in despair and fear. On the other hand, it is by recognizing the depth of our sin that we can be brought to greater joy in Christ. This appears to be Paul’s understanding in Romans 7:13-25. In verses 13-24, Paul openly and honestly wrestles with the sin that still resides in his heart and which actively opposes his new nature. The thing he wants to do—fully obey Christ—he is not able to wholly accomplish; at the same time, he finds himself committing the very sin he hates. This struggle with indwelling sin culminates in verse 24 where Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am!”
Perhaps you have felt like this—perhaps you often feel like this. The question is whether or not the pervasiveness of our sin causes us to search for a remedy the way Paul did. Immediately after Paul cried out in agony over the depth of his sin, he asks rhetorically, “Who can save me from this body of death?” The answer? “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (25)! The implication? It is only God through Jesus Christ who can save Paul from the relentless power of sin. With this in mind, I see two conclusions we can draw from this passage.
(1) Dealing honestly with our sin can and should lead us to resting and rejoicing in Christ. Paul would not be a good example of spiritual growth and discipleship had he stopped at verse 24. Yes, we are wretched. Yes, we are sinners of the highest order. Yes, we have despised and ignored and spurned a holy God. But that is not the whole story. There’s more. It’s called the gospel. For Christians who have come to a saving understanding of their guilt before God and trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation, the ensuing battle against remaining sin can often seem overwhelming and mostly discouraging. But to remain in a state of doubt and despair too long without looking to Christ is neither wise nor helpful. Dealing frankly with our sin should lead us to confession, forgiveness and thankfulness in Christ, not perpetual hopelessness. (I realize that some people’s spiritual situations are far more complex than what I have implied here, but I do think God’s goal with someone who is beleaguered by battling with sin is that their battling would lead them to find hope and rest in Christ, not incessant misery).
(2) Our battle against sin will be life-long. Paul had been walking with Christ for several years at the time he penned these words, yet the intensity of his battle against sin had not lessened over time—it had increased. Growing in spiritual maturity means that we will become more discontent with ourselves, not less. That is not to say that we can find and should look for areas where the Lord has given grace and growth; even Paul had the spiritual capacity to say that he was mature enough to be imitated (Philippians 3:14-17) and had been able to accomplish many things by the grace of God. (I Corinthians 15:10). But the clearer our spiritual sight becomes as we grow in sanctification—from glory to glory (II Corinthians 3:18)—the more acute will be our recognition of remaining sin.
That is why Paul follows Romans 7:13-25 with 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Despite the fact that we are involved in a battle against enemies that seem, at times, immune to our attacks and unlimited in their resources, the glorious truth is this: the victory has already been won—on a cross outside of Jerusalem, 2000 years ago. These current battles with sin, though brutal and serious, are nothing more than the concluding skirmishes with a defeated and desperate insurgent force. Our Captain is also the uncontested Victor.