Romans 7:15-25a

Wretched Man That I am

By Dr. Randy L. Hyde

If we didn’t know any better, we might think Paul had an identity problem – a complex, even. At the least there seems to be an inner conflict going on. “For I do not do what I want,” he confesses, “but I do the very thing I hate.”

By the way, I heard of a preacher who once put that on his golf bag.

Or, perhaps Paul is like the person driving the car with the bumper stick that read:

Roses are red, violets are blue,
I’m schizophrenic, and so am I.

True schizophrenia is no laughing matter, to say the least, and I don’t want to imply that it is. So please don’t hear me saying that it is. Sometimes golf isn’t either. But have you ever gotten up in the morning, looked in the bathroom mirror and said, “Is that really me?” That person staring back at you with the beleaguered, early-morning eyes somehow seems a stranger. You wonder who you really are. You thought you were really you, but now that you’ve gotten up, you’re not so sure.

Maybe it runs deeper than just the face. The person inside you – the person you really are – is not the person you want to be, the person you think you can be. I guess, when you stop and think about it, there’s at least a bit of that in all of us. We feel sometimes like we’re two people and not just one. “For I do not do the good I want,” Paul says, speaking for all of us, “but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

That’s rather strange language for Paul, isn’t it? Just about every place you turn in his writings, which consist primarily of his letters written to the Christians he has ministered to over the years, he is offering them spiritual encouragement – encouragement based on their being, as he puts it, a “new creation.”

Paul’s writings just absolutely exude confidence. Listen to what he says… “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

He’s writing these words to that rascally, incestuous, contentious, snobby bunch over in Corinth. He spends more time with them – at least in his writings – than any other church group, trying to straighten them out and get them on the right track. Dealing with the Corinthians is like putting his finger in the dike. Every time he plugs a hole, a new one springs up, and he’s running out of fingers with which to get the job done.

Paul probably wrote letters to them that we don’t even know exist. All we have are fragments, but pieced together they reveal a pretty rough bunch to deal with. Much of what Paul says to them sounds like a school teacher trying to get an unruly class of children to settle down and learn something, except in this case the lessons are far more important than reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Yet, even in the middle of that kind of difficult and undisciplined situation, Paul is still able to wax theologically eloquent… “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” It is one of the most memorable phrases in all of scripture.

Or, how about what he wrote to the church in Philippi… “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (4:13). My church in Nashville had those words painted on the back of the church sign, so that when you exited the parking lot it encouraged you in your behavior. “All things,” Paul said, “I can do all things…” Now that’s the Paul we all know and love!
Everywhere he turned, Paul was offering spiritual encouragement to those who needed it. He was a giant of the Christian faith, often holding entire congregations together, not with smoke and mirrors but through his prayers and encouragement, his pleadings and his letters.

Yet, how much more discouraging can one sound than when he says,

I do not understand my own actions.
For I do not do what I want,
but I do the very thing I hate…

For I do not do the good I want,
but the evil I do not want is what I do.

What gives here? Which Paul is it that we are to believe? Was he driving that car with the bumper sticker? Was he a golfer? The day he wrote these words, did he too look into the mirror after a bad night’s sleep and say, “Is that really me?” Would it have been better if Paul had just gone back to bed that day and not written anything?

Well, maybe so, because, truth be told, we all feel like that at times. There’s the person we want to be and the person we are. There’s the person who believes the right things and the person who doesn’t do them. And we don’t much like the difference between the two, do we?

One minister has put it this way…

“It is easy to get beliefs mixed up with actions. Right now I know five or ten people who believe they love their families but who spend very little time with them. I know another twenty who believe in protecting the environment but who drive cars that get less than ten miles to the gallon. I know about a hundred people who believe they are against violence in movies but who stand in line for the next Die Hard sequel, and I even know a few people who believe in the American way but who are not registered to vote.

“It is a very peculiar thing, this vacuum between what we believe and what we actually do. The theological word for it is sin – missing the mark – which is both inevitable and forgivable but never tolerable for those who love God.”1

It’s that “never tolerable” part that Paul is struggling with here in his epistle to the Christians in Rome.

But, as I’m sure you well know, scripture needs to be considered in context. You’ve certainly heard me say it plenty of times. Therefore, we must balance not only the words the apostle spoke, but also take into account the way he lived his life. Only then can we come to some conclusions that might just help make sense out of what Paul said about not understanding himself.

One conclusion is that Paul looked at life realistically. He knew, as well as you and I do, that lurking deep within us, deep within that person other people see, is the deeper side of us… what John Claypool calls our “shadow selves.”2

Even for those of us who tend to look at ourselves with rose-colored glasses there comes that day when the glasses crack or break and we come face-to-face with who we really are: sinners standing in need of God’s divine grace.

Maybe that’s what Martin Luther meant when he said that we are to “sin boldly.” He was simply acknowledging the fact that we will sin. As surely as we get up in the morning we will sin. And it’s good that that moment does come, that moment when we are able honestly to admit the nature of our sin. And it’s better when that moment comes sooner rather than later.

Paul looked at life realistically, and seeing that we are all sinners, he was more than willing to bare his own sinful soul…

I do not understand my own actions.
For I do not do what I want,
but I do the very thing I hate…

For I do not do the good I want,
but the evil I do not want is what I do…

Wretched man that I am!
Who will deliver me from this body of death?

“Body of death.” That’s pretty strong language, isn’t it? Well, Paul may have had something pretty strong in mind. Leslie Weatherhead, the well-known British Methodist of the last century, suggests what Paul might have been thinking of…

In those days, if the Romans determined a person had committed a crime, but it was not a crime deserving the death penalty (and they were pretty quick to invoke capital punishment, let me tell you), a different form of punishment was often used. They would strap the corpse of a criminal who had been executed to the back of the other law-breaker, so that he had to carry it around with him everywhere he went. He could not remove it. He had to lie down with it at night. He got up with it in the morning. Imagine what that must have been like. The stench would be unbearable. Even when he sat down to eat he could not escape it. The burden of such a punishment surely would have been intolerable.3

Perhaps that is what Paul had in mind when he said, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?!” He was thinking both literally and figuratively. He felt as if he was carrying his own corpse around with him, his own body of death. He carried his sinful self around with him like a criminal was forced to carry a corpse.

“What a terrible burden sin can be,” Paul is saying, “what a terrible burden.” No, Paul cannot be accused of looking at life through rose-colored glasses. He saw life realistically. And in doing so, he saw that we all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

But I’ve always looked upon Paul as an optimistic realist, and in that light I believe Paul also looked at life redemptively.

“Who will deliver me from this body of death?” he asks. And in a resounding note of triumph, not to mention spiritual encouragement, Paul says, “God will! God will, that’s who!”

“Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”

A lady in my church in Baltimore was a writer of both prose and poetry, though she never had anything published. On occasion she would share some of her poetry with me. One of the poems is entitled, “A Plea – For Me.” It goes like this…

Dear God…if it’s true
that You
don’t make mistakes,
Did you work it into Your design
To help me somehow deal with mine?

The answer is “Yes.” Yes, God did work it into his design. And that design is called Jesus. Christ died for us. And that’s why we who are sinners can come to Christ and be redeemed from this body of death.

“Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”

You have heard me talk many times about the conflict which arose between Jesus and the religious establishment. In that continual conflict the keepers of the law accused Jesus of attempting to destroy all they held so dear. But Jesus denied that he came to destroy anything except that which keeps us from God. Christ came to redeem and transform the religious practices of the people because they had gotten twisted and distorted. Well, the same could be said of their lives. And, perhaps it could be said of your life and mine.

Christ has come to redeem us from that which would keep us from being all God wants us to be. And if you have come here today burdened down by your sin, and you can echo only too well what Paul said…

For I do not do the good I want,
but the evil I do not want is what I do…

then go further with Paul and affirm, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”… Your sins are forgiven!

But for what? Does God, in granting you this grace, have an ulterior motive? Yes, indeed, God does. You didn’t know that, did you? Well, as Soren Kierkegaard put it, “Jesus wants followers, not admirers.” It’s easy to admire Christ, but quite another thing to follow him. It’s easy to believe, not so easy to take up one’s cross and walk the sometimes painful journey with Jesus.

As I see it, it comes down to two things: believing that there is more mercy in God to forgive us our sins than there is sin in us, and a willingness on our part to do something about it.

So, the next time you stand before that mirror trying to figure out which person you are, picture Jesus standing over your shoulder and saying to you, “Let’s go, let’s go.” If you will – if you will go with Jesus – it will make up for a multitude of sin.

Thanks be to God.

Lord, sometimes the burden of our sin seems too heavy to bear. It is in those times we need to see the cross and realize that Christ has borne our sins for us. Forgive us, Lord, for not accepting the redemption you have offered us at Calvary. Give us now, we pray, a spirit of repentance that we might come to you and be yours. We pray this in Jesus’ saving name, Amen.


1Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1999), pp. 189-190.

2John Claypool, “Our Shadow Selves,” (unpublished sermon, July 30, 1978).

3Leslie Weatherhead, The Significance of Silence (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1954), p. 119.

Copyright 2005 Dr. Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.