24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Rom 7:24 NASB
The Boy Who Cried “Stranger!”
One time my wife was grocery shopping with my oldest son when he was still fairly young. There was some toy that he wanted, which she refused to buy for him, and he was crying and making a giant fuss. So she carried him out of the store, at which point he began crying out: “Stranger! Stranger! Stranger!” His response was a bit overblown, to say the least.
Well, one gets that same feeling when reading this passage. Sure, I suppose I have a little trouble with coveting sometimes. I probably get angry with my brother a bit, I gossip here and there. It’s wrong, I’ll grant you. But this hand-wringing emotional verse seems really overblown: “Wretched man that I am! Who will free me from the body of this death?” Do any of us really feel that? Is there some value to thinking of yourself as “wretched?” Isn’t this really just crying “Stranger!” when you can’t get a toy you want?
The Message of Romans 7
I believe that Romans 7 describes Paul’s struggle post-conversion. There is some debate around that and I am not going to enter into it here. We’re going to take this as a given that Romans 7 is post conversion. And I believe it describes the propensity of the true Christian believer to keep drifting back under the law. Whether it is in the name of sanctification, of discipleship, or of having your best life now, it is the lure of the flesh to pull us back to the old way of being, of placing our identity back to being defined by our performance as measured by the law. But Paul says we have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who sin but sin which indwells me (Romans 7:17).
And so the law continues to serve its purpose, showing us, not the way to life, but the way to death. It shows me that I remain incapable of fulfilling its good and upright demands. The way of the Spirit lies in a different universe, under the rubric of complete absolution and grace (Romans 8:1).
This is all true, but it remains a bit theoretical and dry. I think there is much more to this story.
Finding My True Self
So I have come to a kind of epiphany of self-realization. Every desire of mine, every ambition, every item on my to-do list, is wretched. If I were honest, my most passionate inward desires are so unholy and reprehensible that I am ashamed to even be alive. If I were to name them, you would agree with me – with horror. I quite agree with you. I endeavor to keep these things hidden and under wraps. I am powerfully motivated by laziness, lust, procrastination, greed, envy, hatred, revenge, gluttony, and on an on and on. I only find true comfort in these things, and I loathe myself for it. Other people may judge me by surface appearances, perhaps even truly. But they know nothing. I am a stranger to holiness. Upon examination, I truly despise myself. It is the true judgment. If there is righteousness, this is its verdict. I have squandered my life and my relationships with inward self-serving sin. I am truly ashamed of myself. I am wretched wretched wretched.
And along comes the counselor: “No! You must not say so! You are a beautiful creature, made in the image of God! It is wrong for you to think these things about yourself!” But in my secret heart, in my soul, I know it is not true. I am wretched. That is the real truth. The scriptures frighten me. I know that I am guilty of the fires of hell. Today. I know that if I were to face God at the judgment seat, this is the right verdict. It is not that God is vindictive or mean. I am vindictive and mean. I am the man. I have done it. I am deeply ashamed. It all gushes from my innermost soul like an endless stream of garbage and filth and putrescence. Why should anyone love me or accept me, much less God who knows all things? God frightens me for this reason. I am so truly wretched. I am afflicted and downcast and beaten and ashamed of what I am. Who will free me from the body of this death? Why should they? In my heart I know this: they should not. I am anathema, worthy only to be cast into the flames and consumed, full of disease and a man whose every thought is infused with selfish desire and the twistedness of sin.
It is important to me that I make this clear: I am not just writing this to make a point. It is the truth. When I think straight about myself, I am ashamed of the man that I am. I am sorry to my family, my friends, my co-workers. I ought to be better. But I am not. And I have come to the place where I will make no promises. I have lost hope in all that; I am far more wretched than to think I can save myself. I cry out – who will deliver me?! Because I have no hope that I can deliver myself. I have history of not being successful at such things. I am not theologically wretched. I am not wretched for the sake of making a theological point. I am not wretched in theory. I am not wretched because “the law” has “killed” me somehow. No. I am genuinely wretched. I feel it in my soul. I feel it in my heart. It is a true fear. The law may peel back a few layers of pretense, but the monster they reveal is all too real.
Where God Meets Us
So, when I approach the table of communion, this is what I bring to the table. I am wretched, fearful, guilty. I am a monster. I do not belong in the company of these other saints. I lie, I transgress justice, I betray the truth, if I do not approach knowing this. This picture of God-killing cannibalism is probably closer to the truth about me than I would care to admit. But I come to find out, if they let me, that these saints I gather with are wretched as well. This is the place where God meets with us – at our wretchedness.
And God takes us as wretched. It is the wrong move to try to brush our wretchedness under the rug in order to approach with the pretense of holiness. God does not meet us in the pretense. He meets us as sinners, killers of the only begotten Son of God. The ideal and the real have met on earth, and we hated Him and killed Him. Yet He meets us at the bottom of ourselves, as wretched and hopeless and vile. We are the lepers that no one would want to be near, and He is reaching out to touch us and to heal us. If I begin to think that I have any rightness or beauty about me, I lay down my putrid efforts and lies. Everything I myself try to do to fix all this turns to shit, every time.
It does not seem that viewing yourself as wretched is the path to liberation. But this is the nature of our salvation. We come as wretched, worthy to be judged and rejected. We face the truth about ourselves. The more we acknowledge our true depth of wretchedness, the more dear our salvation becomes.
And so we come to the table, to our great Savior. Nothing is hidden from Him. He knows our wretchedness and still He loves us. He sees deep into the roots of our vileness where we dare not look ourselves, and He ministers lavish grace and rich mercy. If He loves us to the point of dying for us, knowing our worst secrets, what condition could there be left to disqualify us from His great love? No one else would die for us, no one else would do anything but rightly condemn us. But He says, you are my friend, I lay down my life for you. You are my bride. I have loved you forever and ever. How great a savior we have! The condemnation of the law no longer defines you. The love which God has for you in Christ defines you. You have been fully redeemed, and it will never be revoked.
Are you not astonished?!
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God [is] for us, who [is] against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? 33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; 34 who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written, “FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.” 37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Rom 8:31-39 NASB