Few people feel so miserable as to describe themselves as a wretch. Perhaps the most famous use of this noun is by John Newton in his classic hymn “Amazing Grace.” Reflecting on his participation in the slave trade, after his conversion to Christianity, Newton penned the words, “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!”
Another use of “wretch” (or rather the related “wretched”) can be found in Paul’s desperate cry, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).1 These words are found in a letter Paul wrote to the church in Rome during a time of tension between Gentile and Jewish converts regarding the law. In his letter Paul introduces a somewhat mysterious person whom he refers to in the first person singular, “I.” On first impression it seems that Paul is writing about himself, but analysis of common Greco-Roman rhetoric of that time shows that this is not necessarily the case. The pronominal “I” can be used to mean many different things. So who or what is the “I” of Romans 7? Is Paul writing about himself? Is he writing about a fictitious straw man? Or perhaps he may be referring to someone or something else?
Debate over the identity of the “I” in Romans 7 arises out of the apparent contradictions in the surrounding context. Romans 6–8 is one literary unit that includes a number of diametrically opposed statements, such as:
Chapter 7 seems to be contradicting chapters 6 and 8. Was Paul incoherent in his theology? It is essential to explore the world Paul lived in before we dismiss his statements as incongruent. A look into church history and different methods of presenting ideas can provide insight as to who the wretch of Romans 7 is and why he expresses strange statements that are seemingly so out of harmony with the rest of the letter.
Insights From Church History
Until Augustine, the Christian church understood Romans 7 to be a description of a nonconverted person. Augustine developed an interpretation of Romans 7 as the struggle of a converted person. This was mainly in reaction to Pelagius, who promoted the idea that humans can keep the law without divine grace. Luther, Calvin, and other Protestants generally picked up on Augustine’s interpretation.2 Today biblical interpreters do not agree on the identity of the “I” in Romans 7. Some say Paul is describing himself in his converted Christian experience while others insist that Paul is referring to his preconverted state, as John Newton did in his hymn “Amazing Grace.”
A Possible Future Fulfillment
One proposal to solving the contradictory statements in Romans 6–8 is to suggest that the complete freedom from sin that Paul describes in Romans 6 and 8 will be realized only in the future, while the present Christian experience is described in Romans 7. This means that Paul is describing his Christian experience as a wretched struggle. On the one hand he is describing future heavenly ideals of freedom from sin, while on the other he provides a reality check. So certain is the freedom from sin in the future that it is described in the present tense. This view, however, fails to explain the transition from the past tense to the present tense if it is all describing a present tension. For example, Romans 8:5 refers to the struggle as being a past event. It would also be strange for Paul to look forward to a future ideal without employing the future tense as he readily does in Romans 6:22, 1 Corinthians 13:10, 12, and Ephesians 1:14; 2:7.
Greek Literary Devices
Paul, being highly educated and a skilled orator, may likely have been using a Greek rhetorical technique called diatribe to make his argument more effective. Diatribe is a form of argument during which the speaker engages an audience through various techniques that include direct address, paradoxes, rhetorical questions, and dialogues with imaginary third persons whose objections and counterpositions are dismantled.3
One device is the “historic present,” which is using the present tense to describe a past event with the vividness of a present occurrence. For example, in Matthew 8:19-22 the verb in “Jesus said to him,” in both verses 20 and 22 employs the Greek present tense. A literal translation is “Jesus says to him” or “Jesus is saying to him.” Obviously Jesus is not saying this right now. The present tense is employed to increase the intensity of what Jesus did say.
The historic present was widely used in classical Greek and by contemporaries of Paul, such as Nicolaus of Damascus.4 Applied to the book of Romans, it would mean that the wretched man is Paul’s preconversion experience described in the present tense to increase the impact on his audience. This approach would make sense if this entire section is in the present tense; however, there is a transition between the past to the present within the passage.
Another device that may explain the identity of the “I” in Romans 7 is called prosopopoeia. This long Greek word refers to a form of argument in which an absent or imaginary person or thing is represented as speaking.5 Greek philosophers have been known to use “I” as a generalizing expression. For example, Epictetus used “I” to refer to a group of people.6
Origen interpreted Romans 7 as a switch between two different personas, one of himself and one of the weak/sinners.7 This shows that some ancient readers saw that the “wretched man” was not necessarily Paul himself.8 Another Church Father, Nilus of Ancyra, writes, “The divine apostle does not say concerning himself that, ‘I see another law in my members taking me captive through sin.’ Rather, these things are uttered by a person (ek prosopou) representing those who are troubled by fleshly passions.”9
In Romans 7 the statements of the wretched man are in response to the statement originally uttered by a group of people (7:7). Paul uses the representative “I” for making his argument all the more intense in order to illustrate humanity’s wretchedness as seen through the law.10 So who is this group of people? The identity of the wretched “I” seems to be people who are trusting in the law for their salvation rather than Christ. This is why Paul begins the chapter by saying, “I speak to those who know the law” (verse 1). Instead of a lengthy personal confession of his own failings, Paul powerfully pulls in his audience to see their condition without Christ and what they could have if they accept Him.
The crux of the message is summarized in Romans 7:21–8:2. It is structured in two beautiful parallelisms that contrasts life without Christ (sections B) and life with Christ (sections A). It restates the wonderful truth that Jesus Christ sets one free from sin and death.
?A—I delight in the law of God in my inmost self (Rom. 7:22).
?B—In my members is another law making me captive to the law of sin. Who will deliver me from this body of death? (verses 23, 24).
?A’—Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (for the deliverance) (verse 25a).
?A—With my mind I am a slave to the law of God (verse 25b).
?B—With my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin (verse 25c).
?A’—There is no condemnation for those in Christ. For the law of the Spirit has set me free from the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:1, 2).
Romans 7:14-25 is not a self-confession of Paul in his present Christian experience or of his past before conversion. Paul is neither denying nor describing a Christian’s battle with sin in their growth experience. He is addressing a turning away from trusting God completely with salvation.
The man of Romans 7 is under the dominion of sin and under its condemnation. He cannot control what he does. He represents those who know the law, have a keen awareness of their guilt, desire to conform to the law, but are wrongly trusting in it for salvation. Paul employs prosopopoeia as a powerful diatribe device to make his audience see themselves for who they are without Jesus Christ. It is senseless to rely on the law for regeneration.
The man in Romans 7 is frustrated because he focuses on his own performance. Paul makes it clear that the Christian’s focus needs to be on Christ who is the only hope for salvation. His death satisfies the demands of the law, and it is He who is the sole agent of salvation. Furthermore, a Christian does not have to be controlled by sin in this life. A relationship with Christ not only secures our future but brings emancipation from bondage to evil. A heart warmed by the grace of Christ becomes more and more like Him. “Come to Christ!” says Paul. Let His amazing grace liberate you from wretchedness and empower you to lead a life of freedom and joy!
1Scriptures in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2Modern scholars who uphold this view include Frederick F. Bruce, Charles Cranfield, James D. G. Dunn, Anders Nygren, James I. Packer, and John Stott.
3David A. de Silva, An Introduction of the New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), pp. 604, 605.
4Buist M. Fanning, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 226-239.
5Examples of prosopopoiia in the Bible include the heavens in Psalm 19:1, 2; the bones in Psalm 35:10; wisdom in Proverbs 8; Rachel in Matthew 2:18; the “tomorrow” in Matthew 6:34. For more examples, see Benjamin Keach, Preaching From the Types and Metaphors of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 1972), pp. 88-97.
6In Discourses of Epictetus, written by Arrian, around A.D. 108.
7Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Books 6-10, trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2002), pp. 36-43.
8Rufinus, Jerome, Didymus of Alexandria, and Nilus of Ancyra (Sinai) seem to accept Origen’s approach. See Stanley K. Stowers, A Rereading of Romans (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 268.
9Nilus of Ancyra, Epistularum Libri IV. 1.52; Patrologiae Cursus Completus (PG) 79. 1. 145.
10 Malherbe observes that the theme of the “supporting statements” centers at the words “through the law.” See Abraham J. Malherbe, Paul and the Popular Philosophers (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), p. 30.
At the time of this writing Emanuel Millen was a volunteer teaching pastor at Forest Lake Church in Florida. He now lives in Australia. This article was published January 19, 2012.