This blog post came about as the result of a very good question posed to me by a family that strongly desires to rightly divide the Word of truth. The question went along these lines:
Are we wretched sinners saved by grace OR are we saints who continue to struggle against sin? In light of this question, could you help to clarify Romans 7:24? And, prior in that chapter, can you help us to understand why Paul speaks of his sinful flesh? Is Paul speaking of his former self in this passage or is the word, “wretched,” applicable in different contexts?
This is a wonderfully complex question. I believe strongly that the point we are about to unpack is central to our identity in Christ. Therefore, it is worth us taking much time to ensure we understand one another and bring appropriate clarity to the Scriptures. What follows is my attempt to begin to explore it. I do this by trying to understand Romans 7:24 in the context of the book of Romans to that point.
Before I begin in earnest, it is important to note that I believe that in some sense we are wretched sinners saved by grace AND we are saints who continue to struggle against sin. The following discussion decidedly puts the emphasis on our status as saints and not wretched sinners. For, we have passed from death to life, from darkness to light, and our life is hid with Christ on high. This is in no way intended to deny our enduring proclivity to sin. It is intended, however, to emphasize the achievement of the Gospel in born-again believers, even while our salvation has not yet been received in full. At the core of our being, we are saints not sinners. And, since we are saints, we ought to behave like saints. When we fail to live holy lives, a saint will cry out, “Wretched man that I am!” With that important caveat, let’s begin:
To begin, of course, we were all born wretched sinners and each of us were deserving of death, judgment, and condemnation. Romans 1:18—3:20 is, essentially, making this point. At Romans 3:21, however, there is a transition toward salvation by grace in Christ so that “we are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24–25a).
The redemption that is in Christ Jesus that we receive by grace through faith has several parts:
One, we are justified. Justification means that we are declared “not guilty.” Or, put another way, we are declared “righteous.” Romans 4–5 focuses on our justification.
- Romans 4 shows that even Abraham and David were justified by faith, not works.
- Romans 5:1–11 outlines the benefits of justification.
- Peace with God (5:1). This is a relational peace.
- Access to God (5:2). This access is experienced by prayer now, but will be personal at the time of our death and resurrection.
- The ability to rejoice at God’s glory (5:2). Before we were justified, God’s glory brought about our condemnation.
- The ability to rejoice in our suffering (5:3–4). Before we were justified, our suffering produced no eternal fruit.
- God’s love in our hearts by the personal abiding presence of the Holy Spirit (5:5)
- Assurance of an irrevocable salvation (5:6–10)
- Reason to worship (5:11)
- Romans 5:12–21 demonstrates that just as we were condemned by Adam’s one transgression, we are now justified by Christ’s one act of righteousness.
Two, we are sanctified and glorified. Justification and sanctification begin in the same moment of salvation. Both continue forever. Justification, which is our right standing before God, endures without interruption forever. After the moment of our justification, we will always be righteous before God. Sanctification begins with regeneration and continues in progressive experiential holiness, until glorification. Our glorification is fully realized when we are resurrected bodily from the dead (Romans 8:23). Romans 6–7 focus on our sanctification. Romans 8 describes glorification as the goal of sanctification.
- Romans 6:1–14 explain that we have been united with Jesus in His death and resurrection. Notice the ways that Paul tries to describe the death of the “wretched sinner” in us:
- “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (6:2)
- “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death” (6:3).
- “We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death” (6:4).
- “We have been united with Him in a death like His” (6:5).
- “We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (6:6).
- “The death He died He died to sin, once for all” (6:10).
- “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11).
- “Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (6:13).
- “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (6:14).
- Romans 6:15–23 explains that we are no longer slaves to sin. In other words, we are no longer, in our nature, “wretched sinners,” bound to our own depravity. Praise God! Notice how Paul emphasizes our transformed nature:
- “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves to sin have become obedient from the heart” (6:17).
- “And, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (6:18).
- “Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (6:22).
- “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:23).
- Romans 7:1–6 explains how it is that we are no longer “wretched sinners” enslaved to the power and condemnation of the law. By being united with Christ in His death, we have died with Him. Therefore, we now live on the other side of death, which is beyond the reach of the law. Therefore, we are now free and empowered to live for Christ. Notice the reality of the “wretched sinner” in comparison to the reality of the sanctified saint:
- Wretched Sinner: “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death” (7:5).
- Sanctified Saint: “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (7:6).
- Romans 7:7–14 explains that the law is good. The law does not kill sinners. It is sin that kills sinners. The law rightly condemns sin.
- Romans 7:15–25 acknowledges that even while we have a new nature in our “inner man,” we will continue to wrestle against sin in the lingering desires of our “flesh” until our sanctification is complete, and we are thus glorified (see Romans 8). Throughout vv. 15–25 Paul describes himself in two ways:
After this back and forth comes the verse that was the source of the original question:
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (Romans 7:24–25).
Thus, Paul is not here claiming to be a “wretched sinner” as his primary identity. The full weight of the book of Romans leads us in the other direction. Paul’s primary identity in Romans is that of a justified (Romans 4—5) and sanctified saint who has been united with Christ in His crucifixion and resurrection (Romans 6—7). This union has given Paul a new position before God and a new nature in his inner-man. He is no longer condemned by the transgression of Adam (Romans 5:12–21). He is no longer a slave to sin (Romans 6). He is no longer within the reach of the law (Romans 7:1–6). Having said all of this, Paul is not teaching perfectionism. He acknowledges the enduring enticement of sin that lingers in his flesh (thus I interpret Rom 7:15–25 as NOT speaking of his former self).
Nevertheless, it is precisely Paul’s new position and new nature that cause him to cry out, “Wretched man that I am!” It is because he desires God’s sanctifying work to be completed in him that he longs for glory (Romans 8).  Wretched sinners do not so cry out to God. Only saints will join Paul in his longing for glorification. Thus, when Paul refers to himself as a “wretched man” he is not saying that he is a “wretched sinner.” It is the saint (holy one) in him that grieves his enduring struggle against sin. Thus, Romans 7:24 is evidence that Paul is no longer a “wretched sinner.” He is a holy one, who desires full escape from his sinful tendencies.
While acknowledging the distinction between God and us, I do not prefer to live in the “Holy God” // “Wretched sinner” dichotomy when it comes to born-again Christians. Rather, it seems right to me to emphasise that the Holy God has made us into saints (holy ones), who will continue to struggle against sin until our glorification. This is why I love 2 Corinthians, and especially 2 Corinthians 3:18.
Obviously, the issue requires more nuance than this short blog post was able to supply. In the main, my goal has simply been to highlight the foundation of a Christian’s primary identity. Even while we will continue to wrestle against sin – and in such moments cry out, “Wretched man that I am!” – we maintain our primary identity as blood-bought saints.
 Romans 3:9–11; Ephesians 2:1–3; Colossians 2:13a
 Matthew 5:8; Revelation 22:4
 Romans 3:3–8; Romans 9:22
 Philippians 1:21–26
 Christians are called “saints” 61 times in the New Testament.