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From Wretchedness to Glory

Sanctification Explained from Romans 7 and 8

by Bob DeWaay


Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? (Romans 7:24)

For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. (Romans 8:29,30)

How could the apostle Paul, after describing the glorious truths of justification by faith and our position in Christ (dead to sin and alive to God Romans 3-6), then characterize himself as being "wretched?" This seems so shocking that some have assumed that Romans 7 is somehow out of sequence in Paul's thought and is describing his life before his conversion. They reason that a man of faith (such as Paul) could not lament his own sinfulness in such vivid terms. However, the Scriptures are filled with stories of people who have faith in God sorrowing over their own guilt and failure. David's lament in Psalm 51 comes to mind.

In this article I shall examine the tension between the Biblical call for complete holiness in the lives of those who are in Christ and the practical experience of falling short of it. I shall do this by following Paul's progression of thought in Romans chapters 7 and 8. We shall see that the wretchedness of Romans 7 and the glory of Romans 8 are the universal Christian experience. We shall also discuss common approaches in modern Evangelicalism that fail to appreciate neither the depth of human sinfulness and helplessness nor the power and glory of God's grace.

Wretchedness as a Christian Experience

Paul said, "Wretched man that I am" (Romans 7:24). Did he say this as a Christian or as an unregenerate? Those who assert the latter fail to consider other New Testament passages. The evidence we have from Paul and from the Book of Acts does not suggest that Paul was suffering from feelings of utter sinfulness before he met Christ. Acts 9 shows Paul filled with self-confidence, thinking he was doing God a favor by persecuting Christians. Even more telling is his description in Philippians 3 of his former life: ". . . although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless" (Philippians 3:4-6). As a Pharisee, Paul saw himself as blameless; as a Christian, wretched. There is no way one can read into this section of Philippians the notion that Paul thought of himself as failing to live up to God's law while he was a Pharisee. Given the natural progress of thought in Romans and Paul's own testimony about his pre-Christian attitude, therefore we must conclude that in Romans 7, Paul is describing something he experienced as a Christian.

How can it be that Paul, a justified Christian (Romans 5:1), would be lamenting his sinfulness so vociferously? According to Romans 7, two things were painfully true to Paul: the Law was holy and true (verse 12) and Paul was not fully living up to it (verses 14 & 15). The key to understanding how a self-confident Pharisee who thought himself righteous became aghast at his own sinfulness is found in the 10th commandment. "What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, 'You shall not covet'" (Romans 7:7). There are plenty of lost sinners who have never committed adultery or made an idol and who are found treating their parents with honor. But who can say he has never coveted? This commandment strikes at the innermost motivations of the heart. These are motivations that Paul, as a Pharisee, had overlooked when he then considered himself "blameless" in regard to righteousness that is in the law.

As lost sinners, we tend to compare ourselves with others who are worse, think of sins we have not committed, and consider ourselves basically good people. When we are saved and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, a conflict begins that was not there before. The Spirit of holiness shines His all-knowing light into the hidden recesses of our thoughts and motivations. This causes a sense of sinfulness and need that we could never have comprehended in our previous fleshly existence. Now, as Christians, the goal has changed radically. Rather than merely hoping to be a "good" person as the human scheme of things goes, we are now called by God to be conformed to the image of Christ. The more we understand this high calling and the more we see the glory of God in Christ, the more we realize the depth of our need. This was Paul's Romans 7 experience. The 10th commandment is the "Achilles heel" of self-righteousness. If our very thoughts and motivations are to be called into question, we are found sinners of the worse sort.

The Utter Inability of the Flesh

Paul summarizes the problem clearly: "For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not" (Romans 7:18). As Christians, we cannot escape the fact that the Holy Spirit who indwells us causes a desire for holiness. The reason for this is that God the Holy Spirit is at work in us changing us, convicting us, and leading us toward God's purposes. In Romans 8:14 Paul writes, "For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God." Verses 17 & 18 of that chapter tell us where the Holy Spirit is leading us: to glory. So the Holy Spirit does not leave us content with the corruption of sin. He is leading us to glorification.

This Holy Spirit-imparted desire conflicts with the flesh. The term "flesh" in this context denotes "all that we are in ourselves, apart from Christ." The old sin nature still has its sinful desires. The flesh is legally dead and crucified with Christ (Romans 6:5-11) but practically is very much alive. That the flesh and the Spirit coexist for the Christian is shown in Galatians 5:17 and several other passages. Paul describes the conflict in Romans 7:21-25. It is clear that fleshly effort can never deliver us from our sinful condition. Human effort, however well informed it may be, is inadequate to deliver us from our sin and conform us to the image of Christ.

The conflict can be described as follows. As Christians, we now have many true beliefs about God, His truth, and what is right (1John 2:20,21). We are also indwelt by the Holy Spirit. He convicts us and works to bring us into the image of Christ. We desire God and His holiness, but our actual behavior both mental and physical - shows that we are so very short of the goal. Besides this, we can no longer feel good about this gap between what we know is right and what actually is. There is a very real conflict. It is just as Paul described it: "for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate" (Romans 7:15b). When I hurt the ones I love, I hate it, but I surely have done so. As a Christian who believes the truth, I "hate" thoughtlessness or callousness toward others. Yet it happens.

Legalism, Licence or Liberty?

This conflict leads to many man-centered approaches. One of these is legalism. Paul considered legalism as going back to a non-Christian approach. Legalism is, at its heart, merely narrowing the scope of the Law to something doable now. In essence, it is as if keeping the first nine commandments would be adequate for holiness. For example, the rich young ruler had no qualms about claiming that he had kept certain commandments: "You know the commandments, 'Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.' And he said, 'All these things I have kept from my youth'" (Luke 18:20,21). When Jesus asked something of him that cut to his deepest motivations, he went away sad.

With legalism there is a list of what ought to be done and what ought not to be done, and we take great pains to stick to it. Those who do are deemed sanctified; those who don't are not. Paul likened this approach to beginning in the Spirit and seeking to be completed by the flesh (Galatians 3:3). Legalism fails because it cannot deal with the very root of fleshly sin: the thoughts and intents of the heart.

Another man-centered approach is licentiousness. This is the "anything goes" approach which is technically called antinomianism (against law). In essence, this is changing the standards so that we are no longer falling short. It is lowering the bar, so to speak, so that most anyone can jump over it. This error was also present in the first century. The book of 1John warns against it in many places. One example is, "If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1John 1:8). Some Gnostics claimed that the material realm was so inconsequential that whatever is done in the body matters not. They boiled over into gross wickedness and thought it of no effect on their souls. God has not called us to license, however, but to true liberty. Liberty in the Bible means victory over sin and true love for God and neighbor (Galatians 5:13 and see 1Peter 2:16 & 2Peter 2:19). It is freedom from the dominating power of sin and the power to do God's will by His grace.

The Walk of the Spirit

Paul taught neither legalism nor licentiousness, but liberty. This brings us to Romans 8: "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:2-4). This liberty comes through Christ's payment for our sin through His death on the cross, and the power of God's Spirit at work in us conforming us to the image of Christ.

We are legally and positionally free now, practically being set free by God's grace, and assured of final and perfect freedom from sin. This is the essence of Romans 8. By positionally free, I mean that Christ has made full payment for our sins. We have already died to our old life of sin (Romans 6:2-7). The practical freedom is a life-long process. When we speak of "progressive sanctification," which I believe is Biblical, we do not mean that there are no setbacks or that every day we are more Christlike than the day before. It's like someone once told me about golf when I was lamenting a very bad outing: "This is not a game of continual improvement." Yes, sometimes we do find ourselves apparently worse off than we were before. Nevertheless, progressive sanctification means that God, by His grace, is doing whatever it takes to bring us to glory. He will not leave true believers permanently in a state of utter failure.

Romans 8 emphasizes walking according to the Spirit. When Paul speaks of "walking" in the Spirit, he is speaking of an entirely new mode of life. It is all-encompassing since it not only concerns changed life-styles, but changed motivations. It is a principle of living, empowered by the Holy Spirit, resting solidly on the grace of God, and characterized by Spirit-filled people depending on God. Since those in the flesh "cannot please God" (Romans 8:8), those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit mind the things of the Spirit (Romans 8:5,6). This means that their hope for final and total victory is based firmly in the finished work of Christ and His providential oversight that will bring them to glorification.

Failed Approaches

The walk of the Spirit involves trusting God, who knows better than we ever could what we need, what causes us to be the way we are, and what is necessary to change us. Romans 8 tells us that our walk includes suffering (verse 18), anxious longings for what is not yet (verse 19), present futility in our whole environment (verses 20 - 22), and groaning (verse 23). Truly, there is a constant sense that something is wrong. This passage of Scripture acknowledges our sense of need as a fact of walking by the Spirit in this life, seeking God's ultimate purposes. We suffer because we know, even more than those who do not know Christ, just how fallen and wicked this present world is.

This situation causes many in our day to run after plans and programs that supposedly will eliminate our problems. Mainly, this means searching for causes. We debate "nurture or nature." Why is one person a drunkard, another a thief, another an abuser, another a workaholic, another lazy, and yet another relatively happy and well adjusted? The idea is to determine the causes and devise a therapy to fix the problems. We have many theories and therapies, both in the Christian and non-Christian world. We have discussed some of these in previous issues of Critical Issues Commentary.

Some of the latest studies indicate that genetics are much more influential than previously thought. Both secular and Christian people hate to hear that, however, since we assume that genetic causes either provide excuses or make therapy impossible. Essentially, no one has been able to conclusively prove what ultimately causes the differences.

In my experience, the Biblical approach is liberating. We don't have to figure out what causes the difference between the drunkard and the Pharisee. They are both lost in fleshly sin until they turn to Christ. But we need to understand this: our hope of sanctification and glorification is not based on altering the gene pool nor on manipulating the environment. It is based on the supernatural grace of God. Sin is still sin no matter what "caused" it. For example, the world is scurrying about trying to prove that genetics determines "sexual orientation." Whether they can prove it or not remains to be seen. As Christians, we know homosexual behavior is sin and it will always be sin, no matter what the cause. God's grace to change lives will never be thwarted by genetics. The whole person is fallen and sinful, by "nature and nurture." Our hope is in the promises of God in Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, not cleverly learning the details of the cause and effect process so that we can manipulate it for our own good.

This goes for "spiritual" approaches as well. Many Christians get caught up in movements that are looking for spiritual curses, demons, subconscious memories, etc. in order to cure present problems. They experience the "wretchedness" about which Paul spoke and assume they need a Christian exorcist. They scoff at the simplicity of the Biblical plan. I lived through years of trying these approaches myself, early in my Christian walk. None of them deliver what they promise. We still suffer, groan, and feel that something is amiss. Guess what? So did the apostle Paul. The answers are in Romans 8 and elsewhere in the New Testament, not in modern therapies. How liberating it is to trust the same grace of God and power of the Holy Spirit to perfect us that we trusted to save us.

We must do so because the problems are much worse than we imagined. Our hearts are desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). Even as Christians, we often don't even know how to pray: "And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" (Romans 8:26). Only God knows everything about us, our deepest hurts, our sorrows, and ultimately everything that causes us to be who we are. Only He can deliver us and change us.

Aiming Too Low

A huge problem with trusting these various man-centered approaches is that they set the goal too low! People are aiming for being "normal" compared with other fallen sinners. God is not satisfied with anything less than perfection. He wants us completely conformed to the image of Christ. The danger is that even if one of the man-centered approaches "worked," one could become satisfied and complacent. We might be happy enough being considered a normal person compared with others, a "good old Joe" who copes with life quite well now, having no feelings of wretchedness, but high self-esteem.

Consider Paul's testimony about his own goal:

More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8-12).

His goal was to attain to the resurrection from the dead, which he associates with ultimate glorification and perfection (Romans 8:23). That means that the goal is to be conformed to the image of Christ.

Notice also that he laid the things of the old life aside as rubbish as he pursued by faith Christ's righteousness. Today, Christian people spend years sorting through the old rubbish of their previous lives trying to find causes for present failings. Not so with Paul. Even when feeling totally wretched, he didn't look back to his old life for causes or answers, but forward to the promise of God. When we realize the goal is total conformity to the image of Christ, we will depend on God and the work of His Spirit in our lives. There is no human resource to get us to this goal.

The Absolute Promise of Holiness

God will do whatever it takes to make us holy, and nothing in this world can stop Him from doing so. This is the topic that dominates the last half of Romans 8. The so-called "golden chain" of Romans 8:29,30 says, "For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified." In popular terminology, "it's a done deal." The logic here is undeniable. If one person God justified is ultimately not glorified, these verses have lied. And God cannot lie. We were not just chosen for salvation; we were chosen for holiness: "just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him" (Ephesians 1:4).

The famous passage that precedes the "golden chain" is Romans 8:28. It tells us that all things work together for the good of those He has called. The context defines "good" for us. It means conformity to the image of Christ, which includes sanctification and, ultimately, glorification. All the resources of heaven and earth are at God's disposal. He is putting them to work to ensure that all of His elect shall be glorified.

Do we have a part in this? Yes, we do. We must press on to the high goal of our calling in Christ Jesus. We do so, according to Romans 8, by walking in the Spirit. This is by grace through faith just as salvation is, yet there are practical things God has given us to do. Ryan Habbena's article shall describe these to you.

Clearly, we struggle with conflicting motives and groan as we live in a situation of great conflict. We know the holiness of God and His righteous callings. We fall short and feel wretchedness. We long for heaven and the consummation of the desire of our hearts, knowing God fully and truly, in complete holiness. We live in a fallen world, however, that seems incompatible with holiness. The Scriptures have told us about this so that we do not despair. We despair when we get our eyes off the promises of the Scripture and onto the schemes of man. "For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15:4). Our hope is glorification.

Issue 60 - September / October 2000

End Notes

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    From Wretchedness to Glory

    Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, © Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1988, 1995 The Lockman Foundation.

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