Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! —Romans 7:24-25
What is our message to our city and far beyond? What is the message that goes beyond our own thoughts and feelings, because it comes from God? What is the message we long to hear above every headline, every tweet, every blog post, every voice? What is the message that deserves our joy and our loyalty? What is the message that both humbles our pride and soothes our anxieties? What is the message Jesus died to make real to us? Immanuel Church does not exist as a public bulletin board for whatever nice thought someone might have. Immanuel Church exists to make one message non-ignorable – the real gospel about the real Jesus. We announce it as our doctrine and we embody it as our culture, because we love it. Our message to our city and far beyond is the gospel and nothing but the gospel.
We could turn to many places in the Bible for this sacred and honest and insightful and powerful message. But the 23 words of the apostle Paul in Romans 7:24-25 are just one passage summing up our gospel. It breaks down as three statements – a cry of pain, then a question, then a cry of relief.
Wretched man that I am!
We might think, “What a negative self-image.” It’s extremely negative. This word “wretched” means miserable, troubled, worn out, suffering. That word is a cry of pain. It’s a way of saying, “I don’t like what I’ve become. Oh, I wish I could go back and do things differently!” Here’s how bad it is. Verse 23: “. . . making me captive.” Paul was a serious man, a man with high standards. But he discovered within himself – not in the circumstances around him but within himself – dark forces that made him captive to desires he couldn’t simply manage. Something inside made him captive to what he knew was wrong. He is not excusing himself. He is lamenting himself. That’s his whole story here in chapter 7.
How different from what we’re told today. We’re told today that there is so much good latent within us that, if we want to improve ourselves, we can go onto the internet and get the best information and then make the best choice. If only it were that easy! But Paul had all the best information. He had the very law of God. That’s his whole point here in chapter 7. He knew God’s holy law. He knew what kind of man God wanted him to be and he himself wanted to be. And he still couldn’t choose well. To make matters worse, he discovered something in himself that made him deny the best information when it was right there in front of him and choose stupidity when he knew it was stupid, when he knew it was destructive, because there was something about the defiance of it all that his heart could not resist.
Paul is showing us who we are. We have hearts that overrule our heads. We have hearts that choose temporary pleasure with full awareness that long-term pain is on the way. We are not as simple as our capacity to choose. Our real problem is our incapacity to choose, no matter how much good information we have. We are captive to ourselves, and that’s wretched. The gospel is helping us here to face ourselves honestly. And this is part of our message to our city.
Notice what the Bible teaches us to say here. It does not say, “How wretched you are!” It says, “How wretched I am!” Here at Immanuel we’re learning to “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7). That means we press into an honest relationship with Jesus and one another. But gospel honesty isn’t confessing someone else’s sins. True honesty gets us confessing our own sins. And how can we risk that vulnerability together? We’re together under the mercy of God in Christ. A gospel-centered church is a safe place, because we all know what it’s like to live in the grip of desires we don’t even understand. Every single one of us can say this morning, with a broken heart before the Lord, “Wretched man (or woman) I am!” And every one of us can follow up with concrete specifics. We did not come to church today to buff up our appearances. We came to church today because Jesus loves people in trouble, people who need help from far beyond themselves.
There is nothing glib or shallow about the gospel, is there? The Bible does not sugarcoat what we are. Every single one of us and every person in our city and far beyond is a desperate sinner. The power of the gospel enters our hearts the instant we fall at Jesus’ feet with every ugly secret right out in the open. And I believe Nashville is waiting for a church with no pretence, a church where people are honest and humble and open, a church where people are facing themselves in the light of who Jesus is for them. That church is where the love of Jesus is felt, because it is sinners whom Jesus loves. Immanuel, let’s be that church for our city!
Who will deliver me from this body of death?
It’s painful to see ourselves realistically. It’s even more painful to see this truth. “Who will deliver me from the body of death?” is Paul’s way of admitting he cannot change. Captivity, by definition, is something a captive cannot change. How can anyone jump out of a hole that has no bottom? Our problem is not just sin. Our problem is not being able not to sin. Jesus said, “He who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). And who of us isn’t living proof of that?
Paul is not saying here that he is fighting a personal battle. He is saying that he has lost his personal battle. He has failed God, he is not the man God made him to be, and he can’t find within himself any reason to think he will ever change. “Who will deliver me?” is not Paul saying, “I really struggle with sin.” He is beyond struggle. He’s defeated. All he can do now is look outside himself, beyond himself: “Who will deliver me, since obviously I cannot deliver myself?” That question is the sound of a human heart finally cracking open to God.
Our problem is what Paul calls “this body of death.” What does he mean? He is not saying that his physical body is the problem. The Bible is clear about the glory of the human body. Our bodies are God’s creation. But the Bible is saying that our real problem is not external to ourselves. Our problem is that our evil has gone so deep inside us by now that we can get free of sin as easily as we can crawl out of our skin. And our evil kills us. It’s a deadening power. It’s “this body of death.” Sin lies to us. It promises freedom and pleasure and control. It carries death and pain and misery. I have read that in the ancient world one way to punish a man was to strap a dead body to him. Everywhere he went, that thing was with him, decaying, stinking, impeding his movement. And every one of us is lugging around habits and follies that offend God and offend everyone around. They offend us ourselves. We have ample reason to sympathize with the weirdness of everyone we know. Being a sinner is no fun. But who will deliver us? You can’t deliver me. I can’t deliver you. We can manage symptoms, and we should, out of consideration for others. But down at the core of what we are, who will deliver us?
I am thankful that our message does not stop here. Many songs and movies and stories in our culture show insight and honesty about our condition, but they stop here. The gospel does not stop here. What else does God have to say to us, and to our city and far beyond?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Deliverance has come – a deliverance from far beyond ourselves, dependent on nothing in ourselves, a deliverance from God himself through the cross of Jesus. Our message to our city and far beyond is this. God delivers wretched people who are longing for something better. God moves toward sinful people, guilty people, with compassion and power. We can rejoice today in that great, overruling fact. The Bible says,
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever gives up on their own strategies and falls defeated into his arms should not perish but have eternal life.
Jesus said, “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” – not prettified sinners, but sinners in all their failure.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to our own strategies for saving face. And what did the Lord do? The Lord laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, the accusing voice that exposes our failures, the damning truth of who we are and what we’ve done, the sad reality we cannot change, the legitimate demands we have never lived up to – Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us at the cross.
The gospel does not say, Jesus will help you save yourself. The gospel says, Jesus will save you from yourself. He will save you all by himself. Jesus is all the deliverance you and I need. At the cross, Jesus entered into our wretchedness, he embraced our wretchedness and absorbed it into himself. That’s why Paul says, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Christianity is not a team victory, God and us together. We look at God and we say, “Thank you for doing for me what I failed to do. Thank you for leaving nothing more to be done, except to thank you.”
I want you to look at the worst sin you’ve ever committed, and here is something that sin cannot change, because here is something that comes from God: “You were washed, you were sanctified, your were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). And God is saying to you today, as you come to the table of the Lord, “Your sins are real. But I want you to know something about me that will put a ‘Thanks be to God’ in your heart. Here’s what I want you to know: Your sins are smaller than my love. In my great love for you, the Son of God took your wretchedness into himself, and gave back nothing but mercy and hope. All I ask is that you open up to him. It’s all you can do. I’m asking you to let me love you, to the praise of the glory of my grace.” This is our message to our city and far beyond from God himself. It’s why the old hymn says,
Well may the accuser roar
Of ills that I have done
I know them well, and thousands more
Jehovah knoweth none.
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!