But what about the Apostle Paul and 'Wretched man that I am!' in Rom 7.24?
Romans 7.14-25 is one of the most misunderstood of all the Apostle’s writings. Peter, a contemporary and occasional coworker with Paul, recognized that a proper understanding of some of the content of the Paul’s epistles took real effort:
2 Pet 3.15b-16
just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.
[Imagine, the Apostle Peter was a contemporary of the Apostle Paul. If it was true that Paul's teaching were sometimes difficult to understand in his day, how much more careful must we be in the current day.]
It is therefore not surprising that those who either carelessly or ignorantly claim the legitimacy of the “backslider” category would appeal to Romans chapter 7 for support. Their misguided claim runs something like this:
“Of course ‘backsliding’ by a true Christian is possible and real! Isn’t that the implicit meaning in what the Apostle Paul said in Romans,
‘For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.’ (v15)
‘Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?’ (v24)
If he isn’t talking about his backsliding, what could he possibly be talking about?”
The Apostle fully understood the spiritual/moral distinctions between the “flesh” and the “spirit” (echoing his expression in Gal 2.20); the entire context (vv.14-25) is a comparison and contrast of the two. To be “in the flesh” is to be sold into “the bondage to sin”. It can’t be otherwise.
However, the true Christian is not merely “in the flesh”. Rather, he/she is in the Holy Spirit and possesses a new component: life! In many ways, the distinction which the Apostle describes may be considered a contrast between that which is temporal and physical to that which is timeless and cerebral. This is the basis for the following (note the contrast between the physical and the cerebral):
For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
The Apostle Paul provides the insight into why the battle within us exists: we live in the flesh but our life is in the Spirit. He argues from the same principle that the Apostle John would state many years later:
1 Joh 3.9
No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
When a Christian sins, it is a direct product of the flesh, the “sin which dwells in me”. As Paul concludes,
I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good.
It is his cerebral/spiritual component that “wants to do good” in contrast to the fleshly component which is able only to do evil. Again, notice the contrast between the physical and the cerebral:
For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.
This is the life-long battle of the true Christian, a battle which now can be won because he/she possesses the life of the Holy Spirit along with the power to overcome sin:
For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.
The lost sinner does not have the power or ability to overcome sin; the true Christian possesses both.
The clear purpose of Romans 7.14-25 is to prove the assertion of Rom 6.14: “sin shall not be master over you” while explaining why the battle rages in the true Christian.
As he closes the chapter, the Apostle asks and answers one of the universal questions posed by all true Christians:
Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.
So, not only is this great passage not a defense of “backsliding”, it is the very antithesis of even the notion of “backsliding”. The Apostle acknowledged the battle between “flesh” and “spirit” in the true Christian, then taught us why it occurs along with the sure defeat of the flesh.