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By Robert Anderson
Romans 8:8 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
This verse is used to support the dogma that, because of the Fall, man’s nature is so utterly depraved that he is incapable of leading a moral and upright life. As the Westminster Divines expresses it, “We are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good.”
This theology obviously impugns the righteousness of God in punishing men for their sins. In fact, it represents Him as a tyrant who punishes the lame for limping and the blind for losing their way. No less obviously does it clash with plain and patent facts. For the outward life of Saul the Pharisee was as pure and upright as that of Paul the Apostle. And in our own day, we ourselves have known many unbelievers whose conduct and character would bear comparison with those of many a Christian.
It is not in the moral sphere of his being, but in the spiritual, that man is hopelessly depraved and lost. Therefore, was it that the “zeal of God” of the Jewish leaders led them to crucify the Christ of God, and that Gamaliel’s great disciple, though a pattern moralist, became a persecutor and blasphemer. And the seventh verse must not be read to mean that men were not subject to the letter of the law of Sinai. In calling that code “the moral law,” theology means that it is the law of our being. And thus regarded, the Pharisees were scrupulous in their obedience to it. But “the carnal mind” is absolutely incapable of appreciating its spiritual significance. Tue difference between the blind and those who have their sight is not that they see less clearly, but that they do not see at all. And quite as absolute is the antithesis between the carnal and the spiritual. But just as a blind man may have full use of his other physical faculties, so the carnal man may be a thorough moralist. It is no answer to say that this is true only of some; for the fact that it is true of any is proof that God is righteous in judging all.
And let no one dismiss all this as though it were of merely academic interest. There are few errors more harmful in the present day. For such a false reading of Scripture disparages it in the judgment of thoughtful men and fosters the new enlightenment that has so degraded Germany and is rapidly leavening the British churches of the Reformation. And no less evil is its influence upon spiritual Christians. For despite the solemn, Divine warning that Satan fashions himself as an angel of light, and his ministers as ministers of righteousness, Christians are thus betrayed into recognizing as ministers of Christ any man who commends himself as a minister of righteousness. And the result is that “truth is fallen in the street,” and certain of our Divinity schools and theological colleges are supplying our pulpits with agnostics and rationalists.
8:8 Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. Literally, “And those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” On the phrase “in the flesh,” see 7:5. The translation “controlled by” gives the proper sense of it.
This verse is simply reinforcing the point of v. 7b. “Cannot please God” is directly related to “cannot submit to God’s law.” This shows that what pleases God is inner submission to and external obedience to his law. On the subject of pleasing God, see 12:1–2; 1 Cor 7:32; 2 Cor 5:9; Eph 5:10; 1 Thess 4:1; 2 Tim 2:4; Heb 11:5–6; 13:21; 1 John 3:22.
Paul says that the one whose mind is set on the flesh cannot submit to God’s law (v. 7) and cannot please God. What is the nature of this inability? Calvinists and others use these verses as proof-texts for the idea of total inability, which is the core of the doctrine of total depravity (see Murray, I:287; Moo, I:521). These verses are taken to mean that sinners are unable to repent and believe the gospel without the sovereign and irresistible grace of God, which he gives to those whom he unconditionally chooses.
It is important to see, though, that these verses do not teach this kind of inability. They obviously teach that the person controlled by his flesh is unable to do something, but his inability is clearly related to the law, not to the gospel. This is the key to understanding this text.
Basically, such a person is unable to obey any command of the law as God wants it done and as the law requires. He may obey it outwardly; but as long as he exists according to the flesh, he cannot submit to God’s law in his heart (Gal 5:6; Heb 11:6). One simply cannot do both at the same time: he cannot set his mind on the flesh and submit to God’s law simultaneously (Morris, 306). Thus as long as he is in the flesh, he cannot please God with respect to his law.
The key words are “as long as.” A person cannot be pleasing to God in obedience to his law as long as his mind remains set on the flesh. But here is the crucial point: there is no indication whatsoever in this text that a sinner is unable to respond to the gospel, or unable through the power of the gospel to redirect the set of his mind from flesh to Spirit. The context shows that “cannot please God” refers only to an inability to be subject to the law, and does not imply an inability to respond to the gospel. The failure to make this distinction is the main error of Calvinists’ interpretation of these verses. In other passages it is clear that sinners are able and expected to respond to the gospel in faith and repentance (John 3:16; Rom 1:17; Rev 22:17; see Matt 23:37).
 Anderson, Sir Robert (2010-11-07). Misunderstood Texts of the New Testament – By Sir Robert Anderson (Classic Works of Religion and Spirituality)
 Jack Cottrell, Romans, vol. 1, The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1996), Ro 8:8.