Romans 8:7-8 is often used to defend the Calvinistic doctrines of Total Depravity and total inability. The text says this:
Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can it be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:7-8).
Regarding this text, Calvinist commentator John Murray says that “Enmity against God” is nothing other than total depravity and “cannot please God” nothing less than total inability (Murray, Epistle to the Romans, 1:287).
“The Flesh” in Romans
But, as with the discussion of Romans 7, it is important to know what Paul means when he writes about “the flesh” in his letters.
The flesh is dead and dying. The flesh is separated from God, is corrupted, and when the soul attempts to operate through the flesh, only sin-tainted behavior results.
The unbeliever, of course, since He does not have the Spirit of God, has no choice but to operate through the flesh. As we have seen in the discussion about the three parts of a person, this says nothing whatsoever about the ability (or inability) of the unregenerate person to believe in Jesus for eternal life. It is not “the flesh” that believes in Jesus, but the soul.
So while Paul is absolutely right that the flesh cannot please God, we should not understand Paul to be saying that a person cannot believe in Jesus for eternal life. God calls all to believe in Jesus, and since faith is not a work of the soul through the corrupted flesh, the soul is able to believe in Jesus and receive eternal life from Him.
Unbelievers are Not the Focus on Romans 8:7-8
Of course, having said this, it is important to note that the unregenerate person is not the subject of Paul’s statement in Romans 8:7-8.
Instead, Paul is writing about the experience of believers.
In Romans 7, he wrote about the ongoing struggle with sin that every person experiences (both believer and unbeliever alike), and concluded that description by rejoicing that God has provided a way through Jesus Christ for people to be freed from the bondage to decay and corruption that was brought about by the body of death. As a result of Jesus and the indwelling Holy Spirit, our mind can now serve the law of God, even though the flesh still serves the law of sin (Romans 7:25).
Based on this understanding, Paul goes on in Romans 8 to call believers who have received the Spirit of God to live according to the Spirit, and not according to the old man, the corrupted flesh.
Romans 8 is a Call for Believers to Live According to the Spirit
In Romans 8, Paul calls believers to stop walking according to the flesh, and start living according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1). He invites us to no longer set our mind (our soul) on the flesh, but to set our mind (our soul) on the things of the Spirit (Romans 8:4).
He goes on to explain that when believers live according to the flesh, we are carnally (or fleshly) minded, which leads to death. But if we live through the Spirit, we will finally discover the life and peace that we have always desired, but could never accomplish through the flesh (Romans 8:6).
Paul says that since we have the Spirit, we can now live for God (Romans 8:9), but we must make the choice to do so, for even though the Spirit of life is in us, the body of sin is still there as well, seeking to lead us back into death, decay, and destruction (Romans 8:10-15).
What this all means then is that Paul’s statement in Romans 8:7-8 about the carnal mind not being able to please God is that Paul is not primarily referring to unregenerate people, but to those who are regenerate, who have the Spirit of God, but who choose to live according to the flesh.
Such behavior, though carried out by Christians, is not pleasing to God.
He gave us His Spirit so that we might live a new life, a life free from the damaging and destructive consequences of sin. By choosing to live through the flesh, we invite the natural consequences of sin down upon our heads (Paul calls this wrath), which saddens and troubles God.
God wants us to be delivered from sin, not just in our position of being “in Christ,” but also in our daily experience.
This, in large part, is what the book of Romans is all about. It is not primarily about how people can escape hell and go to heaven when they die. Romans is about how Christians can be delivered from the consequences of sin and experience the life God wants for us, and thus, inviting the world into our experience of the rule and reign of God.
Romans 8:7-8, then, says nothing about Total Depravity or total inability of unregenerate people. Instead, these verses are an invitation from Paul to believers to reject the way of death, and choose the way of life instead.If you want to read more about Calvinism, check out other posts in this blog series: Words of Calvinism and the Word of God.