NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER EIGHT (Lesson XIII)
Verse 8: Those who are ruled by their sinful-selves can never satisfy God.
One of the last known, yet most important truths is expressed here. No matter what one does in the way of penance, good works, abstinence, church attendance, reciting prayers, etc., as long as they are doing it in order to earn or merit salvation, it will come of short of what God wants. Our flesh is so addicted to following the longings and dictates of the old nature that we are unable under any circumstances to meet God’s requirements for forgiveness. God approves no blessings on credit, no layaway plan, nor can He be appeased by man’s flattery. Until we bid farewell to the old nature and the new man rises to life, it is impossible to meet God’s expectations.
There was no greater endorsement that Jesus of Nazareth needed to cement His place in God’s plan of salvation than what the voice from heaven said after He was baptized by John the Baptizer: “This is my Son, the one I love. I am very pleased with Him.”1 Later on, Jesus would reinforce this stamp of approval by telling His opponents: “The One who sent me is still with me; He did not leave me to myself, because I always do what pleases Him.”2 And in one of Paul’s prayers for the believers in Colossæ, he asked God to give them all they needed to live in such a way that it brought honor to the Lord and pleased Him in every way.3 Also, the writer of Hebrews put it this way: “Without faith, no one can please God. Whoever comes to God must believe that He is real and that He rewards those who sincerely try to find Him.”4 He goes on to say: “May that God equip you with every good thing you need to do His will; and may He do in us whatever pleases Him, through Jesus Christ.”5 This certainly echoes what the Psalmist said: “The Lord takes pleasure in people who worship Him and trust in His faithful love.”6
Both early church scholars Irenaeus7 and Tertullian8 point out that Paul is not censoring the flesh, but the actions of the flesh. Chrysostom speaks to this misunderstanding by first asking if we should all go ahead and cut our sinful bodies into pieces if we thought it would please God? Or, should we carry out the death sentence on ourselves as a way of showing our moral excellence? Chrysostom’s purpose in asking is to show how wrong we would be if we took what Paul says here literally. It’s obvious that when Paul speaks of being in the flesh, he is not referring to the body alone, but to a sinful life which is self-indulgence and extravagant to the fullest.9 Then in another place, Chrysostom wonders if those in Rome who will receive this letter really understand what he is saying? Or would they ask: “What is Paul talking about? Certainly, he knows that he himself lives in a body of flesh.” We need not ask these questions because we know Paul does not mean that those clad in flesh are incapable of pleasing God. If that be so, then believers would have to find a way to exit their bodies in order to please Him? Instead, Paul is pointing out that those who are ruled by the passions of their flesh put no value on virtue. If one’s thinking is totally carnal and they are caught up in the pleasures of the flesh, they pay little attention to their soul. They can’t see it, nor can it talk to them. Rather, it’s their flesh that keeps calling out for satisfaction, and so they feel obligated to answer no matter what it takes.10
Early church scholar Pelagius takes what Paul says in this verse as proof that he was not trying to find fault with the body itself. Rather, with the works of the body practiced by those who were undoubtedly living a sin-filled life. For once a person gives themselves over to fulfilling the desires of the flesh it is impossible to avoid sin.11 Then Bishop Theodoret says that Paul is not suggesting that we must leave our bodies in order to be set free from the imaginations of the flesh. Instead, he is preparing the readers of this Epistle in Rome for what he is about to say in the following verses concerning how the Spirit of God living in them makes all the difference in how they respond to these sinful tendencies.12
John Calvin makes it clear that those who spend all their time following the lust of the flesh are abhorrent to God because they have willingly alienated themselves from Christ and they are void of any spiritual life within.13 It would be like saying today, I have a lamp and light bulb, but I don’t need any electricity to make it shine. And Albert Barnes pushes for a better understanding of what Paul is saying here. We should take what Paul implies about mankind’s pursuit of those desires that please their corrupt nature as an obstacle to their ever being able to please God. In Barnes’ mind, it does not prohibit or make impossible their ability to turn from their wicked ways and live out their lives in a more respectable, moral way. Barnes uses the example of a child who is stubborn, proud, and disobedient. As long as the child stays that way, it cannot please its parents. The question of when will this child stop being stubborn and become obedient is something that will require another step in the learning process. All Paul wants to point out here is that those who are unrenewed by the Spirit are totally depraved since being in such a state makes it impossible to please God.14
To put this another way from my military experience. Whether a soldier is unkempt and unfit, unshaven and not alert, a poor marksman or sharpshooter, if they fail to obey the Sergeant’s orders or the Captain’s commands, they are worthless in battle. Not because of the way they look, but because of the way they act. The same is true with people who, whether they are living immorally to a fault or morally righteous by acts of abstinence. These things are not used to determine if they are qualified to enter the Kingdom of God. They must be redeemed, called, chosen, transformed, and lead by the Spirit in order to make God proud of His choice.
Robert Haldane makes this same point by saying that a person must be born of the Spirit before he can even begin to serve God. He calls any religious system that teaches people to try and please God by deciding to lead a religious life in order to convince God to cooperate with them for their own praise and honor, is unscriptural and a waste of time. Therefore, if the person who is not born-again cannot please God, that means that whatever they do does not earn His favor. Any moral action may be materially good in and of itself, however, unless it is sparked by the right motive – the love of God – and is done for the right reason – His glory – it cannot be acknowledged by God. Before a person’s reverence for God is commendable, they must first be accepted for what they are, not what they do. As the Scriptures say: “The Lord had respect for Abel, and his offering.”15 But they also say, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”16 It is only by faith that we are united with Christ, and, thereby, reconciled to God.
So until this union with Christ and reconciliation takes place, real fellowship with God is impossible. Haldane thinks there are certain things that must be considered. First, since no one who is still unconverted can please God even out of ignorance, how much worse is it for someone who professes to be renewed in the spirit of their mind, but still cannot please God? When that happens, how can they then witness to the unconverted about regeneration? Because no matter how honorable the good works of such a person may look in the eyes of this world, if they still cannot please God as believers, then what use of anyone getting saved? They might as well join the sinners in awaiting the condemnation of God on His enemies. And if this is where Paul stopped explaining how a person can overcome such an obstacle, then there would be no reason to go on. Thank God Paul will continue to explain.17
Charles Hodge agrees with Barnes that those who are caught up in following the desires of their sinful nature cannot please God. He states that such a person is considered to be in an unrenewed state in order to fall into this category.18 So the question for all Bible scholars is this: Was Paul talking about those being in an unrenewed state as unborn-again sinners, or was he speaking of believers who have allowed their sinful nature to take charge of their hearts, minds, and desires once again? We must look for this answer in further examination of what other scholars have to say.
Charles Spurgeon shares the same view that as long as people are under the dominion of their sinful nature, there is no pleasing God. Those who have never experienced being born-again so that they have been made alive in the Spirit, are still struggling with the uncontrolled desires of the flesh. As long as they stay in that condition they cannot please God. They must be born-again, they must become spiritually alive by the new birth which is conceived by the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, no matter how high the mountain of good works may be, it is still impossible for them to please God.19
Frédéric Godet makes this distinction, that to be in the flesh is a stronger expression than to be after the flesh. Being “after the flesh” makes flesh the standard of moral existence. Being “in the flesh” makes flesh the principle source. So the question is, how could God take pleasure in beings who make the pursuit-of-self the principle of their life? Would not such a selfish principle be the opposite of what God wants? When carnally minded unbelievers plunge themselves into an ever deepening pit of such immorality, all they have to gain is condemnation and eternal punishment. However, when spiritually-minded believers begin to rise as they climb the ladder of life in Christ, they reach ever higher and higher for spiritual excellence, and any trace of condemnation and fear of eternal punishment will disappear.20
Puritan preacher Charles Simeon put his assessment of what Paul is saying here in a very concise and direct way. He observed that for most individuals who cannot see what is in the hearts of others around them, it must seem strange that a lot of people who appear just like them in the way they look, act, and speak should be considered so different when it comes to where they’ll be in eternity. But the truth is that in even the most imperfect of believers there is a principle called God’s love. However, in even the best and most moral of unbelievers there is rooted a sinful tendency that is hostile to God. These facts alone place their inner natures as far apart as heaven and hell.21 That message should have shaken every person who heard it to the bone. That is not momentary fantasy, that is eternal reality.
1 Matthew 3:17
2 John 8:29 – Complete Jewish Bible
3 Colossians 1:9-10
4 Hebrews 11:6
5 Ibid., 13:21
6 Psalm 147:11
7 Irenaeus: Against Heresies Bk. 5, Ch.10.2
8 Tertullian: On the Resurrection of the Flesh 10
9 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 13
10 Ibid., Homilies on Genesis 24.6
11 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Theodoret of Cyr: Interpretation of Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Genesis 4:4
16 Hebrews 11:6
17 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 338
18 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 397
19 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
20 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
21 Charles Simeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.