Romans 8: Misguided Hostility

“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” – Romans 8:7-8

We continue now in our meditation upon Romans 8, and we’ve been exploring Paul’s understanding of how there are essentially two different kinds of people in the world. According to Paul someone is either in Christ or not in Christ. If you are in Christ then you are someone who is not condemned by God (vs. 1), set free from the power of sin and death (vs. 2), forgiven of sin (vs. 3), empowered by the Holy Spirit for obedience (vs. 4), able to set your mind on the things of the Spirit (vs. 5), and in possession of life and peace (vs. 6).

Whereas if you’re not in Christ, but rather, as Paul argues in Romans chapter 5, still “in Adam”, then you are someone who is still walking according to the flesh (vs. 4), and setting your mind on the things of the flesh (vs. 5), which leads ultimately to death and death eternal (vs. 6).

And what Paul concludes in verses 7 and 8 is that the person who is set on the things of the flesh is fundamentally a person who is hostile to God. Why? Because he does not, indeed he cannot, submit to the goodness and holiness of God’s law. This kind of person, says Paul, cannot please God. Consider here, for just a moment, the absolute absurdity into which sin brings all fallen men and women, the absurdity of hating God. Octavius Winslow captures the thought well and it is necessary to quote him here in full:

“The spectacle is an awful one in the extreme, of the finite armed in dead hostility to the Infinite – of a creature measuring his power with God - opposing his will to God’s will – his way to God’s way – his end to God’s end. And yet how disproportionate are our profoundest feelings of horror and commiseration to the atrocious nature and the tremendous consequence of the crime! Enmity against God! The greatest and holiest, the best and most powerful, of beings and of friends! And why this enmity? Upon what, in the character of God, or in the nature of his government, is this sworn hostility grounded? Is it because he is essential love? Perfectly holy? Strictly Righteous? Infinitely wise and powerful? For which of these perfections does the sinner hate him? Is it because he gave his Son to die for man, laying him in a bleeding sacrifice on the altar of justice for human transgression? Is it because the sun of his goodness shines upon every being, and that he opens his hand and supplies the need of every living thing? Is it because he exercises forbearance and long-suffering, and slow to anger, and of great kindness? For which of these good works does the sinner hate him? And to what extent is this enmity displayed? It rests short of the destruction of the Divine existence. Man is at war with the very being of God.”[1]

The idea of being hostile to God is one which communicates a violent opposition toward God and all things connected with God. Which is why sin distorts and deforms all good things. Think about it: because we cannot get at God directly, we instead oppose God indirectly, sinfully taking good things and mutilating them for our own selfish (fleshly) purposes. We turn the good gift of marriage, and intimacy within marriage, into something unrecognizably new. We take God’s good gifts in creation and abuse them in unhealthy ways. Even our good works, because they’re done in rebellion against God, are nothing more than “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). Indeed, Paul makes the point explicit in verse 8 – “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

It’s good to consider Paul’s repetition of the word “cannot” in both verses 7 and 8. It’s a word of ability and Paul is making the point abundantly clear that unregenerate unbelievers do not have the ability to obey God. They cannot do it. This is what theologians refer to when they speak of mankind’s total depravity – that the totality of a person is corrupted by and under the power of sin. And this includes a man’s will and desires. So, if you were to ask the Apostle Paul that very modern question, “doesn’t man have free will?” I think he’d chuckle a bit and say, “Free will?! O dear sir, under sin a man’s will is fast-bound and imprisoned, and completely unable to choose rightly. The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

This is important to consider, especially when we realize that the Gospel is itself a command! Repent and believe in Jesus Christ – that’s a command, not a suggestion; not an offer. And so a failure to repent of sin and to believe in Jesus is a failure to obey the command of the Gospel. It is disobedience. It is the sin of unbelief, which is what Jesus charged the Pharisee’s with who refused to believe in him. This is why the author of Hebrews says that without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews  11:6) - the same thing Paul says here! “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

The question that inevitably arises is this: How then does someone come to do what they, according to Paul, do not have the ability to do? In other words, how does someone believe in Jesus – an act of obedience which pleases God – when they cannot do the very thing they’re being commanded to do? Well, this is certainly one of the things Paul will go on to explain later in chapter 8 and especially in Romans 9. But to answer the question simply, we can believe in Jesus because of God’s grace at work within us. Or better yet, “The law [the power] of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law [the power] of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:2-4).

Do you see? When God sent his own Son and condemned our sin in his crucified flesh, our sin of unbelief was included in that moment. Our unbelief was crucified in and with Jesus! And so when the Spirit works within a man to bring him out of death and into spiritual life, He works to give him a new heart, a new will, and new desires all because Jesus died to procure those things for that man. This is why we’re able to believe; Jesus secured it for us in his death. “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).

The Puritan pastor and theologian, John Owen, rightly said it this way: “Christ did not die for any upon condition, ‘if they do believe;’ but he died for all God’s elect, ‘that they should believe,’ and believing have eternal life. Faith itself is among the principle effects and fruits of the death of Christ…. It is nowhere said in Scripture, nor can it reasonably be affirmed, that if we believe, Christ died for us, as though our believing should make that to be which otherwise was not – the act creating the object; but Christ died for us that we might believe. Salvation, indeed, is bestowed conditionally; but faith, which is the condition, is absolutely procured.”[2]

This truth, which the Apostle Paul is only beginning to scratch the surface of here in the beginning of Romans 8, is so glorious and beautiful and meant to bring the Christian believer deep, deep assurance. That’s where Paul will take this doctrine in the remainder of this chapter. He wants to encourage us and assure us that no matter what happens in life, no matter how bad the suffering gets, we can know for certain that God will not abandon us. Why? Because his Son died for our salvation and secured it, completely, from beginning to end. We first believed because of God’s grace and we will continue to believe because of God’s grace. For this we can be grateful and praise God’s holy name!

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.


[1] Octavius Winslow, No Condemnation in Christ Jesus, (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), p. 91-92

[2] John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, volume 10 in The Works of John Owen (Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), p. 235


Stephen Unthank