In my first post, we discovered that sin is a core heart issue, and that apart from saving faith in Jesus, is impossible to remedy. I want to consider another text from Romans in which Paul talks about the inability of man’s will in being pleasing to God. Akin to the doctrine of depravity is the thought that man’s will is so hopelessly bound; that apart from the Spirit’s regenerating work, we are simply unable and unwilling to change ourselves.
Paul says in Romans 8:8, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God”.
In Romans 7-8, Paul has been discussing his own inability in his flesh (man in his natural state) to obey the Law of God. This discussion climaxes at the end of Romans 7 where Paul declares that though he has the desire to do what is right, within his own power, he has “not the ability to carry it out” (Rom 7:18). Notice the totality of Paul’s statement: in our natural state, we cannot please God. This statement is one of absolute inability. We are utterly powerless to obey. Though we may know what is right, and even desire what is right, we lack the resources to live what is right.
This is in fact Paul’s entire argument in Romans 7. Everyone has at least some understanding of right and wrong; but, this knowledge alone does not enable us to actually obey it. Paul says that he in fact “delight[s] in the law of God, in [his] inner being”; and yet, he completely lacks the capability to apply and live out this revealed law (Rom 7:22). So then, Paul concludes that he is unable to obey God, being dead to God and alive to sin (Rom 7:24).
This is the deep rooted nature of our sin. Without outside help, we are chained, bound, completely helpless. And though we might desire to obey, we simply cannot. Even with our best effort, “evil lies close at hand” (Rom 7:21).
And so what is the solution to this law of sin that dwells in us? Paul tells us in Romans 8 that the Spirit of God is the solution. Martin Luther rightly says that our own effort to obey God “will never give rise to a single instance of ability … if God does not give the Spirit”. We must be enlivened, awakened, raised. We must be given new life from God by his Spirit. And Paul tells us that if we live by the Spirit, we will be alive to righteousness (Rom 8:10). This Spirit-enabled life comes from faith in Christ Jesus, who breathes life into us, giving us his righteousness, and making us a new creation (Rom 8:1-4, 2 Cor 5:17). We are not only given new life, but a new nature. We are given a new will through which we can live toward God and obey his commandments.
John Piper says that “the very nature of mercy that we need is will-awakening, will-transforming mercy”. We need a new will by the power of God. And God does this by awakening us by his Spirit. Apart from this sovereign awakening transformation from God, we are left unable to please Him. Praise God that he can and does awaken sinners to new-creation glory.
As God said to his people in Ezekiel, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you” (Ezek 36:26-32).
What is this grace but divine enablement? It is God’s divine, righteousness-imparting, new-creation-making, will-transforming gift of obedience.