So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:8).
What does it mean to be unable to please God? Does it mean we are unable not to sin? Are we unable to choose by ourselves to seek God or to accept the gift of salvation?
Listen to the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). He was in a far country, wasting his substance in riotous living. After having spent all, he was hungry.
And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
Not pleasing God, but able to come to yourself
Being in the flesh, is like being in the far land. It is not the place where God wants you to be. He wants you close to Him. He wants you to eat at His table. As long as your chair remains empty, He is saddened. Even if you try to do good in the far land, you cannot please Him because it is not done within the boundaries of His lordship. Or, as Paul says it: your mind is not subject to the law of God (Romans 8:7).
Even though the man could not please his father in the far land, he was evidently able to come to himself and realize he was perishing. This wasn’t enough to please his father, since he was still in the far land. But then he arose and came to his father. As soon as his father saw him, it was reason for him to merry.
Jesus said it was hunger that made the man come to himself. He did not mention irresistible grace. He also said the man was thinking of bread. Not about the father’s love.
I am aware that parables only reveal a part of a greater truth. For example, in this parable Jesus does not say that it is only by Himself someone comes unto the Father (John 14:6). Still, all the things a parable reveals are true. There could be more, but never less.
So, can we say Romans 8:8 means that no one is able to choose by himself to seek God or to accept the gift of salvation? Jesus clearly said the man came to himself, realized he was perishing, arose, and decided to go to his father. So, we must conclude Romans 8:8 cannot be interpreted in this way.
Grace is not irresistible
Can we add another truth to it then? Was it the irresistible grace of the father that forced the man to come to himself? Well, according to John 12:48, Jesus, the Offer of Grace, can be rejected. And according to Hebrews 12:25, the One who speaks can be refused. So, even if it was grace that made the man come to himself, it was not forcing him to do something.
Was it perhaps prevenient grace, that enabled the man to come to himself? Although the parable makes it clear that the father always kept loving his son, it’s also evident the son doesn’t realize this. He even prepares himself to be a slave in his father’s house. Therefore, we cannot say it was the conviction of his father’s love that drove him home. He only discovered the great love of his father when he finally met him. Likewise, the Israelites didn’t go out of Egypt because they knew how much God loved them. They did not know Him at all. They only sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried (Exodus 2:23).
Grace is not for some
Are coming to yourself, arising, and going to the Father only privileges applied to a few chosen ones? Well, Jesus clearly does not say something like that in this parable, neither does He somewhere else. On the contrary, Paul says that by the righteousness of One the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life (Romans 5:18). It is not for some. The gift is for all. The next verse makes it clear that not everyone accepts it, because many (not all) are made righteous (Romans 5:19). Again, an implication that the gift of grace is not irresistible.
No man pleases God (Romans 3:23). But thank God, there is one Man that does (Matthew 3:17). He was made flesh (John 1:14). He came to the far land. And as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God (John 1:12). We could not earn this right, nor the love of the Father. His love was a constant reality, and the right to come in His presence was earned by the Beloved. He came to save people who were not pleasing God.
No power is needed to receive power
The Bible never tells us we need to receive power to be able to receive the offer of grace. We only receive power from it. Yes, we must receive power for genuine repentance. But before we repent, we may look unto the Saviour (Isaiah 45:22).
When did the prodigal son start to look for a way out of the far country? When he realized he was broke, hungry, and perishing. In fact, he was already perishing since he left his father’s house, but he was self-seeking and hardened his heart.
Like this man, you can harden your heart too. Not because you are not chosen, but you are not willing. Or does He say without reason: Today if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart (Psalms 95:7-8). When we come to the point we realize we are perishing, we are ready to receive the Bread of our Father.
And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst (John 6:35).