In the sixth verse of the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul relates that “the outlook of the flesh is death, but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace” (8:6). Seizing on these terms of “death,” “flesh,” “life,” and “peace,” as well as putting them into a context that would have been familiar to his audience, one can’t help but think about the “pax Romana” (Roman peace) and the repeated attempts to overthrow foreign powers that had been undertaken by members of the nation of Israel throughout the years leading up to Paul’s day.
The nationalism that surrounded the traditions represented by the works of the flesh is the same nationalism that fomented and sustained the revolutionary fervor against the Roman oppressors that was so prevalent in Israel in the days of Jesus and Paul. Paul, with an undoubted knowledge of the words of Jesus as were then being communicated as part of an oral tradition prior to the composition of the Gospels, and ears to hear, on multiple levels, the message that Jesus was communicating to His countrymen, makes the point to Jews here in Rome, who might be tempted to support or take up arms with their brethren in Judea against the Romans if and when the time would come, that a life outlook that is dictated by holding to those things of the flesh, especially those which ultimately represented a fervent and hyper-nationalism, is death.
Conversely, the outlook of the Spirit---with its understanding that the kingdom of the Creator God was established through what Jesus the Christ and Lord had done, without the use of sword or shield, and in which He suffered all of the violence and death---caused a looking upon of all men that believed in Jesus as heirs of the blessings of that kingdom, infusing a Spirit-empowered love and missionary compassion to extend the kingdom of their God to all peoples by the preaching of the Gospel, and the eternal life and peace to be had in union with Christ.
Finishing the thought that was begun in the sixth verse, Paul writes that “the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, not is it able to do so” (8:7). If it is remembered that the law was designed to allow God’s covenant people to effectively bear His image and shine as lights in the world that would engender their God’s blessing and draw all men to their God so as to bring them under the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant, while reflecting on the fact that Israel failed to uphold the minimum requirements of the law (resulting in destruction, deportation, and ongoing exile), and later turning the law into a barrier of hostility that effectively kept those that were not a part of Israel from entering into covenant, then one is able to understand why Paul speaks of the outlook associated with the works of the flesh as being hostile to God and not submitting to the purpose of God’s laws. The law, which was not problematic in and of itself, was being perverted in its use, and could not serve in its intended capacity.
So now it is better known why Paul would go on to write that “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7). Based on this examination, one can be justified in reading this as “Those who insist upon the tradition-bound works of the flesh that serve to isolate the covenant God’s people, while serving to stoke revolutionary sentiment against the Roman rulers of the day, cannot please the Creator God.”
There was a widely held sentiment in that day that the Creator God’s people must act on behalf of their God. Unfortunately, thoughts about that action generally took the route of a need for violent overthrow and expulsion of the Romans from their land of promise. This would ultimately result in the destruction of Jerusalem, which Paul, readily understanding what he would have know of Jesus’ words to this effect, foresaw. Furthermore, this belies an underlying lack of trust in the covenant faithfulness of their God, and His power to do that which He had promised. The adherence to the flesh was the basis for their inability to please their God, as can be gleaned from the author of the letter to the Hebrews, when one reads that “without faith it is impossible to please Him” (11:6a).