It should be understood that finding favor in God’s sight is not equal to meriting salvation. If it were there would have been no need for the cross.
One can fear God and tremble at His word so as to find favor in His sight (Is 66:2) while remaining under the debt of sin and in need of Christ’s gracious atoning sacrifice. See the distinction? God is not obligated to save those whom He favors based on the reason He favors them. He chooses to do so based on His love and gracious provision.
Calvinists regularly conflate the concept of finding God’s favor with meriting salvation, which leads to much misunderstanding and misapplication. For instance, Dr. Phil Johnson, a notable Calvinistic pastor wrote,
“Some people prefer to use the expression Total Inability to stress the fact that sinners are so infected with sin that cannot please God according to Romans 8, verse 8. And it’s in that sense that depravity is total. That’s what we mean by this. It’s a total inability to do any good that earns God’s favor.”
We will look at Romans 8 in just a minute, but first notice Johnson’s conflation. He speaks of “earning God’s favor” and “pleasing God” as if that in and of itself merits salvation. Of course that couldn’t be further from the truth. If fearing God and humbly admitting you cannot save yourself merited eternal life and paid the debt for sin then maybe Calvinists would have a valid point but clearly more is needed for the remission of sins than a confession and faith. Blood must be given (Heb 9:22) and Christ does that freely because of His love for us, not because He is obligated by our faith or humble pleas. Scripture teaches,
“These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.” -Isaiah 66:2b
“Who are those who fear the Lord? He will show them the path they should choose.” -Psalms 25:12
Is God obligated to provide Atonement for these whom He favors? Of course not. Is He forced to show those who fear Him how they should choose? No! He does so out of love. Finding favor in the sight of God IS NOT equal to meriting salvation. Do not allow Calvinists to conflate those two concepts and cause confusion.
Now, back to Romans 8:8, which simply says,
“Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.”
In other words, you will not find favor in the eyes of the Lord if you remain in the realm of the flesh. You must stop acting according to fleshly desires and follow the Spirit’s guidance.
This is as true of believers as it is of unbelievers. If one is choosing to act in the flesh, even as a believer, they cannot please God but does that mean we do not have any control over our choice to act according to the flesh or the Spirit once the Spirit makes Himself and His ways known to us? Of course not.
If I warn my rebellious son saying, “You cannot please me by acting selfishly,” does that suggest the child is unable to heed my warning, humble himself and repent of acting selfishly? Of course not. It only suggests that as long as my child continues to rebel and act according to his pride that he will not please me.
This verse says nothing of man’s inability to respond positively to God’s powerful truth and appeal to humble ourselves. Each individual has the choice to remain in their flesh and pride, or respond to the Spirit’s call to humble themselves. If you choose the former YOU CANNOT PLEASE GOD.
By the way, neither side is suggesting that man can please God unto salvation apart from His enabling grace, namely Christ’s atoning work and gospel appeal. So, the question is whether or not the grace is “enabling” (as John 6:65 teaches), or does this grace irresistibly cause which choice the individual will make (as Calvinism presumes)?