When God brought the children of Israel out from Egypt, He had Moses lead them to Sinai where He established a covenant with them (Jeremiah 31:31–32). That covenant was based on accomplished redemption (Exodus 20:1–2). God, having redeemed His people from slavery, told them exactly how to live to please Him. It was a dismal failure: the people of Israel weren't capable of keeping the Law any more than we are (Romans 8:3–7). Of course God knew that all along: He didn't give them the Law to see if they could keep it, but to demonstrate they couldn't. And so Romans sums up the entire history of the Law in this statement: "by law [is] knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20).
Today Christians find themselves in a similar position to the Israelites of that day. God has redeemed us from the house of bondage, and we naturally ask the question, "how can I walk to please God, since He has freely redeemed me?" Scripture answers that question very clearly: "they that are in flesh cannot please God" (Romans 8:8).
Sadly, there is a glut of so-called Christian ministry that ignores the answer Scripture gives, and tries to tell how Adam's children can walk to please God. But our experience eventually confirms what God has already said: Adam's children are incapable of pleasing God. If only we were content to pause there and ask what Scripture has to say about us, we might save ourselves a whole lot of trouble; but of course we don't – we decide what we really need is to try harder, so we redouble our efforts. And so we get ourselves into a vicious cycle, where we try harder to please God, but the harder we try the less we accomplish.
But if we were to listen to what Scripture actually says, we might get a glimpse of something surprising. The fact is that Adam's children cannot please God. It's not that they aren't trying hard enough, it's that there is no such thing as "hard enough". God isn't interested in what Adam's children can do: He's already put Adam's race to the test and found it's not good enough.
Why is it so hard to accept that? It's hard because we can't quite make ourselves believe what Scripture says, "I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, good does not dwell" (Romans 7:18). If only we could get our hands around this! There's nothing good in me, and I need to give up on the idea that there's something – anything – I can do for God! God doesn't want anything I can do: it's all worthless to Him. We need to be like Paul, content "to be found in him, not having my righteousness, which [would be] on the principle of law, but that which is by faith of Christ, the righteousness which [is] of God through faith" (Philippians 3:9). The Christian life is entirely summed up in this one principle: God is not interested in anything from me, He only wants Christ to be everything to me.
Adam's nature is like the fruitless fig tree in Luke 13:6–9. Not only fruitless, but actually making the ground useless. The very presence of that fruitless tree is taking up space that a fruitful tree could be using.
So the New Testament offers us a solution: if we want to be useful to God, we need to accept that we have died with Christ. We need to accept what God has said, that we're so devoid of good that He has put us to death. It's our death with Christ that makes it possible for God to use us (Romans 6:4, 7:4; Colossians 3:1–4). I know that I've said this many, many times: it's not that we have to "die to self", it's that we have to accept that we have died with Christ (Romans 6:11). It's accepting what God has said: there's nothing here for Him to work with. As long as we don't accept that, we're doomed to nurture a tree that's fruitless and cannot bear fruit. We're lavishing our care and attention on what God has already said is good for nothing.
Why do I keep talking about this? Because what I have seen over the last four decades with Christians is a stubborn unwillingness to accept what the New Testament teaches. What I have seen (and continue to see) is admonitions to please God in the energy of flesh. It cannot be done, but we simply don't accept that: we'd rather call God a liar than give up on ourselves. As Huebner pointed out, we're saying, "man is lost, but not that lost".
The Lord Jesus told Nicodemus that it would take a whole new life for a man to see God's Kingdom (John 3:1–8). The life of Adam isn't enough to get us into the kingdom, it takes life from the Spirit of God. And He pointed out Nicodemus should have known this from the Old Testament scriptures (John 3:10). He told the disciples that there is only one way to be fruitful: to abide in Him (John 15:4–5). Paul tells us what that means: to be "in Christ" is to have no righteousness of our own (Philippians 3:9). Until we have entirely given up on ourselves – on our abilities and our talents and our gifts and our potential – we cannot please God.