Q: In Romans 5:12-14 the apostle Paul states, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
What does he mean when he writes, ‘for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law’? Is the apostle implying that people who have not heard the word of God are not considered sinners because they have never heard the Decalogue or Christ’s commandments?
A: Paul is conveying the truth that before the law was given on Mount Sinai to Moses, sin was already in the world. He writes, ‘sin came into the world through one man‘. This, of course, refers to Adam’s sin in the garden where he and Eve transgressed the prohibition to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam brought sin into the world through his original disobedience and because he stood as the representative for the entire human race all his descendants are considered guilty even before God instituted his civil, ceremonial and moral law at Sinai (See v.15, 17). This is why death reigned from Adam until Moses gave the law. This doesn’t mean, however, that living apart from a comprehension of God’s law excludes a person from having his works judged by God. The bible clearly teaches a judgment based on what a man does in his lifetime. ‘For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil’ (2Cor 5:10). ‘He will render to each one according to his works’ (Rom 2:6).
Paul teaches in Romans chapter 2, “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (v. 12-16)
Here we see that those who sin without the law are no different than those who have sinned under the law. Sin is sin, whether or not it is known to the offender or not. Personal knowledge, or lack thereof does not affect the nature of sin. However, personal sin is not reckoned to the offender’s account if God’s laws are not known. A person who transgresses God’s laws knowingly is guilty for his own acts of treason against his creator. He has no excuse for his rebellion. But how does a man that lives apart from a knowledge of the law become guilty of sin? The truth is that no person on earth really has any excuse for his sin. This is because the moral law is written on every heart. Man is made in the image and likeness of God in a moral sense. All people everywhere have the light of nature to guide them.
Matthew Henry, commenting on this passage, writes, ” They had that which directed them what to do by the light of nature: by the force and tendency of their natural notions and dictates they apprehended a clear and vast difference between good and evil. They did by nature the things contained in the law. They had a sense of justice and equity, honour and purity, love and charity; the light of nature taught obedience to parents, pity to the miserable, conservation of public peace and order, forbade murder, stealing, lying, perjury, etc. Thus they were a law unto themselves.”
The conscience bears witness whether the thoughts man thinks or the deeds he does are good or evil. God has not left man in total darkness. The conscience will either excuse his behavior for doing good with good motives or else it will accuse him of doing evil with evil intentions and even doing good with evil intentions. This will occur as he stands before the great judge himself, Jesus Christ on that great and awful day when he judges the hearts of men. The conscience will become a hostile witness against the wicked at the judgment, for it will testify that their works are evil. Man’s own heart will condemn him to God’s wrath for all of his evil.