Question: Does Romans 5:13 mean that sin was not imputed before the law? Was sin taken into account then?
“...For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” (Romans 5:13).
Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for asking such an important question! Sin, although universal in the ages between Eden and now, has some discrete aspects—sort of technical issues—that we should explore, and the Apostle Paul certainly delivered one up in Romans chapter 5. He seems to say that the people who sinned before the Law (which included all people who lived before the Law) did not have their sin imputed to them (or put on their account) during that time. So, what was the nature of their sin? Did they perish? Did they skate? What gives?
Our discussion should begin with the limits of such words as imputed. Imputation is, in force, an accounting term—and here's the thing about accounting terms: They change nothing. All accounting does is to look at an outside reality and organize its elements into the categories that make sense to the organizer, who in the case of biblical imputation, is God. But the fact that God assigned a category to an activity at a point in time, did not change any happenings. All humans have sinned and died since Eden, and they'll continue to do so until after Jesus returns. So, why the accounting change? This and other changes are necessary before God closes the books, that is, before he makes that final accounting.
I believe that God will allow humanity to participate in every category of life before the great Day of Judgment. He gave us an opportunity to prosper in innocence at Eden (Failed!) He gave us an opportunity to find him through the agency of conscience from Eden to the Law (Failed!) He gave us an opportunity to live justly under the Law with life's constraints clearly codified. (Failed!) After all these opportunities to live a righteous life, every mouth will be stopped at the Great White Throne of Judgment (Rev. 20:11; Mat. 7:21-23). Why? Because every possibility will have been afforded to volitional humans to find and to please God. Categories are important when you're covering all contingencies—and there is simply no finding God without finding Christ.
If you will indulge me, I'd like to use Eugene Peterson's rendering of Romans chapter 5 from The Message—because the passage is quite a slog using the KJV's 400-year-old English. This contemporary translation makes it easier to get a sense of what's going on.
“You know the story of how Adam landed us in the dilemma we’re in—first sin, then death, and no one exempt from either sin or death. That sin disturbed relations with God in everything and everyone, but the extent of the disturbance was not clear until God spelled it out in detail to Moses. So death, this huge abyss separating us from God, dominated the landscape from Adam to Moses. Even those who didn’t sin precisely as Adam did by disobeying a specific command of God still had to experience this termination of life, this separation from God. But Adam, who got us into this, also points ahead to the One who will get us out of it.”
(Romans 5:12–14, The Message).
It's pretty clear that there was some sinning going on before the giving of the Law, and that this was a full and legitimate kind of sin—the kind that causes death! But which sin caused the death before the Law? The individual's sin? Or Adam's sin? It was Adam's sin! (Please note, however, that an individual's behavioral sins before the Law were still sins.) If someone were to go to trial for their sins before the Law was given to Moses, there would be no options except to condemn them because of Adam's sin and not because of their personal sins. An individual's personal behavioral sin had no official bite since there were no statutes in place to violate. But what about those people who were alive after the statutes were in place?
Two types of people live(d) between the Law and now: People of the Law, those who lived between its issuance and Jesus' death, and people who have access to Grace—Jesus' death changed everything! Since Jesus both fulfilled the Law (Mat. 5:17) and conquered death (2 Tim. 1:10), the rules for justification and for eternal life have been changed...or have they? Not as much as you'd think—not for the non-righteous, anyway.
Today's non-regenerated people, those who have their own sins categorically imputed to them through the Law, still die by Adam's sin. Their own personal sins would certainly qualify for death, but Adam's sin eclipses the individual's sin even today. It was Adam's sin that carried the punishment of death to all his progeny before the Law was given. Once the Law came, the accounting changed, that's all. Individuals had their own "ledgers" opened with God, and their own sins were thereafter assigned to them in an official way on those ledgers. But Adam's ledger did not go away. That debt would be considered before all other debts. So, as far as death is concerned, nothing really changed. Even though our personal sin accounts grow daily, our death sentence comes from the first ledger considered by the Great Accountant, and that is Adam's ledger.
I chose Peterson's translation because his shows the bracketing particularly well. "But Adam, who got us into this, also points ahead to the One who will get us out of it." By bracketing I mean that all this talk of sin begins with Adam and it ends with Jesus. The relationship of these parenthesize (imagine Adam as the left and Jesus as the right) is primary and necessary. As in a sentence, everything within the parenthesize is subject to its beginning and ending. It is my opinion that the problem announced at the left hand bracket, Adam's sin, cannot be resolved by an element within the brackets, like the Law imputing sin to individuals, but rather it needs to be carried fully to the right hand bracket, to Jesus Christ, for resolution.
“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21, AV).
In the above verse we see the end of the story. The blame for sin was placed on Jesus in such a way that he bacame the sacrifice. In so doing, we who belong to Christ have his righteousness imputed to us, and the imputation of Christ's righteousness obliterates the imputation of Adam's sin. Those who have not been regenerated, that is born-again as children of God, continue in sin. These are not so much sinners as they are dead. That's what salvation does; it does not save the weak; it brings the dead to life! The unregenerate would still be dead even without that imputation of sin mentioned in Romans chapter five.
I pray that all this helped more than it hurt.