Did sin even exist before the law?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question 1: If before the Law, people weren't sinning (Romans 7), how does God justify the Flood?

Answer 1: It will be my pleasure to respond to your query today… but I cannot “answer” it per se because your question hinges on a false premise: the Bible nowhere teaches that before the Law people were not sinning… and emphatically so in Romans.

I’ve read Romans 7 several times trying to see what you saw, but with the single exception of the phrase, “For apart from the law, sin was dead” (Romans 7:8b) I see nothing that should have given you this impression. Furthermore, the context is clear that Romans 7 does not teach what your question implies — but we’ve got to begin somewhere. So let’s begin with Romans 7:8b in case that is indeed what’s driving your question.

To begin, let’s brainstorm what the word “dead” could mean in Romans 7:8. Your question forces the word "dead" to mean that sin was nonexistent. But I would challenge that as illogical and anti-biblical because we don’t get too far into the Bible before the first sin occurs in the Garden of Eden. So, how could a verse in Romans ever have the force of telling us that sin never existed with the well-known fall of Adam and Eve staring us in the face as sin’s seminal narrative? It clearly shows sin occurring… and there is no force in language that can change this into a nonoccurrence.

“Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:13, NIV)

And concerning the Flood, God wiped-out every land-bound creature (except for Noah and company) because humans were sinning intractably… I mean, that was his purpose with the Flood. Therefore, even if you saw something “different” in a single chapter of Romans, you would have no right to interpret it the way you did when God plainly declared the opposite.

“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:5–7, NIV, emphasis mine)

The word “dead” means a few different things in relation to sin and the law. For instance, without the law, sin was dead in that it was legally impotent. Now, sin was still bad stuff … but it did not exist as a law-breaking entity. Why not? Because, before God established “the Law” there were no laws for the ongoing phenomenon of sin to break.

“because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.” (Romans 4:15, NIV)

Not only can the word “dead” mean legally impotent, but it can also mean “dead” as in lackluster. A patron might say of a recent visit to a nightclub, “We arrived at eleven… but we walked right out. The place was dead.” Now, the nightclub surely existed… but it existed as dull and lifeless. And with this image in your head, see how Eugene Peterson interpreted Romans 7:8-12 in The Message.

“Don’t you remember how it was? I do, perfectly well. The law code started out as an excellent piece of work. What happened, though, was that sin found a way to pervert the command into a temptation, making a piece of “forbidden fruit” out of it. The law code, instead of being used to guide me, was used to seduce me. Without all the paraphernalia of the law code, sin looked pretty dull and lifeless, and I went along without paying much attention to it. But once sin got its hands on the law code and decked itself out in all that finery, I was fooled, and fell for it. The very command that was supposed to guide me into life was cleverly used to trip me up, throwing me headlong. So sin was plenty alive, and I was stone dead. But the law code itself is God’s good and common sense, each command sane and holy counsel.” (Romans 7:8–12, The Message, emphasis mine)

We should ask ourselves, what is Paul doing here in Romans? He is contrasting the various states of sin as it relates to the law — under Moses, before Moses and under grace. But to work a contrast like this, the element that is contrasted (sin) must be existing throughout all the comparison periods. This is the purpose of this chapter — to examine sin as it existed variously in time. It nowhere says or implies that sin did not exist… and besides… Paul taught the opposite emphatically.

“To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law.” (Romans 5:13, NIV, emphasis mine)

Not only does this verse countermand your premise, but the language is also emphatic — “To be sure…”

The Bible in toto is the story of how God deals with sin. As such, that is one of its overarching narratives. Therefore, no segment of Scripture… even if plausibly saying so… could weigh-in to teach that sin did not exist before the Law — but this is especially true in light of manifold teachings and examples of the opposite.

Question 2: (This is a re-query after the initial question.) If, before the Law, there was no punishment for sin (Romans 7), how does God justify the Flood?

Answer 2: Hello again friend. Nothing changed with your change of question emphasis. I have reread Romans 7 and cannot find anything germane to your question… and my initial objection still holds that Romans 7 contrasts sin against the law’s ages, but I would add that sin cannot exist without punishment (that is, people-of-conscience were punished before the law, people under the law were punished under the law and Jesus was punished for people under grace). There is no period of non-punishment between Eden and the eschaton.

The question still begins with a false premise then because there was indeed punishment for sin before the law. Let me re-reference the first sin in Eden, and please note well that God listed the specific punishments and that he began the punishments immediately.

“To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”” (Genesis 3:16–19, NIV)

The apostle Paul teaches that all humans have always had a moral centering — and that this centering is declaredly apart from the law.

“(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)” (Romans 2:14–15, NIV)

Cain was responsible for his moral centering when he killed Abel… and God warned him to listen to his sense of right and wrong. You are correct in your observation that there was no “law” against murder at that time, but both God and Cain understood that this killing was a sin, and Cain received the subsequent punishment.

“…. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”” (Genesis 4:2–12, NIV, emphases mine)

Please note the first emphasis: Cain had the wherewithal to know what was right; that state cannot exist without also knowing what was wrong — yet he persisted in the wrong — and his sacrifice was not accepted. The second emphasis shows sin being punished before the law.

I will also suggest that you consider the account of Abraham, Sarah and Abimelek. There was no “law” against adultery at this time, yet the pagan Abimelek knew that this might be an offense even before God came to him in a dream. Note his use of the phrases, “an innocent nation,” “clear conscience” and “guilt upon me”.  And finally, he more than apologized for his offense — even though he did not consummate his crime. He paid steeply for this dishonoring act. Where does the “need” to do that come from? The internal witness of right and wrong.

“…. and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” Then Abimelek king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her. But God came to Abimelek in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.” Now Abimelek had not gone near her, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die.” Early the next morning Abimelek summoned all his officials, and when he told them all that had happened, they were very much afraid. Then Abimelek called Abraham in and said, “What have you done to us? How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom? …. Then Abimelek brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelek said, “My land is before you; live wherever you like.” To Sarah he said, “I am giving your brother a thousand shekels of silver. This is to cover the offense against you before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.” Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelek, his wife and his female slaves so they could have children again, for the Lord had kept all the women in Abimelek’s household from conceiving because of Abraham’s wife Sarah.” (Genesis 20:1–18, NIV, emphases mine)

God warned Abimelek that he would kill him and his entire household if he did not return Sarah to Abraham. This contingency shows that God would have punished the sin severely. But even while the sin was ongoing, God punished Abimelek’s household with the inability to bear children.

Romans 1:18-25 and Romans 2:14-15 show us that God has revealed himself physically in the creation and metaphysically in the human conscience — all this without Scripture… all this without the law. All humans throughout all time must respond to these revelations. Therefore, all humans are punishable from Eden until after the Lord’s return.

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