Recently Added
to Exposition of Romans:

3:9–20—Conclusion: OT confirms that humanity is under sin’s power
(January 26th 2019)
5:13–14—Everyone is guilty by violating God’s law.

13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given,
but sin is not counted where there is no law.
14 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.

Adam and Eve violated God’s specific command and thus transgressed God’s law. But no other human beings were given such a specific command until God gave his written law to Moses. Why then did death still “reign” from Adam to Moses? Paul does not explain the reason in these verses, because the answer is clear from something he has said earlier in this epistle. We will get to that in a moment.

Paul’s logic
First, we need to understand Paul’s complex thought in these verses. Verse 13 is a conundrum. How can there be sin if there is no law? I believe much of the difficulty can be resolved by understanding Paul to make three points. The first two are stated whereas the third is assumed: (1) people were sinning before the Mosaic Law was given; (2) sin is not counted against people unless a law exists; (3) therefore—and here is the assumption—a law had to exist.

The first phrase of verse 14 presents the proof that sins were counted: everyone born from the time of Adam to Moses died. Because death is the consequence of sin, as we learned in verse 12, those people’s sins had to have been counted against them.

However, those people’s sins were not like Adam’s transgression, that is, in violation of a specific command. So in what category do their sins fall? The answer is found in what Paul said in the first two chapters.

Creation, natural law, and conscience
In the early church, letters received from the apostles were read out loud to the congregation. Paul assumes, correctly it appears, that the believers in Rome were sufficiently attentive and astute not to need a reminder of his indictment of humanity in chapter 1 and his reference to natural law in chapter 2.

In chapter 1, Paul indicts people for their ungodliness and unrighteousness “ever since the creation of the world.” People are “without excuse” for ignoring God’s revelation of himself in creation and by his “righteous decree.” And here is what Paul said in chapter 2:
14 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. 15 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 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

Even without the Mosaic law, people on every continent throughout time have had a general awareness of God’s moral standards as stated in the Ten Commandments. God has written this “law” on people’s hearts so they will know instinctively that murder, theft, adultery, lying, and dishonoring one’s parents are wrong. God also gave each person a conscience to measure conformity to these moral standards. Operating in the person’s thoughts, the conscience alternately accuses or excuses the person for wrongful behavior.

Under the influence of each person’s sin and a culture that redefines good and evil, people regularly violate this natural law, and when they do their conscience bears witness of their guilt. Repeated violation can disarm the conscience’s defensive function, freeing sin to go progressively on the offense against the person’s soul.

Craig Keener expresses well the relative difference between sin before and after Moses: “Natural law already counted sin, but the more concrete Mosaic law invites fuller judgment.”

Note in 2:16 that God, who sees into people’s hearts and minds, will reveal their secrets at a coming time when Jesus Christ will serve as Judge. People are responsible now to choose whether to encounter Jesus Christ as Judge or Savior. It is a choice between guilt or grace, between paying the penalty for their sin or having Jesus pay that penalty for them.

An issue still to be resolved
My interpretation of 5:13–14 leaves open the question of how God can count sin against people who die in infancy, the mentally ill, and so forth. We will see in the verses ahead that Adam’s trespass drew all of humanity into sin, condemnation, and death. Sin has both a first and a second cause (inherited sin nature and personal sins). I am content to leave the matter of infants and the mentally ill to our just, compassionate, and wise God.

Once again, the term reckoned
In verse 13 the word “counted” (NASB has “imputed”) translates the Greek verb ἐλλογέω (transliteration ellogeó), which has the same root as logizomai. All 11 uses of the latter term in chapter 4 referred to God’s reckoning of people righteous on the basis of their faith. Here ellogeó is used with a negative: God does not reckon sin against people where there is no law.

God has made known his law to us and we do violate his law, so sin is reckoned against us unless we avail ourselves of God’s remedy—the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our sin goes into Christ’s account if we believe in him; it stays in our account if we reject him. Jesus Christ is willing today to take your sins on himself and give you his righteousness.

Adam as a type
How does Adam serve as a type of “the one who was to come”? Adam and Jesus have only two traits in common. Both are human beings and both blazed a trail for humanity to follow. Adam’s was a trail of sin. Jesus wiped that trail clean with his blood. One was a progenitor of death, the other of life. But whereas the action of Adam affected everyone, the action of Jesus affected only those who choose to follow him.