"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."
(Rom 5.12-14 ESV)
We've been walking in the theological wilderness the past couple days; this entry in Fetter Lane examines our third and last difficulty with this passage in Paul's letter to the Romans. It can be stated:
Problem # 3 -- Sin wasn't counted...and was, at the same time?
"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" (Rom 5:13-14a ESV)
I like things simple; given my preference, I would do without paradox and enigma. However, what Paul says here could make a person's head hurt! Let's break it down together:
1. Sin existed before the Law of Moses.
2. Sin wasn't imputed [charged] to people before the Law of Moses.
3. But people died anyway, proving they were sinners, because only sinners die.
I won't try to kid you; this baffles me! How can sin not be held against a person yet be held against a person simultaneously? The fact that all died proved that sin was counted against them in some way. Is Paul saying that everyone, before Torah (The Mosaic Law) was given, didn't get condemned to hell no matter how evil he may have lived?
Let me turn to the 5.14a again:
"Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam" (Rom 5.14a ESV)
Paul acknowledges that the sinners' sin after Adam but before the Law "was not like the transgression of Adam" (ESV). This solidifies (in my mind) the belief that Adam was in covenant with God unlike Eve or any other person. However, this phrase may help us understand what it means to not be held accountable for their sin...and be held accountable at the same time.
John Wesley comments on verse 13:
"For until the law sin was in the world - All, I say, had sinned, for sin was in the world long before the written law; but, I grant, sin is not so much imputed, nor so severely punished by God, where there is no express law to convince men of it. Yet that all had sinned, even then, appears in that all died."
So, in Wesley's view, their punishment was mitigated in some way before Torah brought a fuller understanding of sin. I'll add my opinion that they still could receive divine wrath because they violated their consciences. Consider Paul earlier:
"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." (Rom 2.14-16 ESV)
Does this answer satisfy all of my questions? No, it doesn't. However, I may have to live with the ambiguity of some of Paul's words.
Who said understanding the Bible is easy, anyway?