Sin is Not Imputed Where There is No Law

Paul sin is not imputedHave you ever wondered what Paul meant when he said that “sin is not imputed where there is no law”? (Rom 5:13). You are not alone. A reader recently emailed in this Bible and theology question:

What’s your interpretation of Romans 5:13?”

The question is short and sweet and to the point! People occasionally send me Bible questions or Theology questions, and I usually try to respond via email, and post my answer here on the blog for anybody else who might have a similar question.

Here is how I responded to this question about Romans 5:13.

What does Romans 5:13 mean?

By way of disclaimer, I have not done an in-depth study of Romans or of this verse in particular. Eventually (10 or 20 years from now), I will write a commentary on Romans, but there are numerous commentaries I need to write first, before I have the courage to tackle Romans.

Until then, here is my current view.

In the surrounding context (Rom 3:23; 6:23) Paul is explaining to his readers that the reason death reigns over all people is because all people have sinned. In other words, the consequence of breaking God’s law is death.

But there is a minor problem with Paul’s argument. Everybody knows that Adam broke God’s command to not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, so that explains why Adam died. And everybody knows that after God gave His Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, every single person on earth has broken the Law of God in one way or another (Rom 3:9-23).

But what about the time between Adam and Moses? God had not given any commands to those people. There was no written or spoken Law of God for them to break. Therefore, they couldn’t have broken any of God’s Laws because for them, there was no law. 

And yet they still died. Why?

Paul attempts to explain why in Romans 5:13 and the surrounding verses.

His basic argument seems to be that although the people from Adam to Moses did not sin by breaking a command (as Adam did), they still suffered the consequences of sin (death). Why? Because in Adam, all sinned. Sin (and therefore death) passed down from Adam to all people (Rom 5:12).

That is the basic point of Romans 5:13, but let me explain it in more detail because there is something extremely profound in what Paul goes on to say.

Sin is Not Imputed

First, part of the problem in Romans 5:13 is the poor decision by some Bible translators to use the word “imputed.” The word Paul uses (ellogeo) is not the same word for “imputed” in other contexts (logizomai; Rom 4:11, 23-24). The only other place in the New Testament that ellogeo is used is Philemon 18 where Paul instructs Philemon to “charge” to Paul’s account anything that Philemon might owe.

sin is not imputed in Romans 5In using ellogeo in Romans 5:13, Paul is saying that where there is no law, people cannot be charged with breaking it.

A modern example might help. Have you ever heard of anyone being charged with the crime of owning more than 10 books? Of course not, because that law doesn’t exist! People cannot break a law that doesn’t exist, and if it doesn’t exist, they cannot be charged with breaking it.

That is what Paul is saying in Romans 5:13 — People from Adam to Moses were not charged with breaking God’s Law. The reason they cannot be charged is because during that time, there was no law to break! Sin is not imputed, or sin is not charged, where there is no law.

But did people still sin? Of course they did.

They went against their conscience (which Paul talked about in Rom 1:18-32) and they most likely broke some of the laws of whatever government they were living under (Rom 13:1-7). But they did not sin in the same way Adam did by breaking a stated law of God, or the way that people who lived after Moses did, who also broke God’s stated laws. And God’s law is not retroactive either.

So Romans 5:13 does not mean that people did not sin. They did. But they did not break the Law of Moses, for it had not yet been given, nor did they break any written or spoken Law of God, for none had yet been given. But Paul’s point in the surrounding context is that these people still died, because sin and death passed down to all people from Adam (Rom 5:14).

No Longer any Imputed Sin

But here is where it gets crazy. In fact, after I say this, you might think I’m a heretic… Of course, the rest of this is highly speculative for me right now. I could be persuaded that I am wrong. So take the following with a grain of salt (or a cup of salt).

Paul goes on to say in Romans 5:15-21 that what happened in the sin of Adam was reversed by Jesus Christ. Jesus undid what Adam did. Jesus fixed what Adam broke.

Paul is pretty clear in these verses that just as sin and condemnation passed from one man to all people, so also, grace passed from one Man to all people (Rom 5:15).

Though sin passed from Adam to all people, I believe that this passage of sin stopped with Jesus Christ. How? Well, that is partly what Paul is explaining in Romans, but he talks about it elsewhere as well (cf. 2 Cor 5:21). Jesus became sin. He took on sin. He has cleansed the world of all sin. Yes, all people.

No, I do not believe in universal salvation. I am not a universalist.

I do not believe that people receive eternal life by having their sins forgiven. I believe that all sins, past, present, and future, of all people have already been done away with in Jesus Christ, through His death, burial, and resurrection. There is no longer any “sin issue” with God. He has been propitiated, satisfied, or whatever other theological term you want to use. Sin is not what keeps people out of heaven, for sin has been done away with. Today, sin is not imputed because Jesus has done away with sin.

The reason that not all people become children of God is because they do not have life. God’s life in us is the issue; not sin. We receive God’s life (also called eternal life) by believing in Jesus for it. This is what He promises (John 3:16; 5:24; 6:47, etc.).

sin is not imputed because of JesusSo what keeps people out of God’s family? What causes eternal separation from God? Not sin, for that has been done away with in Jesus Christ. Instead, people do not join God’s family and end up separated eternally from God because they never received God’s life through faith in Jesus.

In many ways, we are somewhat like the people who lived during the time from Adam to Moses. Sin is not imputed to us because Jesus has fulfilled the law and done away with sin. But like the people who lived from Adam to Moses, we still die. They died because sin and death did pass down to them from Adam. But what about us? If Jesus did away with sin, why do we die?

What About our Death?

One of the objections to this view is that although Jesus might have taken care of the sin issue on the cross, we all still die. Isn’t that proof that sin has not been taken care of? After all, wasn’t that Paul’s whole point?

Yes, this was Paul’s point, and he also is aware of this question, which is why he goes on in chapters 6-8 to explain what God has done about the death. I don’t have time or space to launch into that discussion, except to say that although Jesus has done away with the sin issue before God, there are still natural consequences of sin, and one of them is physical death. Though sin has been taken care of, our bodies still bear the marks and corruption of sin, and the only way to stop this from happening is to get new bodies, which will happen at the resurrection. But of course, if we understand Jesus and Paul correctly, death is not death for believer, but just another stage in our ongoing experience of the eternal life we have received from God.

Well, I hope I didn’t confuse (or concern) you too much.

What do you think of this explanation of Romans 5:13? Is it similar or different to your own views? Have you read this idea elsewhere? 


Comments

  1. Kim BEST says

    It sounds really good and I agree on most points. The problem I have (an you said so yourself that you might be wrong) is saying sin is gone. I know it sounds like it. Sin comes by the law, the law was done away with in Christ…sounds like a good explanation. People are saved by faith in Jesus and thus the ones who are not saved (by their faith) are judged by their works. So Sin DOES still exist for those who are NOT in Christ. We all know that sin still is, whether God imputes it to our “account” is a different story. He doesn’t for Christians but we still must confess and repent. Albeit he says in another place that if we don’t live in Christ and if we continue in sin then we should be put out of the church and we will be cut off of the tree of life. Jesus’ and Paul’s words. Sin is EXACTLY what keeps people out of heaven, for SIN is not obeying the Gospel–not believing that Jesus is the one and only Son of God who came to take away our sins, the promised one, the Messiah. Otherwise, you pay for your own sin…if you had no sin then God could not judge you and send you to hell even if you DIDN’T believe in Jesus. Sin exists, its evident every day. God will be a fair judge and your only hope is Jesus. One this point I am certain, and I am waiting impatiently for that day. I’m sick of this world and its filth. May God have mercy on all the children of Disobedience being led by the spirit of the prince of the power of the air.

  2. Anna says

    The testimony of ONE is not valid. Can a will/testament/covenant be changed AFTER the death of the testator? God judged Cain for murder, Sodom and Gamorrah, the world of Noah’s day and the Israelites for not keeping the Sabbath BEFORE the law of Moses! God’s laws are eternal and immutable. Joseph said , ‘How can I SIN against my God!’ BEFORE the law of Moses. There is a difference between the Moral law and the Ceremonial law of Moses.

    No one but Paul taught that ‘sin was not imputed’ and the whole world has followed after one who claimed Jesus was in the desert near Damascus. Jesus told his followers that if someone claimed he was in the desert to not follow that person because he would be visible from one end of the heavens to the other.

  3. JustMe says

    Just wanted to add that Jesus IS God. Jesus is the Word Who was before the beginning. Jesus is eternal. God gave the promise of salvation in Genesis 3:15. Therefore there were no people “living before Jesus.” All had the promise of God. All had the choice to put their faith in God’s words. Even before sacrifices and the Law of Moses, mankind could choose to believe God’s promise. As to those who live in tribes without God’s Word, God has revealed Himself in the hearts of all men. Through general revelation, man can sense God’s existence and see His power. Because they glorified Him not, their hearts are darkened. God is not willing that any should perish, so I believe that God will reveal Himself to anyone who seeks to know Him better.

  4. mallen717 says

    I struggle with the fact that people sinned in Noah’s time and that sin was counted against them in the form of the flood. Yet, Paul seems to be saying that sin was not imputed to them until the Mosaic Law. I am not convinced by the interpretation that says Paul is thinking of those who sinned against the law of their conscience prior to the giving of the Mosaic Law and therefore died.

    The best I can derive is that Paul intends that sin is not clearly recognized as sin prior to the Law. We die because of Adam’s transgression foremost (corporate) but we also sin on our own (individual).

    • says

      This is a good struggle to have. In my current series on the violence of the flood, I am arguing that God did not actually send the flood. The flood did come, but it was because of man’s sin that it came, and God only action in the flood was to rescue as many as He could from the flood.

  5. Daniel Koons says

    I am mostly tracking with you. I actually found this article because the fact that there is no law for those who are in and under grace I think we could argue we are made “perfect” because Jesus is working in and through us.

    When we do not abide in him, we are missing the mark (sinning) not under the Law of Moses, but natural law. I am still developing this in my mind.

    I really appreciate your article and I’m not (quite) disagreeing or completely agreeing. I just fleshing it out. I am going through Romans now with “fresh eyes” and I came across this, which I think backs up the idea of natural law. 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. (Romans 2:12 ESV)

  6. chris says

    Now I understand better as I was trying to answer a question on ‘Till when sin was in the world and what happened after that?’ Thank you for your clear explanation.

  7. says

    Romans 5:13 (in context) says that when we have faith in God to deliver us from sin, there is no law (to condemn us) because righteousness comes not by the law, but by faith. Evidence of the need for a blood sacrifice runs from Adam to Mt. Sinai. (Evidenced by both Noah and Job). Job 1:5 (written prior to Sinai) specifically mentions Job offering burnt offerings to God on behalf of his children for Job said, ‘It may be that my sons have sinned…’).

    Even before that, there is evidence of the necessity of blood sacrifice (Cain and Abel) for forgiveness of sin.

    1 John 3:4 clearly explains that anyone who sins transgresses the law because “sin IS transgression of the law.”

    So what does it mean that sin is not charged where there is no law? And, why does Paul belabor the idea of conscience early on in this epistle? Imagine this, you are driving down the road, ‘minding your own business’ when suddenly, you hear sirens and look into your rear-view mirror and see ‘the law’, lights-a-blazing, calling for you to pull over. At this point your heart skips a beat, because, your conscience is bearing witness that you MAY have done something wrong. When the ‘minister of the law’ approaches the window, he confirms what your conscience (suddenly awakened by the law) accused you of. Speeding.

    The question isn’t “was I sinning when I wasn’t aware of the police watching over me?” Of course you were sinning… and when the law came, you were charged under it. It doesn’t mean the law didn’t exist just because you weren’t aware of it’s presence, nor did it mean that you wouldn’t be charged under it when the ‘minister of the law’ finally ‘caught up with you’. You saw the speed limit signs, but thought nothing of them until the minister arrived.

    People get angry when their boyfriends/girlfriends/spouses/etc cheat on them. People get angry when things are stolen from them. Whether or not they know it they are bearing witness to the law… even if they don’t understand that it applies to them as well (looking at a man/woman with lust = adultery).

    Your conscience (the speed limit signs) bore witness to this (speeding) fact, even before the police (minister), but when he came, he stripped away the foolishness of your actions to lay bare the reality of the matter. At this point, your ONLY hope in escaping judgment is an offering that the judge deems worthy of being able to pardon your sin.

    • says

      I think we are in somewhat basic agreement on this. I am not saying anything about people today who might be ignorant of the law. I was only talking about people who lived before God gave the law to Moses. Now that the law has been given, it is in effect, even for people who do not know it.

      • says

        I, myself, have wondered about this. But the nagging questions that remain in the back of my mind are… was Cain charged with murder prior to Sinai? God punished Cain… so if sin is not charged then God punished unjustly? And was a law not established about those who murder Cain would reap the Lord’s vengeance? If so, and the Bible contains no contradictions, what exactly did Paul mean?

  8. H Davis says

    My brother, I have a problem with this teaching. There are a few reasons why. One is that there have been people who testify that Jesus has taken them on a pesonal visit to hell, to warn people about it. Some of what they witnessed there was that there are Pastors there and other believers who even quote the Bible there, who backslid and are in hell because of sin. There aren’t just a couple of people who have had this experience and all basically say the same thing. One can listen to these accts on youtube. One such person is Mary K Baxter. She wrote a book called, “A divine revelation of hell.” It’s absolutely scriptural that we can fall from grace. Look at Revelations 3:5, where it speaks about having our names blotted out of the book of life. What about the scripture that says without holiness no man can see the Lord? (Heb 12:14) I don’t think it’s everyone that believes in Jesus that is going to heaven. God says it’s those who are looking for His appearing (Heb 9:28) and those who are living holy. (Heb 12:14) We must work out our salvation with fear and trembling. (Phillipians 2:12)

    • says

      Whew! Lots of verses thrown out, and I cannot respond to them all, though I do have explanations for all of them that make sense in light of the full testimony of Scripture.

      The bottom line is that the holiness we need comes not from our own works, but from Jesus Christ Himself, who gives it to us freely when we believe in Him for eternal life. This is the basic message of the entire Bible…. we are sinners and can never work ourselves into the perfect righteousness that God requires, and so God sent Jesus to live and die and rise again, so that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life (John 3:16; 5;24; 6:47; Rom 4:4-5; Eph 2:8-9, etc.)

  9. says

    This will mix up yr mind.all I am doing is jer 33:3 and prov3:5,6 because we can’t do it.only try jesus christ.God promise to show is all thing.I try to underrstand wat everyone is sayin.but only God can deliver us

  10. Mk says

    Yes I have heard this taught. I think we have been so taught sin conscience that it has been imparted into us. But what Jesus did is SO much more than what the devil did in Adam. If what Adam did made us all sinners can you say what Jesus did made us all righteous? But we have to receive it by faith to have it. I have been pondering this when I heard it taught. John said behold the Lamb of God who comes to take away the “sin” of the world. My question is what is the sin of the world , unbelief? I better stop don’t want to go over. Keep bring the Word!!!

    • says

      Mk,
      Great questions.

      I struggle with what Paul wrote there in Romans 5. I do think that Jesus took away the sin of the world, but I do not think that the righteousness of God is automatically given to all. For that, as you have said, we need to believe in Jesus. We have to receive the righteousness of God by faith.

      Think of it this way: There was “SIN” written across the slate of our lives, but on the cross, Jesus wiped the slate clean. But a clean slate is not the same as righteousness. The word “Righteous” is written on the slate of all who believe in Jesus for it.

  11. Hannah says

    Hi Jeremy
    Praise God that you are willing to post the truth of the scripture online for us to read.
    When I read the scriptures I too see what you see about sin.
    At our church so many people are confused and worried about loosing their salvation because of wrong teaching about sin and salvation.
    I have been a christian for 55 year in August and I have heard so many sermons in lots of different churches. Most of them are always talking about sin and doing something to obtain our salvation. I keep thinking “hasn’t Jesus done it all”.
    I love Jesus and have served him all of my life and know nothing can take me out of God’s hand……sin definitely can’t because the blood of Christ has stripped sin of its power.
    Keep up the good work
    God bless
    Hannah

    • says

      Thank you, Hannah. Yes, so many people are caught in a sin-management system of works. But as you point out, Jesus has done it all! May we be able to encourage more people to see the amazing truth of God’s love, forgiveness, and grace.

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