How was sin not counted before the law, like Paul says in Romans 5? What does that practically mean? I'm not looking for hermeneutics only, but a scriptural/historical/real world example of someone's sin not counting, whatever that means.

Romans 5:12-14 ESV 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.

People before the law were still certainly guilty of wrongdoing and God held them to that, like when God told Abimelech he would be wrong for sleeping with a man's wife, or when God cursed Cain to be a wanderer for killing Abel.


4 Answers 4


In answer to your related question "How did people know right from wrong before the law?", I included the following:

There was always a 'law' before it was written on tablets of stone and given to Moses: God sets the standard of righteousness by what remains in accord to His nature and unrighteousness by what constitutes rebellion against His nature. (emphasis added)

That was supported by citing the commandment (i.e. a law) of God to not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Elsewhere (Rom 8:2) Paul refers to the 'law of sin and death' which has been in effect as a priniciple since at least the fall but arguably derives from the first commandment given.

When Paul refers to 'before the law was given' he is of course referring to the Mosaic law, but the phrase 'sin is not counted where there is no law' is somewhat hypothetical (there has always been 'law') and must be viewed in the sense of specifics rather than generalisations - '(specific) sin is not counted where there is no (specific) law' not 'sin (in general) is not counted where there is no law (at all)'.

Althought there has always been 'law' to some degree, there were certain levels of depravity that people were initially innocent about - the depths of wickedness were discovered progressively (although the progression from wilful disobedience to fratricide only took one generation). Some things (e.g. drunkenness) only became problematic after other conditions were fulfilled (discovering the fermentation process and later fortification/distillation).

A specific example is the law of incest:

9 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father's daughter or your mother's daughter, whether brought up in the family or in another home. - Leviticus 18:9 ESV

Which Abraham at least (but almost certainly many, if not most, of the early patriarchs) was 'guilty' of according to the later law, but actually innocent because the conditions that necessitated that law had not yet arisen.

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    Other examples are the food laws. Before God instructed the Israelites not to eat some foods it wasn't sinful to do so. Sometimes actions are sinful not because of anything in and of themselves, but because of how a relationship is defined.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 2, 2014 at 22:10

Law of conscience a Law unto itself

Conscience Vs. Law

Men ruled by conscience fall under the same; the law being written on their hearts, judging one another according to their own moral determinations. Paul establishes a relationship of equality with regard to law and conscience; both Jew, and Greek, in terms of an identical end result; the only possible exception sinlessness; in either case. In v.13 with respect to the law, it is "...doers of the law shall be justified.", and in v.12 it is implied in this "For as many as have sinned."

(Rom 2:12-16) "For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law; (13) For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. (14) For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: (15) Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another; (16) In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel."


(Rom 5:12-16)  Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: (13)  (For until the law sin was in the world): but sin is not imputed when there is no law. (14)  Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come. (15)  But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. (16)  And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification.

If there is no difference, how is sin imputed? To those under the Law, judgment by the law which leads to death; and to those who exhibit the workings of law by nature, it being written on their hearts, as their conscience witnesses; death because of sin.

(Gal 3:18-19)  For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise. (19Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.

And that:

(Rom 7:13-14)  Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. (14)  For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.

All have sinned

(Rom 3:23)  For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;

Why it is so amazing; God prevenient, in foreknowledge, had made provision for salvation apart from the Law, four hundred and thirty years before the Law was given; declaring that Christ was crucified from the foundation of the world; as here.

(1Pe 1:20Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you,

And here:

(Rev 13:8)  And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

That the Law testified of Jesus Christ, and does still, and that He being the very Word, and the recipient of the Promise given to Abraham, but made to Himself; and that he became the Law by fulfilling it, to die, and free, all who were under the curse of Adam, as well as those who were under the curse of the law; enjoined to them at Sinai. The Mountain quaked and smoked, and they said that they would fulfill all that the Lord had commanded.

(Exo 19:8)  And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the LORD.

Men are not aware, who have had no such schoolmaster as the Law, and had no sense of any sin, imputed by a law they had never heard of. However, they had the visible workings of it, and the Law tells of the sin of Adam, by the effects of deviation; on all.

Sin is not imputed. Where there is not Law there is impunity; though the working of death is real unto this day because of sin.

but sin is not imputed when there is no law. This looks like an objection, that if there was no law before Moses's time, then there was no sin, nor could any action of man be known or accounted by them as sinful, or be imputed to them to condemnation; or rather it is a concession, allowing that where there is no law, sin is not imputed; but there was a law before that law of Moses, which law was transgressed, and the sin or transgression of it was imputed to men to condemnation and death...(Gill, John D.D. Dr. John Gill's Exposition of the Bible , (1697-1771) Pub. (1746-1766), 1816; public domain).


Genisis 3:5 & 22 - By eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge mankind gained knowledge of good and evil and blessing and calamity. As God knew humanity now had that knowledge, God held mankind accountable. That is the short answer.

  • 3
    Welcome to the site. We are glad you decided to participate. Can you give us the long answer too? The community here prefers the long answer. You can edit this post by clicking edit below it.
    – user3961
    Jul 2, 2014 at 18:14
  • this is a wrong answer, sorry. If it's true what you are saying then God wouldn't hold Adam& Eve accountable because they wouldn't recognize the disobedience as evil.
    – Grasper
    Jan 10, 2017 at 14:04

Before Adam sinned by eating from the tree God commanded him not to eat he could have had fights with his wife, he could have hit her, lied to her about some things and not be guilty of any sin because he did not then have the knowledge of good and evil. If any of this happened then sin would be in the world but not be imputed to him.

Children also have an age of innocence before sin is imputed to them. Deuteronomy 1:39 speaks of the children of the Israelites who today have no knowledge of good and evil. In Romans 7:9 Paul says he was once alive without the law but when the commandment came, sin revived and I (Paul) died (spiritually). Now there is no way of knowing the exact age when a child becomes accountable for their own sins. It is probably different for every child but God the righteous judge would certainly know.

  • are you saying if Adam&Eve ate from the Tree when they were children, God wouldn't hold them accountable? God would not command them not to eat if they didn't reach the age of reason.
    – Grasper
    Jan 10, 2017 at 14:09
  • @Grasper strictly speaking, they were always children of God just as we are. :-) Jan 10, 2017 at 16:51

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