13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.
but sin is not counted [imputed, reckoned] where there is no law.
The Mosaic law is not the basis for condemnation; it merely exposes or manifests what sin is in God’s eyes. Sin was in the world from the time of Adam. The law came later and simply revealed man’s inability to live up to God’s standards.
The statement that “sin is not counted where there is no law” does not mean that sin did not exist before the law. Neither does it carry the idea that God exempts from judgment the sin of those who lived before the law. Death reigned from Adam to Moses over those who did not sin after the nature of Adam’s transgression (5:14). Adam transgressed the law of not eating of the tree, and his one sin cast a pall on the entire human race. His sin was unique in that sense; he represented everyone in humanity because he was our federal or representative head in this. Although his progeny did not violate a distinct command existing as the Mosaic law, they violated the law of not eating of the tree with Adam.
There is a pivot that occurs after the Mosaic law was given—the reckoning of sin as sin manifestly violating God’s standards. Though sin was present in the world before the law, it was not reckoned as sin without law. Yet the reality of sin in the world before the law is clearly shown by the presence of death because of sin (v.14).
This word “counted” regards some item put to one’s account. This commercial accounting term shows the federal or representative sin of Adam bringing effect on all those he represents. All men were condemned by Adam’s act. God entered that into His eternal ledger. This is imputation or putting to the account of mankind the sin of Adam.
The English word “imputed” occurs a number of times in Romans, but the Greek word is different here. We cannot explain this passage with the understanding of the other occurrences of the word “imputed.” The word for imputed here occurs only one other time (Phile 18). In the Philemon account Paul says to an owner of a runaway slave to “charge that to my account.”
God does not put something to the account of the sinner when there is no law forbidding it. Sins between the time of Adam and Moses did not bring the sentence of death upon humanity, but death’s sway remains unbroken from the very beginning of Adam’s first sin. The objection centers on the nexus between sin and the law—sin does not count except as a breach of the law. No act worthy of death could happen without the law.
God does not condemn man because of personal sins but because of what Adam did as our federal head.
The purpose of the law was to pronounce judgment on personal sin. A person does not have imputed sin where there is no law. There was personal sin before the law, but the law made personal sin a transgression. The coming of the law of Moses increased the responsibility of mankind and their guilt. Violation of the law did not account for universal death because men sinned before God gave the law. The law did not restrain sin but simply made sin manifest. Sin does not have the character of a transgression apart from the law, so God does not take it into account as such.
Why did people die before the law? They died because of Adam’s sin. All men corporately sinned in Adam; this accounts for the universality of death.
There is a distinction between sin as a power and sin as an act. Sin can be a force, which is the power behind acts of sin. That power influences desires and choices. Sin as a power existed from Adam’s first sin. All sinned in Adam even before they committed an act of sin. Therefore, all men are under the power of sin.
Not all sins are transgressions; only those committed in deliberate breach of God’s extant command are transgressions. Death is the result of being under the power of sin, not the result of willful self-seeking. Death is the result of being under the power of sin rather than the power of God. This idea is what we call today “original sin;” that is, everyone is under the power of sin with death as a consequence.
Just as God declared all men sinful in Adam, He also declares those righteous who trust Christ’s death for forgiveness of sin. Adam’s sin stood for our sin; his judgment became our judgment. God imputes his sin to us in the same way that Christ imputes righteousness to the believer. Therefore, both Adam and Christ are federal heads.
Both imputed sin and imputed righteousness rest upon relationship. Every member of the human race is related to Adam because of his sin. Some have imputed righteousness because of their relationship to Christ.