Can sin exist when there is no law?

Last updated on February 26, 2024

Does sin exist when there is no law?

What is the worst possible type of disease to have? An undiagnosed one.

There’s nothing scarier than being sick and not knowing why. Some friends of mine were very scared when their baby started acting strangely. They didn’t know what was wrong, and worse, because of that they didn’t know how to help. In God’s grace, they found some good doctors, who were able to diagnose their child’s problem, and now she’s getting the right treatment.
Diagnosis is the important first step that doctors take of figuring out what the problem really is. Without knowing this, they can’t administer an effective cure. Diagnosis is so important, because even many easily cured diseases today can seriously injure or kill if left untreated.

Law and gospel

Broadly speaking, God’s word contains two things: law and gospel. We might describe these in medical language as diagnosis and cure. This description helps us to understand what the apostle Paul means when he says “sin is not counted where there is no law.” (Romans 5:13).

‘Law’ is a description of God’s character, His perfect love. We are designed to obey God’s Law, i.e. to copy God by loving Him with our whole selves, and by loving others as we love ourselves (e.g. Mark 12:28-34). Paul says that Law makes our sin known (Romans 3:20), and without it we wouldn’t have known sin for what it really is (Romans 7:7). Law ‘diagnoses’ our sin problem, because when we hear a description of God’s perfect love it shows us we are full of love for ourselves rather than love for God and others.

God’s people have known something of God’s Law from the very beginning. In Genesis 2:16-17 God gave Adam a commandment, which he broke by eating the fruit of the tree in Genesis 3. This is why Paul describes what Adam did as a “transgression” (which means “breaking a law”) in Romans 5:14.

Law of Moses

But, God’s people did not know God’s Law in much detail. In the book of Exodus, after rescuing His people out of Egypt, God gave them His Law through Moses on Mount Sinai: the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). He also gave them lots of explanations of what the Ten Commandments look like in practice in Israel’s life (Exodus 21-24; Leviticus and Deuteronomy).

This ‘Law of Moses’ is the Law Paul is talking about throughout Romans 5:12-21. That is why Paul can talk about “before” the Law in Romans 5:13: “for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.

So even though God’s people knew something about God’s character before the Law of Moses, it was like they only had a partial diagnosis of their sin problem from a medical student. But receiving the Law of Moses was like getting a detailed diagnosis from the world’s top consultants at the world’s best hospital.

We knew broken bones existed before the invention of the X-Ray: but after its invention we can diagnose them in so much more detail! It’s virtually as if we’d known nothing at all before these amazing machines were invented! That’s how Paul thinks about the Law of Moses.

In fact, the Law of Moses is such a good diagnosis of our sin problem, that it even describes what the cure must look like, and what we will look like when we’ve been made completely healthy again. That’s what all the priests, sacrifices, and purity laws were all about. Being just a diagnosis, the Law of Moses itself wasn’t the cure, but it described both the cure, how to take it, and the holiness we will have a result (e.g. Romans 3:21).

Take the cure

So when we read God’s diagnosis of our sin problem, the Law, it’s very important to take the cure it prescribes. But there are wrong ways of using the Law. Hearing the Law might make us angry that our selfishness has been exposed, or it might make us proud because we think we can fix ourselves. The cure the Law describes is the gospel of Jesus: God punishes Jesus for our selfishness, Jesus gives us the credit for His perfect life of love, and Jesus’ Spirit transforms us to love God and others perfectly the way He does.

God’s people have benefited from God’s gospel cure from the very beginning, such as the curse on the serpent in Genesis 3:14-15, and God covering up the consequences of Adam and Eve’s selfishness in Genesis 3:20-21. But we are so blessed now to be living in the time after God has manufactured the cure (the life, death and resurrection of Jesus), and given it to the mass market (the preaching of the gospel).

Struggling with sin? Read the law!

If you’re struggling with sin, then read the Law! See how bad your sickness is. Look at the descriptions of God’s cure in Jesus. Trust in Him to put your sin to death and bring you new life. And enjoy being made well by His Spirit.

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