Please explain Romans 5:13–14. I know that the Apostle Paul is proving the doctrine of Original Sin (Rom 5:12), but his argument appears to rest on the premise that before the Ten Commandments were given, God could not punish anyone for sin or that He could not regard anyone as being guilty of sin, which does not seem right to me.

I once heard a dispensational teacher insisting that before Moses gave the Law to Israel, no one would be regarded as a sinner by actual transgression since there was no law given yet. So his argument is that death reigned from Adam to Moses only because they were imputed with the guilt of Adam and not because of actual transgression since they were technically not sinful. This man would teach that this is exactly what Paul is saying in Romans 5:13–14. But the problems with this view are: (1) Paul himself argues that there is a law written in the hearts of man created in the image of God even if they have not read or heard the Law as given by Moses (Rom 2:14–15); (2) When the Lord sent the Deluge during the days of Noah, it was because He saw: “that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). Similarly, when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, it was because: “the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah [was] great, and because their sin [was] very grievous” (Gen 18:20). In other words, it was actual sin and guilt of the individuals, which provoked God to wrath and to send the great flood, and the fire and brimstone. Thus, though it may appear that the dispensational scheme would explain what Paul says quite clearly, it really makes Paul contradicts the evidence of Scripture, which is impossible.

So, it cannot be that the Apostle Paul meant to say that God could not punish anyone with death for his sin before the Law was given when he says: “sin is not imputed when there is no law.” What he must have meant would simply be: “sin is not accounted sin when there is no law,” or “there is no sin when there is no law.” He makes this point in Romans 4:15b, “Where no law is, there is no transgression” (see also 1 John 3:4).

Robert Haldane, who would agree with this observation, paraphrases Romans 5:13 lucidly: “For sin existed among men from Adam to Moses, as well as afterwards. Yet there is no sin where there is no law. There were, then, both sin and law before the giving of the law of Moses” (comm. in loc.). In other words, even before Moses, there was actual sin, and because of sin, there was death, i.e., all the penal sanctions for which physical death is a synecdoche (v. 12). Where did this propensity to sin,—from which the actual sin flows,—come from? It was inherited from Adam (cf. v. 12).

In fact, we did not only inherit a sinful nature from Adam, we were also imputed with the guilt of Adam’s transgression. Paul makes this point when he says: “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” (Rom 5:14). The word “nevertheless” can also be rendered “in fact” or “yea” as in Philippians 3:8. So rendered, it may be easier for us to see the connection between verses 13 and 14, which are Paul’s argument to substantiate his thesis in verse 12.

Who are these “that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression”? Some suppose that they are those who did not, like Adam, transgress a revealed or expressed law. The NIV takes this view in its paraphrase with the words: “those who did not sin by breaking a command.” But this appears to me to be too narrow and posits an artificial divide between those who have been given specific commandments and those who only have the works of the law written in their hearts, seeing both are guilty before God (Rom 2:12; 3:23). And besides, it would appear that before Moses, the majority of the people would then have fallen into this category when the way Paul has written suggests that he is referring to a minority. For the word “even” (Greek: kai) in this context suggests that he has in mind those we might expect to be exempted from death or the penal sanctions referred to in verse 12. For these reasons, most commentators have taken Paul to refer to infants, seeing that though they do have the law written in their hearts, and are indeed capable of sin, yet they do not sin after “the similitude of Adam’s transgression.”

Infants, like all men, are moral creatures created in the image of God and, therefore, are responsible to glorify God by conforming to His laws. The want of conformity to the Law of God is sin (cf. WSC 14). We must not think that the inability of infants makes them any less guilty than the inability of spiritually dead adults to please God implies their innocence. As the Scripture asserts that “babes and sucklings” and even a baby in the womb are capable of praising God (Ps 8:2a; cf. Mt 21:16; Lk 1:44), so infants are also capable of actual sin. Augustine is right when he says: “In Thy sight none is pure from sin, not even the infant whose life is but a day upon the earth” (Confessions, 1.7). Calvin concurs with him:

… infants bringing their condemnation with them from their mother’s womb, suffer not for another’s, but for their own defect. For although they have not yet produced the fruits of their own unrighteousness, they have the seed implanted in them. Nay, their whole nature is, as it were, a seed-bed of sin, and therefore cannot but be odious and abominable to God. Hence it follows, that it is properly deemed sinful in the sight of God… (ICR 2.1.8).

Nevertheless, it must be noted that infants do not sin after “the similitude of Adam’s transgression.” Or to put it in another way: though infants are sinful by a propensity to burst out in fruits of unrighteousness, as well as by lack of conformity to the Law, yet we know intuitively that, in general, their limited ability keeps them from transgressing the Law in words, deeds or actions, in “the similitude of Adam’s transgression.” Adults, having merely the works of the law written in their hearts, may transgress in this way, but generally not infants. That being the case, we may expect them to be spared from death (seeing that Adam died when he transgressed the positive commandment of God). But that is not so. There were certainly infants, for example, at the great deluge and in the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah. This suggests to us that either our expectation is wrong (i.e., infants deserve death too, by their actual sin), or infants experience death because they are imputed with the guilt of Adam. I believe this second option is what Paul has in mind as he immediately adds that Adam “is the figure of him [Christ] that was to come.”

Just as the righteousness of Christ is imputed (not infused) on all who are represented by Him in our justification, so the guilt of Adam is imputed on all who are represented by him, in condemnation.

Let me conclude, by way of summary, that I believe that in verse 13, Paul is alluding to the hereditary corruption of all of Adam’s natural descendants, whereas in verse 14, he is referring to the fact that all mankind descending from Adam by natural generation are represented by Adam in his sin and so legally guilty by imputation. I am aware that there are a number of different views, by Reformed commentators, on these two difficult verses. Some would emphasise the idea of legal representation, others emphasise hereditary corruption. But all agree that Original Sin is in view and all mankind descending from Adam by natural generation are guilty in Adam.