Would you please explain Romans 4:15 and 5:13?
Romans 4:15 reads as follows: “Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression.” Romans 5:13 says, “For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” Admittedly, these are difficult passages to understand within the Bible. However, I believe that once we look at the context in which these statements are made, we can clear up what it is that Paul is discussing.
First let us go to Romans 4:13. Here is the beginning of the immediate context of this passage. In verse 13 the apostle writes, “For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.” The discussion in this context is justification by faith. Paul uses Abraham as an example of how one may be justified by faith. Abraham was justified because he had faith in the promise of God. The scripture says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Romans 4:32). Paul, in continuing his discussion of being justified by faith, states that the promise was not made “through the law” (verse 13). The point that Paul is making in this regard is that the law cannot justify a person from sin. The purpose of law is to bring one to the knowledge of sin according to Romans 3:20. Since the law only brings the knowledge of sin and it cannot justify, then how is one to be justified? The answer is by faith. The promise of justification that was made by God to Abraham was thus by faith and one may be justified in that promise.
Verse 14 in this passage states, “For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect.” The two are mutually exclusive of one another. If the law justifies–if the law makes one an heir of salvation–then faith is void and the promise to Abraham is inconsequential. Why? Because the promise was not by law, but by faith.
Verse 15 says, “Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression.” The law can only bring transgression and as a result of transgression, wrath. Law condemns sin, but law offers no justification from sin. The promise to Abraham was not made “of law,” but was made “of faith.” The statement “for where no law is, there is no transgression” is a principle that should be limited to the object under Paul’s consideration, namely, the promise of God to Abraham. Paul does not say there was no law in the day of Abraham or even before that. That is not his point at all. He merely says that where there is no law then there is no transgression. What then is the point? His point is that when God gave the promise to Abraham, that promise was given without law. Hence that promise was made to Abraham upon the condition of faith, not upon the condition of law. Abraham then believed God and was justified. Had Abraham failed to believe God, then he would have failed to be justified. But this would not be because he had transgressed God’s law, but because he would have failed in faith. So Abraham, in putting his faith in God, was justified by faith, not by law.
The statement “for where no law is, there is no transgression,” I take to mean “for where no law is, there is no transgression of law.” This principle, however, is limited to the promise made to Abraham by God and not to the general situation of the day. God did not give the promise based upon law, but based upon faith. God did not fulfill the promise based upon law, but based upon faith. This is not to say that there was absolutely no law in effect at the time and as such there was absolutely no transgression of any law because then we would have to reject the account of the garden of Eden, the flood of Noah, the tower of Babel and all the other places where sin is recorded prior to the coming of the law of Moses.
Now in Romans 5:13 we read, “For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” I believe that I have already explained that the statement made in Romans 4:15 does not imply that there was no sin at all in the world and that there was no transgression at all in the world. The statement is limited to the context in which it was made which is in regard to the promise that God gave Abraham. What then do we make of this statement in Romans 5:13? Does this statement imply that there was no law prior to Abraham? Sin was no doubt in the world prior to the law and so was transgression, hence there had to be some kind of law. Paul does not contradict himself here. He says that sin was not accounted until the law came. The point is that there was no law from God to this point that had been codified, that is, placed into written form. God had given laws directly to the Patriarchs and God expected these men to live under these laws, but God had not written the law down. Hence there was no general accounting of sin, transgression by transgression. Under the Mosaic Law there was an accounting and those under that Law had to bring their sacrifices accordingly. Prior to the Mosaic law, the Patriarchs offered sacrifices to God, but not as a result of particular sins–not because God said to them if you do such and such sin then you have to offer such and such sacrifices. The sacrifices of the Patriarchs were offered based upon faith, not law. Hence, there was no accounting of sin in order to get the number of sacrifices that one had to offer right. I am not sure that I understand completely everything that is going on in this context, but that is currently my studied judgment on the matter. Time and further study will, no doubt, help me to refine my thoughts in this regard.