ROMANS 5:13-14: "for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come."
Paul had just made a radical claim at the end of verse 12. And so, before he can do anything else, he has to stop and prove what he just said about imputed sin. His goal is to show that we're justified in Christ in exactly the same way we were condemned in Adam: just as we were condemned in Adam completely apart from our own actual sins, so too we're justified in Christ totally apart from our own actual righteousness (this is clear from verses 18-19). But before Paul can get there, he has to stop and prove the first premise of his argument. He has to show some evidence for the fact that all men indeed stand condemned on account of the transgression of Adam, totally apart from their personal, actual sins.1
And this is exactly what Paul does in verses 13-14. He's going to give a “one-two punch,” to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt, that all humanity stands condemned before God—not because of their individual sins—but because of Adam's sin. Paul is going to prove for us that we stand guilty before God and exposed to His punishment—not because of our own actual sins—but because of Adam's imputed sin.
So first, let's walk through verses 13-14, in light of verse 12, then we'll try to explain and summarize them:
Paul's PREMISE (v12): It was Adam's imputed sin that unleashed death upon the human race.
Paul's PROOF (vv13-14): For even before the Law of Moses was given, we know that sin existed, since it was being punished with death (v13a). Now, sin can't be punished where there's no law, since by definition, sin is transgression of law (v13b). And yet sin was being punished with the judicial penalty of death, which means that all men must be guilty of breaking a law (v14a). Now, that law, which all men must be guilty of breaking, for which reason all men are punished with death, cannot be the Law of Moses, since sin was being punished with death long before the Law of Moses was ever given (v14a). Neither can this law, that all men have transgressed, be the moral law—the law that is written on the heart of every man—since there are also some who die that have never transgressed that law either (v14b).
Paul's CONCLUSION (vv12,15-19): Thus, the law that all men have transgressed, for which all are punished with death, must be the transgression of Adam: we suffer the penalty of death because we are guilty of Adam's transgression; we suffer death because Adam's transgression has been imputed to us.
So, that's the general thrust of the text. Now let's look more in detail at Paul's two proofs for imputed sin:
1. Paul's FIRST Argument: The first thing Paul shows us in verses 13-14 is that all men stand condemned totally apart from actual sins committed against the Law of Moses. Before the Law of Moses was given, men could not be guilty of breaking that Law. Now, men could indeed be guilty of sinning against their conscience (the moral law written on their hearts)—Paul will get to that in the second part of his argument—but Paul's first point is that men who lived before the Law was given could not be said to be guilty of violating that Law. Paul's reasoning goes like this: if all men die (v12), and death is the enforcement of a penalty, and penalties are only given when there is violation of a law (v13), then all men must have transgressed a law (vv13-14). Now, the law which all men transgressed, on account of which the penalty of death was rendered to all, cannot be the Law of Moses, since the punishment of death was meted out long before the Law of Moses existed. There must have been the transgression of another law for which all men are exposed to God's judicial punishment—namely, the transgression of Adam. So, Paul's first argument is that actual sins against the Law of Moses can't account for the judicial penalty of death.
2. Paul's SECOND Argument: But Paul keeps going, he has one more piece of evidence for us to prove that it was Adam's sin—and not our own actual individual sins—that resulted in death and condemnation for the world. In the second part of verse 14 he adds one more insight. Death reigned, Paul says, “even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam” (v14). What does it mean to not sin in the likeness of the offense Adam? It means to not sin like Adam did. Well, how exactly did Adam sin? What type of sin was that? Well, it was an overt, willing, explicit, violation of God's will. When Adam sinned, he knew what he was doing was wrong. Now, from Adam till Moses, even though the Mosaic Law had yet to be established, still, men did have the law of God written upon their hearts. So, while they couldn't sin against the Law of Moses, they could and did sin against God's moral law written upon their hearts. And when they did this, they were sinning like Adam did—because they were willingly, knowingly violating what they knew to be God's will—just as Adam did. But Paul is saying here is that death reigned from Adam till Moses (and still does) even over those who didn't sin in this way.
Well, you ask, who in the world could Paul be talking about? Are there any people that could possibly fit this description: people given over to death, yet who had never explicitly violated God's revealed will; a group of people who had never done what they knew to be wrong? Yes—infants. Infants who die in the womb, or in infancy.2 They died, and still do, even though they had never explicitly violated God's revealed will. Now, are they infected with the poison of original sin? Absolutely. But have they committed any actual sins, either against the Law of Moses or the moral law: knowingly, willingly violating God's will? No3— and yet they die. Why? The only possible explanation is that death spreads to them also—not because of any actual, individual sins—but because of imputed sin. Death spreads to them not because of any particular sins of their own, but because of Adam's sin. Paul wants us to see that we do not share Adam's fate because we have followed his sinful pattern; or even because we have inherited his sinful nature (thought that's true); we share Adam's fate because we are held guilty in Adam's sin. We do not stand condemned because of our own particular individual sins—either against the Law of Moses or against the moral law written on our hearts; we stand condemned because Adam's sin was imputed to us.
Paul's Logic in Verses 12-14:
Premise 1: All men die (vv12-13)
Premise 2: Death is the enforcement of a penalty (v13)
Premise 3: Penalties are only enforced when there is a transgression of a law (v13)
Premise 4: Thus, all must have transgressed a law (vv13-14)
Premise 5: But this law can't be the Law of Moses, since men died before the Law was given (v14)
Premise 6: Nor can it be the moral law, since some [infants] die who have never violated even that law (v14)
Premise 7: So we don't suffer death because of actual sins either against the Mosaic Law or the moral law
Conclusion: So then, all men are condemned on account of the sin of Adam, not their own actual sins (v12)4
SUMMARY: Again, to briefly summarize: The judicial sentence of condemnation and punishment of death that has come upon all men argues the breaking of a law. But actual sins against the Law of Moses will not account for men's condemnation and death, as men were given over to death well before the Law of Moses existed. Neither will actual sins against the moral law written on the heart account for it, as infants are given over to death who, though corrupted with original sin, cannot be said to have committed actual sins against the moral law. So then, the violation of the law, of which every man is guilty, for which every man is punished with death, cannot be the personal, actual sins which men commit either against the law of God written on stone tablets, or the law of God written in their own hearts. Men are condemned and punished on account of the sin of Adam, totally apart from their own actual sins.
This is confirmed by the last clause in verse 14, where Paul describes Adam as “a type of Him who was to come.” How is it exactly that Adam is a type of Christ? Well, “Adam is the cause of death coming on all independently of any transgressions of their own; as Christ is the author of justification without our own works. . .As Adam was the head and representative of his race, whose destiny was suspended on his conduct, so Christ is the head and representative of his people. As the sin of the one was the ground of our condemnation, so the righteousness of the other is the ground of our justification.”5
And here's why all of this is so important for us to understand: As it was for us in Adam, so it is for us in Christ. Just as we were condemned for a sin that wasn't ours—so too, we're justified for a righteousness that isn't ours. Just as we had nothing to do with the guilt we received in Adam, so too we have nothing to do with the righteousness we receive in Christ. Just as our condemnation was based solely on what Adam did, so too our justification is based solely upon what Christ has done. Just as death came to us solely because of the disobedience of Adam, so now life comes to us solely because of the obedience of Christ.
1 As Hodge puts it: “If verse 12 teaches that men are subject to death on account of the sin of Adam, if this is the doctrine of the whole passage, and if, as is admitted, verses 13-14 are designed to prove the assertion of verse 12, then it is necessary that the apostle should show that death comes on those who have no personal or actual sins to answer for.” (Romans).
2 See Haldane, Romans, p210; Murray, Romans, p190.
3 Matthew Poole puts it well: “dying so soon, they have neither capacity nor opportunity of committing any sin similar to [Adam's]; that is, any actual transgression; and [they are] therefore said, in that respect, to be innocent (Jeremiah 19:4), not free from the taint, but from the act of sin.”
4 This chart gratefully adapted from Hodge's reasoning in his commentary on Romans. Hodge explains it this way: “The proof is this: the infliction of penal evils implies the violation of law; the violation of the law of Moses will not account for the universality of death, because men died before that law was given. Neither is the violation of the law of nature sufficient to explain the fact that all men are subject to death, because even those die who have never broken that law. As, therefore, death supposes transgression, and neither the law of Moses nor the law of nature embraces all the victims of death, it follows that men are subject to penal evils on account of the sin of Adam.” (Romans). Again, in his Systematic Theology, Hodge puts it this way: “Punishment supposes sin; [and] sin supposes law; for sin is not imputed where there is no law. All men are punished; they are all subject to penal evils [IE, death]. They are, therefore, all chargeable with sin, and consequently are all guilty of violation of law. That law cannot be the law of Moses, for men died (i.e., were subject to the penalty of the law) before that law was given. [And] It cannot be the law as written on the heart; for those die who have never committed any personal sin [IE, infants]. . .The ground of that infliction must therefore be sought. . .in the sin of [Adam].” (p159).
5 Hodge, Romans.