“In fact, sin was in the world before the law, but sin is not charged to a person’s account when there is no law.” (Romans 5:13, CSB)
This verse has made me pause for a long time. Recently, I was shown the differences in the Bible’s words for sin, trespass, and iniquity. A casual definition of sin (hamartia) is missing a given target or standard. Since there was no codified law given by God, sin by definition could not be counted against people. This is why Paul says repeatedly that the law of Moses makes everyone aware of their sinfulness.
The other word that Paul uses here is trespass or transgression (paraptoma). Before the law, God established relationships with people. These relationships were always defined by an agreement, sometimes more formal like a covenant. Just like two neighbors agreeing on a shared land boundary. When relationship agreements are broken, trespass occurs. Breaking agreements in a relationship always lead to damaged trust and separation. Being separated from a life-giving God means death. Betraying an agreement made with a holy God is so egregious the punitive damages earned can never be paid. We need some way to reconcile this relationship so that the damage can be repaired. In human relationships, this type of reconciliation is near impossible. In divorce, counselors and lawyers have to be brought in either for reconciliation or termination of the relationship.
In ancient near eastern culture, a mediator would be brought in to settle family disputes and feuds between neighbors. We have the perfect mediator in Jesus Christ. His death paid the retributive cost of our trespasses. The grace shown to him in the resurrection is extended to us. We have the beginnings of a restored relationship now to such an extent that we are called ministers of reconciliation! And we have hope that helps us endure in this life until the relationship with God is perfectly restored forever.
“Christ, a second Adam, had to come in order to make us heirs of his justice through a new spiritual birth in faith, just as the old Adam made us heirs of sin through the old fleshy birth.” – Martin Luther, Preface to Romans