Author: Ron Graham
Law and Sin Imputed
—Being a law unto oneself
This is the second of three lessons that examine the relationship between sin and divine law.
Having looked at how sin can be inherent, even without a commandment, we now come to look at whether, in any circumstances, God imputes such sin. We know that where there is a law in force, as in Adam's case, God imputes sin to those who break that law. We also know that even where there is no law God may regard an act as sin even though he does not impute the sin.
We now ask whether God imputes sin in some cases to those who commit acts that are inherently wrong, even when they have received no formal commandment regarding those acts?
1 A Law to Oneself
This brings us to notice a third principle...
- Principle 3. Even though lacking a formal law, people can often perceive a right thing to be right and a wrong thing to be wrong, and thus become "a law to themselves" (Romans 2:12-16).
Paul pointed out early in his letter to the Romans, that people are often ignorant of God’s law because they "suppress the truth" (Romans 1:18). God revealed himself to them and "they knew God" but they followed their own speculations and passions.
These people were "without law" because they supressed the law they had been given, and so they were also "without excuse" (Romans 1:19-32).
Paul acknowledges that even people who did not know or have the law in a formal ordinance, were able nevertheless to recognise their own inherent wrongdoing. They therefore had their sin imputed to them because they became "a law to themselves" (Romans 2:12-16).
When people "know the ordinance of God" (Romans 1:32), whether or not they have a formal law, they should obey that ordinance. If instead they prefer to live in their own darkness, and "supress the truth", God imputes their sin to them.
2 Ignorance and Unbelief
It is instructive to look at how God dealt with Paul himself. God is fair. He neither imputes sin where it would be unjust to do so, nor does he overlook sin where that would be unjust. Paul says, "God will judge the secrets of men" according to their lights.
Paul was acutely aware of this justice in his own experience. He says, "I thought to myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth" (Acts 26:9-11). "I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man, but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief" (1Timothy 1:12-13).
Now notice the following points...
- Paul was acting according to his lights, yet what he was doing was wrong. He thought it was right, and he did not understand that it was wrong, however that did not make the wrong right. Sin was inherent in what Paul was doing.
- God did not overlook Paul's sin but imputed sin to Paul. Ananias said to Paul, "Arise and be baptized and wash away your sins..." (Acts 22:16). Although Paul says, "I thought to myself that I ought..." (Acts 26:9), he was really without excuse because he should have recognised the wrong in what he was doing.
- God was merciful to Paul, taking into account his ignorance and unbelief. However God’s mercy in Paul's case consisted not of overlooking his sin, but of imputing it to him, confronting him with it, and making him turn his life around (1Timothy 1:12-13).
3 Looking for Loopholes
The gospel does not say that God overlooks sin (although in certain cases he may do) but that God makes a way of salvation from sin through Jesus Christ.
The gospel is not a law or covenant that excuses people of sin, but rather one that provides forgiveness from sin through faith and obedience toward Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16-17).
The Christian does not aim for what is "not imputed" (Romans 5:13). That would be legalism because it disregards whether a thing is inherently good or bad, and merely looks at whether it is lawful.
In that approach, a person is looking for loopholes in God’s law rather than looking for righteousness. The true Christian aims for what is righteous and good, an attitude that accords with grace and faith.