Romans 5:12-21 is about inheriting the condition of sin from Adam, and the grace of God through allowing us to claim redemption through Christ. Yet it has a few sections that really make one think.
One such verse is Romans 5:12-14:
12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
I find myself really struggling with this block of text, for a few reasons. Looking at the actual statement, it seems incomplete.
“Therefore, just as…” makes it sound like Paul is constructing a simile. “Just like sin came into the world…” — and then Paul spends the rest of the paragraph describing sin coming into the world. He doesn’t complete the simile in this section at all.
It does get completed and restated, though, in verse 18:
18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.
Another aspect of this section is in verse 13, where it says that sin was in the world before the Law, but that it was not counted without the Law – yet death, the punishment for sin remained.
So why, if sin was not counted against those who lived before the Law was given, why were they condemned as Adam was condemned?
My understanding is that it is a matter of an inheritance.
Paul constructs his argument in such a fashion that we follow a path in life, such that we inherit our position in justification from the path we follow, from the one we consider our father (or, rather, one from whom we derive benefits and sustenance.)
Thus, we have two possible “fathers:” Adam, and God. Adam sinned, and his trespass earned him death (for such is the result of sin, as per Romans 6:23).
Jesus, on the other hand, delivered grace, redeeming us from death eternal and into life with God.
So the condition of sin and its compensation (death) come from our father Adam, from whom we spring; the Law did not condemn us until it came into being, yet sin still delivered death to those of Adam.