“For sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.” – ESV
This passage is interesting in that Paul mentions the non-crediting of sins against someone just because the law was not yet given. There is a tension here because the verse starts off saying that sin is indeed in the world during that time. Verse 14 will also add in that those persons from that time experiences physical death, as a proof of them must having to have sin counted against them in some fashion. If they were truly innocent and righteous they would not have died. So what is Paul getting at when stating that sin was not counted when and where the law did not yet exist?
Paul seems to be echoing back to his opening chapters of Romans in my mind. Remember this is one letter and so it is one argument within a point Paul is getting across. So although there are those that did not know or have the law, they were still guilty for refusing and suppressing what knowledge of God they had. At the Day of Judgment there will not be an excuse that we did not know the law, and therefore we should not be guilty of anything. Humans did not really need to be told how to live, as they were created in the Image of God. It should have all been innate and understood. The laws were not some code to live by, but something that Jesus said should reflect from the inside out just from the stand point of being human, much less Christian.
An Illustration might be something like when a child offends their parents and when the parents are about to impose punishment the child responds that they didn’t know or where not formally made aware that what they had done is wrong. Or at a company, an employee is about to be fired for having offended the CEO, and yet complains that what they did was not outlined directly in policy. These sins of actions and performance may not be counted against the child or the employee but the heart and attitude by which the offence came was still sin, and in conflict with the nature of how people are to treat one another and more so with God. We say that sins of even thoughts are an offence to God, and yet for some reason this thought alone does not deter us from sinning as it should.
So as the verse indicates that sin is not counted, to me means that there was not a forma charge of just what sin they committed against the law (breaking the Sabbath or coveting) but they were still in sin by nature and guilty of the motives and intentions of their hearts and minds that did not seek God’s glory and the edification of others. In short then, this is not some loop hole that would counter Paul’s statement in Romans 1:20 that there are no excuses whether one has or does not have the law.