“The law” in the book of Romans most often refers to the Law of Moses, but some errand brethren wish to interpret it as any “law” in general. Paul says that Christians “are not under the law, but under grace?” (Rom. 6:15); this and similar passages are used to prove that we are not under any type of legal system. Some who believe this have also taught that those who lived before Moses had no law; that the only law given prior to Moses was the one law which God gave to Adam concerning the tree of knowledge. Romans 5:13 says, “For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not inputted when there is not law.” Evidently, some think that sin was not, therefore, imputed to the Patriarchs, and that those who lived under that system could not justly be held responsible for their evil deeds. The truth of the matter is that the presence of sin in the world was affirmed, therefore, a law was verily in existence.
The Patriarchs were not without law, anymore than we are without law today. Did God give any specific law to the Patriarchs which applied generally, rather than only to specific individuals, as in the command of God to Noah concerning the ark? A good proof that He did is found in Genesis 9:1-7. Here we have the following commands: Don’t to eat blood, Don’t commit murder, Don’t allow a murderer to live, and be fruitful and multiply. A history of that period indicates that there were other moral laws of which mankind was aware. Those who perished in the flood were punished because of their wickedness (Gen. 6:5). Those who died in Sodom and Gomorrah were punished because of their sins (Gen. 18:20). Sin, being a transgression of the law (1 John 3:4), they had to have law in order to transgress it. To make this doubly clear, 2 Peter 2:8 refers to the “unlawful deeds” of those in Sodom. Certainly nothing can be described as unlawful in the absence of law.
It is also held by some that the Gentiles, who existed during the time of the Law of Moses, were without law. Romans 2:12 says, “For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law.” This verse refers to the Gentile world. The law the Gentiles had was in the form of tradition, and not in the form of direct revelation as was the case with the Jews. But they did have a form of law, and they were held responsible. A good example is the case of the people of Nineveh, described in the book of Jonah. They were Gentiles. Yet God held them responsible for their wickedness (1:2) and would have destroyed them, except they repented (3:10). In the book of Daniel, we find that King Nebuchadnezzar was accused of “sins” and “iniquities” and warned to “break off” these transgressions (Dan. 4:27). As a result of his sins, Nebuchadnezzar was condemned by God to live as an animal for a period of time designated as “seven times” (Dan. 4:28-37). This shows that, despite the fact that Gentiles were never subject to Moses’ law, they were subject to a moral law which proceeded from God.
In fact, all men since the creation have lived under law. Christians are freed from the legal system of Moses, which did not provide for remission of sins and therefore was the “law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1), but they are still under a form of law, that being the law of Christ. The law of Christ require all mankind to obey the gospel in order to be saved. All who do not shall be condemned (Mk 16:16 f; 2 Thess 1:7-9). Thus it is correct to speak of the three dispensations as the Patriarchal Law, the Law of Moses, and the Law of Christ. It is correct to say that since man was created, sin existed, therefore a law existed, and are therefore subject to it.