Were the Patriarchs Without Law?
"The law" in the book of Romans usually refers to the Law of Moses, but some brethren wish to interpret it as 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." 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. Brother Bryan Vinson, Sr., rightly says that "the presence of sin in the world is here affirmed, but that it can be imputed where there is no law is denied. The conclusion, then, is that law existed, and coextensive with law was the existence of sin, because sin is transgression of law." Lard holds that the word "law" here is "used to denote law, the breaking of which was to entail death." Death had already entered the world through the sin of Adam, and men died physically as a result of this sin rather than by reason of their own sins.
It is important to show that the Patriarchs were not literally without law, anymore than we are literally 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: (1) not to eat blood, (2) not to commit murder, (3) not to allow a murderer to live, and (4) to 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 sin (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 lived at the same time that the Law of Moses was in effect for the Israelites, were literally 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. Lard explains that 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, though not under the law of Moses. 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. Thus it is correct to speak of the three dispensations as (1) the Patriarchal Law, (2) the Law of Moses, and (3) the Law of Christ.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 3, p. 78