The Bible tells us that God made Adam and Eve in his image; but it was not until he gave them the commandment that they learned to differentiate between good and evil (Gen. 2:17, cf. 3:5,22). This inference is supported by Paul who tells us that as a baby born in the image of Adam (Gen. 5:1-3) he was alive apart from the law, but once the commandment came (registered on his developing mind) that sin sprang to life and like Adam and Eve before him he earned the wages of sin in death (Rom. 7:9f.; 6:23).
Elsewhere Paul is even more specific. With the teaching of Genesis in mind he makes it crystal clear that where there is no law there is no sin (Rom. 4:15; 5:13; 7:1-13; 1 Cor. 15:56; Gal. 5:23). It follows necessarily from this that all babies that are born flesh (John 1:13; 1 Cor. 15:46) like the rest of the animal world do not know the law and are therefore morally innocent (Dt. 1:39; Num. 14:31; Isa. 7:15f.; 8:4, etc.). It is only when the law makes its impact on the minds of human beings that the law is transgressed and sin comes into being (Rom. 7:9f.).(1* This being so, the usual modern translation of Romans 7:5 which suggests that sin is “aroused” by the law is seriously misleading. It is clearly at odds with the context which demonstrates that apart from law sin does not and cannot exist.) If this is true, then the notion of the imputation of both sin and righteousness requires careful analysis.
First, Scripture makes it plain that sin is imputed, accounted or reckoned to those who have actually broken the commandment/law (e.g. Gen. 2:17; Ex. 32:33; 1 Sam. 15:24; Ps. 106:6; Dan. 9:5; Ezek. 18:4,10-13,18,20; Rom. 2:6,8,12; 1 John 3:4; 5:17).
Second, righteousness is imputed to those who have actually kept the commandment/law (e.g. Lev. 18:4f.; Dt.6:25; 30:16; Ezek. 18:5-9,14-17; Mt. 3:17; Rom. 2:13; 1 John 3:7).
Third, just as sin cannot be imputed to those who have no knowledge (of the law), neither can righteousness. (2* The traditional Augustinian notion of the original righteousness as opposed to innocence of Adam who initially did not have the commandment is therefore ruled out.) Scripture endorses this conclusion time and again. For example, Jonathon who did not hear Saul’s command in 1 Samuel 14:27 is adjudged innocent. The same goes for Abigail (1 Sam. 25:25) and David (2 K. 2:32). In 1 Samuel 22:15 the non-imputation of sin to Ahimelech is grounded in the fact that he knew nothing (cf. John 9:41; 15:22,24). By contrast, Saul is regarded as guilty precisely because he knowingly imputes sin to him and has him and his fellow priests slaughtered despite their ignorance. In this Saul transgresses the law not to kill the innocent expressly stated by Moses (Ex. 23:7). The author of Proverbs sums up the Scriptural position when he says that one who justifies the wicked and one who condemns the righteous (cf. 1 K. 21) are both alike an abomination to the Lord (17:15). Clearly transgression of the law is involved.
Fourth, according to Scripture there are two ways of being justified before God: first, by actually keeping the law (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.) and failing that, second, by imputation through the exercise of faith (Gen. 15:6). Paul alludes to both of these methods in Galatians 3:2 and 5, for example, which assume that righteousness is the condition of life (Lev. 18:5, etc.).
Fifth, the same holds with respect to sin. But whereas man cannot attain to righteousness by actually keeping the law, he is quite capable of breaking it and being personally constituted a sinner thereby (Rom. 3:23; 5:12, etc.). This is precisely what God intended (Rom. 3:19f.; 11:32; 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16; 3:22, etc.) and it obviously renders the imputation of Adam’s sin as a free gift unnecessary. All men and women who attain to knowledge of law in some sense become sinners by their own action and are without excuse (Rom. 1:20; 2:1). They are paid the penalty of death for the work they have done (Rom. 5:12; 6:23). In the words of Jesus, the labourer deserves his wages (Luke 10:7).
However, while on the one hand we need to be in a situation where the sins we have actually committed are forgiven and not imputed to us (cf. Rom. 4:7f.), on the other hand we need to have the righteousness we have not achieved reckoned to us (Rom. 4:6).
So the question is: how can this come about? The Bible’s answer is plain: our sins are forgiven as they are covered by the blood of Christ (Rom. 3:25; Rev. 1:5), while the righteousness he gained by keeping the law is imputed to us by faith. In other words, the price of our redemption, which involves the imputation of our sins to Christ and his righteousness to us, is his death (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 3:18).
The question then arises as to how Christ who kept the law and was thereby constituted righteous can become our sin-bearer without injustice on the part of God. There is an obvious parallelism involved at this point: by parity of reasoning from justification by faith we are compelled to draw the conclusion that our sin can only be imputed to him by faith on his part. At his Father’s behest (Mt. 26:39; John 10:18; Heb. 5:8), he freely accepts responsibility for the sins of his people and dies for them as a shepherd for his sheep (John 10:11; 15:13; Eph. 1:7, etc.). In this way God proves himself to be both just and the justifier of those who exercise faith in Christ (Rom. 3:26).
Sixth, if what has just been written is true, the traditional “exact parallelism” of Romans 5:12-21 involving the imputation of Adam’s sin to all his descendants and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers is flagrantly false. As we have already seen, the imputation of sin apart from faith to those who have not sinned is an abomination in the eyes of God. It is infinitely worse when Adam’s sin is imputed to babies who have neither knowledge nor understanding of (the) law nor the ability to do anything either good or bad (cf. Rom. 9:11). For babies to receive Adam’s sin justly they would like Jesus have to exercise faith, but of this it is universally agreed they are incapable.
So, to sum up:
(1) apart from law and/or knowledge, sin and righteousness do not exist (John 9:41; 15:22,24; Rom. 4:15; Dt. 6:25; Rom. 2:13; 1 John 3:7);
(2) sin is directly imputed only when law is broken (James 2:9-11; 1 John 3:4);
(3) sin is not imputed when it is covered by faith in the death of Christ (Rom. 4:7f.);
(4) righteousness is imputed when law is kept (Dt. 6:25; 1 John 3:7);
(5) sin can only be imputed (transferred) by faith (John 10:17; 1 Pet. 3:18);
(6) righteousness can only be imputed (transferred) by faith (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3);
(7) where in the absence of law there is neither sin nor righteousness, there is innocence (Dt. 1:39).
It perhaps needs to be remembered that actual sin includes participation (2 John 11); encouragement (Rom. 1:32); approval (Acts 8:1; 22:20) and association (1 Cor. 5:11-13).
Unless a son repeats the sins of his father he remains innocent (Dt. 24:16; Isa. 3:10f.; Ezek. 18:4,20). Thus Jesus, who did not repeat the sin of Adam and did not break the Mosaic law (Heb. 4:14; 1 Pet. 2:22), remained innocent on the one hand and achieved righteousness by obedience on the other (Ezek. 18:5-9; John 10:11,18; Phil. 2:8-11, cf. Rom. 2:13; 6:16).