accountabilitySomewhere along the line Christianity got off track when it comes to our accountability before the law. Let’s look at what the scriptures actually teach us.

Personal note: I find Paul incredibly difficult to understand. For me, reading his writings, like in Romans, requires a lot of mental hoop jumping. This article covers my finally grasping his teaching in the New Testament that where there is no law there is no punishment, and that the law is what causes us to need to repent. Much of what I learned here was new to me in one way or another. This is another one of those articles where I read the material then two days later I awoke at 2:00 a.m. and spent the next three and a half  hours writing to explain it to myself. I hope you are able to learn from what I have written here.

Popular belief

In everything I have ever read historically about the beliefs of Christianity vs. pagans (non believers), it was the believers that would go to heaven and the pagans who went to hell. This belief was at the root of the Christian treatment of those who knew nothing of Christ. The pagans were forced to convert or, in many cases, they were killed by the Christians. This was a common practice during the settling and missionary work in the New World and in Africa when Christianity was introduced from Europe.

The basic thinking was that God was unhappy that the pagans didn’t believe in Him, so if they didn’t convert it was the duty of those who were God fearing to either force a conversion at the point of a sword or to kill them for their unbelief. It was a matter of saving the pagan’s immortal soul at any cost, usually by force. Many believed wholeheartedly that God was pleased with the Christians who killed those who didn’t convert. They lived their whole lives sincerely believing they were doing God’s work and His will.

Book of Mormon view

Alma teaches his son Corianton about our accountability before the laws of God in a letter. Corianton had left the ministry while preaching to the Zoramites and had committed some sins that held up the missionary work among those people. His father took some time to address Corianton’s doctrinal questions. As far as we can tell from the written record, Corianton was faithful to God from this time onward.

Alma begins his explanation with a description of the fall of Adam and Eve. Here is Alma 42:6-7.

But behold, it was appointed unto man to die—therefore, as they were cut off from the tree of life they should be cut off from the face of the earth—and man became lost forever, yea, they became fallen man.

And now, ye see by this that our first parents were cut off both temporally and spiritually from the presence of the Lord; and thus we see they became subjects to follow after their own will.

Today is the first time the second half of verse seven has ever sunk in before. I have always stopped thinking when I read that Adam and Eve “were cut off both temporally and spiritually from the presence of the Lord.” It never sunk into my thinking before that by being cut off from God man was truly left to his own devices. Mankind “became subjects to follow after their own will.” That means that without further teaching from God, whatever a man did (does) he could not be punished for it, for they were now living without the laws of God. There are some caveats here, like our conscience and the light of Christ that affect how we will be judged, but without a law from God stating that something is forbidden, people can’t be judged as doing something wrong.

Here is the reasoning Alma gives to Corianton for why the plan of salvation is set up the way that it is (Alma 42:17-21).

17 Now, how could a man repent except he should sin? How could he sin if there was no law? How could there be a law save there was a punishment?

18 Now, there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man.

19 Now, if there was no law given—if a man murdered he should die—would he be afraid he would die if he should murder?

20 And also, if there was no law given against sin men would not be afraid to sin.

21 And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, or mercy either, for they would have no claim upon the creature?

Let’s start with verse 17. This takes some thinking to reason this out. Without a law from God that says a thing is a sin, there is no sin, therefore if we do that thing God cannot punish us for it, for there is no law against doing it. Look at verse 19. The example Alma uses centers around murdering. He asks the question, ‘If there is no law against murder, would a man be afraid to murder?’ Truly, if God has not forbidden something then who is to say it is a bad thing to do?

Alma continues in verse 21 pointing out that without a law from God then there is nothing either justice or mercy can do for that person, for neither of them have any claim upon a behavior that is not regulated by law. Now here is the caveat. It is found in verse 18. When a law is given God has built us so that breaking that law causes “remorse of conscience” or a guilty conscience.

The original argument

I started this article with the statements that historically or anciently Christians often killed pagans BECAUSE they didn’t believe in God. Yet we have read the scriptures that tell us that after the fall of Adam and Eve men were left to follow after their own will. There is a basic conscience that all have been given from God that makes us feel guilty for doing what we instinctively know is not right, for whatever reason, but we are free from God’s punishments for those behaviors we participate in that we have not been taught there is a law from God forbidding or requiring.

Based on the Book of Mormon alone, the killing of pagans for their lack of knowledge of God, and their resistance in accepting Him, is not a behavior worthy of death. There simply is no law that states that if we don’t believe in God we deserve to die. We are all free to live by our own will, since we have been cut off from the presence of God. Only if we want to return to His presence does it matter if we obey His laws. We will all be judged on how faithful we were to our conscience, but that is as far as our final judgment will go, unless we actually want to please God by obeying His laws.

New Testament teaching

The Come, Follow Me lesson for week 34 (2023) covers Romans 7-16. Paul is writing a very long letter to the Saints in Rome, whom he has never met. It is anyone’s guess as to what their reputation was, and what he had heard of their faithfulness and behavior. Presumably, he had a good feeling about their faithfulness, for he compliments them on their soundness in the gospel. One of the doctrines he discusses with them, in his own way of speaking, is the doctrine that where there is no law there is no punishment. Paul uses the law of Moses as his demonstration, and it can be rather confusing to tease out the doctrine. But once you see where he is going with his text, it becomes obvious that he is in complete agreement with Alma that where there is no law there is no punishment.

Paul starts off in chapter seven by giving us a clearer view of the relationship the Jews, and hence the gentiles, have between the law of Moses and the law of the Gospel Jesus taught. In the law of Moses, for example, when a husband and wife married she was bound to him as long as he was alive. She was not free to marry another for any reason if her original husband was still alive, for the covenant was until death do you part. If she were to remarry before her original husband dies she is considered to be an adulteress. She can only remarry once he is dead.

Paul then points out that Jesus was the one who gave the law of Moses, so when Jesus died his contract was ended between himself, as the giver of the law, and the house of Israel, the receivers of the law. He had fulfilled the law he had given his people. Now, as the risen Lord, Jesus had given a new law that was based on faith and the Holy Ghost, not daily works.

Legally speaking the Jews were free to embrace the new law, just as a woman was free to marry again after her original husband died, now that the law giver had died. Wasn’t it fortunate for the Jews and the gentiles that Jesus, the giver of the law of Moses had left them with a new law to live? It is after he has made this point that Paul teaches the doctrine we are talking about today, that without the law there is no punishment.

Does the law cause sin?

The above heading is the question Paul asks of the Romans. His answer, of course, is no. But if there was no law there wouldn’t be sin. I’m pulling the remaining verses from chapter seven from the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) for Romans 7:5-27. Oh, and I won’t be commenting on all of the verses, just those I learned the most from in this passage.

For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sin, which were not according to the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.

Remember how our conscience causes us to feel guilt? The Greek description for the word “motions” in verse 5 is “afflictions or sufferings.” Verse 5 is saying it is the sufferings we experience through our sins – that behavior that goes against the laws we have been taught – that causes us grief in life.

But now we are delivered from the law wherein we were held, being dead to the law, that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.

Verse 6 is a reference to being freed from the constraints to live the law of Moses, because the giver of that law has died. They are free to live the new law given by Christ. The old law was very strict, so they refer to living it by the letter of the law. The new law is lived by faith, or by the Spirit – the Holy Ghost.

What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law; for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.

The law of Moses itself was not sinful, but because it defined for us what sin was, our natural behavior was not defined as sinful until we learned what God expected of us. Paul says that the lusts of the flesh would not have been sinful, except that the law defined those behaviors as sinful. The law made those behaviors sinful. This means that those who knew the law were no longer able to live after their own will, but needed to live according to the will of God.

But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead.

Concupiscence is a great word! Here is Webster’s 1828 definition.

CONCUPISCENCEnoun [Latin , to covet or lust after, to desire or covet.] Lust; unlawful or irregular desire of sexual pleasure. In a more general sense, the coveting of carnal things, or an irregular appetite for worldly good; inclination for unlawful enjoyments.

I especially love that last phrase – the “inclination for unlawful enjoyments.” In verse 8 Paul says that he didn’t know how much he followed the lusts of the flesh until the law described for him how many of his behaviors qualified as lustful. The law God had given showed him how much concupiscence or desires of the flesh he had. Without the law he would have had no sin. It would have been “dead.” The law didn’t create the sinful nature of man, it only identified it and forbade it. The law created awareness of the fallen nature of mankind, and specified the Lord’s expectations for behavior that would merit His blessings and our own happiness.

For once I was alive without transgression of the law, but when the commandment of Christ came, sin revived, and I died.

Paul says that before learning the law he was “alive” because he had not transgressed the law. But when the commandments of Christ came he now knew there was sin in his life, and that brought the recognition of his spiritual death, his separation from God.

10 And when I believed not the commandment of Christ which came, which was ordained to life, I found it condemned me unto death.

11 For sin, taking occasion, denied the commandment, and deceived me; and by it I was slain.

12 Nevertheless, I found the law to be holy, and the commandment to be holy, and just, and good.

13 Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin by that which is good working death in me; that sin, by the commandment, might become exceeding sinful.

14 For we know that the commandment is spiritual; but when I was under the law, I was yet carnal, sold under sin.

Verse 14 had an eye opener for me. Paul says that the law showed him that he was still carnal, a slave to sin, for who is “sold under sin” but a slave?

20 For the good that I would have done when under the law, I find not to be good; therefore, I do it not.

21 But the evil which I would not do under the law, I find to be good; that, I do.

Verses 20-21 basically say that ‘I know what I am supposed to do, because of the law, but because I am still carnal in nature, I often don’t do it. And what I am not supposed to do, because the law forbids it, that is what I desire and still do.’ In other words, Paul is describing what it means to be human, and why we all have the need to repent.

The point

Paul acknowledges that without the law “sin is dead.” With the law we become dead, meaning we recognize we are cut off from God, because we follow after our carnal ways. The law defines what is good and what is forbidden. God tells us what we need to do in order to find happiness. Our problem is that we are still dealing with the obsession and predisposition to follow the desires of the flesh, so our lives need to be filled with repentance to overcome our own tendencies to live according to our own desires.

Christianity got it backwards. It is those who have the law of God in their life who need to worry about going to hell, for they are far more capable of sin than those who live without the laws of God in their life. The more we know, the more we will be judged by. The pagan who is without the laws of God in their life truly are free to live according to their own will. It is the Christian who knows what God expects and doesn’t do it that needs to worry.

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Law and Accountability