Response to James 4:17
Can man sin if he knows not the Law?
Jam 4:13-17 ESV Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit"-- (14) yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. (15) Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that." (16) As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (17) So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
Here I think we do have some interesting principles to look at. The question is, if a man knows not what is right, can he be held accountable for such? Here I think there is a great deal of verses to explain this issue, but I will just bring out a few.
I would first like to mention, however, something very interesting from Webster's Dictionary of 1828:
1. The voluntary departure of a moral agent from a known rule of rectitude or duty, prescribed by God; any voluntary transgression of the divine law, or violation of a divine command; a wicked act; iniquity. Sin is either a positive act in which a known divine law is violated, or it is the voluntary neglect to obey a positive divine command, or a rule of duty clearly implied in such command. Sin comprehends not action only, but neglect of known duty, all evil thoughts purposes, words and desires, whatever is contrary to God's commands or law. 1 John 3. Mat 15. James 4. Sinner neither enjoy the pleasures of nor the peace of piety. Among divines, sin is original or actual. Actual sin, above defined, is the act of a moral agent in violating a known rule of duty. Original sin, as generally understood, is native depravity of heart to the divine will, that corruption of nature of deterioration of the moral character of man, which is supposed to be the effect of Adam's apostasy; and which manifests itself in moral agents by positive act of disobedience to the divine will, or by the voluntary neglect to comply with the express commands of God, which require that we should love God with all the heart and soul and strength and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. This native depravity or alienation of affections from God and his law, is supposed to be what the apostle calls the carnal mind or mindedness, which is enmity against God, and is therefore denominated sin or sinfulness. Unpardonable sin, or blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, is supposed to be a malicious and obstinate rejection of Christ and the gospel plan of salvation, or a contemptuous resistance made to the influences and convictions of the Holy Spirit. Mat 12.
So here we see a few interesting notes about the nature of sin. The first thing I think that is most interesting is that by this definition, it requires the knowledge of the Law. If this is so, how then can someone who has never heard the law sin against it? I would postulate to you, that they cannot. Does this mean that they are without sin? No. It is clearly stated by Paul that such is impossible due to the nature of the universe.
Rom 1:18-21 ESV For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (20) For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (21) For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
And paul continues on at the end of the chapter saying:
Rom 1:32 ESV Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Yet Paul does not finish here, but continues on with even more in the next chapter:
Rom 2:9-16 ESV There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, (10) but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. (11) For God shows no partiality. (12) For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. (13) For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (14) For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. (15) They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (16) on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
So here I think, by these verses alone, it is clear that those who know the Law must be subject to it, if they are to be righteous. Those who do not know the Law have the natural law of God to guide them, which is written in man's heart, and thus they too must be subject to what is right. All men will be judged according to their deeds in some way or another, all will be judged, whether they had the Law or not.
I would also like to expound on this by adding that Adam and Eve were innocent before they ate of the tree. More importantly, this was the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent stated correctly that they would be like God, knowing good from evil. And you will also note that Adam and Eve were not ashamed of their nakedness before this. I think it is something to think about.