There are few teachings of the Catholic Church that stir up as much controversy as teachings about Mary. I can personally attest to this as one who, once upon a time, did not agree with much of what the Church taught.
Chief among these difficult teachings is the Church’s claim that Mary never sinned. In fact, the Church teaches that from the moment of her conception, Mary “was preserved free from all stain of original sin,” a doctrine known as the Immaculate Conception.1
Saying that Mary was without sin is an incredible claim, no doubt. And many will flag this teaching as being an unbiblical invention of the Catholic Church. As Loraine Boettner put it, this doctrine “completely lacks any Scriptural support, and in fact is directly opposed to the Scriptural doctrine of original sin.”2 Many echo Boettner’s accusation.
In this post I’ll offer only a cursory explanation for why Catholics believe that Mary was sinless – I plan to write on this subject in greater detail in future posts. For now, however, I will only be able to skim the surface and survey a couple of the reasons Catholics believe this about Mary. (Or Check out The New Eve for another reason!)
The Catholic Understanding
When defining the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius IX described it in these words: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”3 There is a lot to unpack here, and we can only graze the surface. Let’s begin.
Adam and Eve passed on more than just their genetics. They passed down what we call original sin. It isn’t the guilt of their sin that we inherit, but the disunity with God (which is now restored in Christian Baptism). But unlike the rest of humanity, Mary was conceived in a state of union with God. And that grace was perfectly preserved as Mary lived a life without ever having sinned.
While the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was officially defined as an infallible teaching of the Catholic Church in 1854, prior to it’s declaration, we have writings that document this belief going as far back as the fourth century in the writings of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine.4
Yet some may raise the question: If Mary never sinned, then did she need Jesus as her savior? Afterall, the Bible affirms that Jesus is “Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14).
The short answer is yes, Mary still needed Jesus to save her. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “the ‘splendor of an entirely unique holiness’ by which Mary is ‘enriched from the first instant of her conception’ comes wholly from Christ.”5
Yet this may seem like a contradiction. If Mary never sinned, what did she need to be saved from?
To make sense of this, we need to understand that there is more than one way that Jesus saves. Let’s illustrate with an example: Imagine a man walking along a leafy trail in the woods. Suddenly he steps on a pile of twigs and leaves hiding a large hole in the ground, and he falls to the bottom with a Thud! The man is stranded with a broken leg, calling for help. Several hours later, a ranger hears the man calling for help and comes to his aid. With some rope and a four-wheeler, the ranger saves the man.
This is how we usually think about Jesus saving us. Humanity is trapped in the pit of sin without any hope of getting out. But Jesus came and saves us.
But now imagine a different scenario. The man is walking through the woods, just one step away from falling into the pit. “Wait, stop!” yells the ranger, just in the nick of time. The man looks at the trail before him and realizes that the ranger had just saved him from falling into a massive hole in the ground.
In both cases, the ranger saved the man. The only difference was when the ranger saved him. When we say that Jesus is Mary’s savior, we understand that to mean that he saved her from sin by preserving her from it. Theologian Alan Schreck explains that “the Lord applied the grace of Jesus’ salvation to Mary in advance to prepare her for her special role in his plan.”6
While Mary was saved completely from sin, we’d do well to realize that Jesus frequently saves people in this way. While he has saved me from past sins, I can hardly imagine how many times he has saved me from falling into new and worse sins. We can only speculate. But we can know for sure that his saving grace both restores and prevents.
A Fitting Gift
It’s very important that we emphasize that Mary didn’t have to be sinless to carry Jesus. But as apologist Tim Staples puts it, “For that matter, God did not have to become incarnate in the world at all in order to save us. He could have saved us in any number of ways. He is all-powerful.” Yet it was “fitting for God to have worked the way he did.”7 So too, Mary’s sinlessness was not required for the redemption of mankind. But it was fitting.
Staples continues: “She [Mary] is the Mother of God. Hence, it was fitting that she be immaculately conceived in order to bring to the world ‘the King of kings and Lord of lords’ (Rev 19:16).”8
We would be remiss to look past the intimate relationship Jesus had with Mary. She wasn’t merely the earthly vessel that would bring into being his body. She was his mother, and he was her son. Long before he began his public ministry, Mary knew him. She knew what food he liked, the stories he liked, his favorite color. She raised him as her own, just as our own mothers do for us.
And being perfectly without sin meant that he would perfectly honor his parents (see Exodus 20:12). Is it a stretch to believe that he might honor his mother with the gift of never having experienced sin and disunity with God?
“Okay, okay,” some might be thinking, “but where does the Bible teach that Mary never sinned?”
The reasons are many, and as I mentioned earlier, I don’t have the space to cover them all in this post (look out for future posts!). But there is one key biblical passage that I would like to discuss here: Gabriel’s greeting.
An Unusual Salutation
In the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, we read of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary, saying “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28). The story continues:
But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus (Luke 1:29-31).
Gabriel’s greeting has drawn the attention of many over the centuries, for it was not your typical greeting. You see, the phrase “Hail, O favored one” packs more punch than it sounds. The phrase comes from the two Greek words “kaire” and “kecharitomene”. To really appreciate this unusual greeting, we need to look at both words.
The word “kaire” [= hail] is a greeting that’s typically followed by a title. For instance, the Jews mocked Jesus by crying “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Mark 15:18). In this case, Mary is greeted with kaire, but she is given the title kecharitomene (which we’ll look at shortly). But why not just say “Hail Mary”? Why the new name?
From a biblical perspective, a name was more than just a word used to address someone. Names revealed something about who the person was. God changed Abram’s original name (meaning exalta father) to Abraham (meaning father of a multitude), saying “your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:5). It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to see how the name change had a deeper meaning.
So when the angel addresses Mary as kecharitomene, we’d best understand what that means.
Full of Grace
Depending on what translation of the Bible you use, kecharitomene will be translated differently.9 But to really understand the full meaning of the word, we have to get a little technical. Grammatically, that is. You see, kecharitomene is what we call a past perfect participle. It’s a word that describes a past event that has been perfected.
Staples explains that kecharitomene doesn’t simply mean “full of grace”, but “she who has been graced.” He continues:
This verbal adjective, “graced,” is not just describing a simple past action. Greek has another tense for that. The perfect tense is used to indicate that an action has been completed in the past resulting in a present state of being. “Full of grace” is Mary’s name. So what does it tell us about Mary?10
The angel’s message not only announced the coming of the Messiah, but also Mary’s state of being completely and perfectly graced by God. Given our tendency to sin, we could scarcely say that any of us have been completely perfected in grace on this side of death. Yet Gabriel called Mary kecharitomene, revealing the unique gift of grace God gave her. If she had even once fallen into sin, this could not have been so.
Teachings about Mary are often regarded as unbiblical inventions of the Catholic Church. It’s my hope that I have at least begun to show that to be false, though there is still more to be explained. And I fully intend to present more of the biblical evidence for Mary’s sinlessness in future posts.
If we take nothing else away from this, know that the Immaculate Conception ultimately magnifies God’s glory. As Schreck put it, the Immaculate Conception “proclaims that Jesus was someone so unique and holy that God would even prepare his mother for his birth by preserving her from sin.”11 Maybe it is in this light that we may fully understand what Mary meant when she said: “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46).
For further reading on Mary’s sinlessness, also check out The New Eve, Why Does Mary Need a Savior if She Was Sinless? and Have all Sinned? Mary’s Sinlessness and Romans 3:23.
1. Pope Pius IX, Ineffibilis Deus (1854)
2. Boettner, Loraine. Roman Catholicism. P & R Publishings, 2000, pp 159.
3. Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus (1854), Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 491
4. Schreck, Alan. Catholic and Christian: an Explanation of Commonly Misunderstood Catholic Beliefs. Servant Books, 2004, pp. 190.
5. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 492
6. Schreck, Alan. Catholic and Christian: an Explanation of Commonly Misunderstood Catholic Beliefs. Servant Books, 2004, pp. 192.
7. Staples, Tim. Behold Your Mother: a Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines. Catholic Answers Press, 2014, pp. 116.
8. Ibid. pp 116
9. Some examples include: “thou that art highly favoured” (KJV); “O favored one” (ESV and RSV); “full of grace” (DRA). For more translations, check out: https://www.biblegateway.com/
10. Staples, Tim, Hail Mary, Conceived Without Sin, San Diego: Catholic Answers, 2001. https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/hail-mary-conceived-without-sin
11. Schreck, Alan. Catholic and Christian: an Explanation of Commonly Misunderstood Catholic Beliefs. Servant Books, 2004, pp. 190.