In previous posts we’ve discussed the Catholic belief that Jesus’s mother, Mary, was born without original sin and lived a life without having ever sinned (click here to see). But what about those Bible verses that seem to oppose this belief? Let’s take a look.
All Have Fallen Short
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Sounds clear enough, right? Commenting on this verse, one critic says that “Paul allowed no exceptions. He wrote that all have sinned. There is no doubt that the word ‘all’ includes Mary.”1
To that we could even add a passage from 1 John: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). So by saying that Mary was without sin, it appears as though we may have deceived ourselves.
At face-value, these verses seem to contradict Catholic teaching about Mary. Afterall, those verses couldn’t be more clear: there are no exceptions… right?
An Obvious Exception
Many would readily agree with me that there is at least one obvious exception to Romans 3 and 1 John 1: Jesus Christ. Scripture isn’t vague about this. Jesus was a man (1 Tim 2:5-6) without sin (1 John 3:5). Now some may point out that Jesus was an obvious exception to these verses. And I would agree. But he is an exception, nonetheless.
But even if Jesus was not the only exception to the Romans 3 and 1 John 1, we’ll find that there are many, many other exceptions to these verses.
Look at the context of Romans 3. We know that the sin spoken of is personal sin, as opposed to original sin. It’s a sin actually committed by someone. The same goes for the sin mentioned in 1 John 1, for John goes on to say that “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Clearly you would only confess a sin that you actually committed.
But what if I told you that there are many people who have never sinned? Sounds crazy, right? But let’s consider: What does it take for an action to be a sin? For starters, committing a sin requires some knowledge of the situation. A man who unknowingly vacuums up his wife’s favorite earrings on the floor can hardly be blamed. But if he knowingly sees them and still vacuums them up, now, ladies and gentlemen, we have a case for sin.
Secondly, for someone to commit a sin, they must choose to do it. If a sleepwalking kid dumps a can of soda on his sleeping brother’s head, we could hardly count it against him (trust me, I used to be a notorious sleepwalker). But if the same kid knowingly douses his brother with a carbonated shower, again, we’re in sin territory.
So at a minimum, sin requires adequate use of our reason (I know it) and control of our will (I choose it).
How many people do we know who have limited (or underdeveloped) reason and will? Newborn babies are the first to come to mind. Could a newborn possibly commit a personal sin? Hardly. The same applies to the mentally handicapped, who (to varying degrees) don’t always possess full control over their will or full development of their reason. Catholic Apologist Tim Staples sums it up:
To sin a person has to know the act he is about to perform is sinful while freely engaging his will in carrying it out. Without the proper faculties to enable them to sin, children before the age of accountability and anyone who does not have the use of his intellect and will cannot sin.2
What “All” Means
Shockingly, “all” doesn’t always mean “all” all of the time.3 At least not in the way we typically think of the word. Commenting on Romans 3:23, theologian Dr. Scott Hahn explains that
Paul is arguing against the Judaizers by showing them, from several Old Testament passages, that it wasn’t only gentiles who were under sin’s power but many Jews, too. The Greek word translated as “all” (pas) is used in a distributive sense, meaning many gentiles and many Jews. It does not mean “everyone without exception.”4
So when Paul says all have sinned, we can know that he isn’t applying it to “all people of all types”, but rather “some people of all types”, Jews and gentiles alike.
We can be sure that verses like Romans 3:23 and 1 John 1:8 don’t pose a dilemma to Mary’s sinlessness. Rather, when we apply our understanding of what sin is to these verses, we see they allow for exceptions. Many of them.
Mary’s sinlessness was a belief held by the early Christians and many Christians today, and as such it deserves our investigation. Verses like Romans 3:23 and 1 John 1:8 raise just a few of the objections that can be raised against the doctrine. But if you are anything like myself, you will find that objections to the doctrine fall short.
For positive evidence for Mary’s sinlessness, also check out my other articles on the matter Was Mary Sinless? and The New Eve.
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1. Pinedo, Moisés. “Was Mary Sinless?” ApologeticsPress.org. 2009. Accessed September 18, 2018.
2. Staples, Tim. “Hail Mary, Conceived Without Sin” Catholic.com. 2007. Accessed September 19, 2018.
3. Dr. Scott Hahn elaborates on this point: “In English, we use the word ‘all’ in many ways. It can represent a universal collective (meaning ‘all of all sorts’). It can represent a more restricted collective (meaning ‘all of some sort’). Or it can be simply distributive (meaning ‘some of all sorts’).” Hahn, Scott. Reasons to Believe. New York: Doubleday, 2007. 108-109
4. Hahn, Scott. Reasons to Believe. New York: Doubleday, 2007. 109
Every person is guilty before God. Is. 64: 6 all our Righteousness are filthy rags. There is none that doeth righteously no not one. Every person is responsible for his sin whether known or unknown. Even in human law ignorance of the law is no excuse. From your premise anyone not aware of God’s law could have a claim on innocence, but everyone is guilty before the law and deemed unrighteous in need of Christ forgiveness by His grace and be made the Righteousness of God in Him.
Hi Earnest, thanks for the comment! I agree with you that we can be guilty of trespassing a law whether we knew it was a law or not. A man who knowingly leaves a store without having paid for an item sins before God and the state, whether he knew of laws against stealing or not. God’s law is written on our hearts, so our conscience serves as a law to those who have never heard the law (Rom 2:15). But in the article I am more referring to ignorance of actions and circumstances. For instance, the man who knowingly leaves the store without paying for an item sins. But what if the man accidentally left the store without paying for an item (he forgets to include it at the register)? It might be clumsy, but it isn’t sinful. It was an accident, and he never meant to do it. God takes our intentions into account when he weighs our actions.
One of my main points in the article is that babies do not have knowledge enough to be sinful. Take the 1 month old who pulls his mom’s hair. Sure it hurt, but is he guilty of hurting his mother? The act was “evil” in matter (hurting someone), but not in intent. So children without sufficient knowledge cannot commit sins.
Thank you for a different perspective; Would God allow His “sinless ” Son to be conceived in a “sinful” woman “??.. Mary was a virgin : not only in the physical sense but also in her Spiritual being ..not defiled by man or sin.
Actually the sacrifices in Leviticus are all for *unintentional sin*. So yes, it’s still sin without intent. Lev 4:1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands…13 “‘If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands, even though the community is unaware of the matter, when they realize their guilt…22 “‘When a leader sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the commands of the Lord his God, when he realizes his guilt…” etc, etc.
I also personally do not understand the argument that God would never dwell in a sinner’s womb for nine months. Jesus dwelled in a sinful, defiled world for 33 years. Why would it make a difference if his contact with sin started 9 months earlier?