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.
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