Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In Defense of Mary's Sinlessness: Part 2

With Part 2 of my defense of Mary's sinlessness, I am indebted to the following articles (as well as many of the same ones cited in Part 1):

Contradicting Kecharitomene

In response to the clear implications of Lk 1:28, some point out that in Acts 6:8, Stephen is referred to as "full of grace and power."
Acts 6:8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.
Does that mean that he was sinless too? The answer is, "No." There are in fact many differences between the two passages that effect their meaning a great deal.

The most obvious difference is in the Greek. In Lk 1:28, "full of grace" is the translation of kecharitomene, which, as we have seen, is the perfect passive participle of charitoo, in the vocative case. But, in Acts 6:8, the underlying Greek is pleres charitos (or in some manuscripts, pleres pisteos, which denotes faith, not grace). When the Greek is different, then the meaning usually is too.

In Lk 1:28, Mary is being acted upon by God. This action took place in the past with results that continue into the present. Fullness and perfection is implied by the verb, and this verb is used as Mary's name. In Acts 6:8, Stephen isn't given "full of grace" as his name. Instead, the phrase simply describes something that took place in the past with results completed in the past. A continual or perduring grace is not implied by the verb. He was filled with grace at the moment and only for as long as he was performing great wonders and signs among the people. The implications of the Greek are simply not the same. And, like I said before, older translations (cf. KJV, Wesley's NT, Geneva Bible, Bishop's Bible) and even some modern ones (Third Millennium Bible, YLT, Webster) have "full of faith and power," in which case there is really no parallel at all.

The other passage that Protestants cite as a parallel to Lk 1:28 is Eph 1:6:
Eph 1:6 to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed (echaritosen) on us in the Beloved.
The KJV, which says, "wherein he hath made us accepted," and the DRB, which says, "in which he hath graced us," perhaps give us a better understanding of the underlying Greek then most modern translations. The word here is echaritosen. While it does have the same base word (charitoo) as kecharitomene, since the inflection is different, the meaning is different.

Echaritosen is in the aorist, active, indicative form. It does not indicate fullness (as kecharitomene does) because it is not in the perfect tense. A look at the context also precludes such a meaning:
Eph 1:3-6 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. 5 He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
Note that Paul mentions the "grace that God freely bestows on us" (vs. 6) within his discussion of the "many spiritual blessings" (vs. 3) that He grants us. In other words, believers receive many different graces throughout their lifetimes, and these in different measure, as other passages indicate:
Rom 5:20 Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,

Eph 4:7 But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ's gift.

Jas 4:6 But he gives more grace; therefore it says, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."

2 Pet 3:18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.
The "freely bestowed" grace of Ephesians 1:6, then, cannot possibly be considered the equivalent of that "fullness of grace" applied to Mary. Lk 1:28 refers to a single gift of grace-fullness in the life of a person. Eph 1:6 refers to several measures of grace given to believers over their lifespan, and apportioned to each one individually as the Spirit wills (cf. 1 Cor 12:11). It refers to a huge group of people, with different gifts and various levels of grace bestowed. Because each gift is given to each believer in different measure, it does not result in fullness as did the one gift given to Mary.

All Have Sinned

The passage most often cited in objection to Mary's sinlessness is found in Paul's letter to the Romans:
Rom 3:23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.
While on the surface this may appear to clearly contradict the doctrine of Mary's sinlessness, further disection of the original Greek behind this passage, as well as an examination of the context of the verse within the letter to the Romans reveals that Rom 3:23 is not as plain as one may think.

First, the Greek. The word for "all" used here is pas. While on occasion, it can be used to refer to every single person, it is most often used to mean "the majority of people." This is made evident by other verses in Scripture in which the same Greek word for "all" is used. They include the following:
1 Cor 15:22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

Rom 11:26 And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob:
  • Yet we know that not every person of Israel will be saved.

Rom 15:14 And I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another.
  • Yet not every Roman could be filled with every ounce of knowledge.

Mat 2:3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
  • Yet surely not every single person in Jerusalem was troubled.

Mat 3:5 Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan
  • Every single person in Judea?

Mat 21:10 And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this?
  • Every single person was moved?
You get the idea. Now that we have established that "all" can in fact just mean "the majority," our next question is this: Is that the meaning of "all" in Rom 3:23? To answer this question, one must look at the context of the verse.

While Paul's letter to the Romans is mostly known for its defense of salvation by faith, Paul is also interested here in how this salvation relates to the tensions between the Jews and the Gentiles. Each group claims that the other is better, or more favored by God. The Jews in particular boast of being under the law and God's chosen people. The verses that lead up to verse 23 are basically a hypothetical dialogue between the Jews and Paul. The Jew is here trying to find ways in which his sin cannot be counted as unrighteousness, yet Paul rebukes every one. The Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (a Protestant commentary by Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown, published in 1871) analyzes this exchange rather well and it gives further insight into the context of this verse that I think is essential reading.

One can see from this exchange and the commentary on it that Paul's obvious intent here is to affirm that neither group is greater then the other. All the objections of the Jew are denied. "What then? Are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin" (Rom 3:9). Rom 3:23 is simply a repetition of this verse. So, we are beginning to see Paul's purpose for saying that "all have sinned."

No One Is Righteous

Some may respond by citing verses 10-12, from the same chapter:
Rom 3:10-12 as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands, no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one."
Paul is quoting Psalms 14:2-3, so it's important to examine the context from which the citation came in order to fully gasp its meaning. Here is the passage from the Psalms:
Psalms 14:2-3 The LORD looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God. 3 They have all gone astray, they are all alike corrupt; there is none that does good, no, not one.
In this passage, David is directly addressing the sinfulness of the Jews. Paul cites David to further affirm his point that the Jews are just as sinful as the Gentiles, and in that way, no better. David is not attempting here to make some broad statement about all of mankind. The surrounding verses make this abundantly clear. Two verses later he writes that "...God is with the generation of the righteous" (14:5). In the immediately preceding Psalm, David proclaims "I trusted in your steadfast love...." (13:5), which certainly is seeking after God. In the very next Psalm he refers to "those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right..." (15:2).

Psalms 112:5 (KJV) refers to a "good" man (Heb. towb), as does the book of Proverbs repeatedly (KJV, 11:23; 12:2; 13:22; 14:14,19), using the same word towb, which appears in Psalm 14:2-3. And references to righteous men are innumerable (cf. Job 17:9; 22:19; Psa 5:12; 32:11; 34:15; 37:16,32; Mt 13:17; 25:46; Rom 5:19; Heb 11:4; Jam 5:16; 1 Pet 3:12; 4:18, etc.). Lk 1:6 itself destroys an exaggerated understanding of Paul's words:
Lk 1:6 And they [Zechariah and Elizabeth] were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
What this shows is that Psa 14:2-3 (and consequently Rom 3:10-12) is a hyperbolic passage. We cannot take it literally because there are indeed good men. David is exasperated by the sin that is so prevalent among the Jews. Paul quotes these words as a harsh reminder to the Jews, as if to say, "Before you get so puffed up with pride because God chose you to be His people, think about the words of your Father David."

If that weren't enough, a third set of proof that Rom 3:23 and 10-12 are not to be read as literal, all-encompassing judgments on all of mankind comes from common knowledge and everyday life. Even in the world today we do in fact find millions of people who have not sinned, and even some who never will.
  • A baby in the womb: A baby not yet born is still a person, just like us, yet he has not sinned. This is even affirmed in Rom 9:11 when Paul says, "though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call..."
  • Children below the age of reason: It is common knowledge that until a child's cognitive development has progressed enough to where he can properly determine right from wrong and understand the moral implications of his actions, he cannot sin. Most children below the age of 7 fall into this category.
  • A vegetative or severely mentally-handicapped individual: I have a cousin who falls into this category. She cannot walk. She cannot talk. She is just as old as me, but forever confined to a wheelchair. This has been her situation since her birth. All of her needs must be met by other people. Because of her impairment she has never committed a sin. She never will.
Once one understands the actual intent of these passages from Paul's letter to the Romans and acknowledges the realistic scope of their meaning, he can finally open his mind (as Scripture is open) to receive the Immaculate Conception.

Actual Sin or Original Sin?

In response to this, it is often said, "Well the sin in question is not actual sin (sins we commit) but original sin." But, this does not further the Protestant cause. Look at Rom 3:10-15, which provides some helpful context for both passages we are discussing here:
Rom 3:10-15 as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands, no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one." 13 "Their throat is an open grave, they use their tongues to deceive." "The venom of asps is under their lips." 14 "Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness." 15 "Their feet are swift to shed blood,
Paul is obviously talking about sins of commission (turning aside, going wrong, deceiving, cursing, shedding blood) and omission (not understanding, not seeking God, not doing good) in this passage. These are things that the people are doing, which makes them actual sins, not original sin. Once it is established that Paul is referring to actual sins, then the responses I have given to the various Protestant objections up to this point regain their relevance.

You Call Him a Liar

A similar passage often used against Mary's sinlessness comes from the first letter of St. John:
1 Jn 1:8, 10 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
Now, I think there are two ways to approach this passage. The first one is to read it again in context:
1 Jn 1:5-10 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; 7 but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
The context reveals that this passage is not about just any ol' sinner. This passage has in mind those people living in darkness, people who have not experienced the saving work of Christ and who think that they don't need Him. If you look at the pattern of the passage, verses 6, 8, 10 parallel each other, and verses 7 and 9 parallel each other. That means that it is those who walk in darkness (vs. 6) who say they have no sin (vs. 8) and make God a liar (vs. 10).

But, Mary is not among those who walk in darkness and deny that they need Christ. Her spirit rejoices in God her savior! (cf. Lk 1:47) She has already experienced His grace in her life (cf. Lk 1:28), and handed herself over to His Will (cf. Lk 1:38). Her soul does not reject the Lord, it magnifies Him (cf. Lk 1:46). So, in a variety of ways I think this passage from John's first letter does not apply to her.

The second way to approach this passage is the same way that we approached the passages from Romans: not all men have sinned. This passage from John need not be any more all-encompassing then Rom 3 is.

My Spirit Rejoices in God My Savior

If Mary was conceived without sin and committed no sins throughout her life, on what grounds then does she have to rejoice in the salvation of God, as she does in Lk 1:47? I think there are two ways to answer this question.

First of all, consider for example the manner in which a person may be saved from a pit. He could be rescued from the pit once he has fallen in. That is one way. But, there is also another way: he could be prevented from falling into the pit in the first place. Catholics acknowledge that Mary was no different from any other human being in her susceptibility to original sin. In other words, she was due to inherit the stain just as we all are. The pit lay squarely in her path as it lay in the path of every man. But, in this solitary instance, God intervened and kept her from falling into the pit of sin. He did this by filling her with His grace. For a woman who committed no sin, that is essentially the only way that God could still be her Savior, as He undoubtedly is.

If you think about it, God's saving work is perfected through this intervention. Now God can boast of not only freeing man from the pit of sin into which he is born and continues to fall, but also of actually keeping one from among mankind from falling into the pit in the first place. In this way, the Immaculate Conception gives glory to God and is a testament to the fullness of His saving power.

Secondly, to counter this objection from an entirely different angle, a case could very well be made that the salvation in which Mary rejoices is not from spiritual forces, but material ones. God does not only save people from sin, or temptation, or hell, or the devil. Sometimes He also saves people from the plight of their physical circumstance. Theologians refer to this as "temporal salvation."

The Old Testament and the New Testament are both filled with instances of this type of salvation. See, for example, from the Old Testament:
Gen 49:18-19 I wait for thy salvation, O LORD. 19 Raiders shall raid Gad, but he shall raid at their heels.

Exo 14:13-14 And Moses said to the people, "Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. 14 The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be still."

Deut 23:14 Because the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp, to save you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, that he may not see anything indecent among you, and turn away from you.

1 Sam 12:7 Now therefore stand still, that I may plead with you before the LORD concerning all the saving deeds of the LORD which he performed for you and for your fathers.
Likewise, from the New Testament:
Mt 8:23-25 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him, saying, "Save, Lord; we are perishing."

Mt 27:42 He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him

Lk 1:68-71 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people, 69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us
The Magnificat (where we find Mary rejoicing in God her savior) is I think another example. Here it is in its entirety:
Lk 1:46-55 And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, 52 he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever."
Look what is happening here. "My spirit rejoices in God my savior." Why? "For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden." Because of what God has done for her -- preparing her for motherhood and then making her the mother of His Son -- she has gone from lowly servant of God, bound to obscurity, to all generations remembering and honoring her. This concerns her state in life, not her eternal salvation.

Other evidence that temporal salvation is at the forefront of her mind is seen in the many examples of temporal salvation that she proceeds to name:
  • He has shown strength with His arm
  • He has scattered the proud
  • He has put down the mighty
  • He has exalted those of low degree
  • He has filled the hungry with good things
  • He has sent the rich away empty
  • He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever
That the parallel canticle from Zechariah also concerns temporal salvation ("from our enemies, from the hand of all who hate us") is further evidence that Mary is rejoicing in her temporal salvation, not her eternal reward. If that is the case, then Protestants can't use Lk 1:47, as they so often do, to discredit Mary's sinlessness. Of course, as we have already seen, even if Mary were referring to her eternal reward, it does little to refute the Catholic doctrine.


Undoubtedly, there are still more objections to the Immaculate Conception that I have not addressed. But, I think that this tract in two parts is still one of the most comprehensive treatments of the subject that you'll find on the internet. I have certainly tried to respond as thoroughly as possible, and, as time permits, I may expand this tract to include other objections and responses as well. At any rate, I hope you find my work here to be of service as you set out to defend our Blessed Mother.

Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and the Immaculate Conception ... pray for us.

Pax Christi,


  1. Dear Phatcath
    My congratulations upon your site, very extensive and used frequently by me for apologetics.

    Do you not think that for catholics, translating the Greek word kecharitomene in Luke 1:28 as just “favour”, as just God’s “attitude” towards us, as just “divine approval”, and nothing more, like picking sides for basketball, as Protestants insist (per article by Reformed Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary, California), expounds Pelagian heresy regarding grace?

    If, as Protestants claim, grace is just “God’s attitude toward us and nothing more. Full stop,” then grace cannot be infused into us. That’s because it makes no sense for an attitude to be infused as Divine favor is not something that can be infused into anything. (See “Nature, Grace, and Man’s Supernatural End: Feingold, Kline, and Clark.”)

    Therefore, if translating the Greek word kecharitomene in Luke 1:28 as just “divine favour”, and nothing more, then the person would do good by her/his own power. Hence, as it makes no sense for an attitude to be infused, Mary, by her own natural power, could become holy in the eyes of God. Hence salvation would be possible without grace (infusion of God’s help). Would it not?

    Also, if grace were merely divine favor, then the only way to grow in grace would be to believe more firmly and deeply that God’s favour is directed toward oneself. Hence growth in grace would be reduced to growth in knowledge (gnosis). Would it not?

    As far as I am aware, there is no such thing as “dispensing favor.” Favor is an attitude or disposition of a person. It is not something that can be dispensed. It can be shown or revealed, but not dispensed. What is given to us in the sacraments of the Catholic Church is not divine favor but the result of divine favor, namely greater participation in the divine life.

    By translating “kekaritomene” as "highly favoured", we describe the love of God to Mary as an event fleeting, ephemeral and ambiguous: favourites were (and are) subject to a continuous replacement and eternal whims.

    If Mary is just “highly favoured”, as Protestants insist, then how would “highly favoured” description of her differ from that of harlots in the OT who are described as “well favoured” (eg. Daniel 1:4; Nahum 3:4; Genesis 29:17) as the term "favoured" was (and still is) often used to identify harlots or women of dubious virtue or lost reputation.

    Also, we note that in the Old Testament, Esther has been noted to “….obtained GRACE and FAVOUR…..” (Esther 2:17 KJV), suggesting that there may be a difference in meaning between the words “favour” and “grace” in the Hebrew.

    My apologies if above is somewhat disjointed. I hope that you may have an article elaborating the above points.
    Thank you for your time and attention. God Bless
    George B

  2. Wow, just read George B's comment. Great stuff!

    Also, all the links in this post have now been fixed.


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