For those who may not be familiar with the Catholic teaching of the "Immaculate Conception," it is not referring to the conception or sinlessness of Jesus Christ, but to Mary’s. The Catholic Church considers this teaching to be an infallible dogma that must be believed by all Catholics. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, "full of grace" through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:
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. (CCC #491)
But there are several problems with this concept of “Immaculate Conception” and sinlessness...
First, it is an unscriptural concept - that is, except for Christ, Himself (1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5; 2 Corinthians 5:21), a whole life of sinlessness applies to no human found in the Bible. However, the Catholic Church insists that it also applies to Mary in the passage in Luke chapter 1 where the angel Gabriel addresses Mary and tells her that she is to give birth to the Savior.
The great majority of Bible versions render verse 28 as the angel saying, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you”... or something very similar. But the Catholic Church leans toward the Latin Vulgate (Jerome’s translation of the Bible into Latin). Catholics translate verse 28 in the Vulgate as “Hail, full of grace...” which they take to mean that Mary was so “full” of grace that there was no room in her life for any sin, and she was this way since the moment of her own conception and throughout her whole life.
In spite of its plain context, Catholics will go to great lengths to explain how they believe this simple verse really means much more than it appears to be saying. They will attempt to take advantage of every possible nuance in the Greek grammar and stretch it into a new meaning altogether. They have attained an amazing level of special pleading in attempting to defend this teaching. But it is a giant and illogical leap to go from the Bible’s description of Mary as a humble handmaid whom God has highly favored... to a person whose own conception was “different from the conception of all other human beings," who has obtained “an entirely unique holiness,” who possessed “a sanctity surpassing... the combined holiness of all angels and other men...”, and was conceived without sin and remained so throughout her lifetime. That’s an awfully big jump.
But how trustworthy is the Catholic interpretation of the Vulgate? As we stated before, most Bible versions we have do not agree with the Vulgate’s “full of grace.” Even Catholic Bibles like the New American Bible (NAB) and the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) do not use “full of grace” in Luke 1:28. But, try as they may, Catholics cannot use this verse as proof of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Concerning the Greek word used for this phrase, one online Catholic source says:
But the term kecharitomene (full of grace) serves only as an illustration, not as a proof of the dogma. (New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, under “Immaculate Conception”)
To further weaken the Catholic interpretation of Luke 1:28, we read in this Catholic source:
The words of Gabriel, “Hail, full of grace” (Lk. 1.28), have also been appealed to as a revelation of the Immaculate Conception, on the grounds that to be truly full of grace, Mary must have had it always. This interpretation, however, overlooks the fact that the Greek term κεχαριτωμένη [kecharitomene] is not nearly so explicit as the translation “full of grace” might suggest. It implies only that God’s favor has been lavished on Mary, without defining the degree of grace. (New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VII, Page 378)
So, by their own admission, this exaggerated interpretation of this simple passage in Luke is not at all what many Catholics are wanting us to believe.
But if we look at the context of Luke chapter 1, we can see that Mary is blessed among women (Luke 1:42; and in later manuscripts, 1:28). It is about childbearing. Elizabeth, Mary and the angel Gabriel all make significant statements here in chapter one, but NONE mention anything about Mary‘s “sinlessness” - ALL three refer to the special privilege of giving birth to the Messiah. THIS was how she was favored. No doubt, in those days, most every young Jewish woman would have given anything to have that honor.
But IF the angel is speaking here of Mary being “immaculately conceived,” why would he announce the news of these “special circumstances” surrounding her own conception so late in her lifetime (that is, so many years AFTER it happened)? This would be highly unusual. Why was this special news not announced at or around the time of her birth, like in the case of Jesus and John the Baptist? It seems that most every major announcement about someone in the Bible was “predictive” in nature (before it happens), not AFTER the fact. But this passage is about Jesus’ conception, not Mary’s.
All Have Sinned
The second problem is, not only is the Immaculate Conception not found in Scripture, but it is AGAINST the Scriptures. The Apostle John said:
If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8 - KJV)
Also, the Apostle Paul said:
... that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. (Romans 3:19 - KJV)
For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23 - KJV)
The first three chapters of the book of Romans paint a very bleak picture for anyone who thinks he is free from sin, either Jew or Gentile (Romans 3:10-19).
“But,” the Catholic objects, “there are exceptions to this rule!” He will insist that the phrase “all have sinned” does not really mean all. He’ll say, “Is not Jesus, Himself, an exception?” Of course, He is, but this is Paul’s whole point in the opening chapters of Romans. It goes without saying that He is the only reason that we can be saved at all. This is the common theme throughout Scripture... every person is a sinner and Jesus is the “cure.” He is not AN exception, He is THE ONLY exception.
Some may say that Adam and Eve were exceptions because they were created without sin. Well, that may be true but they later fell into sin, so no one can suggest that they were sinless throughout their lives. They still fall into the category of “all have sinned.”
What about unborn children, babies, or the mentally handicapped? They don’t have any sin, do they? These, like everyone else, are born with the sin nature, and given the chance, they would inevitably sin somewhere down the line. But these are not proper exceptions. They are exceptions only in the sense that they are not responsible for what they do. When Catholics speak of Mary as an exception, they are referring to a person who is accountable. A baby or a mentally ill person may sin, but God, in His grace, does not hold it against them. According to James 4:17:
Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin. (KJV)
So, babies and the mentally handicapped who are not aware of sin are not accountable, and therefore, are not true exceptions to the rule. A true exception would be another human who was tempted in all things, yet victorious over sin, as Jesus was (Hebrews 4:15). Since Mary doesn’t fit into any of these categories, appealing to babies, the mentally handicapped, or Adam and Eve is useless and does not prove that she is (or can be) an exception.
Who Crushes/Bruises the Head of the Serpent?
With very little effort, one can find a multitude of images of Mary standing with her foot on the head of a serpent, because Catholics usually link the Immaculate Conception of Mary with Genesis 3:15, where God says to the serpent:
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel. (NASV)
Many Catholics reason something along these lines: Satan is the epitome of sin, but Mary had a perfect “enmity” (hostility or opposition) toward the devil. This perfect enmity could not exist if there was any sin in Mary. So, since enmity exists between her and Satan, she could not have any sin. Therefore, somehow she is the one who crushes the head of the serpent. But can this be true? No, it’s not. It is Jesus Who does the crushing. The New Catholic Encyclopedia says:
Much confusion has resulted from the fact that the second half of this verse [Genesis 3:15] was inaccurately translated in the Vulgate to read, “SHE shall crush your head.” This translation, which has strongly affected the traditional representations of the Blessed Virgin, is today generally recognized to be a mistake for “it [or “he,” i.e., the seed of the woman] shall crush...,” and consequently CAN NO LONGER BE CITED in favor of the Immaculate Conception. (New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VII, page 378 - emphasis added)
Most Catholics today seem to be unaware of this correction.
It Just Has to Be
The third problem is that the Catholic Church insists that the Immaculate Conception is not just “fitting,” but necessary:
If it was necessary that the precursor of the Lord [i.e., John the Baptist] should be so pure and "filled with the Holy Ghost" even from his mother’s womb, such a purity was assuredly not less befitting His Mother. (New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, under “Immaculate Conception” - Emphasis added)
To become the Mother of the Savior, Mary, 'was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role'. The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as 'full of grace.' In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God's grace. (CCC #490 - Emphasis added)
[Apparently, here, the writers of this Catechism seem to be unaware of the problems associated with “full of grace,” as mentioned above in the New Catholic Encyclopedia]
In one papal article, we read:
In order to be the irreconcilable enemy of the serpent and his offspring, Mary had to be free from all power of sin, and to be so from the first moment of her existence.”
The absolute hostility put between the woman and the devil [Referring to Genesis 3:15] thus demands in Mary the Immaculate Conception, that is, a total absence of sin, from the very beginning of her life.
[Once again, even Pope John Paul II must also have been confused or unaware that Genesis 3:15 “can no longer be cited in favor of the Immaculate Conception," according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia (copyright 1967) above... which was, by the way, in circulation long before the pope uttered this statement]
St Irenaeus presents Mary as the new Eve, who by her faith and obedience compensated for the disbelief and disobedience of Eve. Such a role in the economy of salvation requires the absence of sin. It was fitting that like Christ, the new Adam, Mary too, the new Eve did not know sin and was thus capable of co-operating in the Redemption.
(“MARY’S ENMITY TOWARDS SATAN WAS ABSOLUTE” - Pope John Paul 2 - The Pope's catechesis at the General Audience of Wednesday, 29 May (1996) - the 21st in the series on the Blessed Virgin - Emphasis added)
And in another papal article:
This great doctor of the Church [Augustine] certainly realized that Mary's status as Mother of a completely holy Son required total purity and an extraordinary holiness.”
“...a fundamental insight of faith: the Mother of Christ had to be perfectly holy from the very beginning of her life."
(“CHRIST’S GRACE PRESERVED MARY FROM SIN” - Pope John Paul 2 - The Pope's catechesis at the General Audience of Wednesday, 5 June (1996) - the 22nd in the series on the Blessed Virgin - Emphasis added)
Having said all this, if it was absolutely necessary for Jesus (Who is sinless) to live in a sinless womb, then it was ALSO logically necessary that MARY must have been born in a sinless womb. In other words, if Mary had to be unstained by sin in order to carry Jesus in her womb, then Mary’s mother also had to be sinless in order to carry Mary, and her grandmother before that, and her great grandmother before her, etc, etc... But, of course, this would be absurd.
So, the Catholic has a dilemma: Either, 1) this absurd line of continual sinless pregnancies must have taken place, or 2) these official Catholic sources that insist that sinlessness was necessary, can’t be trusted. If anyone claims a third option here, he will have to show proof of it, from either logic or Scripture.
A Sinless Environment?
The fourth problem with the Immaculate Conception is, if Jesus had to be conceived and sustained in a sinless environment (like Mary’s body), then wouldn’t He also need to be born and raised in a sinless environment? One would think so.
Or does this great “need” to maintain such a pure environment when in the womb, suddenly become irrelevant after Jesus was born? Shouldn’t those places and people in His “outside environment” need to be just as sinless as Mary’s womb? If no, why not? One has to wonder... why would the Catholic Church insist that the only thing in His environment that needed to be sinless was His mother?
Catholics insist that a sinless womb was “deserved” and “fitting" for Him. But, was being born in a smelly stable (Luke 2:7) “fitting"? Did not the Savior of the world deserve better? Of course He did. Did He deserve to die on a cross like a hardened criminal? Absolutely not. But it was NOT His purpose in coming to this earth to receive what people thought He “deserved,” or to receive what “seemed fitting” to man. If that would have been His purpose, then He would not have suffered and died on the cross, and we would all be lost. The bottom line is, He didn’t need to live in a sinless womb, just as He didn’t need to live in a sinless atmosphere outside the womb. His sinlessness did not come from His mother - it came from Himself (being God), so it could not be tainted or defiled by His environment.
OK, so why would any of this matter to us as Christians? What possible harm could this teaching of the Immaculate Conception cause? Why do we Protestants “pick on Mary," do we hate her or something?
No, we don’t hate Mary and we are not trying to take anything away from her. We believe that Mary was a godly, humble servant who was chosen to give birth to and raise the Christ. But the Catholic Church gives her a role that the Bible does not. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is an extraordinary claim which demands extraordinary proof. Could God have made her sinless? Sure, God could have easily done it if He wanted to, but again, although they claim otherwise, we certainly find no biblical support for this teaching.
Ultimately, it is Catholic Tradition which has produced this teaching and not Scripture. But, unfortunately for the Catholic, Sacred Tradition has a special set of problems all its own. See here: http://answeringcatholicclaims.blogspot.com/2010/05/what-about-tradition.html
The idea of someone else being sinless violates one of the main distinctions between Jesus Christ and mere men. This distracts from our focus on the uniqueness of Christ - in fact, it seems that most of the Catholic teachings on Mary seem to blur His uniqueness - and thus will turn some away from Him to over-focus on Mary. For example, in the eyes of many Catholics, Mary seems to be “more approachable” than God. But this is an unbiblical, dangerous and slippery slope. Embracing this kind of mindset will make it much easier to fall victim to false apparitions (visions) of Mary, as well.
No doubt, what started out in the early church as a genuine and well-intentioned study into the life of Mary and how she fits into the scheme of things, has over the centuries gradually transformed into an out-of-control infatuation, obsession, and even idolatry, toward Mary. Catholics will try to downplay this and say that the teaching was always there from the beginning, but that it simply “developed” over the years, like many other Catholic teachings. But this excessive devotion was a result of ignoring scriptural truth and has caused multitudes to fall away from God through idolatry.
My friends, souls are at stake here. If we can’t trust the Catholic Church when she solemnly declares an infallible teaching, then which of her teachings CAN we trust? Let us, rather, learn to trust in the God-inspired Bible, and only those teachings that agree with its principles.