Was Mary Sinless?
No woman in all of history stands out more than Mary. Her fame is due to the fact that God chose her to bring into the world the long-awaited Savior and Messiah, Jesus Christ. Since Jesus Christ was the greatest Person ever to set foot on the Earth—the Teacher of teachers, the Man Who has changed more lives than any other throughout the centuries, and the One Who gives mankind the opportunity to be free from the bonds of sin—everything associated with His life, His character, and His teachings has been a source of great interest to many. The desire to know more about the Lord has led many to place excessive emphasis on those who were close to Him and uninspired traditions about them.
Questions arise: Who would have been the closest to God Incarnate? Who could tell us, in profound detail, about His nights of infancy, His adolescent anxieties, and the afflictions of His ministry? Obviously, the woman who held the Savior of the world in her arms from the time of His birth, calmed His crying with her lullabies, healed His childhood wounds, and watched Him grow and become a man, would have been closer to Him than any other human being. So, by virtue of her relationship to Jesus, some argue that Mary is deserving of greater honor than anyone else who ever has obeyed God.
Catholics have elevated Mary to a higher level than God ever intended. The supporters of human traditions have united their forces to make Mary not just a “maidservant of the Lord” (Luke 1:38), but rather the “Mother of God.” We will open the Bible to examine the things related to this special woman who “found favor with God” (Luke 1:30).
Many assertions have been made about Mary, and many religious traditions surround her. One prominent Catholic declaration about Mary states that she was sinless (see Catechism..., 1994, 491). In reality, this statement implies two things that even some Catholics do not know or understand: (1) Mary was the only person (apart from Jesus Christ) who came into the world without the contamination of “original sin,” and (2) Mary was the only person (apart from Jesus Christ) who never committed sin. We will consider these two assertions briefly.
We agree (in part) with the first assertion. Mary was born free of the contamination of Adam’s sin, but she was not the only one. In fact, everyone arrives in this world without the contamination of original sin. The Catholic doctrine, which teaches that all people inherit Adam’s sin (which led to the requirement of infant baptism), originated from a misinterpretation of some biblical passages. It is an example of great familiarity with tradition and very little understanding of the Scriptures. The doctrine of “original sin” has caused many problems for Catholicism. It undermined the high level to which Catholics had elevated Mary, as well as the image of her they created. They had to find a way to preserve the sinless image of Mary that they had created. So, in 1854, policymakers within the Catholic Church “liberated” Mary, stating that she was born without original sin (see Herbermann, 1913, 7:674-675). This allowed her to wear the title “Most Holy.”
Romans 5:12 has been used extensively to support the Catholic doctrine of “original sin.” In this passage, Paul wrote: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.” At first glance, this text may seem to support the idea of original sin; however, a proper study of this verse will show that this is not the case.
First, Paul said that “through one man sin entered the world.” Paul did not say that sin entered into every person at birth. Rather, sin became a part of the world in general. Second, Paul said that death entered through sin. This refers exclusively to the death that Adam and Eve experienced in the beginning. Third, Paul noted that “death spread to all men, because all sinned.” The text does not say that death spread to all men because Adam sinned but because all sinned. It is clear that humanity is the recipient of the consequence of Adam’s sin (i.e., death), but is not the recipient of the guilt of Adam’s sin. Each accountable person dies for his or her own sin (Romans 3:23).
Ezekiel 18:20 declares: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (cf. Deuteronomy 24:16; Jeremiah 31:30). Since the Bible emphatically affirms that the son does not bear the guilt (or iniquity) of the father, this means that Cain, Abel, and Seth did not carry the sin of their father, Adam. How, then, can we possibly carry Adam’s sin? The truth is that children are born without sin. This is why Jesus said that in order to enter into the kingdom of heaven, one should become like a child (Matthew 18:3). But if children come into this world “dragging” the sin of the first man and, therefore, are contaminated, what sense would it make for Jesus to encourage us to be like them?
A just and righteous God would not (and will not) condemn all humanity for the sin of one man. No man on Earth bears the sin that Adam committed. Mary, just like everyone else in this world, was born without the contamination of any original sin.
But what about the assertion that Mary was the only person (apart from Jesus Christ) who never committed sin? No Bible verse explicitly declares that Mary committed any sin (just as there is no verse which declares that Seth, Enoch, Stephen, Philemon, etc., committed sin), but many Bible verses explicitly state that everyone sins. Therefore, Mary sinned. We should not belittle the impressive biblical record of Mary. But she, like any other human being, needed a Savior to take away her sins.
Paul was very emphatic about this subject: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, emp. added). Paul allowed no exceptions. He wrote that all have sinned. There is no doubt that the word “all” includes Mary. Paul agreed with the psalmist’s inspired assessment of humanity: “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10; cf. Psalms 14:3; 53:1-3). But if Mary never committed sin, the text should read: “There is none righteous, except Mary.”
It is important to note that the Bible places emphasis on what all, except Jesus, have done (i.e., sinned). One of the major differences between the sons of men and the Son of Man is that we succumb to sin, but Jesus never did. Hebrews 4:15 notes: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (emp. added; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21). What praise or honor should be given to Jesus Christ (our High Priest) if He achieved that which a mere human had already achieved? If Mary never sinned, why did God give the high priesthood of the church to Jesus instead of her? In fact, the declaration of the Hebrews writer would lose its power if someone else had already achieved sinless perfection.
Mary herself acknowledged this great doctrinal truth, i.e., that all have sinned and are in need of a Savior. She declared: “And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior” (Luke 1:47, emp. added). This fits with what the angel told Joseph about Mary: “And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, emp. added). Jesus came to save mankind from the bondage of sin. When Mary recognized God as her Savior, she also recognized that, just as any other human being, she needed salvation. If Mary lived and left this life without committing sin, it follows that she would not have needed a Savior. Why, then, did she refer to God as her “Savior”? If she was sinless, from what was she saved?
Finally, God’s grace for Mary was not earned—but given. Advocates of the doctrine of the Most Holy Immaculate Conception argue that when the angel called Mary the “highly favored one” (Luke 1:28), he implied that she was pure in the highest sense of the word and, ultimately, without any vestige of sin. Nevertheless, the expression “highly favored one” is not intended to emphasize some sort of unique nature of Mary, but rather the nature of God’s immeasurable favor. Verse 30 states: “Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.’” The great peculiarity of Mary’s life is not some sort of unique moral nature that she achieved, but rather the greatness of divine favor and grace that she received from God. Mary understood this point very well and declared: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, emp. added).
If Mary was not exempt from sin, how was Jesus born without sin? As we already indicated, no child bears the iniquity of his or her parents (Ezekiel 18:20). If it were necessary for Mary to have been sinless, in the absolute sense of the word, in order to have a sinless child, then sinlessness also would be required of Mary’s parents, in order to conceive a “sinless” Mary. In turn, all Mary’s ancestors logically would have had to meet the same requirement.
We conclude from the Bible: (1) Like every other person ever born, Mary was born without any kind of original sin; (2) like every other person ever born (apart from Jesus Christ), Mary was not exempt from sin and its consequences; and (3) like every other person ever born (apart from Jesus Christ), Mary was in need of a Savior. These biblical facts do not minimize the importance of Mary’s role in fulfilling God’s divine plan to save man. Because of her godly life, God chose this particular young Jewish virgin to bring forth the Messiah. However, she was not sinless. Throughout history, God has used ordinary, imperfect men and women to accomplish extraordinary things, bringing them closer to “perfection” through His Son, Jesus Christ.
Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), (Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press).
Herbermann, Charles G., et al., eds. (1913), The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: The Encyclopedia Press).