Where Is the Immaculate Conception in the Bible?
Protestants claim Scripture has no evidence of the Immaculate Conception—but in fact, the evidence is all over the place
In my book Behold Your Mother: A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines, I give eight reasons for belief in the Immaculate Conception:
1. Mary is revealed to be “full of grace” in Luke 1:28.
2. Mary is revealed to be the fulfillment of the prophetic “Daughter of Zion” of Isaiah 12:1-6; Zephaniah 3:14-16; Zechariah 2:10; etc.
3. Mary is revealed to be “the beginning of the new creation” in fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:22.
4. Mary is revealed to possess a “blessed state” parallel with Christ’s in Luke 1:42.
5. Mary is called not just “blessed” among women, but “more blessed than all women” (including Eve) in Luke 1:42.
6. Mary is revealed to be the spotless “Ark of the Covenant” in Luke 1.
7. Mary is revealed to be the “New Eve” in Luke 1:37-38; John 2:4, 19:26-27; Revelation 12; and elsewhere.
8. Mary is revealed to be free from the pangs of labor in fulfillment of Isaiah 66:7-8.
Here, I will present some snippets from three of these biblical reasons for the immaculate conception. But first, I must say I am sympathetic to my Protestant friends, and others, who struggle with this teaching of the Catholic Faith. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” 1 John 1:8 adds, “If any man says he has no sin he is a liar and the truth is not in him.” These texts could not be clearer for millions of Protestants: “How could anyone believe that Mary was immaculate in light of these passages from Scripture? What’s more, Mary herself said, ‘My soul rejoices in God my savior’ in Luke 1:47. She clearly understood herself to be a sinner if she admits to needing a savior.”
Not a few Protestants are surprised to discover that the Catholic Church actually agrees that Mary was “saved.” Indeed, even if she was conceived immaculate, Mary still needed a savior! However, Mary was “saved” from sin in a most sublime manner. She was given the grace to be “saved” completely from sin so she never committed even the slightest transgression. The problem here is that Protestants tend to emphasize God’s “salvation” almost exclusively to the forgiveness of sins actually committed. However, Sacred Scripture indicates that salvation can also refer to man being protected from sinning before the fact.
Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you without blemish before the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and for ever (Jude 24-25).
The great Franciscan theologian, Duns Scotus, explained ca. 600 years ago that falling into sin could be likened to a man approaching unaware a massive twenty-foot-deep ditch. If he falls into the ditch, he will need someone to lower a rope and save him. But if someone were to warn him of the danger ahead, resulting in him not falling into the ditch at all, the man would have been saved from falling in the first place. Analogously, Mary was saved from sin by receiving the grace to be preserved from it. But she was still saved.
But what about “all have sinned,” and “if any man says he has no sin he is a liar and the truth is not in him?” Wouldn’t “all” and “any man” include Mary? On the surface, this sounds reasonable. But this way of thinking carried to its logical conclusion would list Jesus Christ in the company of sinners as well. No Christian would dare say that! Yet no Christian can deny the plain texts of Scripture declaring Christ’s full humanity, either. Thus, if one is going to take 1 John 1:8 in a strict literal sense, then “any man” would apply to Jesus as well!
The truth is—and all Christians agree—Jesus Christ was an exception to Romans 3:23 and 1 John 1:8. And the Bible tells us he was in Hebrews 4:15: “Christ was tempted in all points even as we are and yet he was without sin.” The real question now is, are there any other exceptions to this rule? Yes, there are. In fact, there are millions of them.
First of all, we need to recall that both of these texts—Romans 3:23 and 1 John 1:8—are dealing with personal rather than original sin. Romans 5:12 will deal with original sin. And there are two exceptions to that general biblical norm as well. But for now, we will simply deal with Romans 3:23 and 1 John 1:8. 1 John 1:8 obviously refers to personal sin because in the very next verse, St. John tells us, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.” We do not confess original sin; we confess personal sins.
The context of Romans 3:23 makes clear that it too refers to personal sin:
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave. They use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness (Romans 3:10-14).
Original sin is not something we do; it is something we’ve inherited. Romans 3 deals with personal sin because it speaks of sins committed by the sinner. With this in mind, consider this: has a baby in the womb or a child of two ever committed a personal sin? No, he hasn’t (see Rom. 9:11)! Or how about the mentally challenged who do not have the use of their intellects and wills? These cannot sin because in order to sin, a person has to know that 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. Right there you have millions of exceptions to Romans 3:23 and 1 John 1:8.
The question remains: how do we know that Mary is an exception to the norm of “all have sinned”? And more specifically, is there biblical support for the Immaculate Conception? Yes, there is. Indeed, there is much biblical support, but in this brief article I shall cite just three examples, among the eight, as I said before, that give us biblical support for this ancient doctrine of the Faith.
1. Luke 1:28
And [the angel Gabriel] came to [Mary] and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
Many Protestants will insist that this text is little more than a common greeting of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary. “What would this have to do with an immaculate conception?” Yet the truth is, according to Mary herself, that this was no common greeting. The text reveals Mary to have been “greatly troubled at the saying and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). What was it about this greeting that was so uncommon for Mary to react this way? There are at least two key reasons:
First, according to many biblical scholars as well as Pope St. John Paul II, the angel did more than simply greet Mary. The angel actually communicated a new name or title to her. In Greek, the greeting was kaire, kekaritomene, or “hail, full of grace.” Generally speaking, when one greeted another with kaire, a name or title would almost be expected to be found in the immediate context. “Hail, king of the Jews” in John 19:3 and “Claudias Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greeting” (Acts 23:26) are two biblical examples of this. The fact that the angel replaces Mary’s name in the greeting with “full of grace” was anything but common. This would be analogous to me speaking to one of our tech guys at Catholic Answers and saying, “Hello, he who fixes computers.” In our culture, I would just be considered weird. But in Hebrew culture, names, and name changes, tell us something that is permanent about the character and calling of the one named. Just recall the name changes of Abram to Abraham (changed from “father” to “father of the multitudes”) in Genesis 17:5, Saray to Sarah (“my princess” to “princess”) in Genesis 17:15, and Jacob to Israel (“supplanter” to “he who prevails with God”) in Genesis 32:28.
In each case, the names reveal something permanent about the one named. Abraham and Sarah transition from being a “father” and “princess” of one family to being “father” and “princess” or “mother” of the entire people of God (see Isa. 51:1-2; Rom. 4:1-18). They become patriarch and matriarch of God’s people forever. Jacob/Israel becomes the patriarch whose name, “he who prevails with God,” continues forever in the Church, which is called “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). The people of God will forever “prevail with God” in the image of the patriarch Jacob, who was not just named Israel, but truly became “he who prevails with God.”
An entire tome could be written concerning the significance of God’s revelation of his name in Exodus 3:14-15 as I AM. God revealed to us volumes about his divine nature in and through the revelation of his name: God is pure being with no beginning and no end, he is all perfection, etc.
When you add to this the fact that St. Luke uses the perfect passive participle, kekaritomene, as his “name” for Mary, we get deeper insight into the meaning of Mary’s new name. This word literally means “she who has been graced” in a completed sense. This verbal adjective, “graced,” is not just describing a simple past action. Greek has the aorist tense for that. The perfect tense is used to indicate that an action has been completed in the past, resulting in a present state of being. That’s Mary’s name! So what does it tell us about Mary? Well, the average Christian is not completed in grace and in a permanent sense (see Phil. 3:8-12). But according to the angel, Mary is. You and I sin, not because of grace, but because of a lack of grace, or a lack of our cooperation with grace, in our lives. This greeting of the angel is one clue into the unique character and calling of the immaculate Mother of God.
One objection to the above is rooted in Ephesians 2:8-9. Here, St. Paul uses the perfect tense and passive voice when he says, “For by grace you have been saved.” Why wouldn’t we then conclude that all Christians are complete in salvation for all time? There seems to be an inconsistency in usage here.
Actually, the Catholic Church understands that Christians are completed in grace when they are baptized. In context, Paul is speaking about the initial grace of salvation in Ephesians 2. The verses leading up to Ephesians 2:8-9, make this clear:
We all lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath . . . even when we were dead in trespasses and sins (vv. 3-5).
But there is no indication here, as there is with Mary, that the Christian is going to stay that way. In other words, Ephesians 2:8-9 does not confer a name.
In fact, because of original sin, we can guarantee that though we are certainly perfected in grace through baptism, ordinarily speaking, we will not stay that way after we are baptized—that is, if we live for very long afterward (see 1 John 1:8)! There may be times in the lives of Christians when they are completed or perfected in grace temporarily—for example, after going to confession or receiving the Eucharist well disposed. We let God, of course, be the judge of this, not us, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 4:3-4:
I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted (Gr., justified). It is the Lord who judges me.
But only Mary is given the name “full of grace,” and in the perfect tense, indicating that this permanent state of Mary was completed—that she was conceived immaculate.
2. An Ancient Prophecy: Genesis 3:15
Genesis 3:15 is often referred to by biblical scholars as the Protoevangelium. It is a sort of “gospel” before “the gospel.” This little text contains in very few words God’s plan of salvation, which would be both revealed and realized in the person of Jesus Christ. Yet when one reads the text, one cannot help but note that this prophetic woman seems to have what could be termed almost a disturbing prominence and importance in God’s providential plan:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed: he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.
Not only do we have the Virgin Birth here implied because the text says the Messiah will be born of “the seed of the woman” (the “seed” is normally of the man), but notice that “the woman” is not included as “the seed” of the devil. It seems that both the woman and her seed are in opposition to and therefore not under the dominion of the devil and “his seed”—i.e., all who have original sin and are “by nature children of wrath” as Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:3. Here, we have in seed form (pun intended) the fact that the woman—Mary—would be immaculate, without sin, especially original sin, just as her son—the Messiah—would be. The emphasis on Mary is truly remarkable in that the future Messiah is mentioned only in relation to her. There can be little doubt that a parallel is being drawn between Jesus and Mary and their absolute opposition to the devil.
3. Mary, Ark of the Covenant
The Old Testament Ark of the Covenant was a true icon of the sacred. It was a picture of the purity and holiness God fittingly demands of those objects and persons most closely associated with himself and the plan of salvation. Because it would contain the presence of God symbolized by three types of the coming Messiah—the manna, the Ten Commandments, and Aaron’s staff—it had to be pure and untouched by sinful man (see Exod. 25:10ff; Num. 4:15; 2 Sam. 6:1-9; Heb. 9:4).
In the New Testament, the new and true ark would be not an inanimate object, but an immaculate person: the Blessed Mother. How much more pure would the new and true ark be when we consider that the old ark was a mere “shadow” in relation to it (see Heb. 10:1)? This image of Mary as the Ark of the Covenant is an indicator that Mary would fittingly be immaculate, free from all contagion of sin in order for her to be a worthy vessel to bear God in her womb. And most importantly, just as the Old Covenant ark was pristine from the moment it was constructed with explicit divine instructions in Exodus 25, so would Mary be most pure from the moment of her conception. God, in a sense, through the Immaculate Conception, prepared his own dwelling place in both the Old and New Testaments.
In Behold Your Mother, there is much more that I say about the above three biblical reasons for the Immaculate Conception—and not only that, but I give you five more reasons as well. There is only so much I can do in a brief magazine article. If you would like to dive deeper, click here.