In Part 5 of this series on the Immaculate Conception, I responded to the claim that Stephen the martyr and even all Christians are just as “full of grace” as Mary. With Part 6, I would like to respond to a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, which is perhaps the passage most often used by Protestants to refute the sinlessness of Mary.
“All Have Sinned”: What about Mary?
Here is the passage in question:
“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
While on the surface this may appear to clearly contradict the doctrine of Mary’s sinlessness, further dissection 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 Romans 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, for example:
Romans 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.
Matthew 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.
Matthew 3:5: “Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan ….”
- Every single person in Judea?
Matthew 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 Romans 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 than 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” (Romans 3:9). Romans 3:23 is simply a repetition of this verse. So, we are beginning to see Paul’s purpose for saying that “all have sinned.” He’s not trying to make a blanket statement about all mankind. He’s trying to make the point that the Jews are no better than anyone else.
No One Is Righteous
Some may respond by citing verses 10-12, from the same chapter:
… [A]s it is written: “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.” (Romans 3:10-12)
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:
The LORD looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God. 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 (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; Psalms 5:12; 32:11; 34:15; 37:16,32; Matthew 13:17; 25:46; Romans 5:19; Hebrews 11:4; James 5:16; 1 Peter 3:12; 4:18, etc.). Luke 1:6 itself destroys an exaggerated understanding of Paul’s words:
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 Psalms 14:2-3 (and consequently Romans 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 Romans 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 Romans 9:11, where Paul says, “… [T]hough 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 relative 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 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 Romans 3:10-15, which provides some helpful context for both passages we are discussing here:
… [A]s it is written: “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.” “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 up to this point regain their relevance.
In the concluding installment I will address a passage from John’s first letter that is similar to what we have responded to here, and I will answer an important question: “If Mary was conceived sinless, how could she proclaim that God was her savior?”