The Immaculate Conception: Drama, Dogma, and Disaster

By Richard Bennett

The Roman Catholic world is preparing to commemorate the promulgation of ‘The Immaculate Conception’ of Mary 150 years ago. Much has taken place already to celebrate this event and the climax is expected on 8 December 2004.

Worship of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is standard practice in the Church of Rome. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori [1994] 2677, hereafter called Catechism) says: ‘By asking Mary to pray for us, we acknowledge ourselves to be poor sinners and we address ourselves to the “Mother of Mercy”, the All Holy One’.

The enthusiasm and fervour for the further propagation of this papal dogma is due to the fact that most other traditional dogmas on Mary are based on the teaching of ‘The Immaculate Conception’.

Was Mary Sinless?

What does ‘Immaculate Conception’ mean? The dogma is nothing to do with the virgin birth of Jesus Christ but concerns, rather, Mary’s own conception in the womb of her mother. It is asserted that she was ‘full of grace’ and that she was free from original sin and sinless for her whole lifetime.

The official teaching is articulated in the following words:

‘Through the centuries the [Catholic] 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, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin … By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long’ (Catechism 491, 493).

Full of Grace?

The papacy asserts that the term ‘full of grace’ is found in Luke 1:28. However, even in the Catholic New American Bible the text reads, ‘And coming to her, he said, Hail, favoured one! The Lord is with you’.

In official dogmas ‘favoured one’ is erroneously rendered ‘full of grace’, while the most recited prayer in Catholicism begins, ‘Hail Mary full of grace’. But, the central idea of the Scripture text is that Mary has become the recipient of God’s favour. The same verb is used in only one other place in the New Testament, Ephesians 1:6, where the recipients of God’s favour are all of God’s chosen people.

The official teaching also declares that Mary is ‘the most excellent fruit of redemption’ (SC 103). From the first instant of her conception, ‘she was totally preserved from the stain of original sin and she remained pure from all personal sin throughout her life’ (Catechism 508).

For Roman Catholics this implies not just that Mary was the recipient of special grace but that, as a consequence, she is capable of bestowing grace on others. What makes all this so appalling is that in Scripture the fullness of grace is distinctly Christ’s own prerogative. ‘Full of grace’ is the distinct attribute of his high-priestly office, while the bestowal of God’s grace and love in salvation is the work of Christ alone.

All Fulness in Christ

Let me demonstrate that this is so. ‘He dwelt among us, full of grace and truth’, says John 1:14. Everything that went before Christ was but a type and a representation of him. All that came after Christ points back to him.

‘And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace’, proclaimed the apostle John, ‘For the law was given by Moses but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’ (John 1:16-17). It is by his grace alone that true believers are made acceptable before the All Holy God.

The Father’s will was that all fullness should reside in Jesus Christ: ‘For it pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell’ (Colossians 1:19). Abundance of grace dwells only in the ‘Word made flesh’.

And as the source of all grace to his people, Christ has fullness of merit and righteousness. It delighted the Father that he should be the Saviour of the church, ‘the fullness of him that filleth all in all’ (Ephesians 1:23). He alone gives his people ‘grace for grace’.

Mary Rejoiced in Her Saviour

Ascribing to Mary the distinctive attribute ‘full of grace’ is blasphemous. It shows an arrogant disrespect for the incarnate Son of God: ‘Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high’ (Hebrews 1:3).

To direct anyone to Mary as the one who is ‘full of grace’ not only hijacks a distinctive feature of Christ — it also insults Mary herself! For she rejoiced that she had a Saviour.

She sang, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour’ (Luke 1:46-47). God is only called ‘Saviour’ because he saves his people from their sins — Mary needed her Saviour simply because she was a sinner like the rest of us.

The blessedness of Mary lay in God’s favour towards her, especially in appointing her to be the mother of the Lord. But the unadorned truth is that Mary, like all other genuine believers, was a sinner saved by God’s grace, through faith — not by any essential righteousness or preserving grace granted uniquely to her.

God Shares His Glory with No One

Christ Jesus himself, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is God, the all Holy One. In Catholicism an attempt is made to proclaim that Mary is also part of that All Holy One.

‘By asking Mary to pray for us, we acknowledge ourselves to be poor sinners and we address ourselves to the “Mother of Mercy”, the All Holy One’ (Catechism 2677).

The Bible teaches that God alone is infinite, eternal and unchangeable — in his being, wisdom, power, justice, goodness and truth. His holiness is the attribute that covers all other attributes — so that his righteousness is holy, his truth is holy, and his justice is holy.

He is holy in each of his attributes, and the overall attribute of holiness is that which separates him from all other beings. He is totally other.

The reason why we need to be made right before the All Holy God is because, ‘there is none holy as the Lord. For there is none besides Thee, neither is there any rock like our God’ (1 Samuel 2:2).

Again, the Word of the Lord proclaims, ‘Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name, for thou only art holy and all nations shall come and worship before thee’ (Revelation 15:4).

To address a creature as the ‘All Holy One’ is consummate blasphemy and idolatry.

Can Mary Save?

The Catholic Church alleges that the one it addresses as ‘All Holy’ is also the cause of salvation. Rome declares: ‘As St. Irenaeus says, “Being obedient she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race”’ (Catechism, 494).

This is sophistry at its worst. Taking the fact that Mary was the physical instrument through whom Christ came into the world, they refashion this simple physical fact into an alleged spiritual power. They assume that Mary has influence with God, and actually present her as an effective cause in the salvation of souls, including her own. This sacrilegious claim impacts upon any person who desires to be saved before God.

It shows an arrogant disrespect for the work of Christ as the effectual cause of salvation and the love of God as its original cause. The Bible teaches that the salvation of men is a divine initiative: ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16).

God alone is ‘merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth’ (Exodus 34:6). To point anyone to Mary as ‘the cause of salvation’, is an outright betrayal of a person’s only hope, which is in Christ Jesus: ‘Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).

The drama leading up to 8 December 2004 is in fact a debacle and a disaster. It endangers the eternal welfare of people across the world, for it diverts attention from the true gospel of faith and trust in Christ alone.