Luke 1:28 [RSV]: “And he came to her and said, ‘Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!'”
[The RSVCE translates kecharitomene (“favored one” above) as “full of grace”]
Catholics believe that this verse is an indication of the sinlessness of Mary – itself the kernel of the more developed doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. But that is not apparent at first glance (especially if the verse is translated “highly favored” – which does not bring to mind sinlessness in present-day language). I have done a great deal of exegesis and analysis of this verse, in dialogue with Evangelical Protestants, and so I shall draw from that thought and experience in this chapter.
Protestants are hostile to the notions of Mary’s freedom from actual sin and her Immaculate Conception (in which God freed her from original sin from the moment of her conception) because they feel that this makes her a sort of goddess and improperly set apart from the rest of humanity. They do not believe that it was fitting for God to set her apart in such a manner, even for the purpose of being the Mother of Jesus Christ, and don’t see that this is “fitting” or “appropriate” (as Catholics do).
The great Baptist Greek scholar A.T. Robertson exhibits a Protestant perspective, but is objective and fair-minded, in commenting on this verse as follows:
“Highly favoured” (kecharitomene). Perfect passive participle of charitoo and means endowed with grace (charis), enriched with grace as in Ephesians. 1:6, . . . The Vulgate gratiae plena “is right, if it means ‘full of grace which thou hast received‘; wrong, if it means ‘full of grace which thou hast to bestow‘” (Plummer).
(Robertson, II, 13)
Kecharitomene has to do with God’s grace, as it is derived from the Greek root, charis (literally, “grace”). Thus, in the KJV, charis is translated “grace” 129 out of the 150 times that it appears. Greek scholar Marvin Vincent noted that even Wycliffe and Tyndale (no enthusiastic supporters of the Catholic Church) both rendered kecharitomene in Luke 1:28 as “full of grace” and that the literal meaning was “endued with grace” (Vincent, I, 259).
Likewise, well-known Protestant linguist W.E. Vine, defines it as “to endue with Divine favour or grace” (Vine, II, 171). All these men (except Wycliffe, who probably would have been, had he lived in the 16th century or after it) are Protestants, and so cannot be accused of Catholic translation bias. Even a severe critic of Catholicism like James White can’t avoid the fact that kecharitomene (however translated) cannot be divorced from the notion of grace, and stated that the term referred to “divine favor, that is, God’s grace” (White, 201).
Of course, Catholics agree that Mary has received grace. This is assumed in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception: it was a grace from God which could not possibly have had anything to do with Mary’s personal merit, since it was granted by God at the moment of her conception, to preserve her from original sin (as appropriate for the one who would bear God Incarnate in her very body).
The Catholic argument hinges upon the meaning of kecharitomene. For Mary this signifies a state granted to her, in which she enjoys an extraordinary fullness of grace. Charis often refers to a power or ability which God grants in order to overcome sin (and this is how we interpret Luke 1:28). This sense is a biblical one, as Greek scholar Gerhard Kittel points out:
Grace is the basis of justification and is also manifested in it ([Rom.] 5:20-21). Hence grace is in some sense a state (5:2), although one is always called into it (Gal. 1:6), and it is always a gift on which one has no claim. Grace is sufficient (1 Cor. 1:29) . . . The work of grace in overcoming sin displays its power (Rom. 5:20-21) . . .
Protestant linguist W.E. Vine concurs that charis can mean “a state of grace, e.g., Rom. 5:2; 1 Pet. 5:12; 2 Pet. 3:18” (Vine, II, 170). One can construct a strong biblical argument from analogy, for Mary’s sinlessness. For St. Paul, grace (charis) is the antithesis and “conqueror” of sin (emphases added in the following verses):
Romans 6:14: “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (cf. Rom 5:17,20-21, 2 Cor 1:12, 2 Timothy 1:9)
We are saved by grace, and grace alone:
Ephesians 2:8-10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (cf. Acts 15:11, Rom 3:24, 11:5, Eph 2:5, Titus 2:11, 3:7, 1 Pet 1:10)
Thus, the biblical argument outlined above proceeds as follows:
1. Grace saves us.
2. Grace gives us the power to be holy and righteous and without sin.
Therefore, for a person to be full of grace is both to be saved and to be completely, exceptionally holy. It’s a “zero-sum game”: the more grace one has, the less sin. One might look at grace as water, and sin as the air in an empty glass (us). When you pour in the water (grace), the sin (air) is displaced. A full glass of water, therefore, contains no air (see also, similar zero-sum game concepts in 1 John 1:7, 9; 3:6, 9; 5:18). To be full of grace is to be devoid of sin. Thus we might re-apply the above two propositions:
1. To be full of the grace that saves is surely to be saved.
2. To be full of the grace that gives us the power to be holy, righteous, and without sin is to be fully without sin, by that same grace.
A deductive, biblical argument for the Immaculate Conception, with premises derived directly from Scripture, might look like this:
1. The Bible teaches that we are saved by God’s grace.
2. To be “full of” God’s grace, then, is to be saved.
3. Therefore, Mary is saved (Luke 1:28).
4. The Bible teaches that we need God’s grace to live a holy life, free from sin.
5. To be “full of” God’s grace is thus to be so holy that one is sinless.
6. Therefore, Mary is holy and sinless.
7. The essence of the Immaculate Conception is sinlessness.
8. Therefore, the Immaculate Conception, in its essence, can be directly deduced from Scripture.
The only way out of the logic would be to deny one of the two premises, and hold either that grace does not save or that grace is not that power which enables one to be sinless and holy. It is highly unlikely that any Evangelical Protestant would take such a position, so the argument is a very strong one, because it proceeds upon their own premises.
In this fashion, the essence of the Immaculate Conception (i.e., the sinlessness of Mary) is proven from biblical principles and doctrines accepted by every orthodox Protestant. Certainly all mainstream Christians agree that grace is required both for salvation and to overcome sin. So in a sense my argument is only one of degree, deduced (almost by common sense, I would say) from notions that all Christians hold in common.
One possible quibble might be about when God applied this grace to Mary. We know (from Luke 1:28) that she had it as a young woman, at the Annunciation. Catholics believe that God gave her the grace at her conception so that she might avoid the original sin that she otherwise would have inherited, being human. Therefore, by God’s preventive grace, she was saved from falling into the pit of sin, rather than rescued after she had fallen in.
All of this follows straightforwardly from Luke 1:28 and the (primarily Pauline) exegesis of charis elsewhere in the New Testament. It would be strange for a Protestant to underplay grace, when they are known for their constant emphasis on grace alone for salvation. (We Catholics fully agree with that; we merely deny the tenet of “faith alone,” as contrary to the clear teaching of St. James and St. Paul.)
Protestants keep objecting that these Catholic beliefs are speculative; that is, that they go far beyond the biblical evidence. But once one delves deeply enough into Scripture and the meanings of the words of Scripture, they are not that speculative at all. Rather, it looks much more like Protestant theology has selectively trumpeted the power of grace when it applies to all the rest of us Christian believers, but downplayed it when it applies to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
What we have, then, is not so much a matter of Catholics reading into Scripture, as Protestants, in effect, reading certain passages out of Scripture altogether (that is, ignoring their strong implications), because they do not fit in with their preconceived notions (yet another instance of my general theme).
My first online-debate opponent could not refute this reasoning in any effective way. He tried to produce some counter-verses, but they did not overcome the logic and force of the argument. Several other Protestants who had been following the dialogue then took up the challenge. Let’s look at their responses:
First, it was argued that St. Stephen was also described as “full of grace” in Acts 6:8. But in that verse, the phrase is pleres charitos, not kecharitomene. If the Greek terminology is different, then the argument loses most or all of its relevance and force.
The second argument was from Eric Svendsen, a Protestant apologist who specializes in opposing the Catholic Church. In one of his books, he states that the root word for kecharitomene, charitoo, is found elsewhere in Scripture (in the same participial form as in Luke 1:28); therefore, Catholics should consistently regard others to whom it is applied as sinless also:
. . . charitoo . . . occurs in the same participial form in Sir. 18:17 with no theological significance. It also occurs in Eph. 1:6 where it is applied to all believers . . . Are we to conclude on this basis that all believers are without original sin?
Ephesians 1:5-6 reads, “He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”
Svendsen thinks this defeats the Catholic exegesis at Luke 1:28, but the variant of charitoo (grace) here is different (echaritosen). According to Marvin Vincent, a well-known Protestant linguist and expert on biblical Greek, the meaning is:
. . . not “endued us with grace,” nor “made us worthy of love,” but, as “grace – which he freely bestowed.”
(Vincent, III, 365)
Vincent indicates different meanings for the word grace in Luke 1:28 and Ephesians 1:6. He holds to “endued with grace” as the meaning in Luke 1:28, so he expressly contrasts the meaning here with that passage. A.T. Robertson also defines the word in the same fashion, as “he freely bestowed” (Robertson, IV, 518).
As for the grace bestowed here on all believers being parallel to the fullness of grace bestowed upon the Blessed Virgin Mary, this simply cannot logically be the case, once proper exegesis is undertaken. Apart from the different meanings of the specific word used, as shown, grace is possessed in different measure by different believers, as seen elsewhere in Scripture:
2 Peter 3:18: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.”
Ephesians 4:7: “But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” (cf. Acts 4:33, Rom 5:20, 6:1, James 4:6, 1 Pet 5:5, 2 Peter 1:2)
The “freely bestowed” grace of Ephesians 1:6, then, cannot possibly be considered the equivalent of that “fullness of grace” applied to Mary in Luke 1:28 because it refers to a huge group of people, with different gifts and various levels of grace bestowed, as the verses just cited show. Svendsen’s argument is as fallacious as the following analogy:
Suppose a group of Christian baseball players – some of the greatest and the least talented alike – prayed to God before a game:
“He destined us in love to be his ballplayers through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious gift of athletic ability and talents which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”
Obviously, God granted the talents and abilities of each ballplayer, in the sense of being Creator and source of all good things. But are these talents given in equal measure? Of course not (see especially Ephesians 4:7). Likewise, grace is given in different measure to believers. Therefore, Svendsen’s argument that Ephesians 1:6 is a direct parallel to Luke 1:28 collapses. The mass of Christian believers as a whole possess neither the same degree of grace nor of sanctity, and everyone knows this, from experience and revelation alike.
But Mary (as an individual person) was addressed in an extraordinary fashion by a title that, biblically, means the one so addressed is particularly exemplified by the characteristics of the title. Mary was “full of grace”; kecharitomene here takes on the significance of a noun. No attempt to downplay or diminish the significance of this will succeed. The meaning is all too clear.
Svendsen points out that Luke 1:28 uses the perfect tense, whereas Ephesians 1:6 does not, and that Catholics might use this argument to bolster their case (since that indicates a difference between the two passages). But, he writes:
[T]his does not help their case since the perfect tense speaks only of the current state of the subject without reference to how long the subject has been in that state, or will be in that state.
So he tries to show by cross-referencing and Greek grammar that Luke 1:28 is neither unique nor a support for Mary’s sinlessness or the Immaculate Conception. But the perfect stem of a Greek verb, denotes, according to Friedrich Blass and Albert DeBrunner, “continuance of a completed action” (Greek Grammar of the New Testament [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961], 66). Mary, therefore, continues afterward to be full of the grace she possessed at the time of the Annunciation. That cannot, of course, be said of all believers in Ephesians 1:6, because of differences of levels of grace, as shown earlier.
As for Svendsen’s cross-reference to Sirach 18:17, where the word is in the same form (kecharitomene), that verse also applies generally: “Indeed, does not a word surpass a good gift? Both are to be found in a gracious man.”
Moreover, this is proverbial, or wisdom literature. According to standard hermeneutical principles, this is not the sort of biblical literature on which to build doctrines or systematic theology (or even precise meanings of words). The reason is that proverbial expression admits of many exceptions. If one says, for example, “Happy people smile” may be true much of the time, but it is not always true. Proverbial language is, therefore, too imprecise to use in determining exact theological propositions. Meaning depends on context, as any lexicon will quickly prove.
Even apart from the important factor of the proverbial style of writing found in Sirach, linguists attribute different meanings to kecharitomene in the two verses. As Joseph Thayer, another great biblical Greek scholar, writes:
Luke 1:28: “to pursue with grace, compass with favor; to honor with blessings.”
Sirach 18:17: “to make graceful i.e., charming, lovely, agreeable.”
(Thayer, 667; Strong’s word no. 5487)
Eric Svendsen’s attempt to lump in Luke 1:28 with other “similar” passages has failed, because reputable linguists demonstrate that there are enough differences to cast doubt on his argument. Context, grammar, and hermeneutical principles alike sink his case.
Most Protestant thinkers and opponents of Catholic doctrine would, I think, assume that the Immaculate Conception could easily be disproven from Scripture. But from an analysis of the verses cited, we see that, although it cannot be absolutely proven from Scripture alone, it cannot be ruled out on the basis of Scripture, either. What is more, a solid deductive and exegetical basis for belief in Mary’s sinlessness, and thus her Immaculate Conception, can be drawn from Scripture alone.
Kittel, Gerhard, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, translated and abridged into one volume by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985.
Robertson, Archibald T. [Baptist], Word Pictures in the New Testament, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930, 6 volumes. Available online.
Svendsen, Eric D., Who is My Mother?, Amityville, New York: Calvary Press, 2001.
Thayer, Joseph H., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1977; from 4th edition of 1901.
Vincent, Marvin R., Word Studies in the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1946, four volumes, from 1887 edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons).
Vine, W. E., An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co., four volumes-in-one edition, 1940.
White, James R., The Roman Catholic Controversy, Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1996.