The Immaculate Conception (c. 1678), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
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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).
(Word Pictures in the New Testament, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930, six volumes, Vol. II, 13)
Kecharitomene has to do with God’s grace, as it is derived from the Greek root, charis (literally, “grace”). Greek scholar Marvin R. 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” (Word Studies in the New Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1946, four volumes, from 1887 edition: New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons; Vol. I, 259).
Likewise, well-known Protestant linguist W.E. Vine, defines it as “to endue with Divine favour or grace” (An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., four volumes-in-one edition, 1940, Vol. 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.
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).
In my paper, “Biblical Overview: The Blessed Virgin Mary,” I wrote:
Kecharitomene, in any event, is derived from the root charis, whose literal meaning is grace (it is translated as grace 129 out of 150 times in the KJV). The angel is here, in effect, giving Mary a new name (full of grace), as if he were addressing Abraham as full of faith, or Solomon full of wisdom (characteristics which typified them). Throughout the Bible, names were indicative of one’s character and essence, all the more so if God renamed a person.
The highly regarded Protestant Greek reference work, Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words (edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich; translated and abridged in one volume by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985, 1304-1305, defines charis, charizomai, charitoo, acharistos as follows:
Distinctively charis in Paul expounds the structure of the salvation event. The basic thought is that of free giving. In view is not just a quality in God but its actualization at the cross (Gal. 2:21) and its proclamation in the gospel. We are saved by grace alone . . . it is the totality of salvation (2 Cor. 6:1) that all believers have (1 Cor. 1:4) . . . 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) . . . In Col. 1:6 charis means the gospel . . .
Charis (grace) often means favor, it is true, but it can also refer to a state. The latter is how Catholics usually think of grace: or more specifically, as 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 well, as seen in the above citation, and in the following, from Greek scholar W.E. Vine:
. . . in another objective sense, the effect of grace, the spiritual state of those who have experienced its exercise, whether (1) a state of grace, e.g., Rom. 5:2; 1 Pet. 5:12; 2 Pet. 3:18, or (2) a proof thereof in practical effects, deeds of grace, e.g., 1 Cor. 16:3 . . .; 2 Cor. 8:6,19 . . . the power and equipment for ministry, e.g., Rom. 1:5; 12:6; 15:15; 1 Cor. 3:10; Gal. 2:9; Eph. 3:2,7 . . .
(Vine, ibid., Vol. 2, 170, “Grace” / “Charis”)
For Paul, grace (charis) is the antithesis and overcomer of sin (RSV):
Romans 5:20-21 Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Romans 6:14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
Romans 5:17 If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
2 Timothy 1:9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ
Jesus ages ago,
2 Corinthians 1:12 For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience that we have behaved in the world, and still more toward you, with holiness and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God.
2 Corinthians 12:9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
We are saved, of course, by grace, and grace alone:
Acts 15:11 But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
Ephesians 2:5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
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.
Titus 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men,
1 Peter 1:10 The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation;
Romans 3:24 they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus,
Romans 11:5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.
Titus 3:7 so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
Now, the implications of all this for Luke 1:28 and the Immaculate Conception of Mary ought to be obvious by now. All of the above instances of “grace” in English are translations of the Greek charis, the root of the word used by an angel in Luke 1:28 to describe Mary: kecharitomene. From the above we learn two things, and they are biblically certain:
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 to both be saved and to be exceptionally, completely holy. Thus we might re-apply the above two propositions as follows:
1. To be full of the grace which saves is to surely be saved.
2. To be full of the grace which gives us the power to be holy and righteous and without sin, is to be fully without sin, by that same grace.
Or, we could make the following deductive argument, with premises (#1 and #2) derived directly from Scripture:
1. The Bible teaches that we are saved by God’s grace.
2. The Bible teaches that we need God’s grace to live a holy life, above sin.
3. To be “full of” God’s grace, then, is to be saved.
4. Therefore, Mary is saved.
5. To be “full of” God’s grace is also 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, is directly deduced from the strong evidence of many biblical passages, which teach the doctrines of #1 and #2.
The logic would seem to follow inexorably, from unquestionable biblical principles. The only way out of it would be to deny one of the two premises, and hold that either (1) grace doesn’t save, or that (2) grace isn’t that power which enables one to be sinless and holy. In this fashion, the entire essence of the Immaculate Conception is proven (alone) from biblical principles and doctrines which every orthodox Protestant holds.
The only possible quibble might be about when God applied this grace to Mary. We know she had it as a young woman, at the Annunciation. Catholics believe that God gave her the grace at her conception so as to avoid the original sin which she inevitably would have inherited, being human, but for God’s preventive grace, which saved her from falling into the pit of sin by avoidance rather than rescue, after she had fallen in. In a very simple sense, the Immaculate Conception is God giving Mary the grace to be as sinless and innocent as Eve originally was, a thing quite fitting and not at all strange or implausible for one chosen to bear the Lord God in her own body.
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 (with which we Catholics fully agree — we merely deny the tenet of faith alone, as contrary to the clear teaching James, and Paul, when closely scrutinized). If grace saves, then to be full of grace is to be not only saved, but without sin, according to biblical principles and Protestant beliefs concerning sanctification. For no one can have more grace than to be “full” of grace. It’s as simple as that.