Question: "What is the Immaculate Conception?"
Answer: Many people mistakenly believe that the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ conception was most assuredly immaculate—that is, without the stain of sin—but the Immaculate Conception does not refer to Jesus at all. The Immaculate Conception is a doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church in regards to Mary, Jesus’ mother. The official statement of the doctrine reads, “The blessed Virgin Mary to have been, from the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Christ Jesus the Savior of Mankind, preserved free from all stain of original sin” (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, December 1854). Essentially, the Immaculate Conception is the belief that Mary was protected from original sin, that Mary did not have a sin nature and was, in fact, sinless.
Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on December 8. Within Eastern Orthodoxy, December 9 is the date of the Feast of the Conception by St. Anne of the Most Holy Theotokos. (Anne is Mary’s mother, according to tradition.) The Eastern Church does not hold to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, although they do consider Mary “all-holy,” that is, she never committed a sin.
The Immaculate Conception is not a virgin birth. Catholics believe Mary was conceived the normal way, but God made her immune from imputed or inherited sin. For as long as she’s been in existence, Mary has been free of sin. This allowed her to be the “second Eve” to give birth to the “second Adam” (see 1 Corinthians 15:45). Overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35), Mary was a pure and holy “ark,” fit to carry the Son of God. As the ark of the Lord in Moses’ day carried the elements of the Old Covenant within it, so Mary carried the Author of the New Covenant within her.
The Roman Catholic Church bases its teaching of the Immaculate Conception on tradition along with a couple passages of Scripture. One is Genesis 3:15, the protoevangelium. There, God speaks to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers.” Catholics point to the fact that the conflict between the serpent and the woman is equal to the conflict between the serpent and the woman’s Offspring, and they explain this by saying the woman (Mary) must be as equally sinless as her Offspring (Christ). The other passage cited by Catholics in support of the Immaculate Conception is Luke 1:28, “The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’” The Greek word translated “highly favored” can be rendered “favored with grace”; thus, according to Catholic dogma, Mary had a superabundance of grace, rendering her sinless, and that’s why God chose her to bear His Son.
The Roman Catholic Church argues that the Immaculate Conception is necessary because, without it, Jesus would have received His flesh from one who was herself a slave to the devil, whose works Jesus came to destroy (1 John 3:8). Mary, as the mother of the Redeemer, needed for her flesh to be free from the power of sin, and God gave her that privilege. From her time in the womb, Mary was sanctified because of her special role in bringing the Son of God incarnate into the world.
One problem with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is that it is not taught in the Bible. Even Catholics admit that Scripture does not directly teach the Immaculate Conception. The Bible nowhere describes Mary as anything but an ordinary human female whom God chose to be the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ. Mary was undoubtedly a godly woman (Luke 1:28). Mary was surely a wonderful wife and mother. Jesus definitely loved and cherished His mother (John 19:27). But the Bible gives us no reason to believe that Mary was sinless. In fact, the Bible gives us every reason to believe that Jesus Christ is the only Person who was not “infected” by sin and never committed a sin (see Ecclesiastes 7:20; Romans 3:23; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5).
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is neither biblical nor necessary. Jesus was miraculously conceived inside Mary, who was a virgin at the time. That is the biblical doctrine of the virgin birth. The Bible never hints that there was anything significant about Mary’s conception. Mary is not an exception to the Bible’s statement that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23). Mary needed a Savior just like the rest of us (Luke 1:47).