Dear Catholic Exchange:
I am debating with a Lutheran over Mary being without sin. He constantly brings up Romans 3:23, and he doesn’t agree that full of grace means sinless. He doesn’t believe this because he looked up the word grace in a Greek dictionary, and it said that the word grace means graceful.
Thanks for your help!
Peace in Christ! There are two issues involved in this question. The first is the interpretation of Romans 3:23, and the other is what it means for Mary to be “full of grace.” For the latter, just as with English words, a dictionary definition alone is not always sufficient to grasp the meaning of a word.
Romans 3:23 says: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Does this verse refer to original sin inherited from Adam or actual sin, i.e., acts of sin committed by the individual? This distinction is important. If one believes it means the acts of sin committed by individual persons, does that mean that children in the womb, at anytime from conception forward, commit sin? On this analysis, the “all” who have sinned must include those children miscarried at the earliest stages of development. How would one argue that this child sinned? What would the sin be? It seems unlikely that Romans 3:23 refers to actual sin.
It would seem that Romans 3:23 refers to original sin, which means that the entire human race is subject to the effects of Adam’s fall and needs redemption. In this case, Romans 3:23 presents no problem for the Catholic understanding of the Immaculate Conception. The definition of the Church is that 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, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin” (Catechism, no. 491).
Simply stated, Mary was redeemed just like every other human being must be; but unique to Mary (because of her mission to bear God incarnate in her womb), she was preserved free from the stain—i.e., the effects—of original sin. The Church does not teach that Mary was neither subject to original sin nor in need of redemption, only that God blessed her in a special way so that she was never stained by original sin. From this it also reasonably follows that by God’s grace and for His purposes, Mary lived a life free of sin as well. The main point, however, is that Romans 3:23 is speaking of original sin and, and thus does not contradict Catholic teaching on Mary’s sinlessness.
Does grace simply mean “graceful”? We must point out that the greeting of the angel Gabriel to Mary was not simply the word “grace.” Luke, writing in Greek, rendered the greeting “Caire kecaritomene” or (transliterated into our alphabet) “Chaire, kecharitomene.” The first word, “chaire,” means “rejoice,” or “hail” or “greetings.” The second word is the direct address. The direct address—like a name, nickname, or title—is the identification of the one being addressed. The most common form of direct address is a person’s name, such saying, “Dear Kate.” Gabriel, an archangel sent by God, did not address Mary by her given name, but considered “kecharitomene” her identity.
When Origen wrote one of the first commentaries on Luke’s Gospel, he noted that this address—indeed, this verb in this form—was not used anywhere else in Scripture. The verb is “charitoo,” which means, “to grace.” The verb is also used in Ephesians 1:6. But Gabriel’s address is the only place in scripture where it is used as a perfect passive participle. The Greek perfect tense denotes a present state resulting from a past action, with both the past action (what happened) and the present state (as things are now) in view. If I were to attempt a translation of “kecharitomene,” it would be, roughly, “are graced.” Mary was graced (past action) before Gabriel arrived and her present state (what she is) follows continually from that action of God. So Gabriel said something like, “Rejoice, Are-graced!” “Are-graced” is used as Mary’s identity in the place where her name would be.
It must be emphasized that when this Greek tense is used, the state of being which follows on the action is continual. The state of being started with the action and does not end at any time. The action was perfect and lasting if this tense is used. Mary’s “graced” existence, therefore, began with the moment she was graced (before Gabriel showed up) and did not end.
If you’re interested in reading what Pope John Paul II said about the word “kecharitomene,” visit the Catholic Information Network. For further reading on Mary being conceived without sin, see our FAITH FACT on the Immaculate Conception.
I hope this answers your question. If you have further questions on this or would like more information about Catholics United for the Faith, please contact us at 1-800-MY-FAITH (693-2484). Please keep us in your prayers as we endeavor to “support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.”
United in the Faith,
David E. Utsler
Catholics United for the Faith
827 North Fourth Street
Steubenville, OH 43952
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