How to Think About the Virgin Mary’s Salvation

It’s the International Women’s Day (“Festa della Donna” here in Italy), so let’s talk a bit about my favorite woman: the Blessed Mother. Specifically, I want to talk about her sinlessness, and whether or not this eliminates her need for a Savior. I know a joke that might shed some light on this:

A man is running late for an important meeting. He hurries to the office, and arrives in the parking lot with only minutes to spare… only to find that the lot is entirely full. He circles around looking for parking, somewhere, anywhere, but to no avail. Finally, in a moment of desperation, he cries out, “God, I know we don’t talk much, but if you open up a parking space for me, I promise that I’ll go back to church.” Immediately, a car pulls out, and a parking space opens. Quickly, the man adds, “Never mind. One just freed up.”

That, more or less, is the problem with how we view Mary’s salvation, and our own. What do I mean by that?

Well, think about what it is that Catholics believe about Mary’s sinlessness. We don’t believe that Mary preserved herself from sin by the strength of her own will, or that she somehow avoiding the stain of original sin on her own. Rather, it’s that God saved her from sin.

It is she who is addressed by the angel Gabriel as “Full of Grace” (Luke 1:28), and it’s by the grace of God that she was preserved from sin. As the encyclical Ineffabilis Deus defined of the Immaculate Conception, “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.” The idea that this God-given grace makes grace or God irrelevant is the same sort of ironical reasoning we saw in the parking lot joke.

This faults in this “parking lot” reasoning are more obvious when we talk about her ongoing sinlessness. After all, Mary wasn’t just preserved from original sin, but also from actual sin. She never commit a sin in her life. But here again, this is the result of the ongoing grace of God. To say that Mary could have been saved apart from God because she was sinless would be like saying that you can get by fine without the elevator because you’re already going up. It ignores the glaringly obvious reality: you’re going up on the elevator, and without it, you’d fall to your death. Same with Mary. Her sinlessness doesn’t mean she didn’t need a Savior. Her sinlessness was the result of her having a Savior, and (by grace!) remaining close to Him always.

If you’re coming from a Protestant perspective, everything that I’ve said so far might sound like Catholics have a weird Mary hang-up, and at the expense of grace. But the contrary is true on both counts: the point here is much bigger than what we believe about the Virgin Mary, and it’s critical that we get this right to think clearly about grace and salvation.

Here’s the radical reality: if you think being sinless is enough to be saved, you’re wrong. We don’t just need the grace of God because of original sin or the fall. If Adam and Eve hadn’t fallen, they would have still needed grace to get from Eden to Heaven. Likewise, even if we were sinless, we would still need God’s grace if we ever hoped to enjoy eternal bliss with Him in Heaven. Why is that? Because Heaven is more than we (any of us!) deserve, and it’s beyond our unaided natures. To see what I mean, turn from Mary to the angels. St. Thomas Aquinas points out that even the angels are saved by grace. That’s a remarkable fact. The angels are created without sin, and most of them never fell. But it’s true nevertheless.

Aquinas explained that “the will’s natural inclination is directed towards what is in keeping with its nature. Therefore, if there is anything which is above nature, the will cannot be inclined towards it, unless helped by some other supernatural principle.” In other words, an angel desires the sort of things that are appropriate it as an angel, just as a man desire the sort of things appropriate to him as a man. But seeing and loving God in the Beatific Vision is infinitely beyond all of that. It’s more than we could ever ask for. Through grace, God enables us to achieve more than we could ever achieve (or even hope for) on our own.

And this doesn’t stop once we get to Heaven. It’s not as if, once we get to Heaven, we cease needing the grace of God. The Virgin Mary and all of the Saints and Angels in glory are there because of grace — not just that God graciously brought them there in the first place, but that He sustains them continuously for all of eternity. There’s no expiration date on this grace, and no point at which you suddenly “earn” Heaven apart from God. For all eternity, we — all of us: Mary, the angels, and God, willing, you and I — will owe all of our joy and glory to the merits of Christ and the grace of God.

I have a lot of respect for Protestants who are cautious about affirming Mary’s sinlessness out of a recognition of the universal need for grace and salvation. Their hearts are in the right place, and if Catholics believed that Mary was sinless by her own merit, apart from grace, they’d be right to balk. But we know that Mary needed a Savior. She tells us so herself (Luke 1:47). The real issue is that the Catholic Church has a deeper understanding of grace, recognizing that Mary’s need for a Savior isn’t based upon her having already committed any sins.

Rather than being a threat to God’s sovereignty or grace, Mary’s sinlessness is one of the most spectacular manifestations of His grace and majesty.

7 Comments

  1. Joe,

    We all know that Mary never once committed even the least sin. But was she ever tempted? After all, even Jesus was tempted.

    Or this is a question with no meaningful answer, since we may have no data. I’ve often wondered about the phrase “a sword shall pierce your own soul.” Could this have some bearing here?

  2. If I may, I think being tempted is not something that we do. Rather, it is something that is done to us by Satan who uses things, thoughts, or activities to tempt us. Satan used such temptations towards Jesus and uses them towards us. We know that it is not a sin to be tempted, only to yield to the temptations.

    Therefore, I would say that yes, Mary was probably tempted; but possessing the supernatural Grace of God throughout her life, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance that she would act on those temptations.

  3. Hi, thanks for making me chew over this article. Could I ask a couple of questions.

    Firstly, a definition of grace might be useful?

    Secondly, does the Apostle Peter not teach 1 Peter 1:1-12 that there is something unique about salvation, something that glorified angels in heaven “long to look” (v12), or marvel to behold to para-phrase?

    Jeff

    1. Jeff,

      Thanks for commenting, and I’m glad it gave you something to chew on. Your question about defining grace is harder to answer than it might first seem. I took a course on the theology of grace last semester, and the professor identified five distinct senses in which “grace” (charis) is used by St. Paul:

      1) Favor or benevolence of God, who by a free decision takes the initiative in the work of reconciliation with fallen mankind (Romans 4:16; Phil. 1:7; 2 Tim 1:9).
      2) The work of Christ (2 Cor. 8:9), as the favor of God is manifested concretely in this work. In a sense Christ Himself if the Gift.
      3) Communion with God, given to man through Christ.
      4) The internal power – for St. Paul has a dynamic rather than a static conception of grace – which moves men in determinate ways.
      5) All the objects connected with the Christian life: for example, alms (1 Cor. 6:3)

      The word charis ordinarily means “favor” or “good will,” and there’s a sense in which Divine favor is at play in each of those. So there are a range of related meanings for grace, both in the New Testament and later theological treatments.

      To your second question, there is something unique about our salvation, as opposed to the way in which the angels were elevated by grace. Specifically, the angels in glory never fell. They had the chance to reject God, and didn’t, and by His grace are given the Beatific Vision. We humans, in contrast, did fall, and so we need to be saved from hell as well as graciously elevated to properly receive God in Heaven.

      It’s easy to fall into a false binary in which man, by nature, was always destined to either (a) suffer eternal hellfire or (b) be divinized and look upon God. But this is a false choice, in the sense of being too narrow.

      This is what I think is at play when people think that they “deserve” to go to Heaven just because they haven’t (in their view) done anything warranting hell. But the truth is, even if someone had never sinned, and even original sin weren’t a thing, you would still need grace to reach this destination, as it is infinitely beyond man’s natural capacity. So Adam and Eve needed grace even before the Fall. After the Fall, they needed also to be saved from hell.

      The Virgin Mary’s position is like Adam and Eve’s inasmuch as she, being sinless, still stood (and stands, for all eternity!) in total need of the grace of God to receive the glories of Heaven – chiefly the contemplation of God Himself. But her position is different from Adam and Eve’s inasmuch as she was owed sin, just as we are owed hell. But through the application of the foreseen merits of Christ’s Passion, she was saved from hell and all sins, just as it is through His grace and by His merits that we are saved from hell and some sins.

      I.X.,

      Joe

  4. Jeff,
    Not sure how thorough a definition you are looking for so I linked to Catholic Encyclopedia for you. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06689a.htm

    I’m not sure how what Joe said is contradictory because my understanding of that passage is this: Humans up until death can repeatedly fall and return to salvation. Prior to Jesus’s death, not all humans were given special graces. After Jesus’s resurrection, those special graces were given to all. All were welcome to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Angels on the other hand if they choose to fall from grace do so only once and for all eternity. There is no going back because that is the nature of angels. My guess is that the brief passage is meant to show that angels don’t benefit from Christ’s death on the cross in the same way humans do. Yes grace sustains angels. But they can’t fall and then return to Christ through his death on the cross like humans can. Does this make sense?

  5. Protestants basically reject the notion of sanctifying grace, and thus they cannot really speak of human nature being elevated by grace to a super-natural state. Even Dr Clark of Westminster Seminary has said Protestants shouldn’t speak of Adam as “falling,” since this is more of a Catholic notion where Adam fell from a super-natural state to a purely natural one. But this is the essence of Original Sin, being born lacking the added sanctifying grace that Adam originally had and that relationship He originally had with the Trinity. By rejecting the notion of grace added on top of nature, Protestantism had no place for Adam to fall from, except to say human nature itself became sinful, which is Manicheanism (as NewAdvent points out for Luther’s anthopology).

    And furthermore, Protestantism (Calvinism-Lutheranism) is essentially Pelagian, for they believe man can save himself apart from grace so long as his humanity is without sin. This is why they hold that Christ as a mere human had to keep the law perfectly in our place as we were supposed to do ourselves, which is where the Protestant notion of Imputed Righteousness (Active Obedience) comes in. The added error here is that it is a form of Nestorianism, where Jesus had to keep the law as a mere human, apart from His Divinity, and apart from being “full of grace and truth” (as John says).

    Given this, Mary is actually sinless on two fronts: first in that She never actually sinned, nor was She subject to the deprivation of sanctifying grace at the moment of Her conception; second, Her human nature never was corrupt, but remained just as human as Adam was, and indeed shares the same human nature we all do. If a Protestant denies the second type of sinlessness of Mary, they basically must reject the Incarnation, for either Jesus shared Mary’s nature or He didn’t. If Jesus didn’t share Mary’s nature, then they must logically conclude the Incarnation never happened (Jesus would be a different species of humanity than then ‘humanity’ we possess). So nature isn’t the problem, even though Protestants made it the problem, the lack/necessity of grace is the fundamental theological issue of the Protestant-Catholic dispute.

  6. Is it accurate to say that all temptation Mary suffered would have been external? St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the essence of original sin is the want of original justice ; its manifestation is evil desire.

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