Immaculate Conception and Virgin Birth
The Plumb Line
Straight Answers to Honest Questions
Question: Sometimes I hear the term “Immaculate Conception.” Is that the same as the Virgin Birth?
Answer: They are two different things, but they are related to one another in the understanding of Roman Catholic believers. Properly speaking the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb should be called the virginal conception, but we commonly refer to it as the Virgin Birth. In contrast, the “Immaculate Conception” is a Roman Catholic teaching about the conception of Mary in her mother’s womb.
Catholics and Protestants agree on the biblical teaching that Jesus was conceived without the involvement of a human father. The Holy Spirit caused a unique miracle to take place in Mary’s womb, so that Jesus is the “Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Protestants who are unfamiliar with Catholic doctrine sometimes erroneously use the term, “Immaculate Conception,” to refer to this miracle. The “Immaculate Conception,” however, is something different.
According to Roman Catholic teaching (made official in 1854), Mary was kept free from “the stain of original sin,” beginning with the moment her soul was infused into the developing fetus in her mother’s womb. This is celebrated annually on December 8 as “the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.” This is not based on direct Scriptural statements (although reference is made to Gen. 3:15 and Luke 1:28). It is based, rather, on a certain line of logic and traditions developed over many centuries, especially in the Middle Ages. Simply put, Mary’s sinlessness is defended as necessary for her role as Jesus’ mother. According to Catholic understanding, Mary must have been kept “immaculate,” completely pure and unstained by the “original sin” that infected every other descendant of Adam and Eve. Somewhat in contrast, Eastern Orthodox traditions teach that Mary was immaculate in actual purity (i.e., avoiding sinful acts), but they do not endorse the Immaculate Conception as held by Roman Catholics.
Evangelical Protestants believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus and in his sinlessness, as clearly stated in Scripture (see Hebrews 4:15). Since Mary’s freedom from sin is not stated (or denied) in Scripture, Protestants see no need to believe in it. To the Protestant way of thinking, Mary’s sinlessness seems irrelevant to our confidence in Christ’s work of salvation. From within the Catholic frame of reference, however, the “Immaculate Conception” makes sense. Given our different ways of thinking about Mary, we simply have to admit we disagree on this doctrine. We should not, however, allow legitimate differences about Mary to overshadow the fact that we hold the same view about her son, Jesus—that he is the sinless Son of God who saves us from our sins by his death and resurrection. That’s the unifying center of our faith, for all Christians everywhere.