The virgin birth – by grace alone
When Christmas approaches the mighty acts of God again present themselves to us. We see God at work through many centuries to protect Israel out of which the Christ would be born. And we see the incredible greatness of God in the miracle of the virgin birth. We praise God for His mighty deeds in the history of Israel, and above all in the life of the young Mary. As Mary sang to the glory of God:
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name, we join her in glorifying God.
At the same time man is humbled here. The people of Israel could not protect themselves from the attacks of the enemies. And no earthly man could bring about the virgin birth. Our Saviour had to be a man, but mankind could not bring Him forth. Already at the moment where He began His human life, man was excluded effectively. The virgin birth is the death of all human pride that wants to take part in our salvation.
But the old man does not die easily. He has his pride, and tries to get away from this humiliating message. One of the ways out has been to emphasize Mary, the mother of Jesus. The human father may have been excluded, but a human mother will carry and give birth to the Saviour. Did she not contribute to our salvation? Is the coming of our Saviour not partly dependent on Mary and her cooperation?
Roman Catholic theology has always emphasized the role of Mary. Especially since 1850 much of this has become the official position of the Roman Catholic Church.1 This attention for Mary has also led to attributing to Mary a decisive role in the birth of Jesus Christ. She is seen as cooperating in His coming into the world. In this article we will briefly present the Roman Catholic position on the virgin birth. Is this a biblical development or is the biblical teaching damaged?
The Roman Catholic position
There are three stages in the Roman Catholic doctrine concerning the virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus Christ.
- The first is that Mary gave her consent so that the Son of God could be born from her. The words which Mary said in answer to the angel: "Let it be to me according to your word," are understood as Mary giving permission (to God!) to use her for the birth of the Saviour. "When the eternal Son of God willed to assume the nature of man for the redemption and honour of man … He did not do so before His chosen mother had given her free consent."2
- This will lead to the second step: a very exalted position of Mary. Just as no one may go to the Father except through the Son, in much the same way no one can go to the Son except through Mary. Mary is exalted over all men and all angels. Of all creatures she is closest to Christ. She even receives the title of mediator: "She is the one of whom Jesus is born … and for that reason the worthy and most beloved mediatress with the Mediator."3
- Calling Mary a mediator between God and men presents a great problem for Roman Catholic theology. Paul writes to Timothy: "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus," 1 Timothy 2:5. How can Roman Catholic theology square this text with the title "mediatress" for Mary?
- The solution is, to distinguish between the roles of Christ and of Mary as mediator. Jesus Christ earned salvation for men by fulfilling God's justice. But He chose Mary as His associate for the work. Jesus Christ has earned all gifts with His death. Mary has, by her participation in Christ's work, received the right to distribute His gifts.4
- But there is a third important element in the consent of Mary to carry the Son of God. She was at that point of time "in some way impersonating the whole human race."5 What happened, therefore, in the virgin birth was this: The Son, representing God, wanted to become incarnate. And Mary, representing mankind, gave permission. Undoubtedly God is the origin and beginning of our salvation through the virgin birth. At the same time mankind, in the person of Mary, cooperated by giving permission. Salvation is not just the work of God, but, subordinate to the initiative of God, it is at the same time the work of man.
And suddenly we have now arrived at one of the central issues in the conflict between Rome and the Reformation: is our salvation "by grace alone" or not? According to Rome we are not saved by grace alone, man has to contribute to salvation by giving his cooperation. Over against this doctrine Luther maintained that salvation is by grace alone.6 The question whether Mary gave permission to God for the virgin birth forms part of a larger question: Does Cod save us, or do we humans in some way contribute to our own salvation? Is the virgin birth uniquely God's work, or is it a cooperative effort between God and Mary?
The words of the angel
We now have to turn to the Scriptures to find an answer to this question. How is the virgin birth presented in Scripture? Is the role of Mary in the conception and birth of Jesus Christ described as a cooperating role? The answer of the Bible is clear: the coming of the Saviour is solely the work of God. Several elements in the text show this.
- In the first place, the first words of the angel are not a question, but an announcement. The angel does not ask: "Are you willing to conceive in your womb and bear a son, who will be called Jesus?" He tells Mary what will happen to her: "You will conceive in your womb and bear a son," Luke 1:31. The whole conversation between the angel and Mary shows the same pattern. Mary is never asked for permission, she is confronted with a certainty.
- In the second place, we have to pay attention to the question of Mary. She asks how she can bear a son since she is not yet living with Joseph. Then the angel does not divide his answer over the role of God and the role of Mary, he only speaks about God's work. God will do this through His Holy Spirit: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God," v. 35. This conception is the work of God, and of God alone.
- In the third place, neither does Mary's final answer contain a note of cooperation or consent. She calls herself a servant, a slave. She is not in the position to say yes or no. Undoubtedly, it will be difficult for her to give birth to this child. What will the people say? And what shall Joseph say? But her answer shows that she does not grudgingly submit to what she cannot escape anyway, but that she accepts God's decision over her in faith: "Let it be to me according to your word," v. 38.
The text of Luke 1 does not support the Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary cooperated in the conception of Jesus. But this does not deter the Roman Catholic Church from teaching it. Their doctrine is not based on Scripture alone, but on the understanding of Scripture in the process of the tradition. The church through its tradition knows more today than is actually expressed in Scripture. And one of the best examples of the progress the church has made in understanding God's revelation is the doctrine of Mary, it is not really necessary for the Roman Catholic Church to prove its doctrine from Scripture. The Mariology of the Roman Catholic Church is usually proven from tradition.7 The Roman Catholic doctrine of "not by grace alone" is supported by their doctrine of "not Scripture alone."
What does the virgin birth mean for us? Mary asks the angel how her Son, who will reign on David's throne, can be born. The angel answers that God will bring this about, through His Holy Spirit. The miracle of the virgin birth is exclusively the result of God's working in Mary.
This is a humiliating message for us. No one, not even the best of us, could bring about the birth of the Saviour. His coming is not the result of our work; it is the work of God alone. This hurts our self-esteem; no one wants to accept this from himself. We want to contribute something to our salvation, if only in Mary. We do not like to be totally dependent on God. It will never be easy to accept in faith the biblical teaching of the virgin birth.
But this doctrine, once it is accepted in faith, gives us great comfort. It shows the character of God's salvation work. God alone paved the way to the coming of the Saviour, and no man had an active part in it. God is guarantee that it will infallibly be fulfilled. The work of salvation is in God's hands, but it is safe there. He will fulfil what He began.
The virgin birth leads us away from the praise of Mary, and, for that matter, from every praise of man. God alone should receive all honour:
To God on high the glory and peace on earth to men.