When an angel told Mary that she would give birth to the Son of God, she answered, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke to explain how this passage has been misused and shows how to interpret it correctly.
This morning, I will be reading from Luke 1:38: “Then Mary said, ‘Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her.”
If you are driving down I-4 in Orlando in the direction of what the news commentators call “the attractions,” you might notice the sign for a shrine that is titled in honor of “Mary, Queen of the Universe.” Every time I pass that shrine on I-4, I think of the young peasant girl in an obscure village in Nazareth who was visited with a startling announcement by the angel Gabriel. I want to say, somewhat irreverently, “You’ve come a long way, Mary—from peasant girl in Nazareth to queen of the universe.” I’d like to explore this morning how such a transition could have happened in our civilization.
Christendom at War
Back in the sixteenth century, the greatest schism in the history of Christendom took place in the Protestant Reformation, which we celebrate every year on Reformation Sunday. At the time of the Reformation, the dispute became so bitter and the hostilities so escalated that we saw the formation of the Spanish Inquisition and people being tortured on the rack and burned at the stake. Christendom was at war.
Today, we have seen the attitudes that prevailed in the sixteenth century greatly nullified. We think of the rack and burning at the stake as an aberration of the past, not something commonplace in the theological disputes of our time. In fact, so much has the division between Rome and Protestantism been ameliorated that there have been initiatives in recent years to announce to the world a certain accord, an agreement between Rome and Protestantism. In so doing, we see a whole new attitude in the air.
At Vatican Council I in 1870, under the authority of Pope Pius IX, Protestants were described as schismatics and heretics. Fast forward to Vatican Council II in the 1960s, in which Protestants were referred to as “separated brethren,” and you see by the stark contrast in the language between the two bodies how the hostilities have settled down.
I frequently hear from people that the things dividing Rome from evangelicalism are not that great anymore. I’d like to remind you that the differences between evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholicism are far, far greater today than they were in the sixteenth century. The issue of the gospel is still very much at stake.
Recent Decrees of Mariology
The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirmed the Council of Trent and its teaching of their doctrines of justification, salvation, the treasury of merits, indulgences, purgatory, and so on. Despite the ongoing dispute regarding how a person is saved and the many people in the church who had believed in papal infallibility since the sixteenth century, it was not a formal doctrine defined de fide by Rome until 1870 at Vatican Council I.
In addition to the issues of the authority of the church and the doctrine of justification, there is also the phenomenon of Mariology. Most of the Mariological decrees from Rome have come forth in the last 150 years, much later than the sixteenth century. Immaculate conception, for example, came in the middle of the 1850s, and was followed up by the vision and apparition of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes in France, in which she was heard to have said, “I am the immaculate conception.”
The doctrines of the perpetual virginity of Mary, the sinlessness of Mary, the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven, and the coronation of Mary as the queen of heaven are all of a much more recent vintage. In the 1950s, three critical encyclicals took place with respect to Mary: Munificentissimus Deus, which affirmed the bodily assumption, Fulgens Corona, and Ad Caeli Reginam, affirming the coronation of Mary as the queen of heaven.
These are recent developments, but they are very important to the actual daily practice of religion in Rome. Devout Roman Catholics frequently have shrines to Mary in their yards, certainly in every church. We wonder, “How can this be?” As recently as the catechism of 1994, Mary is referred to as the “mother of the Christian church,” as the “queen of heaven,” as the “exemplar,” or icon, of true Christianity, and as a “mediatrix,” a mediator between the church and God.
Veneration Elevated to Idolatry
Beloved, theology can hardly sink lower than to obscure the uniqueness of our Lord’s saving work as the mediator between man and God. As the Apostle Paul wrote in his pastoral epistles, “There is one mediator between God and man, and that is the man Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 2:5). The issue of Mariology didn’t start overnight. It was already an issue in the sixteenth century, and the Protestant leaders were concerned that the veneration of Mary, even then, transgressed the biblical laws against idolatry by the elevation of creatures to such veneration.
The Roman Catholic Church responded by making an important distinction between the language of what they call idololotria and idolodulia. Idololotria means “the worship of idols.” Idolodulia means “the giving of service,” or indeed “slavery” to the icons, the statues, the saints, and so on. Mary, as early as the sixteenth century, was said to be accorded, not worship, not idololotria, but hyperdulia—hyper-service, hyper-devotion, hyper-veneration.
Calvin responded to this distinction between hyperdulia and idolatry as a distinction without a difference. When you kneel down before the likeness of a mortal person, pray to this likeness, and invoke the power of that person to improve your life and mediate your prayers to God, how does that differ in any way from worship?
When you observe the contemporary pilgrimages and religious behavior of multitudes, indeed, there are millions of people in the Roman Catholic Church who, in their special festivals devoted to Mary, seem to be performing actions that would constitute worship.
Mediatrix or Co-Redemptrix?
The issue of Mariology came to the fore at Vatican Council II. Many people think that at Vatican II, all kinds of doctrinal changes took place in the Roman system, but that’s not true. When Pope John XXIII called this unexpected council and used the term aggiornamento, he was saying, “Let fresh winds blow through the church.” He was looking for church renewal. He was very much concerned about the church’s pastoral role with the people. He ruled out major theological disputes from discussion. There were no discussions about providence, election, justification, and Christology. Rather, the focus of Vatican II was on ecclesiology, on matters of the church.
The one great doctrinal issue that emerged at Vatican II had to do with the role of Mary in the church. It was subsumed under the study of the church and where Mary fits into the church. At Vatican II, there was a significant debate between two factions of the church: the Latin wing of the church and the Western wing of the church. The two groups, with respect to Mary, were called “minimalists” and “maximalists.”
Without getting into all the details of what separated the minimalists from the maximalists, the great issue that divided them was whether Mary should be regarded not only as mediatrix but as co-redemptrix; that is, as a co-redeemer of the church with Jesus. Happily, the church did not embrace the maximalist position in its fullness, but there remains a strong current in favor of maximalism within the Roman Catholic communion to this day.
Mary’s Response to Gabriel
I’ve said everything up to this point to ask this question: Where does this all come from? One of the pivotal texts on which the debate of Vatican II focused was the last verse of the section from Luke 1 that I read last week: Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she was going to conceive and have a child by the power of the Holy Ghost.
When Gabriel announced the virgin birth to Mary, we know her initial response was one of stunned amazement. She asked the question, “How can this be since I know not a man?” We considered last week how it was going to take place through the power of the Holy Ghost. The same power that brought the world into being was going to overshadow her so that the child in her womb would be called the Son of God. He would be most holy, and He would be the Son of the Most High.
After all this explanation that the angel Gabriel provided to this young woman, the rest of the chapter and the rest of the story concern her response. What did Mary say after the angel explained all of these things to her? “I see how this is going to happen. This is a tremendous thing. I can’t believe I’m going to be the mother of the Messiah.” No, listen to what she said: “Behold, I am the maidservant of the Lord” I’ll come back to that momentarily.
Let It Be
Mary continued, “Let it be to me according to your word.” In the nomenclature of the Mariological doctrines of the Roman communion, this response of Mary is referred to as “Mary’s fiat.” The term fiat is the present imperative form of the verb “to be” in Latin. It’s the imperative. “Let it be,” she says.
Let’s go back to creation, where we experience the first fiat in all of history: the divine imperative by which the whole universe was created. That fiat came from the mouth of God: “Let there be light,” and there was light. Then He said, “Let the oceans teem with fish and the fields with verdant growth.” All the work of creation was accomplished through the imperative command of God, which we call the “Divine Fiat.”
At the grave of Lazarus, where Jesus came in the morning, He didn’t invite Lazarus to come back to life. Rather, He spoke to him with the imperative, “Lazarus, come forth.” There was nothing that Lazarus could do but come forth under the weight and authority of the imperative command of Jesus.
The idea of the fiat has a rich history throughout all of redemptive history, when the Roman Catholic theologians come to this text they say, “Here it comes, out of the lips of Mary: ‘Let it be.’” The maximalists jump on this text and say: “The incarnation took place because of the will of God, but also because of the imperative of Mary. Mary exercised her authority, without which there would be no virgin birth, no redeeming Jesus, and no salvation.” So, according to the maximalists, salvation depended on Mary’s imperative response to the angel’s announcement.
I said earlier that theology can hardly sink much lower than this. If ever a statement has been ripped of the context in which it is made, it is Mary’s fiat. Yes, the imperative form, at least in the Latin Vulgate, is used here, but notice how it is couched parenthetically in the context in which Mary says it. The first thing she says is, “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord.” If there is any “let it be,” there is first, “I am just a lowly slave, a kitchen servant of the Lord.”
Mary, the Handmaiden
What is the attitude Mary expresses to the announcement of the angel? “Gabriel, look at me. I am a handmaiden. I am not the owner of the house. I don’t have any authority in this matter, but I am your servant, and if the Lord wants me to have this baby, so be it.” It’s a long way from “let it be” to “if the Lord wants me to have this baby, whatever the Lord wants, I will do, because I am His servant.”
At creation, God the Father didn’t stand before the darkness, the void, and the formlessness of the deep and say to the uncreated universe, “Behold, the servant of creation, let the light shine.” No, when the imperative comes from the lips of our Maker, there is no sense in which He is our servant. We are His servants. He’s not our servant. There’s probably no human being in the history of the world that more fully manifested that servanthood than this magnificent young girl, Mary.
Because of the maximalists’ exaggeration and the heretical veneration Rome has given to Mary over the centuries, Protestants tend to flee so far in the other direction that we almost despise this one who was highly favored by the Lord, who was filled with the grace of God, and who was a model of submission to the authority of God Himself.
Even though she asked questions, Gabriel didn’t have to close her mouth up until her son would be born, like he did with Zacharias. She was humble, she was willing, and she was obedient. “Let it be to me according to your word.” Sh did not say, “According to my word.”
The Maximalist Parallel
What do the maximalists do with Mary’s obedience? They make a parallel. They recognize that there is a parallel between Adam and Jesus. The New Testament calls Jesus the new Adam, or the second Adam. Through the first Adam’s disobedience, death comes into the world. Through the second Adam’s obedience, life comes into the world. Destruction, disaster, and damnation come through the first Adam. Salvation and deliverance come through the second Adam, Jesus.
The maximalists say that the same parallel exists between Eve and Mary. As through one woman’s disobedience death came into the world, so through the other woman’s obedience life came into the world. That’s why they are jealous to elevate her to the level of co-redemptrix, because, they say, she participates virtually as an equal with her Son in effecting our redemption. Her Son is the second Adam, she is the second Eve, and together, mother and Son, they bring about salvation.
I would bet everything I own that Mary, who is in heaven right now, would be nothing but offended by anyone suggesting that there was a real parallel between Eve and herself. Mary is not the queen of the universe. The church is the queen of the universe. The church is the bride of Christ, and Christ is the King, and His only queen is His bride, not His mother.
Even so, we need to understand what a singularly blessed woman that Mary was. Not only did she acquiesce to the announcement, but the early creeds call Mary theotokos, the mother of God. They did not say this in the sense that Jesus derived His divine nature from Mary, but rather in the sense that she was mother to the One who was God incarnate. She was at the cross where the sword pierced her own soul. She was at the tomb. She will participate in the fullness of the bodily resurrection when Christ’s kingdom comes, but Mary died. She went to heaven. She doesn’t have the eschatological glorification of her body as Rome claims. There was no bodily ascension of Mary to heaven. We don’t pray to Mary.
I’ve had my Catholic friends say: “Why not pray to Mary? If she asks her Son for something, He’s not going to refuse her.” The problem is that we’re not told to pray to Mary; we’re told to pray to the One who is the Mediator. We have our Great High Priest. We don’t have a great high priestess. We have our Great High Priest who intercedes for us. Is that not enough?
A Gracious Sinner
Mary is not divine. She is a sinner saved by grace, just as we are. But what a gracious, gracious sinner she was. I read in this text a willingness to do the will of the Lord. That’s what we can learn from Mary: how to be in subjection to God, as she was. Let’s pray.
Our Father and our God, we thank You for the perfect mediator that You have given to us, who was borne of His mother, nurtured by His mother, who discipled His own mother, and who redeemed His own mother. We ask that we may be properly instructed by the example of Mary, but not cast superstition or idolatry about her. Forgive us when we attribute to her the veneration that belongs to her Son and to her Son alone. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.