Paul’s remark that “all have sinned” in Romans 3:23 is used so often against the Immaculate Conception that one can almost get the idea that some critics think Paul was writing the Epistle to the Romanists. But, in fact, Romans 3:23 is not the climax of an argument about the sinlessness of Mary, but about the basic situation of Jews and Gentiles before God. Paul is writing to a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles in Rome who have been wasting time trying to answer a nonsense question: Are Jews or Gentiles closer to God? It’s a tempting question for them to ask. The apostles did something similar when they squabbled about who was greatest in the Kingdom of God (Luke 22:24). Christians today are still tempted to ask it. Only instead of using race or ethnicity as the winning factor in the “Who’s God’s Favorite?” beauty contest, they focus on things like spiritual gifts, Bible knowledge, prosperity, or even acts of charity. The longing to be Top Dog (and the fear of being Bottom Dog) is deeply rooted in the human soul.
Paul’s answer to the question “Who’s God’s favorite?: Jews or Gentiles?” is “That’s a nonsense question.” In fact, Paul’s basic point in the first part of his letter to the Romans is that people who worry about being “ahead” or “behind” in a competition for God’s favor are like cancer patients fighting over who is the least terminal. The only distinction, he says, between Jews and Gentiles is that God gave Jews an X-ray machine called the Law of Moses so they could see the progress of the disease called “sin” as it ravaged their souls and, thereby, become aware of their need for the Divine Physician. But that was it: the X-ray machine of the Law could only show Jews how sick they were. It could not heal them in the slightest. So Jews are no closer to health than Gentiles, says Paul. Sin is eating away at all of us. And Jesus is the only one who can cure it. That’s the bad news, which Paul sums up in the words, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
This has huge implications for a discussion of the Immaculate Conception, because it raises the question of whether Paul really intends his words to be read to mean every single human being who ever lived has committed a sin. Some will say, “Yes, he does!” and remind us that he quotes Psalm 14, saying, “None is righteous, no, not one; / no one understands, no one seeks for God. / All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; / no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10–12). In short, many insist (as I would once have done) that “‘All’ means ‘each and every human being who has ever lived!’ So Mary sinned. Case closed.” But if Paul really means to say absolutely every last human being is unrighteous, this makes nonsense of the very text he’s citing. For the author of that text, David, also rejoices, “The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness; / according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me” (Ps. 18:20). Bottom line: David’s not making legal statements in the Psalms, but poetic ones.
Likewise, Paul uses similarly broad language later on in Romans 11:32. He says, “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.” Does he therefore mean every human being without exception shall certainly be saved? No. Paul, like Jesus, teaches the possibility of condemnation by God for any human person and warns of the danger of hell. He is using the word “all” (as, indeed, he tends to use any universal category) in what is known as the “collective” sense.
The “collective” sense is a common occurrence in Scripture. For example, Matthew tells us that “all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations” (Matt. 1:17) when, in fact, Matthew has not really listed all the generations from Abraham to David but has instead named only fourteen ancestors for the sake of easy memorization. Likewise, when Mark tells us that “all held that John was a real prophet” (Mark 11:32) he employs a similarly general use of the word, for it’s quite clear some Jews didn’t regard John as a prophet and rejected his testimony to Jesus. And, of course, we do the same thing when we say, “Everybody likes a good meal,” “Nobody wants to die,” or “We all cheered at the end of Star Wars.” Strictly speaking, there are certain people who don’t like to eat and who do want to die. There are (amazingly) even a few who didn’t like Star Wars. But since we’re human beings and not pedants, we go ahead and talk this way.
Paul is no different. Like most biblical writers, he speaks as an ordinary human being in stating a general truth about the sinfulness of the human race without intending to single out absolutely every human being throughout all space and time without any exception whatsoever. He assumes we’ll understand that. And the proof of this is found in Paul’s own writing.
For instance, Paul recognizes that infants, though children of Adam and therefore subject to original sin, are not capable of committing individual, personal, guilty sins. That’s why he writes of Jacob and Esau that when they were still in utero they “had done nothing either good or bad” (Rom. 9:11). But he does not laboriously explain that children below the age of reason are not capable of committing sin when he declares “all have sinned.” He expects us to know this exception, just as he expects us to know that the son of Adam named “Jesus of Nazareth” is also not included in the “all” who have sinned.
Once again we are confronted with the fact that the meaning of a biblical text is, at least partly, determined by the way in which we are intended to read it. And that’s determined by whatever “lens” of teaching, doctrine, and instruction we use when we address Scripture. If our “lens” is Sacred Tradition, we know the apostles always intended us to read passages like those in Romans to exclude, not just Jesus, but Mary. Romans 3:23 turns out to prove . . . not much about the Immaculate Conception.