Could Mary have said “no?” (a repost)

bible

Note: This post originally appeared on December 23, 2008.

There are two things you can almost always count on during Christmas time. Well, there are actually more than two things you can count on during this time of year — but for my purposes today we will look at two of them…

First, there will be any number of sappy, tug-at-the-heartstrings proclaimed “real meanings of Christmas.”

  • “The real meaning of Christmas,” some say, “is the joy of giving.”
  • “The real meaning of Christmas,” others contend, “is being with family.”
  • “The real meaning of Christmas is love, or hope, or…”  you get the idea.

And second, you may get to hear a gratuitous reading of either the birth narrative of Jesus or of the angel telling Mary she is going to have a son — or both.

I’d like to take a look at the passage in Luke where Mary is first made aware she is to give birth to the very Son of God. But I hope your reading of it here is anything but gratuitous. I want to consider a question after the passage. Read carefully…

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

And the angel answered her, “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. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. — Luke 1:26-38

birthofbabyjesusfigurinesetDid you read carefully? Good. Here’s the question: Could Mary have said “no” to the angel?

The Church in America is so captive to an Arminian mindset that many people automatically answer: “Mary had a free will just like anyone, of course she could have said no.”

But consider the implications of that. Just where does that kind of thinking lead? Consider the following statements taken from theological websites where the writers believe Mary could have said no.

Example 1:

“The Bible clearly shows us that man was given free will. Eve had free will to say “no” to God and cause the fall. Mary was free to say “no” to Gabriel. She was given free will. So [we] believe that Mary’s role at the annunciation was special, not shared by any other human in the history of the world. If she said “no,” none of us know what would have happened. Perhaps God would have worked out salvation history another way. Perhaps it was God’s last chance for us, we just don’t know. But when we think about the immensity of Eve’s “no” we get a pretty good idea. Mary’s “yes” was huge.”

This writer makes a couple of statements that absolutely boggle the mind — they fly right into the face of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. The first is “Perhaps God would have worked out salvation history another way.” The second is “Perhaps it was God’s last chance for us.” The Bible clearly contradicts this pathetic view of God.

“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” — Job 42:2

“Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” — Psalm 115: 3

It’s amazing to me that anyone professing to be a Christian has such a limited view of God. God does not make contingencies. He has no plan B. But if you research the topic for very long you will find it is an attitude that has quite a bit of support.

Example 2:

“I firmly believe that Mary freely consented to her divine inpregnation, but recognize that this question poses difficulties similar to the entire question of predestination itself. Did God really put the fate of our entire race into the hands of a single woman, who was truly free to veto His divine scheme for our salvation? Yes — just as traditional Christianity teaches that the entire race was doomed to perdition because of the free choice of a single woman. Eve was herself beguiled by Satan and, in turn, beguiled her husband. What Eve did in freely rejecting God’s grace, Mary undid by freely consenting to it.”

Again, if Mary “was truly free to veto [God’s] divine scheme for our salvation” as this writer suggests then the Bible is clearly in error where it says things like…

“My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.” — Isaiah 46:10

and…

“God, “…works all things according to the counsel of his will.” — Ephesians 1:11

Apart from these clear contradictions there are other problems with making this comparison between Eve and Mary. I mean, it sounds good, sure. But Scripture cautions us against leaning on our own understanding. We must decide if we are going to believe things that seem right to us, or if we are going to believe the Bible — because sometimes the two are at odds. Personally, I like to go with Scripture. And Scripture makes no comparison between Eve and Mary as the instruments of the fall and of redemption. The Bible makes that comparison between Adam and Christ.

“Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” — 1 Corinthians 15:45-49

appleA comparison between Eve and Mary does not work because Adam and Eve were created in the image of God. They did not have a sinful nature until after the fall. Mary, like every other person born of man, had a sinful nature. She could no more stand as a representative for the human race than any one of us.

Some of you may say, “Fine. The comparison between Eve and Mary does not work, but that does not mean Mary didn’t have a free will and the ability to say ‘no’.”

Remember, I cautioned you to read the passage in Luke carefully. Let’s take a closer look at it. Do you see any place where the angel seeks Mary’s consent?

“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” — Luke 1:31-33

Note, the angel does not say all of these things will come to pass if you agree. He says these things will happen, period.

Many people object, saying, “Isn’t this a violation of Mary’s free will? Isn’t free will the one thing God can’t mess with?”

I respond with another question: Doesn’t God have every right to use people as He sees fit? Furthermore, has he not already done so on other occasions?

Yes, He does and yes, He has.

Occasion 1: God used Pharaoh without Pharaoh’s consent.

Time after time Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and Scripture declares God specifically hardened Pharaoh’s heart, Himself.

“But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had spoken to Moses.” — Exodus 9:12

God goes on to point out why He did this:

“But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” — Exodus 9:16

The apostle Paul quotes this passage in his letter to the Romans when discussing election:

“For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” — Romans 9:17-18

Occasion 2: God called Paul to ministry without asking for his consent.

“Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” — Acts 9:10-16

God tells Ananias that Saul is a chosen instrument and that Paul must suffer for God’s name. There is no question. There is no request for consent. Saul is going to become the Apostle Paul.

One thing most Christians can agree on is that Jesus Christ is the culmination of God’s plan. His birth, life, death, and resurrection are the central events upon which all of history hangs. All of the Old Testament points to the coming of Christ. All of the New Testament points back to it. He is central. He is key.

Now, consider for a moment the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus. He is…

  • From the seed of a woman
  • Born of a virgin
  • Son of God
  • Seed of Abraham
  • From the tribe of Judah
  • Son of Isaac
  • From the House of David
  • Born at Bethlehem

And on and on and on…

In both His earthly parents Jesus’ linage is from the House of David. The genealogy in Luke traces back through Mary. It shows the actual, physical lineage of Jesus to the House of David. His humanity comes from there. The genealogy in Matthew follows Joseph’s line. And, even though Jesus is not the physical son of Joseph, Jewish law held that the adopted son of a man was the legal son and legal heir and entitled to the lineage of the father as his own. This shows Jesus’ legal claim to the throne of David.

nativitiyAll of the prophesies of the Old Testament converge perfectly through Mary and Joseph at the person of Jesus Christ.

The Bible even says that Christ was slain from the foundation of the world. So, before the world was even created the death of God’s own son was a done deal.

Now, do you really think that Mary had in her the power to thwart God’s perfect plan of redemption — a plan whose completion was already set before the foundation of the world — by the power of her free will?

So, does this mean Mary was forced into something contrary to her will? No. her response to the angel, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” clearly indicates her willingness to be used by God. But how did she come to be so willing? Giving birth to the Christ child was not an easy thing.

There is a key in the passage from Luke.

“And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” — Luke 1:30

The phrase translated here “found favor” is literally “grace.” In the Greek it is charis. What this means is that Mary was the recipient of God’s grace. She was perfectly willing to do what God required of her because God had already given her the grace necessary to make her so. She chose the path she wanted, and that path was completely consistent with the path God wanted because God had conformed her desires to his own.

Likewise, Paul did exactly what he wanted. Can you think of anyone in Scripture with a more fierce desire to share the gospel than Paul? But his desire was made consistent with God’s desire through God’s application of grace on Paul.

Pharaoh did exactly what Pharaoh wanted to do. And it was exactly what God wanted him to do. It was through the removal of His grace that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. We all have a sinful, selfish nature. Pharaoh was no exception. God merely allowed Pharaoh to be Pharaoh.

We all choose exactly what we want. But God is sovereign. Even over our desires.

Mary certainly had the free will to choose whatever she wanted. But God made sure she wanted what He wanted.

Could Mary have said “no?”

No.

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About Chip
Chip is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, AR and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, TN. He served more than five years on the staff of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana as Director of Communications and Public Relations, editor of the Indiana Baptist newsjournal, and regular contributor to the Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. He currently earns his living as a writer. He serves his local church as a teacher and deacon and his local Baptist Association as a Seminary Extension instructor and supply preacher.

6 Responses to Could Mary have said “no?” (a repost)

  1. John says:

    So were Arminians predestined to be Arminians? Do they have the free will to “see the light” and change (if change they should? If not, why dispute the matter? Looking back on the NT texts through the prisms of Arminianism and Calvinsim superimposes distortions on those texts that do not aid in exegesis, but serve as blinders. We don’t need them. We need the text.

  2. Chip says:

    John,

    I have a couple of comments regarding your question, “So were Arminians predestined to be Arminians?”

    Comment 1: Your question is a variation of a tired old objection to the doctrine of predestination — the method being to take any circumstance in which a person may find themselves and ask “Are they predestined to be that way?”

    Let’s be clear. The Bible only uses the term “predestined” with regard to salvation…

    “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.” — Ephesians 1:11-12

    “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” — Romans 8:29-30

    …therefore, I only use the term with regard to salvation. However, Scripture does teach that our circumstances are not accidents…

    “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” — Proverbs 16:9

    … therefore, I firmly believe God is in control of all aspects of our lives. It is no accident that I live where I live. God has placed me here for a reason. Was I predestined to live here? Scripture does not put it in those terms, so neither do I.

    Comment 2: The point of this post is not EVEN about the doctrine of predestination. Nor is it intended as a debate on Arminianism and Calvinism. It is a look at the tension between God’s sovereignty and the will of man. The only reason I mention Arminianism at all is to make the point that you, yourself, made in your comment…

    People go to the text with the preconceived notion that man’s free will is unassailable. They assume — before they ever approach the text — that man’s free will is preeminent. I was merely pointing out that doing such a thing distorts the text. Scripture MUST be read in its total context. Passages MUST be viewed in light of other passages. My post showed that God’s sovereignty is supreme — even over man’s will. But also showed how God did not force Mary to do something she did not want to do, instead conforming her will to his own.

    I did not look at the NT texts through the prism of Arminianism or Calvinism, but rather drew some solid theological conclusions FROM the text. Just because we give nicknames to the theological conclusions drawn from the text does not mean they are man made nor invalid. If that were the case we’d have to ditch the doctrine of the Trinity.

  3. Jon says:

    Of course Mary had free will, just as any human ever has and will have free will. Mankind has to have freewill or the entire purpose for us is mute. Mankind, Mary included, was created for the sole purpose of fellowship with and praise of God. Now that brings up the question of could she have said no. I believe she could have said no, just as anyone can do anything they please. This does not mean that she would say no though. You fail to recognize that God knows everything. He knows every decision you will ever make. He knew every decision you would ever make before the foundations of the world were layed. God knew Mary would not say no. He did not force her to say yes, but he knew that she would say yes. God is all knowing, all seeing and all powerful. He does not force His will on anyone but that doesn’t mean He doesn’t have a will. God knows what we will choose before we even know the question. God didn’t have to ask Mary because he knew her heart and he knew that her specific calling or purpose was to bear the messiah.

  4. Chip says:

    Jon,

    You say “God didn’t have to ask Mary because He knew her heart and he knew that her specific calling or purpose was to bear the messiah.”

    My question is this: Who made Mary’s heart to be agreeable? Who placed in Mary her “specific calling” and “purpose”?

  5. Michael Shannon says:

    words are important. God knew that Mary would say yes. Mary knew that God wanted her to give her permission.

  6. Chip says:

    Michael — Thanks for commenting. You are correct in that God knew Mary would say yes, because He, Himself, made her agreeable. But I think it is completely contrary to Scripture to imply that God somehow needed Mary’s permission. God needs no one’s permission. In addition to the biblical evidence I’ve presented above to support this point of view, there is just too much biblical support for the absolute sovereignty of God in all things…

    “Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps.” — Psalm 135:6

    “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.” — Psalm 115:3

    “I know that You [God] can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.” — Job 42:2.

    “…we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who WORKS ALL THINGS according to the counsel of HIS WILL…” Ephesians 1:11

    Psalm 2 even begins with a description of nations who think they can thwart the will of God. Not just one individual, but whole nations of individuals — kings and rulers. Far from giving their permission to God, they actively oppose Him, “taking counsel against Him.” Is God frustrated because they would not give Him permission? No. His reaction is recorded in Psalm 2:4…

    “He who sits in the heavens LAUGHS, the Lord SCOFFS at them.” — Psalm 2:4

    God did not need Mary’s permission. I think the Bible considers that notion to be laughable.

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