Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life. Of renewal,1 indeed, the second of these gifts, I have said what seemed sufficient. The theme of justification was therefore more lightly touched upon because it was more to the point to understand first how little devoid of good works is the faith, through which alone we obtain free righteousness by the mercy of God; and what is the nature of the good works of the saints, with which part of this question is concerned. Therefore we must now discuss these matters thoroughly. And we must so discuss them as to bear in mind that this is the main axis (praecipuum…cardinem) on which religion turns,2 so that we devote the greater attention and care to it. For unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God. But the need to know this will better appear from the knowledge itself.
John Calvin | Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.1 (Battles Edition)
1. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the word “regeneration” was used in two senses. It was used as we today speak of sanctification and as we speak of being renewed from spiritual death to spiritual life. Here he used it in the first sense, sanctification. The text reads, “Ac de regeneratione quidem, quae secunda est gratia, dictum fuit quantum sufficere videbatur.” The context makes clear his intent. For Calvin there are two benefits of being united to Christ by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) by the Holy Spirit. The first benefit is justification. The second is sanctification, as this sentence makes clear. Regeneration is the the “second grace” of the duplex gratia, which he mentioned immediately above.
2. This section is revised from the Battles translation here since the image Calvin was employing is better captured by the noun axis than by the word Battles used, hinge. As we ordinarily use a hinge a door swings open and shut but does not revolve around the hinge 360 degrees. When we speak of an axis, we think of a central point around which things revolve. This is the image that Calvin was seeking to evoke in the reader’s mind. Thus, we might translate the phrase “special axis,” “particular axis,” or better “principal axis.” The sense is that the entire faith rotates around one central point. He used the same expression in 3.15.1 when he wrote, “If righteousness is supported by works, in God’s sight it must entirely collapse; and it is confined solely to God’s mercy, solely to communion with Christ, and therefore solely to faith. But let us carefully note that this is the principal axis (praecipuum…cardinem) of the matter….” Battles translated it there with “chief turning point” which captures the same sense. In 3.14.11 he calls justification sola fide the “principal axis ” (praecipuus…cardo) of the disputation with Rome. In 3.4.1 he wrote of the “axis and foundation” (cardo ac fundamentum) of the Protestant debate with Rome on repentance. In 3.2.16 he described the act of personally embracing the promises of God in Christ as the “principal axis” ( praecipuus fidei cardo) of faith.” These are only examples from book 3 of the Institutes but they are enough to show that the expression “praecipuus cardo” refer to an essential—hence his use of fundamentum as a synonym— teaching around which other important but subsidiary teachings orbit.
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