Why I Became a Calvinist — Part Two

Jose Maldonado Bruce Gerencser Pat Horner

Three Calvinist Peas in a Pod: Pastors Joe Maldonado, Bruce Gerencser, and Pat Horner, Somerset Baptist Church, Fall of 1993

 

My first exposure to Calvinism came in 1988 when I began borrowing and listening to cassette sermon tapes from Chapel Library — a Calvinistic tape lending library and tract publisher in Pensacola, Florida. I had seen an ad for Chapel Library in a periodical I received, so I thought I would write to request a list of sermon tapes. Most of the preachers on the list were not familiar to me, but one name stood out: Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones, who died in 1981, was a well-known British Evangelical pastor. He was the pastor for many years of Westminster Chapel in London.

Along with a handful of Lloyd-Jones’ sermon tapes, I ordered tapes of Rolfe Barnard, a Southern Baptist evangelist. While I thoroughly enjoyed Lloyd-Jones’ sermons — and I would listen to dozens more of them over time — it was Barnard’s sermons that blew me away. Here was a Calvinist who preached with the fervor of an old-fashioned fire and brimstone evangelist. I had never heard Calvinistic preaching before listening to Lloyd-Jones and Barnard. I had been told that Calvinistic preachers were dried up prunes with little zeal, passion, or power. I was big fan of nineteenth century Calvinistic Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, but having only read his sermons, I had no idea how Spurgeon sounded. I assumed he preached with great authority and power, but since there are no recordings of his preaching, all anyone can do is assume how Spurgeon preached.

I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan from 1976-1979.  Midwestern — an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution — was resolutely opposed to Calvinism. Ironically, one of the college’s men’s societies carried Spurgeon’s name. When questioned about having a society named after Charles Spurgeon, students were told that, yes, Spurgeon was a Calvinist, but God mightily used him in spite of his Calvinism. More than a few IFB preachers suggested that Spurgeon was not a “true” Calvinist; that his zeal for winning souls was inconsistent with his Calvinistic beliefs. I would later thoroughly study Spurgeon’s published sermons, and I determined, without question, that Charles Haddon Spurgeon was an Evangelical five-point Calvinist.

While Spurgeon was my favorite nineteenth century preacher, Rolfe Barnard quickly became my favorite modern-day preacher. Many of his recorded sermons were preached at Thirteenth Street Baptist Church in Asheville, Kentucky. For many years, Henry Mahan was the pastor of Thirteenth Street. I called Henry one day to see if he had contact information for Barnard. I wanted to have him come preach a meeting at our church. Henry told me, well brother, Brother Barnard died in 1969. (Henry and I would later develop a friendship. I visited Thirteenth Street several times, and Henry came to Ohio to preach a conference at the church I was pastoring.)

Here’s a sermon by Barnard that will give readers a good idea of his preaching style and sermon content:

Video Link

Barnard’s sermons made a deep, lasting impression on my life. As Barnard preached the Calvinistic gospel and spoke of God’s sovereignty and grace, I found myself emotionally stirred. I asked myself, why hadn’t I ever heard these “truths” before? Why hadn’t my college professors told me of these “truths?” In time, I came to believe that my mentors and professors had lied to me about the gospel, salvation, and God’s grace.

rolfe barnard

Barnard, then, opened the door for me to Evangelical Calvinism; and once the door was opened there was no going back. I began buying and reading books written by Calvinistic theologians and pastors — many of them from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Over time, I would buy almost one thousand theology books and Christian biographies. One time, a church teen walked into my study, looked at all my books, and said, preacher, have you read all these books? With great humble pride I replied, yes, every one of them. I was quite proud of my library, a common trait found among Calvinistic preachers. It was through these books and the preaching tapes from Chapel Library that Bruce Gerencser, a one-time IFB preacher, became an Evangelical Calvinist.

As newly minted Calvinists are wont to do, I made it my mission to convert my colleagues in the ministry to Calvinism. All my zeal accomplished was fractured relationships, including one man who got so mad at me — accusing me of being the keeper of the Book of Life — that he stomped out of a meeting we both were in, never to be in the same room with me again. Of course, I viewed his temper tantrum as him not being able to handle the “truth.”

I started a monthly newsletter titled, The Sovereign Grace Reporter. I mailed this newsletter to hundreds of IFB and Calvinistic preachers. The Calvinists loved my newsletter, including several IFB preachers who were closeted lovers of John Calvin. Some IFB preachers got so upset with me that they sent me angry letters, demanding that I take them off the newsletter mailing list.  This video clip from A Few Good Men pretty well says what I thought of these angry preachers:

Video Link

One preacher, my best friend at the time, was sympathetic to my Calvinistic views. Through hours-long theological discussions and reading books I loaned him, he embraced certain aspects of Calvinism (though he certainly would never have called himself a Calvinist). He would later pull back from Calvinism. One mutual acquaintance of ours told my friend, Bruce Gerencser almost ruined you with that Calvinistic stuff.

My theological transformation came at a time when the church I was pastoring was facing attendance decline due to the fact that we decided to stop operating our bus routes. I determined, then, with my new-found beliefs in hand, to do three things:

  • Try to un-save all the people who were saved through my preaching of the IFB gospel. I was convinced that many of the people who attended Somerset Baptist Church were “saved” but lost. If Rolfe Barnard was right about the true condition of many Baptist churches — filled with lost people — then it was my duty and obligation to expose the false IFB gospel and preach to them the true gospel. I found that it was a lot harder to un-save people than it was to lead them to salvation.
  • Teach the congregation the doctrines of grace (Calvinism), line by line, week after week. I abandoned preaching topical and textual sermons, choosing instead to exegetically preach through books of the Bible. For example, I preached over one hundred sermons from the gospel of John (my favorite gospel).
  • Start a tuition-free private Christian school for our church’s children. By doing so, I would not only teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic, but it would also allow me, through having students memorize the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith and read biographies of Calvinistic missionaries and preachers, to indoctrinate them in the one “true” faith.

In the next post in this series, I will talk about how Pastor Bruce becoming a Calvinist materially affected the church I was pastoring and how it altered my personal relationships with my wife, children, and friends.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

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Series Navigation<< Why I Became a Calvinist — Part OneWhy I Became a Calvinist — Part Three >>

13 Comments

  1. Matilda

    I went to worship at the feet of Martyn Lloyd Jones a few times when I was a student in London. I was impressed that so many took notes and at the end of the service, lots didn’t rush for coffee or for the door to say ‘Lovely sermon Pastor..’ They stayed in the pews and, with bibles open, continued to discuss the sermon with those around them. Then I was told MLJ spent a day or more preparing sermons and his wife had instructions to fend off anyone who rang or called, however distressed they were, however much they needed pastoral help, he must not be disturbed. There was no ‘counselling team’ or other help, he was strictly a one-man-band. That made me think, I remained fundy for decades, erecting the anti-dissonance shield about such inconsistencies. Whether I’d been a x-tian or not, I couldn’t help thinking that distressed people matter more than writing a sermon.

    Reply
  2. ObstacleChick

    Bruce, I am struggling here a bit. Don’t Calvinists believe in predestination, meaning that God has predestined those who will be saved? And that if you weren’t predestined to be saved, you are out of luck?

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Evangelical Calvinists believe God uses means to save those whom he has chosen to be saved. One way God uses is the preaching of the gospel. Since we don’t know whom God has predestined, we preach the gospel indiscriminately. In doing so, those whom God intends to save will hear and be saved. Or so the explanations go, anyway.

      Reply
      1. ObstacleChick

        I presume Calvinists in general do not believe in the concept of Free Will, correct? If God has predestined certain people to be saved and certain people not to be saved, then people have no choice in the matter. And that leads me to this question – why would a supposedly good God create creatures whom he has not selected to be saved, who he will then cast into eternal damnation in hell? How can that be a good God? How is that God not a monstrous powerful deity that chooses to destroy his creatures, giving them no choice in the matter, damning them to eternal torment and suffering just because…..why? Because he can? Because we’re all depraved anyway and he isn’t capable – isn’t willing, perhaps – to save all of us from our depravity? It’s quite a conundrum. Hopefully you will be able to address some of these issues in your Part 3 post. 🙂

        (Of course, this is fiction just like discussing the finer points of Star Wars or Harry Potter, but the difference is that real people believe this stuff, and they VOTE.)

        Reply
        1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

          You raise good questions. If, as you say, God created men so he could damn them, then God is a monster. Some Calvinists admit that God did this, but hey, God can do what he wants. Many Calvinistic Evangelicals, however, subscribe to lapsarianism — the order of the decrees. If you have some time and want to lose a bunch of brain cells, you can read about lapsarianism here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logical_order_of_God%27s_decrees

          Here’s a summary:

          Supralapsarianism (also called antelapsarianism, pre-lapsarian or prelapsarian) is the view that God’s decrees of election and reprobation logically preceded the decree of the fall while infralapsarianism (also called postlapsarianism and sublapsarianism) asserts that God’s decrees of election and reprobation logically succeeded the decree of the fall.The words can also be used in connection with other topics, e.g. supra- and infralapsarian christology. The difference between the two views are minute; supralapsarianism, by virtue of its belief that God creates the elect and reprobate, is a suggestion or provides an inference that at some level, God is the author of sin (because he creates sinners to condemnation). Infralapsarianism teaches that all men are sinful by nature (due to The Fall), are thereby condemned through our own sin (freewill), and that God had foreknowledge of whom he would rescue from condemnation. The infralapsarianist view follows Ephesians 1:4-6, “… even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (ESV). That is, some are chosen to be elect (foreknowledge) but not created elect.

          Many Calvinists reject both lapsarian views for various reasons. Herman Bavinck rejected both because he sees the entire system of God’s plan of salvation as organic with each part mutually dependent and determinative, rather than some parts “causing” others. Other Calvinists (and many non-Calvinists) reject the lapsarian views because they perceive any particular ordering of the decrees as unnecessary and presumptive speculation. Critics of lapsarianism often argue that it is impossible to conceive of a temporal process by which God, in eternity, issued decrees, and it is impossible to know the mind of God without direct, scriptural documentation.

          Reply
          1. ObstacleChick

            I just skimmed the link to the lapsarianism. Circumlocution at its finest. I was struck by the similarity to the order of the decrees here and the way the later portions of the Koran supposedly supercede the previous portions.

            I suppose most evangelicals still want to hold to the idea that God is “good”, therefore they will come up with ways that he is not a monster. I still don’t know how they get around the idea that if God created all things, then it stands that God created sin, evil, torture, pain, damnation, etc. Would a good god really create evil? And if evil “just happens”, then God did not create all things. I’m sure different theological scholars have developed a variety of answers to these questions over the centuries.

            It’s just easier being an atheist. Shit happens. What can I do to prevent some of the shit from happening? How can I help others to whom shit has happened?

            As to your reply below to Justine, I have read some of the research implying that humans do not truly have “free will”. It’s interesting. I’m sure the Calvinists would seize upon parts of that research to turn it around and make arguments in support of their theology.

          2. Scott

            Wow, As a hardcore Trekker I’ve gotten in deeply nerdy and detailed discussions about many aspects of Star Trek, such that we’ve scared other people off. This however, makes me look normal.

            Thanks, 🙂

      2. Daniel Wilcox

        I am curious if you ever found the source of the famous story, allegedly, by Spurgeon where he said that since we can’t know who the elect is, anymore than, who has a yellow stripe down his back, we preach to everyone. Otherwise we would have to go around lifting up shirt tails to find the yellow stripe.

        I couldn’t find the source of that anywhere when I searched for it online.

        During the years, I spent studying many Calvinist books, from Piper, Sproul, Boettner, etc., even one by R. L. Dabney, the chaplain of Stonewall Jackson’s troops, the only result was that I became more and more horrified by what so many leaders in Christianity claimed. Fairly quickly I learned that Martin Luther sometimes out-calvined Calvin, that some of my favorite authors actually held to parts of TULIP, just didn’t call themselves Calvinists.

        The most intriguing book was by a famous Calvinist who claimed that if I was of the elect, I wouldn’t be able to stop reading his book!!

        I read the whole book, but, definitely, was never of the elect. In fact, Calvinism, completely, convinced me that Christianity can’t be true.

        Reply
      3. Daniel Wilcox

        I am curious if you ever found the source of the famous story, allegedly, by Spurgeon where he said that since we can’t know who the elect is, anymore than, who has a yellow stripe down his back, we preach to everyone. Otherwise we would have to go around lifting up shirt tails to find the yellow stripe.

        I couldn’t find the source of that anywhere when I searched for it online.

        During the years, I spent studying many Calvinist books, from Piper, Sproul, Boettner, etc., even one by R. L. Dabney, one the chaplain of Stonewall Jackson’s troops, the only result was that I became more and more horrified by what so many leaders in Christianity claimed. For fairly quickly I learned that Martin Luther sometimes out-calvined Calvin, that some of my favorite authors actually held to parts of TULIP, just didn’t call themselves Calvinists.

        The most intriguing book was by a famous Calvinist who claimed that if I was of the elect, I wouldn’t be able to stop reading his book!!

        I read the whole book, but, definitely, was never of the elect. In fact, Calvinism, completely, convinced me that Christianity can’t be true.

        Reply
        1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

          I don’t know about the yellow stripe story, but Spurgeon was very much a believer in what Evangelical Calvinists call the free offer of the gospel. Evangelical Calvinists believe the gospel should be preached indiscriminately — freely offered to all men. The reason for this, of course, is that no one knows who the elect are. Even Calvinists themselves can’t no they are elect. Why? Because they haven’t persevered to the end (death). And even then, it is possible that some/many Calvinists have deluded themselves into believing that they are elect when in fact they are not. Thus, salvation is conditional, contingent on works. For all their about grace, Calvinism is inherently a works-based theological system.

          Reply
  3. Brian

    Sounds like poetry, the cadence of the voice and the rolling thunder of Judgement always trembling the background in his words. I believe that this kind of brainwash music led me to write free verse as a youngster, a search for the way to light and not more and more darkness. Faith is about feelings. A person able to stir your feelings and appeal to your deepest damaged self, wins the day in religion. Hatred can be a song sung with people weeping for joy at the feeling of it washing through them.
    We were sucked into it from the womb onwards, Gerencser… Some of us got lucky and discovered world literature and art, discovered voices coming into the church from doors left slightly cracked, from an unguarded window. Some of us fell in love with the earth we were taught to hate. Some of us hiked out and made it through. Two in my family of eight bipeds made it out to live in freedom. Of the rest, three are dead, one is fairly moderate Baptist, a tradesman, and two are in the business of harming others full-time.
    Barnard had the gift, didn’t he… Some folks know how to send you to your death believing you are walking into the purest of lights. This might seems abit addled but it reminds me of the command given to the 2nd Crusade conquerers when they had overrun the city and did not know who in fact was the enemy and who wasn’t. The order came down from the man of God to kill them all because God would know his own. This stands for me as a true metaphor of extreme religions.
    Evangelical fervor is emotional rape. It sports no basic human respect and rips children to pieces to please God. It is as uncivilized as native peoples tossing human sacrifices into volcanoes, as stoning people to death for offending sacred rules. We do not like to admit our savagery but until we do we can hardly grasp our potential for human love and sacrifice to the ultimate cause, human beings and not Delusion.

    Reply
  4. Justine

    Brian–Your comment reminds me of something H.L. Mencken wrote about the King James Bible. He said that it’s the most beautiful book in the world, and that it is evidence that beauty and truth are not one in the same. The KJB, he said, is the reason why Christianity kept its grip on the English-speaking world for as long as it did

    Bruce–My admittedly comic-book understanding of Calvinism tells me that it was a path from being an IFB pastor to the atheist you are today. If God merely uses people and we have no choice in the matter of whether or not we are saved, then what is the point of devoting one’s mental energy (to say nothing of personal relationships and material resources) to him? What is the point of believing, let alone worshiping or evangelizing?

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      The point would be that God commands us to do these things, and because we love him who first loved us, we keep his commandments. Outside of no longer giving altar calls, my approach to evangelism and congregant care remained the same throughout my ‘Calvinist years.’

      I should note that many atheists and scientists deny humans have free will.

      Reply

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