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Can Calvinists Know They Are Saved?

saved or lost

I spent a great deal of time around Calvinists and though they preached security they never possessed it. They claimed “faith” but were not secure in it. One moment they are saved/the elect. The next moment, meh, not so sure.

— Zoe

Calvinists believe that human salvation is predetermined by God from before the foundation of the world. Calvinists posit God in eternity past predestined some humans to salvation, leaving everyone else as they are, dead in trespasses and sin. Some Calvinists believe in double predestination. God actively chooses who will be saved and does the same for those who won’t. Those God chooses to save must persevere in the faith until death. Some Calvinists don’t like the term “perseverance of the saints,” thinking it makes salvation a “work,” so they use the phrase “preservation of the saints” instead.

I was a Calvinistic Baptist pastor for years. I associated with Reformed Baptist and Sovereign Grace Baptist pastors and churches. For several years, I published the Sovereign Grace Reporter and operated the CHARIS Tape Library. My library was filled with books written by Calvinistic authors. I even read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion — a set of books widely quoted in Calvinistic circles, but rarely read. All told, I pastored three Calvinistic churches, including Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf, Texas. (Please see the series I am a Publican and a Heathen — Part One.) I am partially responsible for giving to the world Tim Conway and Craig Musselman pastors of Grace Community Church in San Antonio. Conway (and Musselman) was a member of Community Baptist while I was there. He and his wife Ruby helped me plant Calvinistic churches in Stockdale and Floresville, Texas.

I say these things because this post will likely attract the attention of Calvinistic apologists. They will likely challenge whether I truly “understand” Calvinism. If I use the wrong word or be imprecise in any way and Calvinistic apologists will see that as “proof” I wasn’t a “real” Calvinist. So, if you are a Calvinistic apologist, please forward the test questions to me so I can answer them, proving that I am indeed a circumcised five-point Calvinist.

While Calvinists prattle on endlessly about salvation by grace, a closer examination of how the doctrines of grace work themselves out in the lives of Calvinistic church members reveals a works-based salvation scheme. In once-saved-always saved (sometimes called one point Calvinism) Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches, sinners are:

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8,9)

Once a person is saved, there is nothing he or she can do to lose their salvation. That’s why many IFB preachers believe I am still a Christian. No matter what I say about God, Jesus, Christianity, or the Bible, I am forever a born-again Christian. At age fifteen, I prayed the sinner’s prayer, and that, in their minds, sealed my eternal destiny.

Calvinists, of course, repudiate and despise once-saved-always-saved soteriology. According to their theology, salvation is conditional. Those who are truly saved must persevere until the bitter to enter Heaven after death. And even then, they could be unsaved and land in Hell. You see, some Calvinists can think they are “saved,” but they are not. They are temporary Christians, people under the common grace of God, but not his special, discriminate grace. In other words, God lets some Calvinists go through life thinking they are Christians, only to tell them when they draw their last breath, ha! the joke is on you. I never chose you, and now you will burn in the Lake of Fire for e-t-e-r-n-i-t-y. What an awesome deity, right?

For these reasons, and others, Calvinists have a lot of angst over the state of their souls. Am I truly saved? Am I one of the elect? Calvinists are implored to make their calling and election sure. They are encouraged to plumb the depths of their hearts, searching for anything that might be leading them astray. Calvinists spend inordinate amounts of time carefully examining what they believe and why. And even after doing so, they might still go to Hell in the end because they aren’t one of the elect. Is it any wonder that many Calvinists doubt their salvation and stress out over whether they are truly “in the faith”?

What Zoe stated above is very much my experience pastoring Calvinistic church members. Sincere, thoughtful congregants would seek me out after church or make an appointment to see me so I could give them spiritual counsel about the state of their souls. While I couldn’t tell anyone if they were one of the elect, I could encourage them to avail themselves of the means of grace. Much like once-saved-always-saved IFB preachers, I would encourage congregants to: attend church unless providentially hindered, read and study the Bible, pray without ceasing, fast, partake of communion, and any anything else that would bring spiritual challenge, correction, and strength. I encouraged people, and I quote, “to put themselves in the way of God.” Yet, despite doing all of these things, I had church members who still doubted their salvation. These people were, in every way, committed followers of Jesus. They were the backbone of the churches I pastored.

I have no doubt that my preaching helped encourage doubt among naturally introspective people. To this day, I struggle with a lack of self-esteem. Why? A lifetime of perverse introspection; an inability to accept myself as I am. Even though I am now an atheist, Calvinism, with its obsessive introspection, made a deep, lasting mark on my psyche. Now, instead of wondering whether I was one of the elect, I struggle with believing I am a good person. Decades of self-denial and daily inventories of my life robbed me of any sense of worth. Just because I am an atheist doesn’t mean the psychological harm caused by Calvinism has gone away. That’s what therapy is for.

Were you a Calvinist? Did you have doubts about your salvation? Did you wonder if you were truly one of the elect? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen 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.

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8 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Kel

    “I even read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion — a set of books widely quoted in Calvinistic circles, but rarely read.”

    Pure, unadulterated truth.

    I was, and still am, the type of congregant you mentioned.
    Always questioning myself with regards to my position before God.
    Always hating myself since I’m apparently too weak to bear my God-inflicted suffering for the sake of the glory of God – who is ever too Theocentric Himself to think of His creations. After all, who can be more pious than Job? “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15).

    One of my pastors once said that the “problem of evil”, of bad things supposedly happening to good people, is not the real problem. The real problem is the “problem of good”, or how good things are happening to bad people, i.e. the totally-depraved race of humanity.

    Calvinism makes me resent God – and I’m sure he hates me too.

  2. Avatar
    BJW

    Fascinating, but disturbing. I mean, I thought the doctrine of a burning Hell that most Christians believe in (not all, but most) was horrific. Come to find out, even if you worship God to the bitter end one could be cast into the outer flames? How do people square a burning Hell and but still burning there as a faithful Christian because you’re not really one of the elect? This god these Christians worship is a complete monster.

    • Avatar
      Dave

      Indeed he is the worst kind of monster-omnipotent and omniscient-aware of all of our pain and confusion and capable of changing all of this in the blink of an eye but failing to do so. You may even wonder if such a being even exists.

  3. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    The deity of the Calvinists is really horrible – creating humans and picking and choosing which ones to torture eternally without giving them any option whatsoever. What a d!ck. So someone could do everything they are supposed to and this deity is like, no, sorry, into the eternal deep fryer you go, just because I am omniscient and omnipotent and decree it so.

  4. Avatar
    ... Zoe ~

    Every time I encountered a 5-pointer I’d engage them as a 3-pointer. That was fun. When I think back on the discussions, it’s exhausting thinking about the time spent on it all. All of our so-called enlightened theological discourse. I basically was a 1-pointer but even then I had some (insert an appropriate word here)-pointers) tell me to my face that they doubted my salvation because it happened in a so-called liberal church. By the time I left (escaped) I had determined there are no saved Christians. We just believe the story that we are saved.

  5. Avatar
    Melvin Bausinger

    “Calvinists spend inordinate amounts of time carefully examining what they believe and why.”

    That’s not been my experience with Calvinists. They spend copious amounts of time examining Calvinism and the lack of Calvinism in others, but very little time examining their own beliefs and especially not (almost never) WHY they believe Calvinism over any other theology. Most often, my experience is they have a deeper understanding of a popularized version of Calvin than scripture.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      My experiences are very different from yours. Most Evangelical Calvinists come from non-Calvinistic theological viewpoints. Based on their reading and study of the Bible, they became Calvinists. This is especially true for Calvinistic preachers.

      Put a hundred Christians in a room and you’ll get 125 systems of theology. You think the Calvinists are wrong, they think you are right. I decided long ago that you are both right. The Bible can be used to “prove” anything. Christians can’t even agree on the basics: salvation/baptism/communion. The Bible says one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism . . . Sure . . . How’s that working out?

  6. Avatar
    Neil Rickert

    I looked into Calvinism as a teenager. I think it was my senior year at high school. I concluded that Calvinism made God look evil. So I concluded that Calvinism was not for me.

    I was already moving to a more liberal theology, although I was attending a conservative church. I left Christianity 5 or 6 years after that.

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Bruce Gerencser