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Why I Became a Calvinist — Part One

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

A regular reader of this blog asked if I would write about my move from Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) theology to Evangelical Calvinism. While I have mentioned the fact of my move to Calvinism, I have never explained why I did so.

I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan from 1976-1979. Midwestern was a small IFB institution started in the 1950s by Dr. Tom Malone — the pastor of nearby megachurch Emmanuel Baptist Church — to train men for the ministry. While there were women enrolled for classes at Midwestern, seeking either to hook a preacher boy and become his wife or become a Christian school teacher, everything revolved around manufacturing new male soldiers for the IFB war machine.

In a post titled What is an IFB Church? I listed the following doctrinal distinctives:

  • The inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of the Bible
  • The sinfulness, depravity of man
  • The deity of Christ
  • The virgin birth of Christ
  • The blood atonement of Christ for man’s sin
  • The resurrection of Christ from the dead
  • The second coming of Christ
  • Separation from the world
  • Salvation from sin is by and through Christ alone
  • Personal responsibility to share the gospel with sinners
  • Heaven and hell are literal places
  • Hierarchical authority (God, Jesus, church, pastor, husband, wife)
  • Autonomy and independence of the local church

While IFB churches and pastors are known for internecine wars over fine points of doctrine or whether certain behaviors are sinful, the aforementioned beliefs are nonnegotiable. Deny one or more of these doctrines and you will be labeled a compromiser, liberal, or a heretic.

Some churches don’t use the IFB moniker due to its negative associations; but using the doctrines listed above as the standard, many Southern Baptist congregations would be considered IFB churches. The same could be said for General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) congregations. I should also add, in passing, that many Reformed Baptist, Sovereign Grace Baptist, Conservative Baptist, and Missionary Baptist churches have the same doctrinal markers as churches that proudly claim the IFB label. This means, then, that there are tens of millions of Americans who attend churches that hold to IFB theological beliefs, even if many of them refuse to label themselves as such.

Calvinism was considered heresy at Midwestern, and students found discussing Calvinism or promoting its tenets were expelled. My systematic theology teacher, Ronald Jones, made it clear that Calvinism was not to be discussed. Students weren’t taught anything about Calvinism, and most of them simply accepted the anathemas uttered by their teachers as fact. I know I did. Midwestern’s goal, then, was to reinforce the doctrines taught to students in their home churches. Rare were classroom discussions that veered from IFB orthodoxy. According to Tom Malone and the professors at Midwestern, there was One Lord (Jesus), one faith (IFB doctrine and practice), and one baptism (Baptist immersion). While these promoters of the one true faith grudgingly admitted it was possible for non-IFB Christians to be True Christians®, most outsiders were considered religious, but lost (especially Catholics, who were considered the spawn of Satan).

Midwestern was also King James Only. Students were not allowed to use any Bible version but the 1769 revision of the King James Bible. Midwestern also promoted the belief that a certain Greek translation, commonly called the Textus Receptus (received text), was the true Word of God in Greek, and all other translations, such as Wescott and Hort, were inferior and were not to be used in Midwestern’s Greek classes. One professor disobeyed this edict, introducing students to the wonderful world of textual variants. He was summarily fired, even though on every other point of theological and social Fundamentalism he was a true-blue Baptist Fundamentalist.

When I began pastoring IFB churches in 1979, I didn’t know one pastor who would have called himself a Calvinist. Today, Calvinism has made deep inroads in the IFB church movement and in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In the SBC, Calvinistic pastors, led by men such as Al Mohler, are battling with non-Calvinistic pastors for the soul of the Convention.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Calvinism, here’s the TULIP acronym for the five points:

  • Total Depravity
  • Unconditional Election
  • Limited Atonement
  • Irresistible Grace
  • Perseverance of the Saints (Preservation of the Saints)

Calvinists also hold to what is commonly called the Five Solas:

  • Sola Scriptura — By Scripture Alone
  • Sola Fide — By Faith Alone
  • Sola Gratia — By Grace Alone
  • Solus Christus — Through Christ Alone
  • Soli Deo Gloria — Glory to God Alone

Calvinism is a theological and philosophical system where each point builds upon the other. Remove any one point and the system collapses. As with any theological system, adherents endlessly debate the finer points of belief. There are numerous subsets of Calvinistic belief, each with peculiarities that set them apart from other Calvinists.

Calvinism is a complex theological system. I call it an intellectual’s wet dream. Calvinistic pastors line their bookshelves with wordy tomes written by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Puritans and nineteenth-century Calvinistic Baptists and Presbyterians. IFB pastors have dick-measuring contests, with church attendance being the measure of success. Calvinists also have dick-measuring contests, with library size being the definitive proof of a pastor’s prowess.

Many of the Reformed and Sovereign Grace Baptist pastors I knew were, at one time, IFB pastors. All that changed for them was their soteriology and, at times, their ecclesiology. The same social Fundamentalism found in IFB churches is often found in Evangelical churches of Calvinistic persuasion. For many years, I would drive once a month to a Calvinistic pastor’s meeting called the Pastor’s Clinic in Mansfield, Ohio. Most of the men in this group were former IFB pastors — GARBC, SBC, and unaffiliated Baptist churches.

One big difference between Calvinistic Baptist churches and IFB churches is how the congregations handle church discipline. Typically, in IFB churches errant members are, behind the scenes, “encouraged” to leave so they can find a new church to better meet their “needs.” If this approach doesn’t work, pastors use their sermons, complete with subtle prods, to run the offender off. I don’t know of an IFB church that actually practices church discipline as laid out in Matthew 18:15-18:

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

On the other hand, Calvinistic Evangelical churches are much more likely to use church discipline to punish unrepentant members who run afoul of morality codes and conduct standards or disobey orders from their pastor/elders. Supposedly, the goal of church discipline is to effect restoration, but more often than not, it is used as Biblical cover for kicking people out of the church or shaming them into submission. One church I pastored, Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf, Texas, used church discipline for all sorts of offenses, including not regularly attending Sunday worship services. Even when the church was notified that the absent member was attending a new church, because the member didn’t ask the church’s “permission” to leave the church, he or she was excommunicated. The threat of church discipline was used to quash disagreement and keep congregants in line. (I was excommunicated from this church myself. You can read about my time at Community in the series titled, I am a Publican and a Heathen.)

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 suppose, all told, that I listened to several hundred tapes. Before returning them, I would make copies of the tapes so other people in my church could listen to them. A year or so later, I started CHARIS Tape Library — a lending library patterned after Chapel Library. Tapes were sent free of charge to anyone who requested them. The goal was to spread the good news of the Calvinistic gospel — also known as the TRUE gospel, the faith once delivered to the saints.

In part two of this series, I will share how these tapes were instrumental in my theological move from IFB theology to Evangelical Calvinism.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 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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  1. Avatar
    Davie from Glasgow

    I’m interested in this subject as I struggle to understand Calvinism. If the elect are the elect what is the actual point (in their minds) if preaching the gospel to ‘sinners’? Is it in the hope of being instrumental in bringing one or two of the elect to live a godly life among all the many people that they preach to? Or do they see a point in preaching to the un-elect? They obviously can’t be trying to ‘soul win’, as they don’t believe that’s possible.

    • Avatar
      Randy Sivley

      Greetings from the Heart of Dixie Davie. Even though a person is one of the elect they still have to hear the Word of God.
      Romans 10:17
      New King James Version
      So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

  2. Avatar

    Davie has a great point. If I amone of the elect and live in Saudi Arabia where I will have no chance of hearing about Jesus, do I still go to heaven? Or is being one of the elect contingent on being born in a place where I would have heard it at some point and decided to follow? Is being elect more that God chooses, or just that God has foreknowledge? That always confused me.

    Personally I think it’s all BS -a way for people to lump themselves into a super special category.

    • Avatar

      To extend this nonsense further, assuming Calvinists believe life begins at conception, are there elect zygotes that inhabit heaven and others that are cast into the lake of fire? How does the almighty distinguish what clump of cells he chooses and what clump he damns?

      • Avatar
        Yulya Sevelova

        Another thing about John Calvin is, he HAD to know Christians aren’t free to kill others. So why did he go out of his way to have one man, with whom he had a disagreement with,by the name of Servetius, burnt at the stake in Switzerland ?? What’s up with that, if Calvin was so holy,and always right ?? I’ve read about Christians saying how funny it was that Gandhi went to hell when he died- even though in her s youth,he went to church to try to hear the Gospels,only to be told that because his skin was dark, he wasn’t welcome in church and had to leave immediately. Gandhi was drawn to Jesus, yet was driven away by the minister at the time. How can anyone anywhere justify what was done to Servetius OR Gandhi ?

  3. Avatar

    My recent experience with Calvinism was with a couple of Calvinists who jumped on the thread, There, Christians were struggling to define what was needed to get to heaven. There were wildly different views, with most finding it hard to even stake a position of what they believed. Then the Calvinists tried to argue that it was all a work of God, so there was nothing one needed to do. One did not even need to have faith! One Calvinist tried to argue that the position of John R. Rice and the IFB, that one needed only to come in faith, was a works-based salvation, for it required one to trust Jesus. To these Calvinists on that thread easy-believism was salvation by works! OK, so does that mean they don’t even need to believe? Well actually, they do need to believe, but they don’t actually need to believe, but they do need to believe, but… It was wild watching them chase their tails in endless circles.

  4. Avatar
    Brocken The truth is that at Midwestern Baptist College the author of this blog was never exposed to good preaching. Only after listening to Rolfe Barnard, one of the South’s most spellbinding evangelists, (even if some of his stories might not be 100% true) did the author of this blog have any idea how to deliver a sermon. Sadly the author of this blog was never able to achieve the lethality of Rolfe Barnard after any of his evangelistic campaigns. If someone refused to be converted after one of Rolfe Barnard’s evangelistic sermons, it was almost a guarantee they would die a horrible, sudden death. If it wasn’t dying from an oilfield explosion, it would be the only person killed in an multiple vehicle crash, or dying during a high school basketball practice. Maybe they would kill themselves. I’m being sarcastic.

  5. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Sorry, Bruce, I’ve read Part 2, and I’m still baffled about differences. Perhaps my Catholic upbringing is the source of my confusion.

    As far as I can tell, IFB theology says that God is open to accepting everyone who does whatever the local IFB church requires as being necessary to truly profess the proper belief. Not necessarily simply saying some words and being baptized (you’ve written about that), but truly trying to live the life that the church’s theology insists that its people are called to do. A challenge that mere mortals fail at all the time, but hey, intention accounts for something, and God is forgiving if you ask.

    Calvinism, OTOH, declares that some people are pre-ordained by God as acceptable to him, and the rest are doomed to everlasting punishment, regardless of their inclinations during their lives. Um, maybe also that people won’t actually be inclined to God unless they’re pre-ordained to be so? I realize that there are statements about the actual elect being only a small number of people, but I assume, given the current population of Calvinistic churches, that one or more influential people have declared that whoever came up with those small numbers must have misinterpreted the texts.

    Both traditions seem to place emphasis on the inerrancy of the Bible, its primacy as the only source material, and God’s grace as the only active agent in salvation.

    Do I have that anywhere near right? (Considering that from my point of view, any all-knowing being, understanding that he would create the bulk of humans with the destiny of being tortured forever, doesn’t justify being worshipped for a microsecond. Marcus Aurelius was right. Good thing I find the writings about the Christian deity to be extremely less than compelling.)

    Oh, and as to the reference to my upbringing, Catholicism has an institutionalized process–a sacrament now called “Reconciliation”, aka Confession–which exists because the church understands that honorable, devoted Christians, being human, will get it wrong sometimes. It is a ritual that ideally helps the

    • Avatar
      Karen the rock whisperer

      Wow, part of the comment got deleted. Yay, keyboard/mouse/inattention! Um, I see (viewed through my now-atheist lens) that Catholic Confession, when used properly, is a supportive mechanism for realigning a believer’s outlook with what they know God wants from them.

      I will add, that as an atheist, I’ve had to figure out my own methods for cross-checking myself and making certain that my behaviors support my value system. Worthwhile and helpful, certainly, but I can see that all religious variations of “reconciliation” are useful within the contexts of those faith systems. I remember my faithful Catholic mother, though, worried because with mobility issues, she couldn’t get to Confession “often enough”. This was a woman who truly lived her own values, which were in accord with her religion, and I have no idea what she was dredging up to confess. Thought sins, maybe? One doesn’t ask in Catholicism, such things are considered private between the believer, the priest, and God.

  6. Avatar

    Bruce – based on what I’ve learned from you and a few other sources,this question comes to my mind about Calvinism:
    Why are these people out evangelizing and being on youtube and tv blathering on about God? If you’re one of the predetermined Ones, you’ll hear the call and join the group. If you’re not, you’re screwed anyway and irredeemable, so why would the Chosen bother with the rest of us? Wouldn’t they all just go be by themselves, reveling in their Chosen-ness? Quit bothering the rest of us! Just go be your cult and leave the doomed alone. Why spend the effort? I don’t get it.

    • Avatar

      Not to answer for Bruce, I’ve only studied Calvinism as a layperson, not a minister, but some Calvinist do take their theology (aka The Doctrines of Grace) to that logical conclusion and do not emphasize evangelism and outreach. However, many believe they are still commanded to evangelize; they may be the tool God uses to present the Gospel to the elect-if God commands it, they obey. Because of God’s sovereignty, even it they choose to pull a Jonah and refuse to go, God will just reach the elect by another means. This opens a whole other can-of-worms on the whole free will discussion alluded to earlier in the discussion.

      • Avatar

        Whoops, the Free Will discussion is in the following post, “Why I became a Calvinist – Part Two: The Wrath of Calvin”. This topic can be confusing enough with me making reference to the wrong articles.

  7. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Everybody is making great points. I, too, wonder what the point of “witnessing,” or even having faith or doing good works is if one’s salvation is pre-ordained. Also, as Obstacle pointed out, if you are born and raised in a place where no one is Christian and there are no Bibles, how would you know whether or not you are “chosen?” Could you live your life not knowing you were “chosen” until you died and ascended into the Calvinist heaven?

    I don’t know whether this story is apocryphal. Here goes: Supposedly, when Calvin’s wife was on her deathbed, she asked whether she was “chosen.” His answer: “Non.” (He was French: Jean Cauvin.)

  8. Avatar
    Brocken When it comes to the earlier sarcastic comment I made about the mortality rate after Rolfe Barnard’s revival campaigns, upon further review there was some truth to some of the deaths that Rolfe Barnard referred to in his sermons. Rolfe Barnard made a comment about some woman in Electra Texas committing suicide with a razor after her husband had deserted her and their children. this occurred during the great depression in August of 1933. there was an article in the Wichita Falls Times, Texas newspaper on page 1 on August 8, 1933. One Mrs. Jim Gordon had killed herself and her two daughters, Bessie Wynell, age 8, and Ellen Beth age 9. From what the news article said. this woman had attended a revival meeting and some other event before going home and killing herself and her children. I wonder what the Calvinist theology would make of that tragedy.

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