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Why I Became a Calvinist — Part Three

six point calvinist

I pastored Somerset Baptist Church in Mount Perry, Ohio, from 1983-1994. In 1988, after being exposed to what Calvinists call the “doctrines of grace,” I abandoned my Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) theology and embraced Evangelical Calvinism. By this time, I had begun preaching expositionally (verse by verse through books of the Bible). This allowed me to preach through the books loved by Calvinists: Ephesians, Romans, John, and First John. One Sunday night, I talked about limited atonement (particular redemption) in my sermon. Afterward, a man in the church passed me a note that said, Did I just hear you say that Christ only died for the elect? I later explained to him how my theology was changing. For a short time, I would be preaching John Calvin in the auditorium on Sunday while he taught our teenagers IFB theology in the church basement. Eventually, he and his wife left the church. (Please see Dear Greg.)

Outside of this man (who was a dear friend), every other regular attendee went along for the ride, believing that I had their best interests at heart — I did — and would always tell them the truth — truth being my peculiar interpretation of the Bible. Not only had my soteriology changed (doctrine of salvation), so had my eschatology (end-times, future events). As an IFB preacher, I was a dispensationalist. I believed that the return of Jesus was imminent; that Jesus was coming soon in the clouds to rapture away his people. And then God, for seven years, would rain holy hell upon the earth, culminating in Jesus returning to earth again (yes, a second, second coming). After Jesus’ return, he would reign on earth for a thousand years. At the end of these days, Satan would be loosed for a season, causing many of the people on earth to rebel against God one last time. God crushes this rebellion, destroys Heaven and Earth, makes a new Heaven and Earth, judges all humanity, sending non-Christians to the Lake of Fire and Christians to God’s Eternal Kingdom. And all God’s people live happily ever after. Not God’s people? Eternal punishment and torture awaits. Got all that?

As a Calvinist, my eschatology was simple and direct: someday God will pour out his wrath on earth, judge the living and dead (general resurrection and judgment), make a new Heaven and a new Earth, and usher in his everlasting kingdom. The joy of the Lord awaits the elect. The non-elect are cast into the Lake of Fire, a place reserved for the devil, his angels, and the whore of Babylon (Catholic church).

After several months of preaching the wonders of Calvinism, I gathered a core group of church members together and asked them to attend a Wednesday night class so I could teach them the finer points of the doctrines of grace. So, for three months, ten or so faithful members, including my wife, gathered with me as I took them through the five points of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints. Once these people were thoroughly indoctrinated, I knew it would be smooth sailing from there. These were the people who gave the most money and did most of the work. Most of them had been with me from our early days. They were the core group that would stand with me no matter what.

fellowship tract league
I stopped using tracts such as this one from Fellowship Tract League in Lebanon, Ohio. As a Calvinist, I believed that the word MAYBE goes after ALL THIS I DID FOR THEE.

Over time, I changed out the printed literature we were using, moving from Chick Tracts and Fellowship Tract League literature to materials printed by Chapel Library. I also purchased Calvinistic books and made them available to the church, hoping that they would read them and better understand the doctrines of grace. Sadly, most congregants preferred me just telling them what to believe. Just give us a book report, Preacher.

In August 1989, we opened the doors of Somerset Baptist Academy to fifteen students, ranging from kindergarten to tenth grade. The school became yet another vehicle to indoctrinate people in the “true” gospel. Children were required to memorize the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith and read biographies of Calvinistic missionaries and preachers. For a time, we primarily used — I shit you not — McGuffey Readers. After one year with the McGuffey Readers, I decided that was a big mistake — thank God! We began the second year of school using books published by a Mennonite/Amish publisher Rod & Staff. We also used PACES (self-study materials) for some of the high school students.

On Sundays, I stopped giving invitations and got rid of our hymnbooks, putting in their place Gadsby’s Hymns — a nineteenth-century collection of 1,100 Calvinistic hymns. After a year or two of grinding through Gadsby’s Hymns, I decided to let some of our loved and cherished Arminian hymns back into the church (I know, proof that I was not a True Calvinist®.) Every change I made was framed in “Biblical” terms. The Bible says __________________, so this is why we are doing this and no longer doing that. Congregants genuinely believed that I wouldn’t lead them astray, but I do have to wonder how many of that original group really understood the depths of my changing theology and practice. As I will share in the next post, word got out that I was now a Calvinist, and this brought to the church new people who were specifically looking for a Calvinistic church. They knew Calvinism inside and out.

As with virtually everything I do in life, I threw my body, soul (I had one back then, before Satan stole it), and mind into building a bastion of Calvinistic truth in rural Southeast Ohio. I read, studied, preached, evangelized, taught school, and visited prospective members — week after week, month after month. I was filled with zeal, believing that I had been lied to by my IFB pastors and professors. And now that I knew the “truth,” the whole “truth,” and nothing but the “truth,” I made sure my wife’s preacher-laden family and my colleagues in the ministry heard this “truth” too. Surprisingly, Polly’s long-tenured IFB preacher uncle, the late Jim Dennis, actually agreed with me (though his outward practices suggested otherwise). Other family members chalked up my new beliefs to, Oh, that Bruce. There he goes on another tangent. Many of my colleagues in the ministry, believing that Calvinism was heresy, distanced themselves from me. The fifteen-church youth fellowship I had started in 1986 went up in smoke as pastors said they didn’t want to fellowship with a Tulip-picker or have a Calvinist preaching to their teens. Some of my friends ignored my changed beliefs, expecting that I would come around in time. I did, but not in ways they expected. These would be the friends who would abandon me after my theology and politics turned towards the left.

In the next post in this series, I will continue to 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.

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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Series Navigation<< Why I Became a Calvinist — Part TwoWhy I Became a Calvinist — Part Four >>


  1. Avatar

    McGuffey readers – weren’t those used in Little House on the Prairie? Talk about “old time religion”

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      Appalachian Agnostic

      lol My first thought when I read that in the article was an episode of Little House on the Prairie where the teacher was so excited to get brand new McGuffey readers for her class.

  2. Avatar
    That Other Jean

    Bruce! Oh, Bruce. Any god who would deliberately create beings destined to suffer eternally, with no hope of salvation, is a monster not worthy of worship. I’m delighted that you’re now an atheist, rather than a preacher of such a terrible doctrine.

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    Bruce – in these three posts, you’ve talked about how and what happened in your conversion to Calvinism, but other than the pne paragraph about it being super technical and the pastors and their dick-measuring over how many books they had or how many people showed up, you haven’t said what exactly it was about the Calvinism that was SO FANTASTIC. What about the theology resonated with you enough to make such drastic changes? Calvinism seems so… cruel, and you’re not a cruel person at heart. What was the hook for you?

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Calvinism is intellectually and logically consistent based on a peculiar interpretation of Scripture. Of course, Arminians can say the same.

      I don’t know of any Christian sect that believes in libertarian free will. Even Arminians believe in election, predestination (prevenient grace), and the sovereignty of God. After all, these things ARE taught in the Bible. Many sects are Calvinistic, though they don’t say they are. Take the Church of England. The Thirty-Nine Articles are clearly Calvinistic. Shades of Calvinism abound.

      There will be seven posts in this series.

  4. Avatar

    “The joy of the Lord awaits the elect. The non-elect are cast into the Lake of Fire, a place reserved for the devil, his angels, and the whore of Babylon (Catholic church).”

    God creates every human. God pre-determines which humans are Elected to receive salvation. So being Elected is by chance, and those who are not pre-determined have no way to achieve salvation. The pre-determined Elect get to go to heaven, the non-Elected go to Hell, through no fault of their own.

    Geez, God’s a huge fucking dick.

  5. Avatar

    Bruce, it sounds like you were afflicted with classic cage-stage Calvinism. I’m surprised there wasn’t a bona fide church split over it.

    The church I grew up in sort of eased into Calvinism. Either the pastor was slower to embrace the doctrine, which is a little unusual, or he saw the potential conflict if he pulled us all in all at once. Even though he wore the label, I’m not sure he was ever able to fully commit to the five points. We still had lots of sermons on finding God’s will and aligning yourself to it (oh my gosh, that almost sounds like free will),no altar calls though… In theory, non-Calvinist opinion was tolerated and one elder was even permitted to teach a class on Arminianism. In practice, when I questioned some of the logical conclusions (or illogical conclusions, in my opinion) of Calvinism I got the “it’s a mystery” answer, whereas my non-Calvinist alternatives were probably “wrong/bad theology”.

    When an associate pastor discovered the Doctrines of Grace, he dove in head first and suddenly his every sermon and discussion was all-Calvinism-all-the-time. The senior pastor’s tolerance was apparently too wishy-washy. In short order, our younger pastor soon left for another church that was solidly under the banner of John Calvin.

    Some stauncher Calvinists may adopt a perfection of doctrine standard of salvation. Taking a queue from Spurgeon’s claim that “Calvinism is the Gospel”, if God doesn’t grant a believer faith and understanding in the Doctrines of Grace, it is a sign they are still reprobate. A web search on “Are Arminians saved?” provides some very interesting reading.

  6. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    I maybe shouldn’t comment, since Bruce has since renounced all this nonsense. But I wonder about children raised in a Calvinistic church, especially since Calvinism has so come into vogue in Evangelical churches. How does it affect them, to grow up knowing that they can be dedicated to their family’s version of Christ, and still have the potential to not make the cut of the elect? To be blunt, “You can do everything in your power to dedicate yourself to God and be a good Christian, and God might still [expletive] you over. Oh, and if he does so, it means he let you be born, knowing you’d Jesus your heart out, and also knowing you’d still spend your post-life eternity being tortured.”

    I can only hope that those children run like hell from that religion. I can only hope that they run like hell from any religion that promises eternal torture to any human for what are errors committed in a finite lifetime, no matter how egregious. My bachelor’s degree is in computer engineering. It wasn’t until I started taking geology classes in middle age, that I started to get my mind around deep time. That is, what a million or ten million or a billion years really means, in terms of all the changes those time frames have seen on our planet. And abruptly one day, I got a glimpse–just a glimpse–of what ETERNITY really means, because for all we throw the word around cavalierly, it is extremely hard for human brains to really grasp the concept. (Unless they’re physicists, those folks have infinitely stretchable brains.) At that point, I was appalled, in a way I had never been before, at the Christian message of eternal torture.

    Catholicism bypasses the torture-for-almost-everyone routine by positing a state after death where people who aren’t extremely egregious sinners are tortured for a finite amount of time, to purge their souls of evil and make them presentable before God. The religion also specifies what sins can’t be resolved by post-death purging and will condemn someone to Hell. That makes life easier for ordinary Catholics, who figure that since they don’t misbehave in major ways and confess their minor misbehaviors to a priest in Confession, they’ll be fine. The system is still totally bankrupt.

    Even egregious misbehavior over a finite lifetime does not deserve infinite torture. For that matter, infinite torture for simply never having heard about Jesus is unacceptable. Any kind of just deity simply doesn’t do those things. And don’t tell me that puny human minds can’t conceive of the justice of an omnimax God. That’s handwaving.
    If justice is a well-understood concept for humans and something different for your deity, then let me give you the proper English word for the behavior of that deity: capriciousness.

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      Karen, I don’t know how much children really grasp the “Doctrines of Grace”, but I know it’s had a lasting affect on me. My exposure to Calvinism mostly started as a young adult and I’m still struggling with it now. My push into agnosticism is a result of cognitive dissonance from trying to reconcile my lifelong faith background with the reality of history and science combined with finally admitting that God has never actually responded to a prayer or made any effort to communicate with me in any way that couldn’t be explained by coincidence or sounding like my own inner voice telling me what I wanted to hear (or just flat out not responding at all no matter how earnestly I pleaded).

      However, I can’t shake the “what if I’m wrong” feeling and frequently question if the disintegration of my faith is really because God hasn’t chosen me. Maybe I really am one of those vessels created for destruction. Logically I know that makes no sense, but my indoctrination runs deeps. Why should it matter what I believe if God rejected me from before creation? It shouldn’t, and yet it does. It seems unimaginably cruel to let me believe I was saved for decades, work out my faith according to the scriptures, and then take all away like Lucy pulling the football away for Charlie Brown. And the crowning insult, somehow, even though it’s predestined, it’s still my fault. For this reason I tried to adopt the Arminian view of salvation, but Calvinism still lurks in the background and Arminianism has its own issues. Pick the wrong doctrine and your salvation is also in jeopardy. It’s a source of great stress for me.

      I feel like agnosticism/atheism should be easy to adopt given what I wrote/rambled above, but it’s not. I keeping trying to give God another chance, classic codependency. Even if he’s rejected me, I find myself hoping he’ll change his mind, though knowing at the same time that scripture says he won’t. Re-reading what I’ve already written highlights the dissonance. I don’t believe God is there, and at the same time I can’t quite give him up, even knowing if he is there he may have given me up from the beginning.

  7. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    I feel fortunate not to have been inculcated with Calvinism: I grew up Catholic and the Evangelical Church in which I was later involved was probably more Wesleyan than anything else in its doctrines. Each of those churches has its own problems, of course, but their doctrines, I believe, don’t inflict nearly as much damage on children (and adults) as the notion of predestination can.

    One reason I stopped believing is that, in the immortal words of Sally, the god of those churches, and of any other church (and religion) I knew was “a huge fucking dick.” It amazes me that people can actually prostrate themselves before a god that’s an even bigger fucking dick.

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