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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 a 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 to preach 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 Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio, the church I was pastoring at the time.)

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 (we) 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.

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 OneWhy I Became a Calvinist — Part Three >>


  1. Avatar

    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.

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    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?

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      Bruce Gerencser

      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.

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        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.)

        • Avatar
          Bruce Gerencser

          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:

          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.

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            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.

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            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, 🙂

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        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.

      • Avatar
        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.

        • Avatar
          Bruce Gerencser

          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.

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        How crazy is that logic? If an omnipotent being wants something it’s already done. Someone who believes in the age of accountability could use this logic to slaughter young children indiscriminately to make sure they are saved before it’s too late. Better to lose your mortal life than your eternal life. Sadly I’m sure this has occurred many times. Discussions like this only bring home the insanity of religion

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          That is the same logic used by some apologists to justify God ordering the death of entire people groups by way of the flood, during the supposed Canaanite campaign and the reign of the kings. Supposedly those condemned cultures were so irredeemably wicked that murdering pregnant women, infants, and children was the only option to prevent those children from growing up just as evil as their parents (whether or not all the adults of those societies were actually that evil is another discussion).

          Of course, there is nothing in the Calvinist doctrines, or any other, that explicitly supports an age of accountability. An honest Calvinist will admit that if God has not chosen a child (even one that dies in the womb), that child does die reprobate. Age of accountability is just a flimsy attempt to blunt God’s wrath based on passages such as David lamenting that he will only see the son God killed (for David’s sin) after his own death, presumably in whatever the OT Hebrew post-death condition would be, and Jesus warning people not to cause children to sin. However, many Calvinists do like to presume their own offspring are likely chosen, possibly why John Calvin continued the Catholic ritual of paedobaptism (and persecuted the anabaptists who disagreed with him).

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        If God has decided already that they are saved,why do they need to be reached? Won’t the cream naturally rise to the top,so to speak? Why the unaware-needle-in-the-haystack approach from this almighty, omnipotent God being? 🙃😜

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    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.

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    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?

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      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.

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        Davie from Glasgow

        Yes they do. But really, when it comes down to it – what difference is there that matters between feeling like you have free will (even though perhaps the laws of the universe mean that you don’t, however it might feel to you) and actually genuinely having free will? I think both would feel the same. So while I fully accept and understand the significance of this problem to philosophers – I’m not planning on losing any sleep over it. My life FEELS like it’s governed by my free will. That’ll do me.

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    Brocken This is a sermon about Rolfe Barnard going with Father Abraham on a tour of Hell. This tour feature the 3 billion people drowned after Noah’s ark was sealed shut by God, Herod Antipas asking the head of John the Baptist to be taken away from him, Pilate trying to wash the blood of Jesus off of his hands, and the 16 year old female basketball player asking for Rolfe Barnard to get away from her because he reminded her of how she put off getting saved. No wonder Rolfe Barnard made an impression on people.

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    I remember spending a lot of time at fundamentalist Christian school in English class studying TULIP. The school was run primarily by IFB evangelicals. I am not sure what sect our high school English teacher was in. He was considered a bit of a rebel and did push the envelope with works he chose for us to study – Walt Whitman, for example, and openly mentioning that WW may have been gay – a forbidden topic at the school. Of course, students came from different sects – Southern Baptist, Cumberland Presbyterian, Assemblies of God, IFB, etc…. My Cumberland Presbyterian friend thoroughly enjoyed TULIP. The school thoroughly taught Bob Jones University soteriology, but a few other ideas got slipped in…. This English teacher, by the way, was a student favorite. He encouraged critical thinking, exploration, and questioning – he was a tough grader, and there was a lot of information we were responsible for learning, and he had a terrible temperature that we saw occasionally, but he was a favorite. The rumor that Mr S never gave A’s the 1st marking period was enough for me to test that concept and find it to be untrue!

    Anyway, Bruce, you may be interested in the podcast “Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” about Calvinist pastor Mark Driscoll. It’s put on by Christianity Today and they come so close to getting why the Mars Hill culture was so abusive….

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Something just occurred to me. I have long thought that one reason why churches discourage intellectual inquiry, or simply “shopping” churches, is simply that each church wants to grow its “market share,” so to speak. But I now realize that it’s simply not possible to be part of any branch of any of the Abrahamic faiths if you have an inquiring mind. The reason? In Genesis, it’s curiosity–specifically, that of Eve–that leads the human race into perdition. If she hadn’t given into her curiosity (which, to be fair, was egged on by the serpent) about what, exactly, was in the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, all would have been well.

    The funny thing, Bruce, is that your curiosity led you, like Adam and Eve, to become aware of nakedness–of the body of what you (and many of us) once believed.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    I was thinking about Charles Surgeon, and he was interested in seeing souls saved, the more the better. He actually cared whether anyone wound up in hell or not. Many Calvinists think with their rigged system, it doesn’t matter what you think or believe. Like you go to Heaven in a tractor beam or something. Then there’s the matter of Chriian behavior. How could Victor Justice, or Fired Up,etc.ever assume that Jesus approves of their rotten way of acting ??

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