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Why I Became a Calvinist — Part Six

Jose Maldonado Bruce Gerencser Pat Horner 1994
Jose Maldonado. Bruce Gerencser, Pat Horner, Somerset Baptist Church

As I ponder why I became a Calvinist, several things come to mind. This post will look at these things, and then in Part Seven of this series, I will answer questions about Calvinism that readers of this series submitted.

I knew nothing about Calvinism when I started pastoring churches in 1979. None of my professors at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan — an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution — mentioned Calvinism other than to say the college was against it. Students were told that they were not allowed to talk about or promote Calvinism. One student in my sophomore year ignored the Calvinism ban and was expelled.

As a young IFB pastor, I held to and preached an admixture of Arminianism and Calvinism, often called Calminianism. This approach is common among Evangelicals. This syncretism causes all sorts of interpretive problems, not that Calvinism and Arminianism don’t have their own problems. No soteriological system is perfect, each having unique interpretive problems. A pastor must determine which system best fits his reading of the Bible. For me, it was Calvinism.

As I read the various passages of Scripture about predestination, foreknowledge, election, regeneration, and the sovereignty of God, it became crystal clear to me that Calvinism best explained these things. I still believe this today. I am well aware of the verses that contradict Calvinism, especially verses that talk about human volition. However, there are also verses that say human free will is a myth — a belief science seems to reinforce. On balance — for me, anyway — Calvinism best fit the Biblical narrative. Arminianism best fit how I wanted things to be, and that’s why in the early 2000s, I stopped preaching up Calvinism from the pulpit, choosing more of a Mennonite approach to interpreting the Bible.

Every theological system finds its proof in the pages of the Bible. That’s why I believe every system is “right.” The Bible can be used to prove almost anything. Christians fight endless internecine wars over theological rightness, bloodying each other up before returning to their respective corners. These wars, of course, betray the teachings of Christ and Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:1-6:

I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

Christianity is hopelessly divided along theological lines and interpretations of particular Bible verses. The best a pastor can do is choose which theological system best fits his reading of the Bible. From there, it is up to him to decide how best to interact with preachers, churches, and parachurch organizations that differ from him theologically. Personally, I chose to have an ecumenical spirit; I willingly and happily embraced all those who claimed to be Christians — Calvinists or not. I was able to hang on to my Calvinistic theology while at the same time embracing brothers and sisters in Christ who differed with me.

From 1995-2002, I pastored Our Father’s House in West Unity, Ohio — a nondenominational congregation. I preached from a Calvinistic perspective, but I had room in my worldview for people who might see things differently. Unity was more important to me than theological fidelity. That’s why the advertising slogan on the entrance door for the church said “The Church Where the Only Label that Matters is Christian.”

our father's house west unity ohio
1990s Bryan Times Advertisement for Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio

As a pastor, I was an avid reader. While I received a subpar, almost Sunday School-like education at Midwestern, I spent twenty or so hours each week reading and studying the Bible. Unfortunately, more than a few of my preacher friends never moved intellectually beyond what they were taught in college. I chose to apply myself in the privacy of my study, reading theological tomes and biographies, along with using numerous commentaries in my sermon preparation.

I became a Calvinist in the late 1980s, at a time when there was a resurgence of Calvinistic thinking among Evangelicals — especially Southern Baptists. Even among IFB pastors, Calvinism made inroads. I found that the Calvinistic books available to me were intellectually stimulating in ways that no book from IFB publishers such as the Sword of the Lord could provide. I had a deep love and appreciation for authors from the Puritan era. I had an account with Cumberland Valley Bible and Book Service in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Rare was the month that an order from Cumberland Valley didn’t arrive at our house. These deliveries were like Christmas for me.

As an IFB pastor, I felt constant pressure to perform. Since humans had free will, it was up to me to convince them of their need of salvation. If they didn’t get saved, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was to blame. Calvinism delivered me from the need to perform. Often when men embrace Calvinism, they lose their passion for soulwinning. That was not the case for me. I was just as passionate before Calvinism as after; the difference being that instead of the pressure being on me, it was on God. I was called to faithfully preach and teach the Word of God. It was up to God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to regenerate sinners and draw them to faith in Jesus Christ.

I stopped giving altar calls, believing that they were manipulative. I was content to preach the Bible and leave it up to God to save sinners. Of course, numerically, the number of people allegedly saved under my ministry precipitously dropped. From 1983-1994, over six hundred people made public professions of faith in Christ. From 1995-2002, the number dropped to almost zero. Yet, if you asked me which church was healthier spiritually, I would say the latter.

My goal changed over the years, moving from being a hellfire and brimstone preacher, to more of a teacher. I started the ministry as a textual or topical preacher. After embracing Calvinism, I started preaching expositionally — verse by verse, passage by passage, book by book. I preached over one hundred sermons from the gospel of John alone (my favorite book of the Bible). While I never lost a desire to win people to Christ, the focus of my ministry changed from quantity to quality. Instead of striving for raw attendance numbers, I chose to focus on the last half of the Great Commission, “teaching them to observe whatsoever I have commanded you.”

Embracing Calvinism caused me a lot of conflict within the IFB circles I ran at the time. I lost numerous friends and acquaintances over my change in theology. This was exacerbated by the fact that I sent out a monthly newsletter titled The Sovereign Grace Reporter. This newsletter contained articles promoting Calvinism. They could have, at times, a polemical tone.

In the mid-1980s, I started a multi-church monthly youth meeting (rally). At its height, there were fifteen participating churches. The group blew up after several pastors took issue with my Calvinism. These men feared that I would infect their youth with Calvinism. One man accused me of being the “keeper of the book of life.” I tried to reason with him, but, in classic IFB fashion, he stood up, denounced me, and stomped off. This put an end to our group.

If you have any questions about this series or Calvinism in general, please leave your comments on the Do You Have Questions About Calvinism? post. I will start answering these questions later this week.

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 FiveWhy I Became a Calvinist — Part Seven >>


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    Yulya Sevelova

    Well,Bruce- no one could ever accuse you of sleepwalking through your pastoral duties, you were curious and applied yourself to deep study. You had a good outlook when it came to having people come to church to see what was going on,where the only label that matters was Christian. I knew very little about Calvin until a few years ago. Then, I was aghast to see he had a rival arrested and burned at the stake. I knew that Christians can’t kill,so this really made me wonder about Calvin.

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    This is the sort of thing that is especially puzzling given the Christian belief that upon salvation the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within the believer (whatever that really means). Supposedly the Holy Spirit will interpret God’s truth for believers. Paul declares that God is not a god of confusion (1Cor 14:33). For these rather significant differences in interpretation, and resulting confusion, it would seem that the Holy Spirit either isn’t doing its job, many Christians are in rebellion and reject true doctrine that is clearly explained to them by the Holy Spirit, or they deceive themselves about their salvation altogether. My new agnosticism votes for the latter explanation.

    Some Christians may argue that the distinction between Calvinism and Arminianism amounts to a “secondary issue” where believers may disagree and vigorously debate (in love of course) but still maintain unity in the essentials of the faith. Since churches and denominations divide over the difference it obviously causes dis-unity. Strange that God isn’t bothered by that. Also, Charles Spurgeon supposedly claimed that Calvinism is the essence of the gospel. If true, the ‘Prince of Preachers’ did not consider the doctrine a secondary issue of faith.

    @Yulya Sevelova, The most common excuse I have been given for the murder Michael Servetus is that “Calvin was a man of his time and this is just what they did in that time”. Given that neither Christ, Paul, nor any of the apostles on record endorsed murder for unbelievers or heretics, this rings hollow. In fact, quite the contrary, they were the ones who expected to be martyred for their beliefs. The man was a monster.

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    I remember learning about Calvinism in fundamentalist Christian school in the 1980s, in literature class where we read something by Calvin and had to learn TULIP. Being young Christians still in programming, we discussed the pros and cons of predestination. Kids from different backgrounds had different ideas about it. Granted, almost all the students were from some brand of conservative evangelical Christianity – Southern Baptist, IFB, Assemblies of God, Cumberland Presbyterian, etc….

    Personally, I felt uncomfortable with Calvinism. I thought it wasn’t fair for each individual to have no agency in their salvation -that it’s up to a deity to play favorites.

    I had no idea that Calvin had someone murdered for wring belief. But that tracks – if your God practices eternal conscious torment for wrong beliefs, why wouldn’t his followers do likewise?

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    MJ Lisbeth

    As a Catholic, I learned nothing about theology. As an Evangelical, I read a number of theologians, including the Catholic ones, and Calvin.

    Calvinism never appealed to me because it seemed, as Obstacle says, that it allows a deity to play favorites. I never understood why, if life is unfair, people would align themselves with a philosophy that says that what lies beyond or after this life is even less fair.

    However, I have always been fascinated by Calvinism as an historic and cultural influence. The Puritans who landed in Plymouth were Calvinists, and while Calvinism isn’t inherently capitalist (If you believe in predestination, how can you tell people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps?) it’s a great rationale for the more unfortunate outcomes of that economic system (“There are winners and losers”.)

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Bruce Gerencser