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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 Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution started in the 1950s by 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 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 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 who 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, 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 my 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 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.

Calvinistic Evangelical churches, on the other hand, 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.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

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 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 preach a meeting 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 the church I was pastoring.)

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 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.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

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. Afterwards, 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 and he would be teaching teens IFB theology in the church basement. Eventually, we had a parting of the ways.

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 I 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: some day 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 first service in July 1983. 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, 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 perfected me just telling them what to believe. Just give is 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 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 them, 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.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Why I Became a Calvinist — Part Four

i have a questionPart four of this series is a short parenthetical post meant to answer several questions asked by readers.

What was it about Calvinism that attracted you, theologically and psychologically?

Calvinism is a theological system built with points of doctrine which build upon one another. Pull any of the five points: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints, from the system and it collapses upon itself. Of course, the same could be said of any theological system. That said, Calvinism is the most complex, intricate theological system ever created by human minds.

It was the order and complexity of the system, then, that caught my attention. I have Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) and I am a perfectionist. (See Christian Perfection: A Personal Story.) I desire, crave, and need order. Theologically, Calvinism provided for me just what the doctor ordered. As I read and studied the Bible, listened to preaching tapes of Calvin-loving preachers, and devoured countless Calvinistic books, I began to “see” the truthiness of the doctrines of grace, along with its attendant doctrines such as the Sovereignty of God.

The primary reason I became an atheist is that Christianity no longer made any sense to me. (See The Michael Mock Rule: It Just Doesn’t Make Sense.) The opposite was true with Calvinism. It simply, at the time, based on my reading and study, made sense to me. Calvinism best explained certain Bible verses that had always perplexed me. Yet, at the same time, it created new interpretive problems for me. As a non-Calvinist, I found that words such as world and all meant everyone without discrimination (i.e. For God so loved the world — John 3:16). Calvinism, due to the doctrines of election and predestination, requires adherents to reinterpret verses that imply that Jesus died for everyone, Jesus loves everyone, etc. Of course, Arminians do the same with verses that speak of election and predestination.

I have long argued that the Bible is a book that can be used to prove almost anything. Whatever your theological beliefs might be, there’s support for them in the Bible. I’ve concluded, then, that all theological systems are Biblically “true” and that all sects – Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Methodists, to name a few —  are right when they claim their beliefs are the faith once delivered to the saints.

How is Calvinism different from Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) theology?

While IFB churches are autonomous, each with its own set of beliefs and practices, they do, generally, have a common set of beliefs. (See What is an IFB Church?) When I entered the ministry in the 1970s, I didn’t know one IFB pastor who claimed the Calvinist moniker — not one. There were several pastors who, if rumors were true, had Calvinistic tendencies. Calvinism was routinely derided, criticized, and deemed heretical — antithetical to soulwinning and church growth.

In the late 1980s, Calvinism began to make inroads into the IFB church movement. Some IFB preachers embraced Amyraldism (four-point Calvinism). Wikipedia explains Amyraldism this way:

It is the belief that God decreed Christ’s atonement, prior to his decree of election, for all alike if they believe, but he then elected those whom he will bring to faith in Christ, seeing that none would believe on their own, and thereby preserving the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election. The efficacy of the atonement remains limited to those who believe.

The issue, of course, was for whom did Jesus die? Evangelical Calvinists believe Jesus died on the cross only for the elect — those chosen by God from before the foundation of the world. Four-point Calvinists, uncomfortable with the doctrine of limited atonement (particular redemption), concocted a system that said, the atonement of Christ is sufficient to save everyone in the world, but efficient for only the elect. God that?

While Calvinism continues to make inroads in IFB churches, many Calvinistic pastors tend to keep their beliefs to themselves. They preach Calvinism without ever mentioning Calvinistic buzz-words. Over time, congregations are converted without ever realizing they changed.

Classic IFB beliefs are laughingly called one-point Calvinism. Yes, God is the one who saves sinners, but it’s up to them to decide whether to believe. As with Arminian churches, emphasis is placed on man’s ability to choose (free will). Calvinists, on the other hand, focus on the sovereignty of God and the inability of man. As you can see, these two theological systems are disparate, so much so that the two groups are continually at war, each believing the other is heretical.

Evangelical Calvinists generally believe that IFB churches preach works salvation, and they alone preach salvation by grace. Carefully examining Calvinism, however, reveals that they too preach salvation by works. In fact, outside of Pelagian sects, all Christian sects/churches preach some form of salvation by works. (Let the howling begin.)

There are numerous other theological differences between IFB theology and Evangelical Calvinism, but I have shared enough of the differences to show that these two groups generally don’t “fellowship” with each other. Calvinists view IFB (and Southern Baptist) churches as targets for subversive theological change. Pastors neglect to tell such churches about their Calvinistic beliefs, hoping, over time, to win them over to the one true faith. This approach has led to all sorts of church conflict.

Why would your change of theology cause friends and colleagues in the ministry to shun (abandon) you?

In the IFB church movement (and many other Evangelical sects), fealty to right doctrine is paramount, as is following certain social practices. Some tolerance is granted for being slightly off theological center, but major deviations result in shunning or being labeled a heretic/liberal. Calvinism was certainly considered antithetical to IFB doctrine and practice, so I was not surprised when many of my preacher friends distanced themselves from me as they would a gay man with AIDS. I moved on to new fellowship groups, those with Calvinistic, reformed beliefs and practices. I will talk at length about these groups in a later post.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Why I Became a Calvinist — Part Five

sovereignty-of-god

In the previous posts in this series, I have talked a lot about the doctrines of grace, also known as the five points of Calvinism. Today, I want to talk about the sovereignty of God — the singular, overarching belief that binds Calvinistic theology together. What do Calvinists mean when they speak of the sovereignty of God? If there’s one book that every newly minted Calvinist has likely read — no, it’s not the Bible — it would be A.W. Pink’s classic, The Sovereignty of God. Since this book is widely accepted as the definitive Calvinistic statement on the sovereignty of God, I thought I would let Pink define the doctrine:

The Sovereignty of God. What do we mean by this expression? We mean the supremacy of God, the kingship of God, the godhood of God. To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that God is God. To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is the Most High, doing according to His will in the army of Heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth, so that none can stay His hand or say unto Him what doest Thou? (Dan. 4:35). To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is the Almighty, the Possessor of all power in Heaven and earth, so that none can defeat His counsels, thwart His purpose, or resist His will (Psa. 115:3). To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is “The Governor among the nations” (Psa. 22:28), setting up kingdoms, overthrowing empires, and determining the course of dynasties as pleaseth Him best. To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is the “Only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15). Such is the God of the Bible.

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The Sovereignty of the God of Scripture is absolute, irresistible, infinite. When we say that God is Sovereign we affirm His right to govern the universe which He has made for His own glory, just as He pleases. We affirm that His right is the right of the Potter over the clay, i. e., that He may mold that clay into whatsoever form He chooses, fashioning out of the same lump one vessel unto honor and another unto dishonor. We affirm that He is under no rule or law outside of His own will and nature, that God is a law unto Himself, and that He is under no obligation to give an account of His matters to any.

Sovereignty characterizes the whole Being of God. He is Sovereign in all His attributes. He is Sovereign in the exercise of His power. His power is exercised as He wills, when He wills, where He wills. This fact is evidenced on every page of Scripture.

Simply put, saying God is sovereign means that He alone is responsible for and controls EVERYTHING! Of course, such a statement quickly leads to the critics of Calvinism saying, so God is culpable for sin? Calvinists have all sorts of arguments they use to get around this logical conclusion, including answering in the affirmative — Yes, God is responsible for sin. If God is sovereign and he decrees all that happens without exception, then the only conclusion one can come to is that God is responsible for sin. So what? some Calvinists say. God is God and he can do whatever he wants to do. Whatever God does is right because it is God who is doing it.  When objections are raised, Calvinists reply, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways. In other words, he is God, the creator and we are the created. He is the potter, as the book of Romans says, and we are the clay. God can and does do whatever he wants, and as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 9, those who object to God’s sovereignty need to shut the hell up (okay, he didn’t say it like that word for word, but you get my point). As finite beings, mankind has no right to criticize or condemn God’s works.

When I first came to know and understand the sovereignty of God, I was relieved. For the longest time, I carried the burden of building a church congregation on my shoulders. While God was certainly there right along beside me, I knew it was up to me to get things done. As a Calvinist, I no longer felt pressured to get this or that done; that if God wanted me to do something he would bring it to pass; that if God didn’t want something done there was absolutely nothing I could do. Now, in retrospect, I know that only way anything gets done is if I do it. I suspect that’s how it works for you in your life too. And Calvinism aside, a case can be made for taking this approach to life; that praying and “waiting” on God often become camouflage for laziness and indifference.

As the sovereignty of God permeated every aspect of my ministerial and personal life, how I approached things began to change. The first thing I did away with was giving altar calls — a manipulative tool popularized by nineteenth century evangelist Charles Finney. The second thing I did was turn my attention away from aggressive evangelistic efforts. Instead, I focused more of my time on my studies; on preparing my sermons; on preparing lessons for Sunday school and, later, an elders’ class. As I mentioned in a previous post, I set my sights on un-saving congregants who had been saved during my Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) days. I believed that I had been preaching a truncated, bastardized version of the Christians gospel, so it was my solemn duty to preach the Calvinistic gospel. I learned, after six years of such efforts at one church, that it is much harder to get people un-saved than it is to get them saved. The third thing I did was breatheGod is in control, I told myself. No need to stress out over winning the lost. If God wanted them saved, well he would save them. My job was to preach the gospel.

During my early years as a Calvinist, I read John MacArthur’s book, The Gospel According to Jesus. In this book, MacArthur demolished my IFB soteriology. MacArthur believed: “The gospel call to faith presupposes that sinners must repent of their sin and yield to Christ’s authority.” IFB pastors generally believed that a person could be saved, yet not make Jesus Lord of their lives. The crux of the argument was whether sinners had to repent of their sins to be saved. Many IFB preachers believed in what Calvinists called decisional regeneration; the belief that by praying a simple prayer a sinner was saved. Requiring sinners to repent of their sins was, in the eyes of many IFB preachers, works salvation. MacArthur would not have any of that, saying that the lordship of Christ was not optional; that if a person was not willing to forsake his sin and totally follow Jesus there would be no salvation for him. (See One, Two, Three, Repeat After me; Salvation, Bob Gray Style.)

One story that stands out from this time is a written interaction I had with Curtis Hutson, editor of the Sword of the Lord — an IFB newspaper. Previous to Hutson, John R. Rice was the editor of the Sword. Rice had written in a tract titled What Must I Do to Be Saved? that sinners had to repent of their sins to be saved. No repentance, no salvation. Hutson, after taking over the Sword, decided to rewrite the part in the tract that talked about repentance. Hutson, like many of the big name IFB preachers of the day, believed that repentance was a mere change of mind: I was against Jesus and now I am for him; I was headed east and now I am headed west; I was a sinner and now I believe in Jesus. Men such as Jack Hyles and Bob Gray, Sr. turned this intellectual assent into an art form. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people prayed the sinner’s prayer, believing that by doing so they became Christians. No mention of repenting of sin was mentioned. To do so was to preach works salvation. And that’s exactly what Curtis Hutson told me when I wrote him. I called him out on his secretive change of Rice’s tract. I told Hutson that he materially changed what Rice believed; that Rice’s gospel and his gospel were not the same. Hutson responded by telling me that I was preaching works salvation, a gospel that did not save.

Rice was no Calvinist, but he did believe that repentance was essential to salvation. If a person was not willing to forsake his sin and follow after Jesus, there would be no salvation for him. Back in my college days, I went door to door attempting to evangelize sinners. My goal was to share with them the simple plan of salvation (The Roman’s Road) and ask them if they wanted to be saved. If so, I asked them to pray the sinner’s prayer. (See The Top Five Reasons People Say the Sinner’s Prayer.) Once they prayed the prayer, I declared them to be a newly-minted Christian. One day, I happened upon a woman I thought might need saving. As I started to go into my spiel, she — realizing I was one of those terrorist preacher boys from Midwestern Baptist College — stopped me and said, there’s no need for you to continue. I already did that. I asked her where she went to church and she replied, nowhere. I am saved now. Why do I need to go to church? Men such as Hyles, Gray, Sr, Dennis Corle, Hutson, Steven Anderson, and countless other IFB preachers believe that this woman, if she “sincerely” prayed the sinner’s prayer, was saved, a new-born child of God. Rice, MacArthur, and the now Calvinistic Bruce Gerencser believed the woman was still dead in trespasses and sins, and headed for hell unless she repented of her sins and followed after the Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

As a Calvinist, I believed that sinners were spiritually dead, unable to believe without God giving them the ability to do so. Man was bound by sin, and unable to do anything about it unless God intervened. This intervention was called regeneration; the giving of life to dead sinners. For most (not all) Calvinists, regeneration preceded faith. Since unregenerate humans had no free will and were spiritually dead, it was impossible for them to believe on their own. As an IFB preacher, I believed faith preceded regeneration; that spiritual life came when a sinner, by faith, asked Jesus to save them. As a Calvinist, my response to this notion was this: how can a dead man do anything?

My goal, then, as a Calvinistic preacher, was to preach the gospel in the hope that what I preached would find fertile ground in the hearts given life by the Holy Spirit. As an IFB preacher, so much of how people were saved depended on me: the right sermon, the right illustrations, the right delivery, the right invitation song. As a Calvinist, my objective was to simply preach the gospel; to declare the whole counsel of God. If sinners were going to be saved it was up to God, not me.

Numerically speaking, hundreds and hundreds of people were saved through my ministry and preaching as an IFB preacher. As a Calvinist, I saw a few people saved. As an IFB preacher, I expected people to be saved weekly. As a Calvinist, I found that months and months could pass without anyone saying that God had saved them. This, by the way, is typical. IFB churches tend to rack up large numbers of converts, whereas in Calvinistic churches conversions are few. IFB churches tend to focus on quantity, and Calvinistic churches on quality. Which is better? It all depends on what matters to a preacher. Does he want big attendance numbers, or does he value the intellectual growth of congregants?

Let me illustrate this difference with what is commonly called The Great Commission:

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matthew 28:19,20)

IFB churches tend to focus on verse 19: Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. The goal is to preach the gospel to the whole world. Calvinistic churches, on the other hand, tend to focus on verse 20: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. The goal is to teach followers of Christ his commandments. Rare is the church that fulfills both parts of the Great Commission.

As I survey my years in the ministry, I have to say that my Calvinistic years were far more rewarding personally and intellectually. I enjoyed the hard work required for crafting good sermons. I enjoyed spending hours upon hours reading books and studying the Bible.  As an IFB preacher, my life was consumed with the ministry, with winning souls, with building a growing church. As a Calvinist, I was content to be the resident intellectual; a man paid to study the Bible and read awesome books. I still cared about the souls of attendees and church members, but I no longer felt pressed to perform. Above all, as a Calvinist, I found that I had more time to spend with my wife and children.

In Part Six, I plan to write about how Calvinism affected my marriage and my relationship with my children. In particular, I plan to talk about birth control and family size. There’s a reason Polly and I have six children and why there’s six years between child number three and child number four and why we stopped having children after our youngest son was born. Stay tuned.

Note

For you who are interested in the difference between Rice’s version of the tract What Must I Do to Be Saved? and Curtis Hutson’s:

John R Rice wrote:

Does not the Bible say that we must repent? Yes, the Bible plainly says that “God … commandeth all men every where to repent” (Acts 17:30), and again, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3,5).

This was the preaching of John the Baptist, of Jesus, of Peter and of Paul, that men should repent. And certainly repentance is in God’s plan of salvation. The trouble here, however, is that men misunderstand what repentance means, and there has grown up an idea that repentance means a period of weeping and mourning over sin, or sorrow for sins. This idea comes from the Douay Version of the Bible which instead of “repent” says “do penance.”

So the place of inquiry, where people should be taught the plan of salvation from the Bible, in revival meetings, became “the mourner’s bench” and thousands of people have been taught that God would not hear their prayer nor forgive their sins until they went through a process of sorrow and mourning over their sins!

Do not misunderstand me. God is anxious for you to have a penitent, broken heart over your sins. You have gone away from God. You have trampled under foot the blood of Jesus Christ, wasted years of your life which you can never live over again. You have served your father, the Devil.

There is plenty for you to weep over, and I am not surprised if you feel deep shame and sorrow in your heart that you have so mistreated the God who made you and the Saviour who died for you. I am not surprised if you cannot keep back the tears! But what I want you to know is that tears or no tears, however much sorrow you may have in your heart, or not have, those things do not save you.

You ought to be sorry for your sins and ashamed of them. “Godly sorrow worketh repentance” (II Cor. 7:10)—the right kind of sorrow leads to immediate repentance, but mourning is not itself repentance.

“Could my tears forever flow,
Could my zeal no respite know,
These for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.”

To repent literally means to have a change of mind or spirit toward God and toward sin. It means to turn from your sins, earnestly, with all your heart, and trust in Jesus Christ to save you. You can see, then, how the man who believes in Christ repents and the man who repents believes in Christ. The jailer repented when he turned from sin to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Curtis Hutson changed the tract to this:

Does not the Bible say that we must repent? Yes, the Bible plainly says that “God … commandeth all men every where to repent” (Acts 17:30), and again, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). This was the preaching of John the Baptist, of Jesus, of Peter and of Paul, that men should repent. And certainly repentance is God’s plan of salvation. The trouble here, however, is that men misunderstand what repentance means, and there has grown up an idea that repentance means a period of weeping and mourning over sin, or sorrow for sins. This idea comes from the Douay Version of the Bible which instead of “repent” says “do penance.” So the place of inquiry, where people should be taught the plan of salvation from the Bible, in revival meetings, became “the mourner’s bench” and thousands of people have been taught that God would not hear their prayer nor forgive their sins until they went through a process of sorrow and mourning over their sins! The right kind of sorrow leads to immediate repentance, but mourning is not itself repentance.

Other posts on the Sovereignty of God

Is God Sovereign and Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

Luck, Fate, or Providence?

Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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