Here is a quick illustration that I hope you find helpful to distinguish between the various traditions with regard to divine sovereignty, free-will, and salvation. It is certainly not perfect, but I think it works sufficiently.


All the people are on the boat with the God. At this point, in their natural condition, they don’t need to be saved as they are not in danger. However, most (if not all) people will eventually jump in the water (sin) and find themselves in need of God’s grace. The reason why they jump in the water is because they are following numerous example of those who jumped before them. This example goes all the way back to the first two who jumped into the water, setting the first bad example. God them offers them a life preserver when they call on him for help. If they respond they will be saved (synergism).


All people are in the water drowning. They are born drowning. This is the natural habitation of all humanity since the first man and woman jumped into the water. Their legs are cramping and they cannot swim to safety on their own. However, they may desire salvation on their own. Though they cannot attain it, they can call, with a wave of their arm, to God who is eagerly waiting on the edge of the boat. At the first sign of their initiative, God will then throw out the life preserver (grace). If they respond, they will be saved (synergism).

Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy

All people are in the water drowning. They are born drowning. This is the natural habitation of all humanity since the first man and woman jumped into the water. Their legs are cramping and they cannot swim to safety on their own. God, standing on the edge of the boat, makes the first initiative by throwing a life preserver to them (prevenient grace). Upon seeing this act, they make a decision to grab a hold (faith) or to swim away. If they grab a hold, God will slowly pull the rope connected to the life preserver. But they must do their part by swimming along with God’s pull (grace plus works; synergism). If at any time they let go or quit swimming, they will not be saved.


All people are floating in the water dead in their natural condition (total depravity). They are born dead because that has been the condition of humanity since the first man and woman jumped into the water and died (original sin). Death begets death. There must be intervention if they are to be saved. God uses his power to bring every one of them back to life (prevenient grace), but they are still in the water and in danger of drowning. With the regenerated ability to respond to God, now God throws the life preserver to them and calls on them all to grab hold of it. They then make the free-will decision on their own to grab a hold of the life preserver (faith) or to swim away. If they grab a hold, they must continue to hold as God pulls them in (synergism). They don’t need to do anything but hold on. Any effort to swim and aid God is superfluous (sola fide). They can let go of the preserver at any time and, as a consequence, lose their salvation.


All people are floating in the water dead in their natural condition (total depravity). They are born dead because that has been the condition of humanity since the first man and woman jumped into the water and died (original sin). Death begets death. There must be radical intervention if they are to be saved. While God calls out to all of them (general call), due to his mysterious choice, he brings back to life (regeneration) only certain people (election) while passing by the rest (reprobation). He does not use a life preserver, but grabs a hold of the elect individually and immediately pulls them onto the boat (monergism). They naturally grab a hold of God as a consequence of their regeneration (irresistible grace; sola fide). They forever stay on the boat due to their perpetual ability to recognize God’s beauty (perseverance of the saints).

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    21 replies to "The Parable of the Boat: Illustrating Differences Between Pelagianism, Semi-Pelalgianism, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Arminianism, and Calvinism"

    • Dozie

      “While God calls out to all of them (general call), due to his mysterious choice, he brings back to life (regeneration) only certain people (election) while passing by the rest (reprobation)”.

      Well, did God really make a general call? If God calls and people do not hear (because they are supposedly dead), was the call made? Making a call requires getting another person’s attention. If then the call was made and the people heard, then everyone called must do something with the call, unless the claim is also that neither salvation nor damnation depends on the call.

      “He does not use a life preserver, but grabs a hold of the elect individually and immediately pulls them onto the boat (monergism)”.

      Unless you can say that every Calvinist is in this boat or have the ability to look at Calvinist community and be able to say who is in the boat, what is described is merely theoretical – it has never happened in Calvinism.

      “They forever stay on the boat due to their perpetual ability to recognize God’s beauty (perseverance of the saints)”.

      Until they become Catholic or “Barth Ehrman”

    • Dan Stringer

      There plenty of Arminians who hold to perseverance of the saints. There are also many non-Calvinist Protestants (Lutherans, Anglicans) who would not consider themselves “Arminians.”

      Question: Apart from Calvinists, do any of the other traditions mentioned use the boat/life preserver metaphor to describe their soteriology?

    • hatsoff

      Analogies are nice, but can they be translated into an actual theology? I for one am unable to make sense of any sort of free will theology if we are to assume the omnipotence of God. The only thing left is Calvinism! But the problem with Calvinism, of course, is that it’s morally outrageous for God to ordain in advance that people be tortured forever. This is not to say that only Calvinism has a serious moral problem—any theology which includes a Hell doctrine is going to be in trouble in that respect—but the immorality of Calvin’s God is made quite explicit by double predestination.

    • Scott Mabee

      What do you think of this modification for the Arminian perspective? Prevenient grace does not regenerate or give life but opens the eyes so that all can see God. God swims out with the life preserver to the drowning sinner who happens to have bolt cutters in his pocket. God offers the life preserver to the drowning sinner. The sinner may reject this offer. God has sovereignly given this ability to all in his great power. The sinner accepts God’s offer. God takes the life preserver and wraps it around the drowning sinner, securing it with a chain that is unbreakable by human hands, the hands of Satan or the forces of nature. However, bolt cutters will cut the chain if the drowning man so chooses.

    • Tom

      A Prayer From Jesus

      It’s finally come down to this, I knew it would eventually. Unfortunately for YOU, who have missed the mark, which means you are going to hell. Your portion will be in the lake of fire. Don’t be offended at me, it’s your preacher, or that radio personality, even that man that told you that you are saved, blame them. Then again when your screaming in the pit it really doesn’t matter whose at fault, does it. For it is your responsibility to know the way of salvation.

      Why? You ask. Simply, you trusted man to lead you to Christ. Not once have you asked Jesus if you are saved. If you did you never waited for an answer. There is only one that we should ask on how to be saved, that is Christ Jesus.

      Jesus has made it easy for you to know where you will stand on the last day. Pray this Prayer, and Jesus will answer all who diligently seeks Him.

      These are the last days, This is your last chance.
      Pray the Prayer, and KNOW!


      This prayer is from Jesus that we may hear from Him, that He may speak to our hearts. It only consist of three simple steps.

      1) We need to read one scripture. This will focus us in the word that brings everlasting life.

      2) Since this prayer is from Jesus we need to direct our prayer to Him personally. Too often Christian focuses they’re prayer’s to G_D the father. Scripture proclaims that Jesus should be the focus of our prayer.

      3) The simplest part of this Prayer is to ask Jesus one question. Please, all that is required for this question is that it should be simple. Let Jesus Himself finish the question when He gives you that understanding through this prayer.

      The PRAYER

      The scripture that is the focus of this prayer is “ACTS 2:38”. It’s not necessary to do any study into this scripture. Jesus Himself will give you the understanding that will resonate in your heart. Just…

    • JohnB

      It is a shame that in your Calvinism model the sins of the parents are visited upon the children. Also, it is unfortunate that God’s choice is completely random, ie, not by faith. He could choose any dead person, but randomly chooses some. Those in the water can do nothing to respond to God’s reaching out to them. Seems to fly in the face of Romans which states that dead men can indeed acknowledge the divine revelation of God because he allows them to – all men, not just the elect. Rejecting this revelation will be the cause of their damnation. It is further troubing that in your Calvinist example, men are recued against their nature. They are forcibly pulled onto the boat or forcibly regenerated, whichever comes first. Seems an odd theology to me, but interesting to discuss.

    • WendyFC

      Where I find this illustration lacking is that you have the people drowning – so they would kind of know they were in trouble! In reality, people are blissfully happy, and have no desire to be out of the water. But… the water contains sharks/is toxic. No-one can see the danger nor can they see God calling to them. The Pelagians start out of the water and jump in. They have to recognise the poison for themselves and then call out for God to throw the life preserver for them. Arminians are born in the water, God enables them to hear him shouting, but they have to choose to ask for the life preserver and get themselves out of the water. For the Calvinist, God gets into the water and drags them out.
      (I know which God I’d rather have!)

    • tio

      We need both,Calvin and Arminius….We are free….have “A” and “B” to choose from…..if we only had “A” we wouldn’t be free….Our image of God in us is that,that we are free….we are”condemned to be free”….necessarily.

      You see Calvin is there for yo to confront the reality of God’s sovereignty….and the possibility you and I can be a vessel for perdition is a real possibility…it is not a fact though.Is this possibility God wants you to see and acknowledge…..The other is Arminius’s theory…”we can choose”….Choose what? Choose to embrace that even if I an am vessel for perdition, I am still loving Him, even if I was predestined to be lost….I choose (I am free, have to choose “A” or “B”) to love Him and be the best Christian I can be….This is why both are necessary…it boils down to a humble act of the will…….yes your will….All of the other explanations are just hypocritical/irrelevant theology…in my opinion….

    • Prudence True

      Although I’m sure you are a bright theologian, as a cradle Orthodox Christian I don’t see the Eastern Orthodoxy I’ve been raised with anywhere in your above description.

      I’m not drowning. I’m floating, and God is there right alongside me and everyone else who chooses to look around and see this for themselves.

      This is Eastern Orthodoxy.

    • […]… Good resource on the differences between some heresies and branches of Christianity. This is definitely in favor of Calvinism/Reformed thinking. […]

    • […] C. Michael Patton, The Parable of the Boat, Pen and Parchment, […]

    • Drewe

      Very good analogies. A great ‘primer’ on the eternal debates!

    • […] sin? Traditionally, all Protestants (Arminian, Calvinists, Lutheran or some mixture of the above) agree on the essential point that due to original sin we need a savior and that our salvation depend…. Do you also disagree here and side with Rome or Constantinople? Originally Posted by mark1 […]

    • […] I don't think this does a very good job of explaining the differences at all. I think this blog does a much better job (although the Lutherans get left out as usual) explaining the gist behind […]

    • Steve G

      Yeah, you lost me on the Calvinist pattern. Why did God make dead people in the water, rather than just make people alive in the boat? What is the whole point of the water?

      You have placed synergism as holding on to the life preserver – which is not the Arminian position, but the Calvinist take of the Arminian position. So, while this may work for you and your group, it is just an argument to say, “I’m right and you aren’t.”

    • Pete again

      I agree with the other Orthodox comments, it’s not a good analogy. But, it might be accurate for the other Protestant beliefs.

      Here’s a better example of “Orthodox vs. Calvinist” views on redemption & salvation (9 min video):

    • Mark

      Why can’t the analogy be they are in the water and are all are poisoned (mans condition) so inevitably will die from poison or drowning basically dead men swimming.

      Or why can’t the analogy be better described from a Sand box video game perspective.

      God creates a video game called life, the users have free will to do whatever they want in the game based on the set rules of the sand box game, events happen in sand box game that move the story along, however participants and there avatars have free will given by the programmer to do whatever they want within the set rules and abilities of the avatar. God the programmer is outside the game has full control and power to hit reset, and hack into anyones avatar, or cause a glitch, but does not so the users can give him glory for the great game whether they win or lose. The programmer only interacts with the user by entering the game as his own avatar and giving the user the life or power up necessary to really win the game. He roamed the game as an avatar and can give each player the power. Each avatar has a set life or vitality and time limit to play. The avatars can even choose to die in the game because the programmer gave the avatars this ability to do what they want in the game (even jump off a cliff) but he offers the only way to really win the game by entering the game and offering the power up to all users of the game. The users have the ability programmed into the avatars to use the power up to win but only by exercising the free will given by the programmer in the avatar.

    • Pierre Queripel

      What about hyper-Calvinism?

    • Jason

      Of course if Calvin is to be believed God also allows some people to believe that they are attached to the life preserver, but has already planned to dump them back in the lake. (Institutes 3:24:8)

      Sorry Michael, you should probably have a better understanding of Arminianism before you use it in an analogy. Actually that probably goes for all the views that you’ve expressed here. Simply begging the question for Calvinism is beneath you.

      Remember also that “dead” in scripture can just mean a broken relationship (“you are dead to me”) as in the parable of the prodigal son who was dead to his father, but able to recognize his position and come back, although being totally dependent on his father’s grace for the restoration of that relationship. In that sense we are all born “dead” to God, but some live with that complacently, while others do as Paul described and grope for God.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.