The Parable

Four people are drowning and are given a life-preserver.

The first one looks at it and says, “I don’t believe it’s a life-preserver, and I don’t believe it can save me.”
He drowns.

The second one says, “I believe it’s a life-preserver, but I don’t believe it can save me.”
He drowns.

The third one says, “I believe it’s a life-preserver, and I believe it can save me.” But he never grabs hold.
He drowns.

The fourth one says, “I believe it’s a life-preserver, and I believe it can save me.” He grabs hold.
He lives.

The life preserver is the Gospel in the form of Jesus Christ. The water represents the judgment for sins—separation from God and death.

Types of Drowning Men

1. The Irreligious

The first drowning man neither believes in Christ nor his ability to save. This can be an irreligious person (atheist) or one relying on other means of salvation (other religions). These people live in denial of the world around them and the severity of their sin. Either way, each wants to take their chances without God. Their endless objections betray their lack of desire to believe and follow the truth wherever it leads. Eventually, no matter the arguments, people choose the position they desire.

Psalm 14:1 captures this well:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good.

2. The Aloof

The second drowning person believes in the essential historicity of Christ (who he is and what he did) but does not believe that he can save. This one is the least common, in my opinion. This might resemble Christian doubters, but it actually pertains more to individuals who do not fully comprehend or believe in the complete purpose of Christ’s coming and His actions. I have seen this as people attempt to syncretize various new-age beliefs with Christianity. Think, Oprah.

In the Bible, I see this in the Israelites wandering in the wilderness as they worship Yahweh and other gods. Paul expresses this to Timothy:

2 Timothy 4:3-4

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”

3. The Arrogant

The third drowning person is very common in the Western world. He both believes (intellectually) in the Gospel and believes that the Gospel can save him. But there is never an act of the will to trust or rest in Christ truly. I think that this type has fooled themselves into thinking that their intellectual assent will be enough. However, because they never rest in Christ, they eventually drown with the others and die.

A terrifying statement of Christ represents these:

Matthew 7:21-23

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

It is often very difficult to distinguish the third type from the fourth.

4. The Humble

The fourth is the true believer. They possess sufficient intellectual assent to believe in the Gospel and its capacity to save them. Moreover, they take the crucial final step of faith by grasping onto Christ. Through an act of the will, they trust Him for salvation. They are saved.

This does not mean these have perfect faith. In the Parable, they may grab ahold of the Life-Preserver to varying degrees. Part of the process of growing as a Christian is the realization that Christ alone keeps us above water. Our kicking and swimming are superfluous.

Matthew 11:28-30:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

The Reformers’ 3 Aspects of Faith

The Reformers spoke of this when they distinguished between the three aspects of faith necessary for salvation:

1. Notitia: the knowledge of the truth.

2. Assensus: intellectual assent to the veracity of the truth.

3. Fiducia: trust/faith/resting in the truth.

The third drowning man had both notitia and assensus but did not have fiducia.

A Different Category: The Unpersuaded

However, what has become more and more evident to me over the last thirty years is a very odd category of people. This oddity is represented by people who have the knowledge of the truth (notitia) and the trust (fiducia), but they are never intellectually persuaded about the truth (assensus). These are those who grew up in an implicit Christian culture. Christianity was just who they were and what they were supposed to be. They were never challenged to investigate the truthfulness of their faith. If they had any training at all, it was only in the form of apologetics and theology that was cliché and shallow.

Since the advent of the hyper-critical postmodern world, they are examining their faith for the first time and finding that they never truly assented (assensus) to the basics of the faith. The life-preserver parable/illustration does not work too well for this group, as you have people who believe it’s a life-preserver, don’t believe it can save them, yet grab hold nonetheless because everyone else is. These are the kids who grow up Christian, believe they are Christian, go to church, go on mission trips, and then, eventually, in college, are taught that Christianity is not true. Since they have never been challenged to doubt their faith in a Christian environment, they eventually let it go.

John speaks to this:

1 John 2:19

They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.

Nurturing All Three Aspects of Faith

In the end, I do agree with the Reformers that we need to nurture all three aspects of faith. We need to provide knowledge of the faith (the basic facts). We must challenge people to truly examine the validity of their beliefs (intellectual assent). And we must explain the mandate of the last step of trust (faith).


I break this down much further, both in concept and historical evaluation, in my book Increase My Faith.

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

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