Four people are drowning and given a life preserver.
The first one looks at it and says, “I don’t believe its a life preserver and I don’t believe it can save me.”
The second one says, “I believe its a life-preserver, but I don’t believe it can save me.”
The third one says, “I believe its a life-preserver, and I believe it can save me.” But he never grabs hold.
The forth one says, “I believe its a life-preserver, and I believe it can save me.” He grabs hold.
The life preserver is the Gospel in the form of Jesus Christ. The water is the judgment of God for sins—death.
The first drowning man neither believes in the Gospel nor its effectiveness. This can be an irreligious person (atheist) or the one who is relying on other means of salvation (other religions).
The second drowning person believes in the basic historic components of the Gospel, but does not believe that it will be effective. This might mean that he does not believe that it is effective for him. Or he may not believe that it is really effective for anyone. “I believe that Jesus died and rose from the grave, but God does not really love me.”
The third drowning person is the most interesting and, in my opinion, the most common in America (or any Western culture) today. 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 truly trust or rest in Christ. It is often very difficult to distinguish the third type from the forth. In fact, I think that the third type has fooled themselves into thinking that their intellectual assent will be enough. However, because they never rest in Christ they are judged along with the others and die.
The forth is the true believer. Not only do they have enough intellectual assent to believe in the Gospel and to believe it can save them, they also take the final and necessary step of faith to grab hold of Christ. Through an act of the will they trust him for salvation. They are saved.
The Reformers spoke of this when they distinguished between the three aspects of faith that are necessary for salvation:
notitia: the knowledge of the truth.
assensus: intellectual assent to the veracity of the truth.
fiducia: trust/faith/resting in the truth.
The third drowning man had both notitia and assensus, but did not have fiducia.
However, what I have seen becoming more and more prominent is a new category of people. Credited for the creation of this new group, I believe, is the implicit Christian culture and fundamentalist environment into which so many were reared. In this environment, people have the knowledge of the truth (notitia) and the trust (fiducia), but they never were intellectually persuaded about the truth. Christianity was just who they were and what they were supposed to be. They were never challenged to investigate the truthfulness of their faith. Well, never really challenged. If they had any training at all it was only in a form of apologetics and theology that was cliché and shallow. Since the advent of the hyper-critical postmodern world, they are taking a look at 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 its a life-preserver, don’t believe it can save them, yet grab hold nonetheless because everyone else is. Maybe we can just say they grabbed hold and later let go.
In the end, I do agree with the reformers that we need to nurture all three aspects of faith. We need to provide the knowledge of the faith (the basic facts). We need to challenge people to truly examine the validity of their beliefs (assent). And we need to make sure we explain the mandate of the last step of trust (faith).