The Situation

Four people are drowning and given a life preserver.

Person #1

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.”

He drowns.

Person #2

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

He drowns.

Person #3

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

He drowns.

Person #4

The forth one says, “I believe its 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 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).

Nominal Believer

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.”

Self-Provisional Believer

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.

True Believer

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’ Definition of Faith

The Reformers spoke of this when they distinguished between the three aspects of faith that are 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 Kind of Christian

Increasingly, I’ve observed the rise of a distinct category within Christian circles. This phenomenon, I argue, stems from the pervasive influence of implicit Christian culture and a fundamentalist upbringing. Individuals in this group possess a foundational knowledge of Christian doctrines (notitia) and an ingrained trust in these teachings (fiducia). However, they lack a critical, intellectual conviction of their faith’s truths (fiducia). For many, Christianity is less a personal conviction and more a cultural identity or inherited tradition.

Cultural Christian

Rarely, if ever, are these ”cultural Christians” encouraged to critically examine the authenticity of their beliefs. Their exposure to apologetics and theology, if it occurs, often skims the surface, resorting to clichés rather than deep, critical engagement. Now, as they confront the skepticism of a hyper-critical postmodern society, they find themselves scrutinizing their faith with fresh eyes. Many realize they have not genuinely affirmed (assensus) the core tenets of Christianity on a personal level.

The analogy of the life preserver doesn’t fully encapsulate the experience of this group. It’s akin to someone who acknowledges the life preserver’s existence and even grasp it—following the crowd rather than out of personal conviction. A more fitting metaphor might be that they initially cling to the life preserver alongside others but eventually question its ability to save, leading some to let go. Others go through a rough period of doubt as they rebuild the foundation of their faith one step at a time. This scenario illustrates the complex journey of faith reevaluation faced by those raised within a culture of unquestioned belief.


In the end, I do agree with the reformers that nurturing all three aspects of faith is essential. We need to provide knowledge of the faith (the basic facts), challenge people to truly examine the validity of their beliefs (assent), and ensure we explain the importance of the final step of trust (faith). In my book, Increase My Faith, I delve into this topic in much more detail, going beyond the surface.

Faith itself is not complicated; it’s incredibly simple. Yet, as Christians, we should engage in a discipleship process that nurtures and grows all three aspects of 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

    34 replies to "The Parable of the Life Preserver"

    • Henry

      Funny, I read the beginning of the post and thought the life preserver was logic and the water was religion. Sometimes it’s very hard to hold onto logic when our emotions tug at us, and the scare stories of religion pull even harder.

    • JS Allen

      Glad to see a Calvinist posting this. Sobering stuff..

    • John from Down Under

      This post is AWESOME!!!

      Very insightful. Thank you sir.

      That ‘new’ category is the one that parrots all the Christianese cliches and rarely stops to think what they mean (intellectual by-pass).

    • Kevin Rogers

      Maybe I read it too fast, but I did not find the fifth drowning person first mentioned in the opening paragraph.

      May I suggest that Jesus is the fifth person who entered the water and gave up his life preserver to whosoever?

    • Boz

      This is interesting to me:

      notitia: the knowledge of the truth.

      assensus: intellectual assent to the veracity of the truth.

      fiducia: trust/faith/resting in the truth.

      Take for example the idea that John Key is the Prime Minster of New Zealand.
      (notitia) I have knowledge of this idea/claim.
      (assensus) I agree that this idea/claim is almost certaintly true.
      The third domain (fiducia) seems pointless to me. What else is there to do once you accept that the idea is true? This is superfluous.

      Can someone explain what fiducia is, in relation to the idea that John Key is the Prime Minster of New Zealand ?

    • Larry Branch

      From my experience the reason many are drowing is the life pre-server is religion not the word of God Himself. People are holding on to all kinds of things. The sad thing we Christians are throwing all kinds of things to people. And when the rapids and the waves come, salvation does not work and many abandon their faith in a pre-server that does not work, just like it is fortold in scripture.

      Thanks, I can tell you want people to grab hold of the true Jesus. Thanks for your service.

    • Mark

      Boz said “Can someone explain what fiducia is, in relation to the idea that John Key is the Prime Minster of New Zealand ?”

      Lets say John Key invited you to a state dinner, but you didn’t go because you really don’t want to have anything to do with him. I think the person in Michael’s #3 example above, is someone that believes they are a Christian, but in reality doesn’t really want to have anything to do with Jesus.

    • Sam

      Boz, the claim that John Key is the PM of NZ isn’t the same kind of claim as the kind of claim that the gospel is. The claim of the gospel is more than a simple, cold, hard fact – – it’s a claim that makes an offer, or posits an “if/then”. The John Key claim is a simple, cold, hard fact that requires no action or further decision on my part. If you were to add an “if/then” to the John Key claim – – for instance, “Since I am, under NZ law, condemned to die, and since John Key as PM of NZ has the authority and ability to pardon me if I make such a request, then I ought to grab that life preserver; i.e., make that request”. That would place the John Key claim into the realm of the gospel claim, as far as types of claims go.

    • Dan Wilkinson

      I like the parable, but it does lead to some questions:

      Why does the first person not believe it’s a life preserver? He must simply be ignorant of what a life preserve is and what it can do for him? If so, can he be held accountable for not taking hold of it? For surely if he did know what it was and what it could do he would grab on to it.

      Why would the second person not believe it can save him, especially if one of the defining characteristics of a life preserver is the capability of saving? He must not really understand what a life preserver is or what it can do. And if that is the case, does he truly know that it’s a life preserver?

      Does the third person just not want to be saved, for why else would he not grab hold?

      And, is everyone in the world given a life preserver?

    • Ed Kratz

      Boz, think of a chair.

      1. I don’t believe its a chair and I don’t believe it can hold me.
      2. I believe its a chair, but I don’t believe it can hold me.
      3. I believe its a chair, and I believe it can hold me. But he does not sit.
      4. I believe its a chair, and I believe it can hold me. He sits down (fiducia).

    • Chris

      Michael, great post. It reminds me of something Robert Farrar Capon once wrote. In his book, “The Mystery of Christ: And Why We Don’t Get It.”, Capon penned the following……………

      There is no sin you can commit that God in Jesus hasn’t forgiven already. The only way you can get yourself in permanent Dutch is to refuse forgiveness. That’s hell. The old baloney about heaven being for good guys and hell for bad guys is dead wrong. Heaven is populated entirely by forgiven sinners, not spiritual and moral aces. And hell is populated entirely by forgiven sinners. The only difference between the two groups is that those in heaven accept the forgiveness and those in hell reject it. Which is why heaven is a party–the endless wedding reception of the Lamb and his bride–and hell is nothing but the dreariest bar in town.

      For me, the one grabbing the life preserver is the one who allowed himself to be forgiven.

    • Jeff

      C. Michael wrote:


      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.


      Granted I have much to learn but this seems to make too much work for salvation. John 3:16 seems simpler than “intellectual assent to the veracity of the truth” … this implies that if you have not taken this assent that you are not really saved.

      Hmm … not sure I buy that. How high must I ascend intellectually before I fully accept God on his word? and what about the faith of a child?

      I enjoy learning … but I’m leery of this intellectual assent as prerequisite of salvation … it seems at least that one can actually get off track on this point.

      John 20:29
      “… blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”

      What is belief? How much belief is enough? … this is perhaps the father’s dilemma in Mark 9:24

      …, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

      Had he not studied it hard enough to ascend? or did he just need to be reminded to believe and to trust without having to be convinced?

      Let the father throw a life preserver to a child and tell him … I love you … grab this and it will save you … and it will save the child even if it doesn’t understand what the life preserver is.

      Thanks for the post … and for your concern for all of us … and for teaching in this manner.

    • Jeff

      Oops … Forgive my misinterpretation of the word assent as ascent … now that’s embarrassing 😉 in a group where interpretation of words is everything … it does change the argument … because clearly you must receive and accept the offer from Christ to be saved.

      I see a need to accept on Faith an offer to be rescued from a desperate situation from a loving Father as a trusting child would … nothing more.

      If we make it more complicated than that sometimes it seems we create a barrier to belief. Deeper knowledge often follows salvation that comes from belief but doesn’t necessarily precede it.

    • Amy Jo Garner

      An especially interesting parable to read on a day of flooding in the OKC area!

      As far as the third group is concerned, I find that many people raised in Christian homes fall into this category. Until they face some major trial in their lives, they very often have never actually grabbed hold of that life preserver. I know this was true for me. I’ve never known a day when I didn’t consider myself a Christian. But time and tragedy have certainly forced me grab hold of Jesus or drown.

    • Hodge

      I think we need to add the idea of repentance. The man doesn’t grab hold because he knows that once he does, he’s under the authority of the captain. He’d rather enjoy his swim and drown in the end than be under the authority of his savior.

    • Boz

      Mark, Sam, and CMP, thanks for the responses.

      Mark, I gathered from the OP that notitia assensus and fiducia are concepts that relate to one invidivual idea, so with your example, I would have notitia and assensus of the idea that “John Key invited me to a dinner”. but then going to the dinner is a separata idea. Further, I don’t know how I would have trust/faith/resting in the idea that “John Key invited me to a dinner”. I already agree that it is true, there is no trust required.

      Sam, if I change the example to an if/then example, my confusion still remains. Take for example “If John Key’s party wins the next election, then he will serve a second term as Prime Minister”. I have notitia and assensus for this idea, but ther is no trust or faith required. The idea cannot be accepted to a further extent. I already accept that the idea is true.

      CMP, You have restated the metaphor in a different way, but I still don’t know what you are implying by sitting down, or holding on to the buoy. What are these metaphors saying? What are you actually saying when you are using this metaphor?

    • Ed Kratz


      The illustration express the final act of confidence pertaining to belief. Maybe you are finding it hard because I am using objects rather than persons? You can do the same thing when it come to trusting someone for something. It is a personalization of the act to where it becomes something your actively rely upon, not simply believe. Do you see the difference between believing the facts about someone and relying on them?

    • Sam


      Our disconnect rests in your changing the nature of the “if/then” examples. You’ve posited an “if/then” that has no follow-up, no required response. It’s a fine “if/then”, and certainly a true one, but it’s of a different nature than both the “if/then” I posited and the “if/then” of the gospel.

      Both my example and the gospel “if/then”‘s present unresolved issues that require further action or decision-making on someone’s part. A “simple fact if/then”, such as the one you presented, does not. Your “if/then” could be altered to be more similar if, for instance, it read, “If John Key accepts the outcome of the election, then he will be seated as PM.” In this form, it leaves an uncertainty to be addressed, a choice to make.

      It seems clear that all “if/then”‘s are not created equal! Some will contain only the notitia and assensus, while others will add the fiducia. Your example is of the first class; mine, and the gospel, are of the second.

      I don’t know whether there’s a better term than “if/then” to state the different natures. There may well be.

    • EricW

      So, how do the four kinds of persons/four kinds of responses to the life preserver, relate to or equate to the four kinds of soil in the parable of the sower:

      Matthew 13:

      18 Listen then to what the parable of the sower means:

      19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path.

      20 The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.

      22 The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.

      23 But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.

    • Larry Branch

      Faith is a function of knowledge and this life preserver has benefits for this side of life. Yes, we are preserving this life also, for service to Father. If a person is ignorant of the many functions of the tool they will abandon it or give it away because of our enemy’s deception. We must disciple and empower new users (son/daughters) concerning salvation and its many functions.

      The individual leading someone to salvation must be empowered. The one receiving salvation needs empowerment to do likewise. Entering the Kingdom and expecting the group structure to do all the work is not a complete interpretation of scripture. Reformation is on the horizon. The awareness of Christ in us is the hope of our Father.

    • Boz

      Sam, and CMP, thanks for the responses.

      so, fiducia is acting on the idea/claim that you are convinced is true?

      for another example, if you are convinced that your friend is punctual and reliable, fiducia would by relying on your friend to pick you up at 7.30?

    • Michael T.

      By golly I think he’s got it. Just kidding Boz. I think you’re example is a good one though. To take it further. One could be convinced that their friend is reliable and punctual, yet never be willing to rely on their friend to pick them up on time. Or as the example CMP posted is getting at one could be never truly convinced that their friend is reliable and punctual and trust their friend to pick them up on time anyhow.

    • Lee H

      I thought salvation was by grace through faith?

      Is it not a problem then if salvation is by knowledge and intellectual understanding?

    • Larry Branch

      Someone has to preach the gospel and someone has to believe. To believe is grace. For salvation to be available – is all God. But everything we get from our Father who is invisible is an act of faith.

      Heb 11:6 But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

      John 3:15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.

      Faith is an evidence and a substance of the invisible realm (heaven). People are believing in things from this realm like good preaching and worldly promises (wood, stuble, and hay).

      2 Cor 2:4, 5 And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

      That is what a life pre-server is made of. Faith in Christ anything less – dead man floating.

      In Christ always,

    • Jess P

      I’m with Lee on this. To be fairly crude, I’ve been kind of put off recently by the idea that it is our belief that saves us. I think correct belief is better than mistaken belief, but I hope my belief isn’t the crux of salvation.

      I’d be more interested in exploring this example:

      The fifth one looks at it and says, “I don’t believe its a life preserver and I don’t believe it can save me.” He grabs on anyway.

      He lives.

      This man is weak in his will and convictions, or even crazy, but he lives. The life preserver does not care about correct belief. His beliefs may change, but only after he is saved.

      Any thoughts?

    • Larry Branch

      I agree with you. The power of salvation is beyond our belief. How ever if you believe that a brother can loose his salvation then the question becomes what did he do wrong?

      We know the power of Father is perfect but why did he turn away. And as a son we are required to go and make disciples. Could I have done something different to ensure he kept hold of his salvation?

      If I am the shepherd that goes for the one who got away, what do I do different this time around? I believe this final harvest will include those that have walked away from salvation. Or did they really get away, become lukewarm or backslide?

      We the body of Christ for years have filled stadiums; million have given their life to Christ. I did at an Amway free enterprise weekend. I pray that the other 300 souls that gave their life that day 25 years ago still have a firm grip.

      My salvation is through faith. Jesus did all the work as author and finisher of my faith.

    • Fitz

      I think Michael did an excellent job explaining Fiducia using the chair example. I was going to offer a similiar analogy using an airplane….Michael, if I may borrow from you…

      1. I don’t believe its an airplane and I don’t believe it can transport me.
      2. I believe its an airplane, but I don’t believe it can transport me.
      3. I believe its an airplane, and I believe it can transport me. But he does not get in.
      4. I believe its an airplane, and I believe it can transport me. He gets in(fiducia).

    • Mark

      Hello Boz,

      I apologize for the lateness of my reply. I’ve got a day job that keeps me busy and I don’t spend as much time here as I’d like. Everyone has probably moved on from this topic, but I at least wanted to try to respond to you.

      Without trying to bristle too many feathers, and start a “faith alone” argument, I believe that the term faith in it’s original meaning has a connotation of “faithfulness” to it. Meaning if you have faith in God, you will be faithful to God. Not that your faithfulness has anything to do with your salvation, but it is a component of faith.

      So in some of the examples given, if you have true faith in the chair (or airplane), you will be willing to take a seat. That is what I got out of the difference between Michael’s #3 and #4 examples above, it’s possible to believe but not have a true faith. The example I gave with John Key probably didn’t express that as well as I would have liked.


    • Steve Pillar

      Too many young people today fall into this last category. They assent to the gospel etc and join in because it is all they know and their friends are into it too. Should we be surprised when they fall away on leaving home?

    • Boz

      thanks for the replies.

      If fiducia is acting on the claim/idea that you are convinced is true, then the chair and airplane examples seem like bad examples.

      This is because, currently I can see about 20 chairs, and i believe they are chairs, and i believe they can hold my weight. But i’m not going to act on this belief, and walk around the office or my house sitting on every chair, because it would be a waste of time, and I would look like a dickhead.

      Similarly for the airplane example, I can see the airport from where I am, and there are planes leaving every 10 mins. I believe its an airplane, and I believe it can transport me. But I’m not going to get in because I don’t want to go to Sydney, and I don’t have a spare $500 and 4 hours to blow on 2 pointless plane trips.

      The life buoy example is pretty good, because only a suicidal person would not grab hold.

    • Larry Branch

      Receiving salvation is an act of a person’s will. Jesus stands at the door and knocks. If we were walking like Christ I think our success rate in salvations, healings, and deliverance would be higher. The Body of Christ is being restored to the lifestyle demonstrated by first generation disciples. When they walked down the street their shadow revealed their status as ambassadors to an invisible Kingdom. 1 Cor 2:4-5

      When we begin to carry the love, faith and trust for Father as our brother Jesus did we will see the same results. When people recognize our status and see Father they will violently try to get to where we are. If John 17:22 is our motivation the life preserver will be very effective. All of mankind is called but not all will die to self and bow their will to the King of Kings.

      This is why we must do our part. We let the light within shine before men and His love in us will not return void but release power that destroys the world’s captivating hold over a man heart. Freedom!

      …Forever captivated by Christ

    • […] Read the rest of the article here. […]

    • karen

      You have fourth spelt incorrectly!

    • eli

      very interesting how the Ruach Ha’Kodesh works, because the same parable has come up a few times before in history.
      a painting was done in 2001 of the life ring parable.
      and also a youtube in 2015 “life ring parable”
      and in 1998 there was a sailor onboard the USS George Washington who received the message of the parable.
      and even further back the parable keeps showing…….

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