"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)


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  • « Open Their Eyes by Pastor John Samson | Main | The Gospel Is For Christians »

    The Parable of the Drowning Man

    Dear Friends:

    Perhaps you have run into an earnest Christian, that when opposing the biblical teaching of the "bondage of the will", "salvation by grace alone" and "election" will use the common salvation analogy which likens the unsaved to a helpless drowning man. That a loving God gives us free choice while drowning whether we will reach out and take His hand to be saved or not. That only an 'evil' God, they say, would leave or not attempt to save people who are drowning in a lake. "How could a loving God be so cruel just to leave them there drowning," they argue.

    There are quite a number of things that might be said in response to this. First of all we must clarify that what distinguishes our tradition from freewillism is not that one God loves people and the other conception of God does not. No... the distinction is between an intensive and an extensive love, between an intensive love where God actually expresses His love by laying down His life to redeem His loved ones, and an extensive love that loves everyone in a generic sense but actually delivers no one in particular. Consider the parable of the drowning man again in light of these two perspectives:

    (1) Your child is drowning off the edge of your boat. You are a great swimmer but the swells are high and it is risky. You call out to your child to use his willpower to swim back to the boat to save himself, yet he is entirely too weak to do so. You reach out your hand but it depends on whether your child is a good enough swimmer to get to you and has the strength in himself to reach out his arm. But you do nothing more than call for him to come and will only go as far as reaching out your hand since you wouldn't want to violate his free will to let him decide if he will swim back and reach for your help.
    (2) Your child is drowning off the edge of your boat. You are a great swimmer but the swells are high and it is risky. But your love for your child outweighs all other considerations and without hesitation you leap into the water at the risk of your own life, due to the weather, and actually save your child from drowning. You drown in the process but your child is saved. In other words, you don't just wait to see if he is willing or has the strength. He doesn't. So you go in and save your child regardless of the cost to yourself.

    Which of the two fathers is more loving I ask?

    The first one, if you haven't yet guessed, is the Arminian "father". He sees his child in trouble and will only save him on condition that he has the capacity to swim through the waves and reach out and take hold of the father. The father will not, however, risk his life to actually MAKE SURE that the son does not drown. His love does not act so this love is ineffectual. It all depends on how the son responds. It is a love which is conditional. The Arminian gospel is just like this because if God violates the human will in any way it makes Him evil in their mind. [Note: I will tell you what. If I am stubborn and will not obey the gospel, afterwards I would be grateful if he "violated" my will to save me from drowning. What I want does not matter since I am only a child with reference to God. It is what God wants that matters. What I want will conform to what God wants when He opens the eyes of my understanding. This is not something I can produce naturally. The Holy Spirit must act or I die. If your child is to be hit by a car, do you wait to see what he will do or do you run out to save him? I don't care if the child did not want it at the time. I do it anyway if I love him. The fact is what kind of love just sits there and does nothing but woo and hope you will save yourself? Is that the kind of love we expect of a parent, let alone our Heavenly Father?]

    The second analogy is the Augustinian father. His love is not weak-willed or ineffectual but he loves his children with a resolute will that accomplishes what His love dictates by actually saving his child, even by forfeiting his own life in the process. God is love, and God's love is like His Word ... He says of it, "It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it." This is beautiful and what love is all about because it means we can take God at His word and promises.

    Again, which father in the story is more loving?

    Of course the analogy is flawed since the son, in real life is already dead to the things of the father and due to his autonomy and pride, would never take his father's help to do what he knows (or thinks) he can do for himself.

    Naturally the next question is why does God not save everyone then? That is a deep mystery but we know God conspires with His own goodness and wisdom and always does what is right whether we fully understand His reasons or not. The same mystery equally extends to the question of why He bothers to save anyone at all. Given our hostility toward Him it is even more amazing that He chooses anyone. Why not give us what we all deserve, which is justice? So while it is true we may not know why He chooses only some for redemption, the Scriptures do teach the "what" and the "how" ...that He, in fact, does save a partuclar people for Himself. But it is not for us to pry into the mystery of why (since He has not revealed it) except that it was His good pleasure ... And it is not for us to presume, as some do, that election means He must have bad motives in doing so. We know, from revelation, that the character of God is always good and trustworthy so we can know with certainty that He does His choosing for good reasons that are in Himself even though we may not fully understand God's purpose. But to conclude, therefore, that God must be evil if He chooses some and not others is presumptious at best. The very fact that He does it is the highest reason in the universe. That He has covenantally set His affection on certain persons but not others is His prerogative. There cannot be a better reason than "God wills it". Can you think of a better reason?

    But to perhaps gain some understanding from what God has revealed to us, consider the following:

    The Arminian calls a God who leaves a rebel behind as evil. To expose the fallacy of this argument we should respond biblically by asserting that God would only be "evil" in leaving them if people were undeserving of just punishment. By using "drowning in a lake" as an analogy, they are making it sound like our condition before salvation is innocuous. This logical fallacy is called an "appeal to pity" (ad misercordiam). "Look at the helpless person drowning and the Calvinist God does nothing. This God must be an ogre".

    Perhaps if our problem were only of a physical disability or of an innocent man drowning then, of course, we might be more tempted to make God out to be an ogre. But this is not how the Scripture describes the disposition of a sinner's heart. The Scripture says the unregenerate are rebels, hostile to God by nature. Realizing that analogies are imperfect, this drowning analogy still depends on pity for it to work at all, but is actually imposing an alien presupposition on the Scripture that we were just helplessly, innocently in need and God is, therefore, obligated to reach out to save us, lest we drown. So according to this analogy the one condition for us to meet if God is to love us is to reach out our hand and take hold of His, which He is obligated to extend lest otherwise He must be evil, they reason. Not only is this kind of love conditional but this love does nothing to help the helpless except call to him from afar. I hope you are beginning to see the clear problem with this line of reasoning.

    Lets get the facts straight: nowhere does Scripture even hint that man is just innocently drowning. Rather it describes us as willfully and purposefully hostile toward God like an opposing army, suppressing the truth and replacing God with our own idols, having a debt we cannot and will not repay. The Text says that we love darkness and hate the light - which means our affections are bent on fleeing from God. Michael Horton once described it like this: “We cannot find God for the same reason that a thief can't find a police officer.” It is not as though we just had a physical inability, but our condition is described as a moral inability with darkened affections (John 3:19) in need of a new birth (John 3:3-6), i.e. a completely new nature that we might desire and understand the things of God (1 Cor 2: 5-14). One thing to remember is that we are all debtors for willfully breaking God's holy Law. We owe a debt we cannot repay - the price is too high, and further, we are unwilling. This means that we justly deserve God's wrath - all of us. Unless we can say that we justly deserve God's displeasure, save in the mercy of Jesus Christ, then we have yet to truly understand the gospel. If God were to completely wipe out the entire human race in one fell swoop, it would be entirely just for that is what we rightly deserve. If we were all thrown into an eternal hell, we would merely be getting our just deserts.

    But since we are using analogies here is another: if nine people owed me money, and I canceled the debt of seven, the other two would have no grounds for complaint. In the same way if God canceled no one's debt it would be entirely proper, but if He cancels the debt of some of them, the others have no ground for complaint. They are responsible to repay but do not have the ability to repay (see Rom 3:20). God is in no way obligated to to cancel anyone's debt, but because He is loving and merciful He paid the debt for those He came to save according to His sovereign good pleasure (Eph 1:4, 5).

    We must remember also that God has more than just one attribute ... and we must also remember that God is infinitely holy, just and wrathful. When we say we are saved what do we mean? What are we saved from? We are saved from God. Yes, saved from God. If God is truly a just God, His wrath must be poured out on the guilty. God is holy and no sin can stand in His presence - His justice requires just payment, a payment we cannot repay.

    So God gives one of two things to humans in this life: justice or mercy. Those in Christ have received mercy. It wasn't because God saw anything in us that recommended us to Him, or because of our great resume or skill but because of his mercy alone that he saved us.

    He didn't love us because of our faith but loved and redeemed us UNTO faith. We are justified through faith alone but we didn't produce faith in our unregenerate, hostile fallen nature ... God mercifully granted that we would repent and believe the gospel (2 Tim 2:25, Eph 2:8). Apart from His grace, which He granted us in the new birth, we would never come to God on our own. Rather, God has set His affection on us from eternity. He came to find us and deliver us from death that we might worship and have fellowship with Him. So if men suffer in Hell it is not because God so determined that they would for no reason, but because of their sin, and if we are saved it is solely because of His grace.

    In spite of ourselves God came in the person of Jesus Christ to bear the full brunt of God's wrath for His people. The punishment we deserved fell on Him. He saves many but passes over the rest. He leaves the non-elect to do what they will. They choose to rebel because this is their natural inclination - God did not have to coerce them. So is God an ogre standing over some poor helpless drowning man? No, He is faced with people who are wilfully trying to establish themselves against Him and do not want His help. In fact they take up arms against the King. They will do anything they can to flee from Him, to declare autonomy and mutiny.

    God sends His servants and His Son but we kill them instead. Does God have the obligation to save those who killed His Son? Or those who conspire against Him as we once did? No, He is righteous if he casts them in the lake of fire. But in spite of all we have done against Him, He comes in love bearing the punishment we justly deserve on His own person. Great love. But He will have mercy on whom He will (Rom 9:15, 16). Who are you man to tell God He is evil or unjust for saving some and leaving others? We should marvel that He saves any. If anyone would agree that He is just in punishing us all (which Arminians do), how then can they be consistent to make Him unjust for punishing some and saving the rest for His own good and wise reasons?

    We must ask ourselves in light of all this, what is love? What is a holy love? ... and which description most closely fits with true biblical love. Jesus said in John 10 that He not only "calls his own sheep by name and leads them out" (John 10:3) but that "the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep." (John 10:11,15) but he says of others that they "do not believe because [they] are not of My Sheep." (John 10:26) . He lays down his life for the sheep but some are not his sheep, and that is the reason they do not believe, Jesus says.

    In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, 'YOU WILL KEEP ON HEARING, BUT WILL NOT UNDERSTAND; YOU WILL KEEP ON SEEING, BUT WILL NOT PERCEIVE; (Matt 13:14)
    Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Rom 11:33)

    - J.W. Hendryx

    Posted by John on March 14, 2006 05:46 PM


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    I would take it one step farther and say that all the people that are drowning are already dead. They are nothing but bloated corpses floating around.

    It's a loving Father that gives his own beating heat to bring his son back from the dead.


    Mr. T. McVey, I mean Mcneely :)

    Yes, my sentiments exactly! I guess this is what I meant to say when writing the following:

    "Of course the analogy is flawed since the son, in real life is already dead to the things of the father and due to his autonomy and pride, would never take his father's help to do what he knows (or thinks) he can do for himself."

    Indeed being dead to spiritual things is as good as being a corpse which needs resuscitation which God actually saves, not merely offers to save apart from opening our heart supernaturaly. Yes God gives us the command to believe but also grants us the ability in Christ.

    Another anaology is: The Arminian says the lost are sick and need a doctor, Reformed Theology says the lost are equivalent to those who have fallen from the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago and are spattered on the sidewalk. They need life, not a doctor.

    While I agree with most of what is said here I think we ought to caution against analogies too much (which has been done in part).

    We have quite a more difficult time telling that story when we are talking about the Reprobate rather than the Elect.

    I happen to like the analogy that puts the sinner in the shoes of a Death Row inmate who can only be saved by a Pardon. This captures the idea of the Justice of God in leaving the man. However, many problems exist in this analogy as well.

    The point is ... lets not get into an analogy war with Arminians ... and if we do lets just use the Dead body of Ephesians 2.

    To Anonymous poster:

    re: You comments >>>"analogy war with Arminians"

    I understand your sentiments yet this analogy is used about every other time someone is attemting to defend that position. The counter-anaology simply shows that true love actually does what it sets out to do. It does not remain idle when its objects of affection are in peril. When we open the Scriptures, this is the kind of love, I believe, God shows his children, not a love which leaves them to fend off the wolf on their own.

    The analogy is very close to reality. One believes that Christ's work gives everyone an opportunity, that Christ's death does not, by itself save them, but makes salvation a possibility for them. The other believes Christ actually saves His loved ones. I believe this is an accurate description that even those who are synergists would agree with.

    Since this analogy is used so often, I am merely providing what I think to be, a sound refutation of the very concept.

    I think Ezekiel 16 paints a vivid picture of how we rebel against God. We deserve nothing but judgement yet he chooses that we should live and atones for us even after chasing after every lust.

    6"And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, 'Live!' I said to you in your blood, 'Live!'

    8"When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord GOD, and you became mine. 9Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. 10I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk.[a] 11And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck. 12And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. 13Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. 14And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord GOD.

    15"But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore[b] because of your renown and lavished your whorings[c] on any passerby; your beauty[d] became his. 16You took some of your garments and made for yourself colorful shrines, and on them played the whore. The like has never been, nor ever shall be.[e] 17You also took your beautiful jewels of my gold and of my silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself images of men, and with them played the whore. 18And you took your embroidered garments to cover them, and set my oil and my incense before them.

    30"How lovesick is your heart,[g] declares the Lord GOD, because you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen prostitute, 31building your vaulted chamber at the head of every street, and making your lofty place in every square. Yet you were not like a prostitute, because you scorned payment. 32Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband! 33Men give gifts to all prostitutes, but you gave your gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from every side with your whorings. 34So you were different from other women in your whorings. No one solicited you to play the whore, and you gave payment, while no payment was given to you; therefore you were different.

    59"For thus says the Lord GOD: I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath in breaking the covenant, 60yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish for you an everlasting covenant. 61Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you take your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and I give them to you as daughters, but not on account of[i] the covenant with you. 62I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the LORD, 63that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I atone for you for all that you have done, declares the Lord GOD."


    How can anyone think they deserve salvation after reading that? It is clear that without God's grace we are all doomed.

    Oh Lord, keep us humble and living for Your glory alone!

    Great article.

    The only reason why I shy away from saying that we are "already dead and bloated" is because some can take it to mean that we believe men have no wills or that there is not activity on our part -which is not true. We are fully active... active in rebellion and suppression and hostility.

    These analogies are difficult to use because of things like this. How can you model all aspects in one analogy? I don't think you can. You can model pieces of it, separately, I believe, but not as a whole.

    I've been having debates on Christian messageboards concerning eternal security, free will, predestination, Arminianism, Pelegianism, Calvinism...most of which I was pretty ignorant of before these discussions. Since being saved, I'd known, learned in my spirit, the truth of eternal security. Since dialoging about these things, I've learned about the fallacy of the free will arguments. AND THEN! Very recently (this past week, in fact) I learned about Charles Finney!!! Well, what I'm trying to say is, thank you for your analogy, it is comforting to read, and after hearing all the disparaging things people having been saying to me that undermines God's sovereignty, it's refreshing to hear you say what you say, to remind me, there really are others that take God at His word. Thanks.

    The Drowning Son analogy fails to account for one thing in either case. The boy who has fallen off the boat is aware that he used to be on the boat.

    Furthermore, he sees his father, wants his father's help, and he is aware of his own peril.

    Real unsaved people in the world, whether dead or alive, are none of these things. They are not aware that they are in danger. They are not aware that they need saving, and they are not aware that God's intention is to do just that.

    It is my opinion that awareness of sin and reaching out for salvation are simultaneous events.

    A soon as awareness of sin comes, real awareness, not simple "identification" (yeah, the bible does say that's a sin, and yeah, I do do that...), reaching out to be saved immediately follows. The two go together inseparably.

    No one who suddenly is aware of the fact of sin in their life, and what it means, is not at the same time concerned about what to do about it.

    I think that's commonly refered to as regeneration in Reformed Theology, and it certainly is true in my own experience. "Apart from the law, I would not have known what sin is..." And also, as soon as I had real, legitimate, revelation knowledge of what sin is, the yearning for salvation immediately followed. How could it not? That revelation came from God - there was nothing I could have done to effect it.

    Kirby, you said:
    It is my opinion that awareness of sin and reaching out for salvation are simultaneous events.

    Yes, agreed. Those who teach the analogy fail to see that they not only must thank God for offering salvation, but for giving the new heart and eyes that desires to take hold of it. We thank God for our faith as much as anything else. Alternately (if grace was resistable) we would have to glorify God for all else except our faith. The humility required to receive the humbling terms of the gospel, recognition of sin and love for Christ are all the Spirit disarming and quickening our hearts with new desires. Left to ourselves we would never recognize our need nor could we love Christ or the gospel.

    Knowing what sin is, that very knowledge is immediately granted by God. When Peter affirmed that Jesus was the Christ the Son of the living God, Jesus responded byu saying "flesah and blood did not reveal this to you but my Father in Heaven"...

    Perhaps this isn't the place for this topic, but...

    One of the reasons I believe more along the lines of Reformed Theology/Calvin, is just because that's the way that it happened in my own experience. I can't really speak for anyone else. Only myself. But I know certain things about myself.

    I have always known "the gospel." Who in America doesn't?

    That Jesus loves you has been a matter of public record for every single person in this country since they were old enough to hear "Jesus loves me this I know...." and understand what it meant.

    I've always known "the bible is God's word." And I also always known a bunch of other "crap" like "Mary is the mother of God."

    By the time we reach adulthood, and sometimes earlier, we all know the matter of "Jesus Loves You."

    But it didn't avail me much, didn't really mean a whole lot to me, never really changed much the way I thought about things.

    Then, over a period of about six weeks, when I was in my twenties, something happened.

    With no effort and no conscious will on my part, all these things began to take on a sense of urgency. Guys that used to give me tracts and "witness" to me were an annoyance before, but now they were an annoyance and they were also (I found myself knowing) ***RIGHT!***

    It bugged the living daylights out of me that I KNEW they were right.

    It's like a light went on. All the stuff about "Jesus loves you" was not just a "nice saying." It was really, really TRUE. And all those questions about "Why would God let YOU into heaven if you died tonight" suddenly were like "yeah, why WOULD God let me in? Maybe I can't GET in...."

    I got detoured right away, when I got "saved", because I got "saved" in a Pentacostal church. I was drawn into the "Jesus loves you...Don't you just LOVE Jesus too?" doctrines. I was a tongue-talker from the beginning.

    But all that "revelation" that brought me in continued right on working on me until I saw that I had to part ways with "Charismatica." And I did.

    And that revelation STILL works today, pretty much ENTIRELY from my reading of the scriptures. Even in "church" in the early years, I spent most of my time during sermons reading something completely different in my Bible. I did most of my serious Bible Study in just two places - sitting in my car or my barracks, and sitting in the pew on Sunday morning. I sat through a thousand sermons and remember almost none of them because all the while I was reading about Jesus healing the sick, raising the dad, and Paul preaching to the Gentiles.

    And it had real meaning, importance, and most of all, understanding. I found that whereas before, the Bible was a dusty book that I understood little of what I read, now it literally came alive before my eyes.

    It has been clear from the beginning, in my own experience, that REVELATION is the very CORE of who I have become in Christ. Because I, like thousands of other men, had read the Bible before and got nothing. But now, I got everything.

    And there was never any decision on my part. Not even any determination to TRY to understand it. I just suddenly did. And I've been understanding it ever since. More in some areas, less in others. Sometimes, 30. Sometimes 60, sometimes a hundred-fold... ;-)

    Two doctrines that I can recall VERY clearly from my own initial study were 1) Imputation. This was an obvious thing to me. I was rather astonished to find that there were people like Charles Finney who actually disbelieved this. It seemed the most self-evident, most central theme of the entire new testament. And two, that this was a "by invitation only" party. "No man comes to the Father but by me" and "No man comes to the Son except the father draw him" were an obvious pair to me within the first year of my own reading and study. I was appalled that others I knew couldn't see this pairing - or didn't want to.

    But anyway... I believe the core doctrines of RT/Calvin now because that just the way it happened for me. I can't live anyone else's experience. I don;t want to.


    I'm an honest seeker when it comes to the differences between these two camps. I don't have a true position yet, although I have been brought up in Arminian camps. What I don't understand is the analogy might better be stated with the following details added:

    - The Father has multiple children who are all drowning.

    - The Father has the power to save all the children.

    - The Father desires to save all the children.

    - However, He chooses only a few of them, leaps into the water, saves them, and dies in the process, leaving His other children to die.

    Can anyone explain this to me? Again I'm not sure I'm an arminian. I don't think I believe in conditional salvation (or lack of security), and I'm pretty sure I believe in the total depravity of man.


    Hi Tim

    Analogies, as you know, only get at a certain part of truth and only go so far as you mean them to. The problem with changing the analogy the way you have is that Jesus calls unbelievers children of the devil (see John 8&10) and children of wrath. IN other words, we are not God's children by nature but rather by adoption, as the Scripture teaches ... and he loves those who he has chosen to adopt (Eph 1:3-5) in spite of our open rebellion against him.

    God desires that all be saved in the same way he desires that we obey his commandments. This is his preceptive will ... in other words his command. He does not desire that anyone break his clear commands but they do. How can that be? Because this is not his eternal decree. It is only talking about his desire to see no one rebel against him. So what his eternal decree is is not the same as his preceptive will. God's will is that we are 100% holy. Are we? No. God desires that we all come to a knowledge of him? Do we? No. He calls all persons to Himself. No one comes, because no one can believe in Jesus apart from the Holy Spirit. No one can come to Him (i.e. believe) unless God grants it (John 6:63-65) and all to whom God grants it will believe (John 6:37)

    So if no one does God's will. If all disobey God's deires for us to come to faith ... he still yet has mercy on many, in spirit of that.

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