MuscleAndShovelThis book was copyrighted in 2011 and has been a popular read among members of the Churches of Christ in the last several months. Those who read it are encouraged to purchase at least ten copies and pass it on to their neighbors. Recently it was passed out at the Church of Christ where I attend and preach. Having read it I am motivated to provide this review.

There are many of us in the Church of Christ who were members of denominations or who were just in the world and were taught exactly what this book teaches. I can tell you from experience, this teaching will create a legalist. I am a “recovering” legalist. I was a Methodist, then a Baptist, and now a member of the Church of Christ, not because I was dishonest and suddenly I became honest. I believe Michael Shank is honest and is simply presenting this part of his journey as he has experienced it.

The title page (3) says it is “A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion.” Notice “Truth” is capitalized. Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6), as well as “the Way, and the Life.” No one can get to the Father, except through Him (John 6:44). Scripture tells us that Jesus is “our righteousness, our holiness and our redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Any teaching that displaces Jesus and substitutes something or someone in His place for salvation is “false doctrine.” This was the battle with the Gnostics of the 1st century, and it was the error of the Pharisees who participated in the death of Jesus.

Muscle and a Shovel places the emphasis for salvation on the sinner and the sinner’s obligation to God. I admit I have been there and done that (I tell my story of redemption in a little book entitled, Heaven’s Star) however scripture places the emphasis on Jesus Christ and the provision of salvation through him (Romans 5:6-10). We are saved by his life! Salvation is about what God, through Christ, has done for us, not about what we do for God.

But, the teaching of this book leads one to put their trust in themselves rather than Jesus Christ. Human pride. Self-dependence. Self-sufficiency. It is all about a person lining up with the right steps. In the past, going through these steps, has been illustrated with a ladder that one must climb one step at a time until the top is reached. That is provided you don’t miss a step! And the right words have to be spoken on that 5th step, “for the remission of sins” or your baptism is not valid. And then there is the right practice that must follow also or you are damned, even if you followed the right steps initially.

Following are five things contained in this book, that I believe to be questionable, and my response to each one:

  1. Strict objectivity is taught, so any idea that a person might feel (subjective) in his heart the movement of God is denied. (p. 103)

Certainly the word of God is important and should be read, studied and applied. In John 5:39 Jesus said, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me.” They thought though it was what they knew that brought salvation. Jesus was saying it is who you know (the Son of God) that brings salvation. Paul expressed this same thought in Romans 7:24 when he discovered how lost he was under the law saying, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Notice, he did not say “what” will rescue me, but WHO will rescue me.

There are many examples in Scripture that emphasize the human heart (emotions). These are subjective acts of God upon people. Those on Pentecost who discovered they had crucified and slain the Lord of Glory responded, “…when they heard this they were cut to the heart.”(Acts 2:37) Paul and company were in the city of Philippi and went down by the river to pray and met Lydia and scripture says, “…The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” (Acts 16:14b) Romans 10:9-11 states: 9 That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” Confessing with your mouth is objective; believing in your heart is subjective. Paul further writes in verse 11: As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” Trust is subjective.

Then, there is the objective work of God. Things God has done that are historical. We can observe but we cannot change historical events. Probably everyone reading this is familiar with John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus was/is the objective sacrifice of God for our sins. Early in the ministry of Jesus John the Baptist recognized Jesus’ mission. “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! Only Jesus can take away our sin. Paul declared in Romans 4:24, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” Other scriptures are clear that Jesus is our Savior. In John 10:9 Jesus is presented as the only gate through which a person can pass to be saved. Later in John 10:14 Jesus declares himself to be the Good Shepherd saying, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Paul understood Jesus to be the single source of salvation for the human race. In Acts 4:12 he declared to the Sanhedrin Council, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”

So there are objective, historical facts in Scripture, but there are also truths and experiences expressed that are subjective.

  1. You cannot have a personal relationship with Jesus. (p. 108)

The Bible does teach a “personal relationship” with Jesus. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit promise to make their home with me under certain conditions: John 14:23 “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” Just a few verses later Jesus said, “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you…” (John 14:28) In John 15 Jesus taught that he is the vine and Christians are the branches saying, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” (vs 4) That’s personal. Paul declared a personal relationship with Jesus in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Jesus said to his disciples, as he was preparing them for his death, “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). The Counselor is the infinite Holy Spirit of God. While on earth Jesus (God in the flesh) was confined by space and only had a personal relationship with the twelve Apostles and a few others. The Holy Spirit is not confined by space and can now be in a personal relationship with all Christians!

  1. As an individual, both pre-salvation and post-salvation, you are dependent on the word only. (The idea of word only and no activity of the Holy Spirit; you can’t be led by the Holy Spirit outside of reading the Bible). (p. 174) The gift of the Holy Spirit is eternal life, not the Holy Spirit himself. (p. 302, 304)

There is a great emphasis on word only, even excluding the “gift of the Holy Spirit” himself at baptism, making this gift eternal life. Answering the question of those who had participated in crucifying Christ, “Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The gift of the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit himself. Acts 5:32 is clear, “We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” Also Romans 8:9-10, “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.” Also in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”

The word of God is important and should be studied and applied (Proverbs 2; Acts 17:11; 2 Timothy 3:16-17), however, the Bible teaches that every Christian is born of “water and the Spirit” (John 3:5) possesses the Holy Spirit of God. It is recorded in Ephesians 6:17, Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” The word of God is the sword of the Spirit, not the Holy Spirit himself. The Holy Spirit is equated with God in Acts 5 (Vs 3 and 4): “Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2 With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. 3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4     Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.” When you lie to the Holy Spirit you have lied to God.

  1. The only acceptable baptism is when one knows it is for the remission of sins. Even one who is baptized as an act of surrender to the Son of God, their baptism is not considered valid unless that person knows that it is for the remission of sins. (p.273)

Is a person’s baptism invalid if they do not know that they receive the remission of sins when they are baptized? This is a contention of this book even though several blessings that come with baptism are listed in addition to remission of sins. For instance on page 341 of Muscle and a Shovel is a list of some of the blessings that come with baptism (Colossians 2:11-12):

  • Is a circumcision made without hands (by God Himself)
  • Is a putting away of the body of sins of the flesh
  • Buried with Christ
  • Is the place where you rise with Christ through the faith of the operation of God
  • Is an operation performed by God
  • Is where you are quickened together with Christ
  • Is the place where, through being quickened, you are forgiven of all trespasses (sins, offences against God, etc.).

I would add that the Bible teaches that baptism

  • Is the “answer of a good conscience toward God.” (1 Peter 3:21)
  • Is where we are united with Christ in his death (Romans 6:3-4).
  • Is where we are buried with Him (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12)
  • A sincere believer (one who believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God) receives the Holy Spirit as a companion. (Acts 2:38; 5:32; Romans 8:9-10; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

Why single out “remission of sins,” and make that the one thing a person needs to understand in order to be saved. It is enough for a believer to surrender their life to Christ and then God will give all of His blessings as a gift (Ephesians 1:3), which is salvation.

  1. “Real unity is a group of people who believe, think and practice the same things under the banner of Christ using the Bible as their only guide.” (p. 192, 193)

Really? Do all Christians have to believe, think and practice alike to have unity? It is this idea that has created over 60 divisions among Churches of Christ. On page 71 of Muscle and a Shovel, at the top of the page, Michael writes:

“Peter said in Matthew 16:16, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” showing me with his index finger again. “Mr. Mike, Christ’s church was going to be built upon the confession of faith that Peter made regarding Jesus Christ. It was the public confession that Jesus Christ is the living Son of God and that is the same confession that would later kill Christ. The confession that Jesus is the Christ is the Petra, or rock on which Christ’s church would be built.”

The way to have unity is to “believe with all of your heart” that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (Matthew 16:16); that Jesus is the ONLY Way, Truth and Life for us (John 14:6). This is one thing we can agree on, even though there are a thousand things we can disagree on.   Only you know if you are a faithful follower of Christ. Only you know if Christ is dwelling in your heart. Only you know if you believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

Paul did not believe Christians all had to practice the same thing. He said to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 9:19 Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” Paul was a Pharisee in the Jewish religion but lived most of the time as a Gentile. Jewish Christians held on to some practices that Paul urged the Gentiles to refrain from, such as circumcision (Galatians 5:4).

There are some things that are beyond our observation or understanding. For instance, Jesus described the experience of the new birth a mystery saying, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

Here is what God says in Luke 17: 20 Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” When we attempt to identify the Church of Christ as the kingdom of God we are attempting something Jesus said was impossible. We prove we are God’s people by the spiritual fruit we produce.

The kingdom of God is bigger than the Church of Christ as we know it, but it is not bigger than the church of Christ as God knows it.