[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]
[I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]
Obeying the Gospel
In 2011, Michael Shank published the story of his own conversion. He describes how he was convicted by his encounter with the word of God when an African American co-worker named Randall led him through Scripture. Previously, Michael was a church-going Baptist whose sincerity was authentic and whose life was decent and moral but less than thoroughly dedicated. In other words, Michael was “Christian” in mostly a nominal sense (4:582-596).
He was awakened from his apathetic slumbers when Randall, in the light of 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, asked, “have you obeyed the gospel of our Lord?” (3:449). Michael soon learned, through Randall’s gentle questioning, that “saying the Sinner’s Prayer is not obeying the gospel of Christ” (3:478). This set Michael on a quest, mostly under Randall’s tutelage, to “know what the gospel was and how people obeyed it” (3:484).
Searching raised many questions for Michael, which Randall addressed. They discussed baptism, how the church is organized (pastors, elders, bishops, deacons), what kind of music a church should use (instrumental?), denominationalism, Calvinism, unity, and tithing as well as other questions. Michael wanted to know the truth—he asked religious leaders, read his Bible, researched at the library, and studied with Randall.
In the end, Michael and his wife Jonetta were baptized at the Jackson Street church of Christ in Nashville, TN.
The book is an evangelistic narrative. Michael Shank came to the conclusion that though he was “saved” at the age of eight in a Baptist church and was immersed at the age of thirteen in a Baptist congregation, he had not really obeyed the gospel. He only obeyed the gospel when he was baptized on March 15, 1988 at 1:15am (38:6004).
Not only an evangelistic narrative, the book is an extended evangelistic tract. Towards the end of the book, Michael invites his readers to obey the gospel:
“Friend, if you’ve read this book in its entirety you have been taught of God” (38:6103).
“Someone gave you this book for a reason….Will you obey the gospel of Jesus Christ or will you reject it?” (38:6112, 6121)
Chapter Thirty-Nine, after a brief history of the Sinner’s Prayer, outlines “God’s marvelous plan of redemption and salvation, which is” (39:6278ff): hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized.
Michael portrays his own conversion story as an objective search for truth in the Scriptures. His final chapter (Forty) begins with this appeal
Please let me point out something that I hope is completely apparent. I’ve used no personal interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. I’ve merely shared my story and revealed the Scriptures of God just as it happened.
Here’s the hard part. Will you accept the simple, plain, straight-forward teaching of God’s Word (40:6502)?
Consequently, Michael encourages everyone “to get out your shovel and dig. Read the Word for yourself. See whether the things I’ve shared with you in this book are really so” (40:6560). It takes “muscle and a shovel” to discover for oneself what the Bible teaches. It takes some persistent willingness (muscle) and honesty (shovel) to dig deep enough—to work hard enough—to discover the “Truth.” “It takes a heart that is willing to dig. It takes an honest heart (Luke 8:15) that is willing to lay aside preconceived ideas” (24:3846).
What Did Michael Find When He Dug Deep?
The “Truth” Michael discovered was essentially “proper scriptural baptism,” and how this ushered him into “the true church of Christ,” which is the body of Christ (26:4246). This is the basic message of the book, that is, it is “about the gospel and the church of our Lord” (22:3562). Baptism is the moment God saves because it is the moment we reenact the gospel; it is the “split second in time” when sins are washed away (38:6075).
This is a critical discovery for Michael. Since it is the gospel that saves and baptism is the reenactment of that gospel, God saves in baptism because of what God does in baptism. Consequently, Michael emphatically states, “The argument that men and women can be saved before baptism is a lie. It originates from the father of lies who was a murderer from the beginning and in whom is no truth” (21:3453, emphasis in original).
Baptism is only biblical if the believer submits to it for the “right reason.” Specifically, Randall said, “If you get into the water of baptism thinking that your sins are forgiven before you get into the water, you’re not being baptized for the right reason. That’s not Bible baptism” (35:5677). The “right reason” is to be baptized for (in order to receive) the remission of sins in accordance with Acts 2:38 (21:3360). So, Michael reasoned, “if I got into the water thinking I had no sins, I was not baptized for the remission of sins. I wasn’t baptized like those in the Bible were baptized. It wasn’t biblical” (36:5872).
God adds the baptized to the church, the body of Christ. What group is that on the contemporary scene? What are the criteria for identifying the “church of Christ”? “The way you identify the true church of Christ today is” by what “it teaches and how it practices” (26:4247).
Randall has a rather long list and it is a particular sort of list (a summary begins at 32:5380). Here is the list—“Plain Bible teaching with no human opinions” (25:4194):
- biblical name or descriptor (25:4136)
- non-denominational (25:4172)
- autonomous congregationalism (25:4180)
- governed by elders, served by deacons, and headed by Christ (25:4180, 27:4464)
- “five articles of worship” on the first day of every week, including the Lord’s Supper, prayer, singing, giving and preaching (26:4251)
- the Lord’s supper every first day and exclusively on Sunday (26:4281)
- singing without instrumental accompaniment (26:4361)
- free will offerings without the regulation of tithing (27:4349)
- teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel (30:4960).
The church of Christ practices and believes only what is prescribed in the Bible. It is the New Testament church because, guided by the New Testament alone, it neither adds nor subtracts from what is prescribed there.
In essence, Muscle and a Shovel is about how to obey the gospel and what constitutes the true church of Christ. According to Shank, one must be immersed in water for the right reason (for the remission of sins) and be “faithful to the [right] church” (25:4005) in order to have eternal life.
This explains one of Randall’s earlier statements, which startled Michael, and—no doubt—astounds others. Nevertheless, it is the clear import of what Randall taught Michael.
“Mr. Mike,” [Randall] said meekly, “from my understanding of God’s Word, if you’re a member of a denomination, whether it be Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Mormon, any church that Jesus Christ did not establish and buy with His blood, there’s no question that you’re headed toward eternal destruction” (6:941).
What I Appreciate
I value a non-denominational approach to Christianity, a high view of the independence and importance of the local congregation, the government of the congregation by wise, experienced, and godly elders, weekly communion at the table of the Lord, and an emphasis on congregational generosity rather than imposed financial programs.
I also value believer’s baptism. I appreciate how baptism is given more significance than the “Sinner’s Prayer.” Indeed, I have argued, as Michael also ultimately concludes, that baptism is the sinner’s prayer (cf. my 2004 Down in the River to Pray with Greg Taylor, p. 197).
I welcome the reports of baptisms that arise from the reading of Muscle and a Shovel, and I rejoice when anyone is immersed in obedience to God out of an authentic trust in Jesus as Redeemer.
What I most appreciate about the book is how Randall serves as a model for us.
In fact, Shank says this is one of the major reasons for publishing the book. He wanted to encourage us: “Will you become a Randall?” (40:6736). When he reviewed the notebook that he rediscovered in 2008, he knew “Randall’s attitude, approach, love, sincerity, persistence, scriptural ability, compassion, faithfulness, and desire to save the lost was a story that needed to be told” (40:6652).
One of the most encouraging aspects of the book is how everyone is called to read the Bible for themselves without a slavish dependence upon creeds, Pastors, or traditions. Everyone must pick up the shovel and dig; pick up the Bible and study it. Everyone must take responsibility for their own spiritual journey, including whether and how they read the Bible.
Another formative aspect of the story was its inter-generational and multiracial nature. Randall is African American, and Michael is Caucasian; Randall was in his mid-thirties, and Michael was twenty; Michael served in a higher capacity in the company for which they both worked. Michael was baptized at the Jackson Street church of Christ, which is, arguably, the “mother” of all African American churches of Christ. Marshall Keeble called this Nashville (TN) congregation home, and Alexander Campbell (African American), S. W. Womack, G. P. Bower, and Keeble planted it in 1896. The Jackson Street church has long honored God in many ways, especially in their support of evangelism and a passion for the lost. So, this is a beautiful testimony to how two men can study together, love each other, and embrace each other in the Lord despite their social, economic, generational, and ethnic differences. It truly embodies Colossians 3:11—what matters is a renewed image of God, not our economic, social, or ethnic status.
The relationship between Michael and Randall illustrates how one person can lead another into deeper discipleship. Michael saw the testimony of Randall’s life, and Randall loved Michael enough to speak into his life. The fruit of this relationship is the heart of the story.
In my next two blogs, I will address some of the book’s serious deficiencies.