We are considering Michael Shank’s book Muscle and a Shovel.
You’ll begin to notice several typos here and there in the text quoted from the book. I cut and pasted these electronically. They are all in the original. I’ll not distract you with the occasional “sic” or bracketed correction. It’s a self-published book and so not professionally proofread. And the typos have nothing to do with the merits of the arguments Shank makes.
Chapter 4 begins with Shank’s description of his pre-conversion life as a nominal Christian. He implies that this is typical of everyone he knew in the Baptist Church. In fact, he had concluded that being saved and how he lived were entirely disconnected.
After all, I had been saved and once I was saved I would always be saved, so it didn’t really matter what I did.
(Kindle Locations 764-765). This is, of course, not at all typical Baptist teaching, but many people in many denominations (Churches of Christ included) have come to the same false conclusion.
Later on, Randall hands Shank a piece of paper with “1 Peter 3:21” written on it. Shank reads the verse (in KJV, but I’ll give the ESV version) —
(1Pe 3:21 ESV) 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
Shank decides he should ask a Baptist pastor what this means.
“Don’t worry about it,” [the Baptist pastor] stated with smug Pastoral confidence. “It’s taken out of context. Ephesians 2: 8 -9 says that we’re saved by grace through faith, not works. Baptism is a work.”
I suddenly felt much better about my Baptist faith. Our quick after-services counseling session with our Baptist Pastor was paying off.
(Kindle Locations 910-915).
Shank returns to Randall with his new argument. Randall responds,
“Mr. Mike,” Randall regained my attention as he landed in the book of Ephesian s. “Chapter 2 verse 8 says, ‘For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.’ Verse 9 says ‘not of works, lest any man should boast,’ so you’re correct in saying that we’re saved by faith and not of works.”
(Kindle Locations 960-965).
Randall then argues that Shank is taking Eph 2:8-9 out of context.
Those Jews were teaching those new Gentile Christians that they had to be circumsized. That was the work Paul was talking about. It was a former work of the flesh. Now Mike, that old Law of Moses was abolished on the cross along with the Jewish works of the flesh.”
(Kindle Locations 972-976).
First, a nit. Paul never says that the Law of Moses was nailed to the cross. A more modern translation would likely have corrected Randall’s understanding. (This is more than a nit, but it’s incidental to Randall’s argument here.)
Second, however, I certainly do agree that “works” is short for “works of the law” and refers to the Torah. But that is beside the point. Recall what Paul wrote (in contemporary English) —
(Eph 2:8-9 ESV) 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Paul says two thing! First, that we’re saved by grace through faith. Second, that we’re not saved by works. Why not? Because works aren’t “by grace through faith.”
If I say, “Eat the food that I served; not what you brought with you,” I not only exclude whatever you brought with you but also whatever you might order from Pizza Hut, because Pizza Hut is also not what I served.
Thus, the question that both Randall and Shank should have asked is not whether baptism is a work (I agree that it’s not) but whether baptism is faith in Jesus — and it’s not.
The argument hinges on drawing the eye away from the primary point — salvation through faith — and focusing on a conclusion drawn from a secondary point as though the primary point was never even said. (It’s rather like a magician tricking you into looking at the pretty assistant or an explosion rather than his left hand. I don’t think Shank or Randall intend to trick anyone, but they bought into a trickster argument and passed it along.)
We see a similar trick in Randall’s next clever argument (And I’m not saying Randall intended to trick Shank. But the argument hinges on the listener buying into a falsehood that looks a lot like the truth.) —
“But Mike,” Randall continued at a fast pace, “Paul isn’t saying that we do nothing to access the grace of God. As a matter of fact, faith only or faith alone is a false doctrine! Do you know that there is only one place in the whole Bible where you find the phrase ‘faith only?’”
(Kindle Locations 999-1003).
It’s entirely true that the Bible doesn’t say “faith alone” or “faith only” except in James. It’s also irrelevant because there are many ways to say “only” without using the word only.
If I were to say, “Everyone who pays me $1.00 will received a candy bar,” and if you were to pay me $1.00, would I be a cheat if I replied, “I didn’t say $1.00 only! I meant $1.00 plus a twenty-dollar bill!” You would quite properly consider me a fraud and a cheat, if not an outright liar. The Holy Spirit does not inspire lies.
Now consider —
(Joh 6:40 ESV) 40 “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Is Jesus a liar? Everyone who believes? Does Jesus really mean: everyone who believes and does certain works? Did Jesus hide the demand for an extra twenty dollars?
Some object that Jesus said this before his resurrection and Pentecost. Well —
(Act 10:43 ESV) 43 “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
(Act 13:38-39 ESV) 38 Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.
(Rom 1:16 ESV) 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
(Rom 10:4 ESV) 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
(Rom 10:11 ESV) 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”
(1Jo 5:1 ESV) Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.
And there are plenty more verses to the same effect.
And, so, I ask whether Peter, John, and Paul are liars? More importantly, does God keep his promises?
The grammar in each case plainly indicates the sufficiency of faith and leaves no room to add other conditions. Grammatically, you can’t slip an extra twenty-dollar bill in there and allow the Spirit to remain honest.
The doesn’t-say-“only” argument imposes a requirement on the language of Jesus and the apostles that they just don’t need to meet. They speak quite plainly to those who are willing to hear them.
So where does this leave us with respect to baptism? To answer that, we need to address three topics.
First, what is the meaning of “faith”? Ever since the Reformation, there’s been a tendency to so separate “faith” from any human effort that “faith” has become, to many, merely believing that Jesus is co-divine with God. We’ll address this in the next post.
Second, is there a choice other than Baptist baptismal theology (baptism is an act of obedience, a “work,” and thus occurs after salvation) and Church of Christ theology (baptism is no work and thus is essential to salvation)? We’ll address this question in the post after the next one.
Third, Shank quotes Randall as citing James 2:24, “by works a man is justified, not by faith only.” We’ll address that in yet a third post. In fact, this is perhaps the most central passage in the arguments made by many conservative Church of Christ ministers in arguing for a works-based salvation.
But let’s briefly consider the over-arching flaw in Randall’s and Shank’s thought. You see, to avoid the implication of the dozens of “faith only” verses (which don’t say “only” but plainly mean “only”), the ministers are forced to argue that we’re saved by some combination of faith plus works.
These “works” are not works of the Law of Moses but the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2, which is actually a reference to “love your neighbor” in Gal. 5:14), and without obedience to the Law of Christ, we are damned. First on the list of laws is baptism, but shortly thereafter follow commands about how to worship, how to organize a church, how to name a church, how to use the church treasury, and on and on and on.
Very nearly every division of the Churches of Christ (other than the progressive/ conservative division) arose over which works are essential and which are not. And no one has yet discerned a clear rule governing that obviously essential question. This results in a lot of disagreements, hurt feelings, mutual damnations, divisions, and separations. In fact, Paul’s works of the flesh from Galatians 5 well describe the consequences of this teaching among the conservative Churches of Christ in the 20th Century —
(Gal 5:19-21 ESV) 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: … 20 … enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, … and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Division upon division, small towns with multiple Churches of Christ none of which consider the other saved, churches disfellowshiping other churches, editors making blacklists of preachers who are not “sound,” lectureships that refuse to allow brother X to speak because he refuses to damn brother Y, and on and on. And why? Because, to defend the absolute, unforgivable necessity of baptism, we’ve created a works-based religion that is entirely foreign to the scriptures.
It’s tragic, and we’re beginning to see the price of the doctrinal errors that have led to the sad history of the 20th Century Churches of Christ — a denomination that’s losing members and congregations at an accelerating pace for this very reason.