What Does the Bible Say About “Better Safe Than Sorry”?

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If you read the comments on this Web site then you’ll see something like this written a lot:

I don’t know if it’s really wrong to cut my hair or wear make-up or jewelry, but isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? I would rather get to Heaven and find out that I didn’t have to do those things then get there and find out that I did, and then spend eternity in hell. Can you imagine “missing it” just because I wanted to cut my hair or wear a pair of pants?

When I was growing up I heard that argument more times than I can count. After I left I’ve read it repeatedly in the comments on this Web site. It’s the fall back position of many apostolics when every other argument fails. If you can’t back up your doctrine with Scripture then pull out the “better safe than sorry” argument! And I have to admit, it sounds pretty good.

Another variant goes like this (I’ve heard it used a lot by pastors):

I know that some of the rules might not be necessary, but sin is like a cliff. You don’t build the fence right up against the cliff, you build it a little ways back. That way if people step over it then they still won’t fall over the cliff.1

Yet another variant goes like this:

After everything Christ has done for you, you can’t even give up pants, make-up, or jewelry? He gave His life for you and you won’t even give up pants, make-up, or jewelry for Him.

Once again, this one sounds good too.

But there are two fundamental problems with all of these arguments. First, the underlying factor with all of them is that our works can get us into Heaven. I believe with all my heart that there’s nothing wrong with having facial hair, but if I get to Heaven and find out that I’m wrong then I know God’s grace covers me. The same goes for my wife cutting her hair or wearing jewelry and make-up. I don’t believe there’s a thing in the world wrong with it, but if I’m wrong then she’s covered by grace. That doesn’t give me an excuse to sin, it just means that after much study I firmly believe that I’m not sinning in the first place.2 I’m doing my best to obey the commands of Christ, but I’m doing that because I’m saved, not in order to get saved. If I “miss it” then God’s grace covers me.

That’s one problem with the arguments. The idea that we can work our way into Heaven is just plain wrong. It stands in opposition to dozens of Scriptures. My article “What does the Bible say about salvation?” explains this in detail.

But there’s another problem with the “better safe than sorry” arguments, and it’s one that’s very counter intuitive. As a matter of fact, it’s like a bomb shell to a lot of people. It rocks their world. I know that it rocked mine. And that goes for non-apostolics too, by the way. Lots of people don’t know about this, but it’s central to the Biblical understanding of grace. Are you ready for it? Here goes:

Works, for the sake of works, don’t draw us closer to God; they separate us from Him.

Don’t believe me? Sound too radical? Well, before you shut me down, read this quote from a famous non-denominational theologian.

I suspect you would never intend this, but this is what happens. When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace. Meanwhile we expectantly wait for a satisfying relationship with the Spirit. For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.

I have to admit, that sounds pretty lovey dovey. As a matter of fact, when I was in the UPC I would have rolled my eyes at that and said something like, “So you’re just saying we should throw doctrine out the window and love everybody?”

If I said that then I would be wrong, though. Why? Because the famous theologian who wrote those words was the Apostle Paul.3.

Here is how the NASB puts it:

It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love. You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough. I have confidence in you in the Lord that you will adopt no other view; but the one who is disturbing you will bear his judgment, whoever he is. But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves. For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”
(Gal 5:1-14 NASB, emphasis mine)

One word: Wow.

As a man I can’t think of anything that would require more dedication than adult circumcision. Surely God must be pleased with it, right? I can imagine the Galatians saying, “After everything that Christ did for you, you can’t even be circumcised? He’s done so much for you and yet you won’t do that little thing for Him?” Or perhaps, “Circumcision might not be necessary, but isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? Do you want to get to heaven and find out that the one thing God wanted you to do was circumcision and you missed Heaven because of it?”

It sounds good, doesn’t it? God did a lot for us so we must do a lot for Him. The problem is that when we think like that we’re thinking like humans and not like God. You see, circumcision was part of the Old Covenant. It was the Acts 2:38 of the Mosaic law. If you weren’t circumcised then it didn’t matter what else you did, you weren’t under the Covenant. Some of the Jews in Galatia began to focus on the doctrine of circumcision because it had been so important under the Old Covenant. Somewhere along the way they began to believe that Christians under the New Covenant needed to be circumcised. They began to think that circumcision would draw them closer to God. They began to persuade themselves that they could work their way to Him. It’s a very human way of thinking and it seems awfully right. “God did stuff for me so now I need to do stuff for Him,” is what we think. The problem is, God doesn’t see it that way. He doesn’t see it as us doing stuff for Him, He sees it as us trying to work our way to Him and in the process making His grace meaningless.

Paul said something similar when people put the focus on baptism instead of the gospel–something that the apostolic churches are also guilty of. When that happened, Paul wrote:

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void. For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1Cor. 1:17-18 NASB)

In this case baptism isn’t wrong. As a matter of fact, Christ commanded it! By the same token, circumcision isn’t wrong. Neither is wearing skirts or not cutting your hair. There’s nothing inherently wrong about those things. Unless, that is, we persuade ourselves that doing or not doing those things somehow draws us closer to God.4 When we allow ourselves to think that our works save us then we have made the cross ineffective–we’ve rendered it void. Why? Because we’ve told Christ that His work wasn’t good enough. We’ve told Him that grace isn’t enough, that we need to supplement it with a dress code. We’ve told Him that His death is meaningless.

You know what’s ironic? That the apostolic churches put so much emphasis on not falling away from Christ that they actually sever themselves from Christ. They take a God who would never reject them and they use the knife of legalism to reject Him from themselves

Heavy stuff? Controversial? Counter intuitive? Don’t blame me. I didn’t write it. Blame Paul.

Another thing that’s ironic is that the apostolic churches claim to have “the Truth.” They like to go to Galatians 1:8-9 and say that they are teaching the true gospel and that everyone who disagrees is deceived and cursed. The sad thing is that the “other gospel” Paul was talking about was the doctrine that says we can work our way to God. That was the “other gospel,” and the UPC teaches it.

And Paul said that anyone who taught it was cursed.

I realized these things when I was still in the UPC and it rocked my world. I realized that I was the one who believed the “other gospel,” that I was the one with “little faith” (Romans 14), that my works didn’t indicate closeness to God, that instead they indicated I had little faith and wasn’t close to Him at all.

So do I believe in the “better safe than sorry” philosophy? Nope. I don’t. Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 5:17 that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (NASB). Jesus said in John 15:1-17 that when we are in Him we grow spiritual fruit, and in Mat. 7:15-20 He said that the spiritual fruit is the evidence that we’re saved. (Paul defined what that fruit is in Gal. 5:19-23, and it has nothing to do with the holiness standards; Jesus also gave examples of the good works we’re called to do in Mat. 25:31-46).

In other words, when we are saved we are transformed–regenerated, as the Bible calls it. We become a new person. The Spirit of God begins to work in us to shape and mold us into His image. We begin to bear spiritual fruit. We don’t grow closer to God by working for Him, we draw closer to Him by letting Him work in us.5

You see, it’s not my job to setup a system of rules to try to get into Heaven, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to work in me and guide me down the proper paths. It’s not my job to build a fence of works and hope others don’t cross it, it’s God’s job to work in those individuals and show them where the fence is. That doesn’t negate the need for elders and ministers to teach the Word of God, it just means that it’s not the job of those elders and ministers to create extra rules that aren’t in Scripture in order to try to make our souls safe. When they do those things they place themselves under a curse from God, and when we follow them we pull out the knife of works and begin to slowly sever ourselves from Christ.

References:

  1. If you think about it, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sin is a matter of intent as much as it is an action. The idea is that a person can decide to sin and still not sin because they’re accidentally not breaking enough rules. It just doesn’t add up. That’s like saying you can force a person to be saved by baptizing them. It’s not biblical. If a person is making a choice to do something that they perceive as sin then it is sin, even if the action itself is not wrong. By the same token, an action like baptism or giving to the poor is spiritually meaningless unless done freely for the right reasons. []
  2. This point cannot be stressed enough. A common apostolic counter-argument is that “easy believism” leads to sin. I deal with this briefly farther down in this article and in much more detail in the  “What Does the Bible Say About Salvation?” article, Still, it’s worth mentioning briefly here. Paul was accused of teaching the same thing–that grace leads to free sin. He strongly condemned that doctrine in Romans 6. The doctrine has been refuted repeatedly throughout the New Testament and church history. The word that is used to describe it is “antinomianism”, which means “lawlessness.” The Bible stresses that grace does not lead to lawlessness. Instead, grace leads to a changed nature through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. The idea here is that we do need to study and make every effort to align ourselves with the commands of God, but when we “miss it” we can still be assured that God’s grace covers us. For more on antinomianism I recommend this excellent article. []
  3. The quote above is Gal. 5:4-6 MSG []
  4. Baptism is indeed commanded by God so do not take this statement to mean that we should not get baptized. The key point here is that anything can become wrong, even baptism, if we do it in an attempt to work our way to salvation. []
  5. One thing worth mentioning is that there is a place in the Bible for good works. As a matter of fact, that concept is very important Scripturally. What we need to understand, though, is that we’re saved for good works, not because of good works. Paul makes that abundantly clear in Eph. 2:1-10. Good works are, well, good! That is, until we begin to believe that they save us. It’s also worth noting that a dress code isn’t the kind of good works that Paul was talking about. We shouldn’t use good works as an excuse for legalism. The good works that Paul was writing about are the same ones emphasized by Christ in Mat. 25:31-46. You’ll see a lot of good works in that passage and none of them have anything to do with whether or not we wear make-up or cut our hair. []

7 thoughts on “What Does the Bible Say About “Better Safe Than Sorry”?

  1. Simona

    I don’t really understand what you are saying. Are you trying to say that we must not do good deeds (like giving money to the poor) just because God wants us to do this and so we can go to heaven? Are you trying to say that we should do good deeds out of love and compassion?

    1. Josh (Site Admin) Post author

      Simona, that’s an excellent question! Paul said in Eph. 2:8-10:

      “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

      Paul makes it clear that we good works are the result of salvation, not the cause of it.

      Paul also said in 2 Cor. 5:17 that when we are saved we become a “new creature”. In theology that’s called “regeneration.” We were dead and Christ made us alive. We’re a new person. It is that Spirit that dwells in us–the Spirit that made us a new person–who motivates us to do good works. Giving money to the poor, caring for the widows and orphans, etc, are something that we begin to do naturally once we are saved. Nobody has to tell us to do it; we do it because the Spirit in us is motivating us to do it.

      When groups begin to create extra rules and make them prerequisites for salvation then they are adding to the finished work of Christ. They’re saying that grace isn’t good enough, and when they do that what they’re really saying is that the Cross isn’t good enough. It’s a slap in the face to God–they’re saying that His ultimate sacrifice wasn’t good enough and He could use just a little help from us. That’s why Paul said that trying to work our way to salvation separates us from God, it doesn’t bring us closer to Him.

      I hope that helps answer your question :)

      In Christ,
      Josh

  2. Rachael

    Thanks so much for these words. I am a born again believer that us seeking only truth. Even if it hurts. I go to an apostolic church with my husband and kids. I believed the rhetoric they taught me at first. God’s spirit has been teaching me the truth. Thanks again. I needed to read these articles. It has opened my eyes. God bless you and your family!

  3. Sarah

    Hi Josh, what do you think about long hair on men? I’d like to hear your opinion based on the scriptures.
    Thanks, God Bless!

    1. Josh (Site Admin) Post author

      Nothing against it. By today’s standards Jesus probably had long hair.

      I wrote an article on the cutting of hair here. The same Scriptural interpretations that apply to a woman’s hair would apply to a man’s as well. Hope that helps!

  4. Sylvia Ferrin

    This is an amazing article. If I translate this same concept to my relationship with my husband, I would not have a marriage. If it doesn’t matter what I do, then I should be able to do anything I want and he should be thrilled with me, because we already married. (You say that we don’t work to stay saved, but we work because we are already saved, right?) If I want to sleep with another guy or max out my husband’s credit card, no big deal. Grace would cover it all, yes?

    This philosophy doesn’t even make common sense, Josh. I don’t do the things I do because I am trying to work my way into Heaven. I do what I do because I love God and godliness, righteous living, and modesty just makes sense, in addition to the fact that modesty and discretion are biblical principles. The way I dress is only one component of my life with God. People get hung up on externals, forgetting that they are not the sum total of our walk with God.

    Grace is not a I-can-do-whatever-I-want-and-still-get-into-Heaven card. It is an OPPORTUNITY to accept God’s plan. The primary purpose of the epistles is to teach believers how to live. If that were not important, then God sure wasted a lot of effort telling those guys all that stuff.

    Did you know that the word “Acts” as in Acts of the Apostles translates to “action” or “works?” Would you expect your wife to be pleased if you did not “work” sometimes to please her? Would you expect your boss to give you a paycheck if you did not do some “work?” Would you expect your house to be maintained if you did not do some “work” on it now and then?

    The things I do and don’t do are not in my life because I am trying to work my way into Heaven. I do some things and don’t do others because I love my God and want to please Him with my choices. Does pleasing God sometimes require work? Yes, just as praying is sometimes work and cleaning the church is work. I am motivated by gratitude toward this God I love so much that I will work and I don’t mind it one bit.

    Why do I dress modestly? Because I somehow think that me in skin-tight jeans and a shirt showing more cleavage than not degrades me. Some people think dressing immodestly is liberating. Sorry, for me, I feel liberated because I don’t HAVE to dress that way to go out in public. I am liberated from the idea that I need to blend in with everyone around me. How I dress has nothing to do with works in the “earning salvation” sense. It just makes sense. Why would I want another man looking at my body when I have a husband to do that? I’m not that insecure that I need other men looking at me sexually, as many of them do to women who dress that way.

    As to the “better safe than sorry” concept, I bet you use this concept every day but you don’t realize it. Imagine this: You’re driving down the road and come upon a car that is traveling really slow. You decide to pass, but you look in your mirrors and see a car moving at a high rate of speed in the passing lane. You decide to wait until it is around you so you don’t have a collision. What have you just done? To preserve your life, you decided to be safe rather than sorry.

    You can no doubt relate to this, but you don’t want to translate it to spiritual life because that is legalism and works, right? Isn’t our spiritual life a bit more important than our physical life which could be wiped out by a single passing car?

    There is nothing wrong with being safe and to blast those of us who sincerely love God and don’t mind one bit doing a little extra seems a little extreme.

    I guess we need to toss I Corinthians 6:9-10 out the door: “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” If we can do anything and grace covers it all, as you say, then these verses should not be in the Bible. How about the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21? If works don’t matter, then these verses need to go out the door too.

    Your reference to Galatians 5 forgets one thing: The issue specifically addressed is circumcision, representing the Torah law. Paul was not saying that works do not have a place in our relationship with God, but that the Jews no longer had to keep Torah law. You are making this passage say things it does not say.

    Your “grace, no works” concept does not match with the rest of the Bible. It matters to God what we do. It matters to Him a lot. Like I said, the vast majority of the epistles are instructions and guidance to the Church about how to conduct our lives.

    Have you read James 2 lately? Verse 20 tells us that “faith without works is dead.” Verse 21 says that Abraham was “justified by works.” He DID something! Verse 24: “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”

    “Works, for the sake of works, don’t draw us closer to God; they separate us from Him” only is true if a person is working for the wrong reason and motive. I would say that the vast majority of people I know do what they do – refrain from adultery, gossip, and covetousness, show kindness when they have been wounded, extend love to the hurting, etc. – because they love God. They WORK because they love God. But you can make the “Works, for the sake of works…” statement because you have applied Galatians 5:1-14 to the entire Christian life, rather than Torah law, which is the context. That is erroneous hermeneutics and the incorrect conclusions you draw are quite misleading. They do, however, fit quite nicely into your non-biblical concept of grace.

    A great book about grace is called “Grace is a Pentecostal Message” by Terry Baughman.

    I hope you have read this far. If you have the guts to write what you do and expect people to believe you, then I hope you have the guts to consider my words also. I wish I was talking to you in person, rather than writing, because you would be able to see that I have absolutely no antagonism toward you.

    1. Josh (Site Admin) Post author

      This philosophy doesn’t even make common sense, Josh.

      Take it up with Paul :)

      Just kidding. On a more serious note, Paul dealt with all of your concerns in Romans and I have dealt with many of them on this Web site. I don’t see the need to repeat them all here. Paul’s teaching in Galatians, Romans, and Ephesians is very clear. It’s unambiguous. We’re saved to do good works, not because of good works.

      To use one of your specific examples, if you feel like sleeping around on your husband is a “good work” then I feel sorry for you. That’s not a good work. That contradicts numerous Scriptures as well as the moral code that most of us have. Obviously you don’t feel that way, you’re just using absurd examples–red herrings–to try to justify ignoring the clear teaching of Scripture. I’m sorry if that’s blunt. I don’t know of any nicer way to say it.

      To put it another way, why do you feel that dressing immodestly degrades you? We disagree on what constitutes immodesty of course, but the point is the same. You believe that you should dress modestly. Presumably you believe that because the Spirit of Christ has lead you to believe that way. You believe it because you are saved, not to get saved. At least I hope that you do. If you feel that doing these good works saves you then you are attempting to add to the finished work of Christ and you stand in opposition to Scripture. You are, in fact, teaching and believing “another gospel.”

      Everything else that you said about works is absolutely true, you’re just putting it on the wrong side of the equation. We do good works because we are saved; we don’t do good works to get saved. I’ve already presented an argument for that viewpoint in this and other articles so I will not repeat it here.

      In Christ,
      Josh

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