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Christians often wrestle with how to balance grace and truth in our interaction with non-believers. Consider three scenarios: The couple down the street are friendly, helpful neighbors… and lesbians. Your coworkers take offense when you decline to unwind after the workday by barhopping with them. Your university professor loves to ridicule “fundamentalists” for their naïve faith. Should you, Christian, say something in these scenarios? If so, what, and when, and how?

Dilemmas such as these are not new. First-century Christians seemed “strange” to their pleasure-pursuing contemporaries (1 Peter 4:3–4). They trusted in a cross-centered message that looked feeble to some and foolish to others (1 Cor. 1:18–25). How, then, should they and we live among those who do not share our faith?

The Apostle Paul directs Christians: “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:5–6). Christians need wisdom to interact with folks who are indifferent to, uncomfortable with, or hostile to our faith.

Now, Scripture seems to send mixed messages about engaging outsiders. On the one hand, the difference that Christ makes in our lives should be attractively evident to them. Elders must “be well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:7). All believers should “walk properly before outsiders,” living quietly, minding our own business, and working responsibly (1 Thess. 4:11–12). We are the earth’s salt, the world’s light, a hilltop city, “so that [outsiders] may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). In fact, Christians should be the most agreeable people on earth, not stepping on toes, getting along with everyone: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:32–33).

On the other hand, Jesus warns, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:46). We should expect to be despised by “those outside”:

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18–20)

The same Paul who said, “Please everyone,” also protested, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). He predicted, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). He experienced it.

The point is not merely to win arguments but to welcome wanderers home.

To complicate matters, recognizing our weakness against peer pressure (1 Cor. 15:33) inclines us to seek safety by keeping “outsiders” at arm’s length. Yet our “holy, innocent, unstained” Savior (Heb. 7:26) was a friend of sinners (Luke 7:34; 15:1–2). He came to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). But sinners come to Him only when someone gets close to enough to tell them about Him (Rom. 10:13–15). We cannot play it safe at a distance. We must come alongside “those outside.”

So we need wisdom to engage “outsiders.” We “[make] the best use of the time” by buying up every opportune moment. In this interlude between Christ’s two comings, God’s patience holds open a window for repentance (Rom. 2:3–5; 2 Peter 3:9–10). But this season is brief, and it will end suddenly. Since God orchestrates our every moment, we watch for the doors He opens and seize the moments.

Although wise walking entails consistency between our conduct and our claims, here Paul highlights wise speaking more than right doing: “Let your speech always be gracious . . . so that you may know how you ought to answer” (Col. 4:6).

There are better and worse times to say what needs to be said: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov. 25:11). There are better and worse ways to say things: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1). Different people need to be spoken to differently. As Paul says, our answer should fit the need of “each person.” Jesus speaks comfort to a notorious sinner: “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace” (Luke 7:48–50). But His holy tongue hammers the smugly self-righteous: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (Matt. 23:13, 15, 17, 23, 25, 27, 29). Christ-formed wisdom discerns who needs which answer, in which tone of voice, at what moment. These factors converge in the scenarios with which we began: the neighbors, the coworkers, the professor.

Amid various audiences and occasions and answers, two qualities must always be present: grace and salt. In Ephesians, Paul directs us: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).

Words “corrupt” by being salacious (Eph. 5:3–4) or by inflicting wounds (Ps. 64:2–4; Rom. 3:13–14). Words can also heal. Grace flows through words “seasoned with salt,” which do not suppress uncomfortable truth for fear of offending but “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). Salt enhances flavor (Job 6:6), but it also purifies and preserves (Mark 9:49–50). Christian speech must purify and preserve.

How do we find the right words to say, at the right time, in the best way? We pray for openings and for compassion and clarity (Col. 4:3). We savor Christ in our hearts and answer everyone with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15–16). The point is not merely to win arguments but to welcome wanderers home.

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