Sean McDowell | March 6, 2023

Living in the Tension of Grace and Truth

Perhaps the most challenging questions I receive today are from people trying to balance truth and grace. Whether on issues of sexuality, race, politics, or a host of other “hot button” issues, Jesus followers are struggling to relationally navigate how to love people in our polarized world. And for the record, that includes me.

Perhaps what makes this so difficult is that some Christian beliefs are considered hateful and harmful in themselves. For example, in the eyes of many, if you hold to the historic Christian view of sex, marriage, and gender, then you are considered hateful by definition. Regardless of how kind you may be towards others, the position itself is considered harmful by some.

That brings us to the core question: How do we lovingly follow truth amid the difficult circumstances that arise in our cultural moment? To be honest, I often don’t have the answer. I have been asked to help people navigate seemingly impossible situations that have no easy answers. Nonetheless, here are four principles I rely upon when facing these kinds of circumstances.

First, grace and truth are both requirements for Christians. We cannot compromise either. Jesus came in grace and truth (John 1:17). We are to be gracious with our speech (Col. 4:6) and loving in our actions (Luke 10:25-37). And we must also stand for truth. John calls the church of Pergamum to repent for holding false teachings (Rev. 2:14-16). And Paul calls the believers at Corinth to “destroy” faulty arguments raised against the knowledge of God (2 Cor. 10:3-5).

Second, because of our experience, personality, or training, we each favor grace or truth. If you are an apologist, there’s a good chance you lean towards truth. If you are a youth pastor, you might favor grace. If we are going to faithfully navigate thorny issues and circumstances today (and potentially be aware of our blind spots), it is important to realize that we will naturally favor one or the other and take intentional steps to stay balanced.

Third, be as charitable towards others as you can without compromising truth. I work hard at understanding others. Even though I fall short, I try to be genuinely empathetic. I aim to treat other people (and their views) as I would want them to treat mine. Even when I disagree with people firmly, I want them to feel that I have been charitable and fair towards them.

Does this always remove the sting of truth? No. But gentleness and kindness often make truth easier to embrace. As the writer of Proverbs emphasizes, “A gentle words turns away wrath” (15:1). Even when people don’t want to hear the truth, or they respond in anger and hatred towards your views, treating people charitably will help you have a clear conscience before the Lord.

Fourth, live in the tension of grace and truth. This is perhaps the most important point. As I said earlier, I often don’t know how to best navigate issues and circumstances in which grace and truth seem to conflict. But I am committed to living in the tension between both. Sometimes I hold back on speaking truth. Other times I wish I had been bolder. It’s difficult to find the right balance. But I live in the tension with the desire of being a truth-teller and an agent of grace.

And I would encourage you to live in that tension too.

If you are looking for a resource to help young Christians think biblically about the most difficult issues of our day, check out my latest book: A Rebel’s Manifesto: Choosing Truth, Real Justice & Love Amid the Noise of Today’s World.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: