Gentle and Lowly, the Heart of Christ For Sinners and Sufferers

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Using the Puritans, especially Thomas Goodwin, as his guiding interpretive model (p. 14), Dane Ortlund sets out to write a book about the heart of Christ—who He really is (p. 13). The target audience is:

“. . . The discouraged, the frustrated, the weary, the disenchanted, the cynical, the empty. Those running on fumes. Those whose Christian lives feel like constantly running up a descending escalator” (p. 13).

The strategy being employed is to “take either a Bible passage or a bit of teaching from the Puritans or others and consider what is being said about the heart of God and of Christ” (p. 15). The controlling text, however, is Matthew 11:28-30 in which Jesus describes Himself as gentle and lowly.” This is the one place, the author writes, where Jesus tells us His heart—what He truly is (pp. 17-19). The essence of Jesus is gentle, meek, humble and lowly, accessible, approachable (pp. 19-23). “Gentleness is who He is,” Ortlund claims (p. 21). As a result we can approach Jesus with all our burdens and sins and find welcome, compassion and relief, for compassion is the emotion most frequently attributed to Jesus (p. 105).

The author does not deny the wrath and anger of Christ as related to sin and sinners, and he does not find God’s wrath and mercy at odds (pp. 29, 108). Still, Ortlund leans toward Christ’s mercy claiming it is what most naturally pours out of Him (pp. 29, 108). Recognizing the danger of over-balancing toward mercy he states, “Then let us be accordingly disproportionate.  Better to be biblical than artificially ‘balanced’” (p. 29).  This statement represents a serious weakness in the book, but more on that later.

The rich takeaway from Gentle and Lowly is that the believer must fully comprehend the mercy of Jesus for He is tender and compassionate (pp. 43-44), deals gently with sinners (p. 54), is the friend of sinners (p. 114), invites us to approach Him, and in Him we will find rest from our burdens.  This is a powerful and much needed message for many Christians today who fear approaching Christ thinking that He will reject them.  To know that one has a faithful, gracious, loving, understanding, and forgiving High Priest in Jesus is one of the most needed messages for the people of God today.  “When life is a mess go to Jesus for He is gentle and lowly” would summarize the central idea of the book.  And when we appreciate Jesus’ mercy it redefines who we are as believers: “It is the sun of Christ’s heart, not the clouds of my sins, that now define me” (p. 187).  And “we are pieces of art, designed to be beautiful and thus draw attention to our artist” (p. 208).  When we understand ourselves in these ways changes how we navigate through life.  We still sin, but when we do “we forsake our true identity as a child of God, we invite misery into our lives, and we displease our heavenly Father” (p. 92).  Nevertheless, even at our lowest moments of sin, Jesus invites us to come to Him where we will find compassion and mercy.  While in many ways this is Christianity 101, far too few believers have ever grasped these marvelous truths.  Ortlund winsomely and skillfully showcases the loving nature of our Savior for all to marvel.

Sadly, all is not well.  As we view the message of Gentle and Lowly—that Christ is compassionate, kind, longs to forgive our sin and be our friend (pp. 114-118), in light of the target audience, normal Christians, sinners and sufferers (p. 14), we deeply appreciate the overall theme. But in attempting to press home this truth the author often overreaches in ways that are theologically problematic. As was mentioned earlier in this review, Ortlund wants to be biblical rather than artificially balanced (p. 29).  Unfortunately, he falls into his own trap by artificially balancing toward mercy and compassion at the expense of a true, comprehensive portrait of God as found in Scripture.  For example:

  • God’s greatness suffers when we are told “seeing God’s greatness is not our deepest need, but seeing His goodness” (p. 97). While the emphasis of the book is on Jesus’ goodness, in no sense should it be separated from His greatness, His majesty, His sovereignty, or His magnificence.  This is an artificial division of divine attributes.
  • There is “no such thing as grace,” only Christ (p. 69). Ortlund rightly wants to take his reader to a Person, not a thing, but to dismiss grace as nonexistent is to ignore the clear teaching of Scripture—“For by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:8).  This is an artificial division between the person and work of Christ.
  • Quoting from Thomas Goodwin concerning God’s pity upon sinners he writes, “If true of God, how much more of Christ” (p. 167). Such a statement is wrong on many fronts, not the least of which is the fact that Christ is God.  The quote, as it stands, contrasts the compassion of God with that of Jesus and gives Jesus the nod.  This is an artificial distinction between the love of the Father and the love of the Son.
  • “There are two ways to live the Christian life. You can live it either for the heart of Christ or from the heart of Christ.  You can live for the smile of God or from it” (p. 181).  While Ortlund is correctly attempting to explain in this context that our obedience does not strengthen the love of God (p. 182), the detachment between for and from cannot be maintained biblically.  Paul writes that it was his ambition to be pleasing to Christ (2 Cor 5:9), and to do all for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31).  The author’s emphasis is important but this distinction is artificial.
  • In attempting to express the immensity of God’s love, Ortlund writes, “His heart is an avalanche, gathering momentum with time; a wildfire, growing in intensity as it spreads” (p. 203). This comment comes dangerously close to a denial of God’s immutability.  The Lord does not change or grow.  His love is constant; it is not gathering momentum.  This is an artificial understanding of the outworking of God’s love and His very nature.
  • The deepest concern with Ortlund’s theology is not his denial of any of the Lord’s attributes, or even the above artificial distinctions, but his elevation of some of God’s attributes above others. There is essentially a rating scale upon which the attributes of God are weighed and mercy comes out the winner (pp. 129-141; 147-149).  The author admits the Father is just and righteous, “But what is His heart?  What flows out from His deepest being?  What does He beget?  Mercies” (p. 129).  “What should come into our minds when we think of God… [He is] a fountain of endless mercies” (p. 132).  As He wrestles with the severity and judgment of God, Ortlund is forced to conclude that “God is in conflict with Himself when He sends affliction” (p. 138).  Judgment is “something contrary to Him, there is always something in His heart against it” (p. 139).  But when it comes to mercy “there is no reluctance in Him” (p. 139).  Again, “mercy is natural to Him, punishment is unnatural” (p. 140).

At this point Ortlund seems to realize that he is dangerously close to pitting God against God so he states his agreement with the doctrine of simplicity—that “God is not the sum total of a number of attributes, like pieces of a pie making a whole pie; rather God is every attribute perfectly.  God does not have parts” (p. 140).  But he cannot resist returning to his denials of simplicity by cherry picking texts and over emphasizing his central theme: “Yet…there are some things that pour out of God more naturally than others.  God is unswervingly just.  But what is His disposition?… If you catch God off guard [an impossibility, by the way] what leaps out most freely is blessing” (pp. 140-141). In response to his own question, “Isn’t the glory of God a matter of His greatness, not His goodness?” he writes, “apparently not” (p. 147).  Goodness trumps greatness.  To slice and dice God into parts and then elevate one part above all the others is not merely artificially out of balance, it is dangerous.  It is reducing the essence of God and in the process de-Goding God.

Ortlund so wants to emphasize the goodness, compassion, and mercy of God that he misuses and takes out of context many biblical passages such as Hebrews 5:2 (p. 53), Revelation 1:16 (p. 54), Hosea 11 (p. 75), John 14:26 (p. 24), Mark 6:48 (p. 153), even as he exegetes numerous texts accurately and with clarity.

Gentle and Lowly contains marvelous insights into the merciful heart of God and its application to the life of the believer.  Multitudes of Christians need and will be enriched by this teaching.  However, careful theologians will be bothered by the doctrinal imbalances and the reductionistic view of God presented in places.  Most who read this book will skip quickly past the doctrinal concerns and zero in on the Lord’s mercy.  But the truncated view of God found in the book cannot be ignored.

Ortlund too easily wants to dismiss the righteous wrath of God, exhibited abundantly throughout Scripture (and even in the life of Jesus) and focus exclusively on mercy and tenderness.  But this does not yield a true picture of God.  Most conservative theologians, if they had to choose a dominant attribute of God would choose holiness.  After all, both in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4 the angels proclaim His holiness three times, no other attribute receives such honor.  Yet, Ortlund devotes only two pages to the Lord’s holiness (pp. 69-70).  He does not deny it, but even holiness is apparently not the heart of God, according to the author.  The attributes of God, however, are not rivals. They cannot be parceled into pieces and weighted for importance.  The attributes are who He is in total.  That means, in the context of this book, that God is both holy and just, as well as loving and merciful, and neither should be neglected or pushed aside to over-emphasize the other.  It is not either/or but both/and.

Gentle and Lowly, the Heart of Christ For Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020) 224 pp., hard $14.85.

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher at Southern View Chapel.

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