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Book Review: Gentle and Lowly

by Jonathan Nthani

Dane C. Ortlund. Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020. 224 pp. 

One unfortunate Gospel error that believers are prone to fall into is a subtle suspicion of God the Father. This is often because they have heard the Gospel set forth in a way that does not present it as a Trinitarian work. Rather, they have heard the Gospel to be the loving intervention of God the Son on behalf of sinners against a wrathful Father. God the Father, they have heard, has made up His mind to send sinners to hell, but God the Son has pleaded with him to allow him to come and die in their place. God the Father has agreed (reluctantly perhaps?) and Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross has caused the Father to love sinners where before his thoughts of them were only of wrath and punishment. The result of such a way of thinking about the Gospel is often subtle. The atmosphere of our Christianity becomes increasingly characterized by legalism, for the Father becomes in our thinking a hard taskmaster whose heart must be twisted in order to drain out whatever little love for sinners is inside. There is a hesitation in coming to him to ask for pardon, especially pardon for repeated sins. After all, the Father has never really desired us. If it were not for the Son, He would have sent us all to hell! 

Nothing could be further from the teaching of the New Testament! In fact, in the New Testament, love is most frequently attributed to God the Father! It is the Father who is the source of every spiritual blessing that we have in Christ (Eph. 1:3), the Father who so loved sinners that he sent Christ to die for them (John 3:16), the Father who raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand (Eph. 1:20), the Father (together with the Son) who sends the Spirit to apply the redemptive benefits of Christ’s work (John 14:16), and the Father who will glorify sinners and make all things new at the last day (Romans 8:29–30). A suspicion of God the Father, then, is biblically unwarranted. 

But if the evil one will not get us to have misgivings about God the Father, his other tactic is to brew suspicion of God the Son. Here, what we have just discussed is turned on its head. Jesus becomes a reluctant saviour, sent to die for sinners only because he has been asked to. He goes grudgingly to the cross (even desperately praying for a way out in Gethsemane?) and continues his grudging disposition towards sinners even to this day. Sinners, then, ought to be careful with the way they come to Christ. He may not receive you if you do not show enough tears or put aside particular sins first! As with the earlier suspicion of God the Father, nothing could be further from the teaching of the New Testament, and it is to offer a much-needed corrective to these suspicions of God that Dane Ortlund has written Gentle and Lowly.

Over and against a grudging Christ, Ortlund erects a Christ eager to receive all who will come to him in faith, without exception. In Ortlund’s thinking, this eagerness to receive sinners is an expression of what Jesus is really like deep inside, and what Jesus is really like deep inside may be summed up by what Ortlund considers to be Jesus’s own declaration in Matthew 11:29 of what he is really like deep inside:

In the one place in the Bible where the Son of God pulls back the veil and lets us peer way down into the core of who he is, we are not told that he is “austere and demanding in heart.” We are not told that he is “exalted and dignified in heart.” We are not even told that he is “joyful and generous in heart.” Letting Jesus set the terms his surprising claim is that he is “gentle and lowly in heart”. (18)

The whole of his book is an unpacking of the meaning and the implications of Jesus’s declaration. 

For Ortlund, to be gentle is not to be “harsh, reactionary, [and] easily exasperated” (19). Rather, it is to be deeply understanding, to have a posture not of “a pointed finger but open arms” (19). He takes a similar line in his definition of lowliness, defining lowliness in terms of approachability. Jesus does not put on airs. He does not provide a list of requirements that we have to complete before we can approach him. We “don’t need to unburden or collect” ourselves before we can come to him. Our “very burden is what qualifies” (20) us to come. “No payment is required” (20). He stands with open arms ready to receive any and all who will come to him with all of their sin and failure. 

Crucially, Ortlund considers this posture to be what is most defining of Jesus. To be gentle and lowly, and to express that gentleness and lowliness in receiving even the hardest of sinners, is what Ortlund argues comes most naturally to Jesus. To prove his case, Ortlund points to numerous Gospel accounts where Jesus exhibits a tender compassion (Matt. 8:2–3, 9:2, 9:35–36, 14:14, 15:32; Mark 6:34; Luke 7:13, 7:34, 19:41; and John 11:35). In these accounts, Ortlund argues, Jesus does not merely show mercy to “the morally disgusting, the socially reviled, the inexcusable and undeserving”; rather, they are ones “to whom Christ most naturally gravitates. He is, by his enemies’ testimony, the ‘friend of sinners’” (27). In other words:

the dominant note left ringing in our ears after reading the Gospels, the most vivid and arresting element of the portrait, is the way the Holy Son of God moves toward, touches, heals, embraces, and forgives those who least deserve it, yet truly desire it” (27). 

Rather than being repulsed by their sin, it is “the very fallenness which he came to undo that is most irresistibly attractive to him” (28).

All of this then becomes for Ortlund the motif undergirding all of Christ’s dealings with His people today. The heart of Christ has not changed now that he is in heaven seated at the right hand of the Father. He is no less approachable in Paradise than he was in Palestine. Christ continues to be an unflinching Saviour and a sympathetic friend even to the vilest of offenders and nothing we may do would ever change his heart towards us.  

Raising the stakes even higher, Ortlund insists that this disposition is not unique to Christ in the Godhead. Nor is it unique to the Godhead in the New Testament. Christ’s very heart is the Father’s very heart, and this can be seen in both Testaments. God the Father in the Old Testament is no less tender than Christ in the New Testament; instead, “when we see Christ unveil his deepest heart as gentle and lowly, he is continuing on the natural trajectory of what God had already been revealing about himself throughout the Old Testament. Jesus provides new sharpness to who God is, but not fundamentally new content” (135). And so, even when God is described as afflicting in the Old Testament, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “He does not afflict from his heart (Lamentations 3:33).” Ortlund concludes from this and texts like Jeremiah 32:41 where God is described as showing mercy “with all my heart and with all my soul” that God brings affliction into the lives of His Old Testament people (and His people today) “with a certain divine reluctance” (138). Mercy comes naturally to God but, Ortlund says, punishment is unnatural (140). 

To his credit, Ortlund anticipates that some will object to this presentation of God as lopsided truth. He does not hesitate to affirm the simplicity of God and how it safeguards the unity of his attributes. God is “not the sum total of his attributes” but “is every attribute perfectly” (140). Nevertheless, Ortlund insists that there are some attributes that “pour out of God more naturally than others” (140). Echoing Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Goodwin, Ortlund views mercy as what God delights in “while judgment is his strange work” (142). Strange because God does indeed bring judgment, for He is just, and yet “something recoils within him in sending it” (138). It is right of Him to bring judgment upon a people, and yet “his deepest heart is their merciful restoration” (138). For Ortlund, then, God is indeed just, but He is more eager to show mercy. 

So then, what shall we make of Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly? First, a word of caution. It is possible to commend the love of Christ for sinners without appearing to veer too close to the boundaries of Christological orthodoxy. In places, Ortlund appears to veer too close to unorthodoxy when a better choice of words would have kept error at a safer distance. To give just one example, it is unhelpful to say that our “fallenness is most irresistibly attractive” to Christ (28). Saying that Christ is not put off by our fallenness still carries the same idea without risking the possibility that some would think you mean that Christ is attracted to sin. Examples may be multiplied of statements of similar import, but the point here is that the book’s problem areas such as these might have been avoided if some statements had been better worded and a higher premium placed on sound orthodoxy and theological precision rather than on shock value. Because of this, readers of this book ought to exercise care and demonstrate Christian charity in the way they consider some of the claims that Ortlund makes. Those who employ poetic license in communicating the most important of Gospel truths ought to exercise restraint in their rhetoric lest their colourful language undermines the very glories they seek to extol. This reviewer finds Ortlund’s deficiency here unfortunate, for it takes away from an otherwise exceptional book, and it is, indeed, an exceptional book! 

Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly is, by and large, a balm for the weary. The book contains rich Gospel comforts for those feeling the weight of their sin and guilt, and there is much within its pages that will set many free from the bonds of moralism and legalism that much modern preaching has chained them to; a moralism and legalism that, ironically, has been on full display in some of the backlash against the book. We should be worried when the celebration of a relentlessly merciful Christ offered to sinners unreservedly makes us uncomfortable. As Ortlund rightly notes, “it is impossible for the affectionate heart of Christ to be over-celebrated, made too much of, exaggerated. It cannot be plumbed” (29). John Calvin once beautifully said of the love of Christ, “I see the depth; I cannot reach the bottom.” In Gentle and Lowly, Ortlund helps us see the depth. Oh, for grace, that we would keep looking!

Jonathan Nthani is a member of Ndeke Village Chapel in Kitwe and is currently serving on the faculty at the Central Africa Baptist University


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