Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners
Dane C. Ortlund. Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners. Crossway, 2021. 192 pages, hardback. $21.99.
Dane C. Ortlund is the author of the widely-acclaimed book Gentle & Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners & Sufferers (Crossway, 2020), which has won awards, drawn the ire of certain readers, and was given away for free to every church who wanted it.
Ortlund’s new book is titled Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners. The book is also published by Crossway and is the second installment in a series edited by Michael Reeves titled Union (the first installment was Rejoice & Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord by Michael Reeves). One thing this means is that Ortlund’s book comes with a companion “concise” volume (How Does God Change Us?), which attempts to convey the same subject matter in a 96-page booklet.
Deeper is a book about sanctification (85), or how Christians grow. (15) While that seems pretty straightforward, Ortlund wants to distinguish his approach in this book from that of others. He groups other approaches to growth into three models—those who think change happens through outward improvement, through intellectual addition, or through felt experience. Elsewhere he tags those competing approaches as purer behavior, sharper doctrine, or richer emotions. (17) In contrast, his “argument is that all three of these elements are included in healthy Christian development...” but “growing in Christ is not centrally improving or adding or experiencing but deepening.” (16) He further explains how his view differs from others: “Implicit in the notion of deepening is that you already have what you need. Christian growth is bringing what you do and say and even feel into line with what, in fact, you already are.” (16)
I will admit that I read over that distinction without much thought. It wasn’t until the conclusion of the book that I realized how profound Ortlund’s point was. Almost nothing in the book is about adding. There is no “sanctification by addition” to be found in these pages. Instead, Ortlund continually brings us back to what is already true of us and presses it upon us more firmly. As he says in the introduction:
“We’re not after behavior modification in this book. I’m not going to talk to you about setting your alarm earlier or cutting carbs. We’re not even going to reflect on tithing or church attendance or journaling or small groups or taking the sacraments or reading the Puritans. All of that can be done out of rottenness of heart.” (18, my emphasis).
Rather than another book telling us what else we should do (after we read the book), Deeper is a book that actually does something to us. The only two chapters that tell us to do something (“Honesty” and “Breathing”) actually spend most of their words shaping the heart posture of someone who would want to do those things. Deeper is a book about heart change (i.e., “real change” in the subtitle). And rather than spending 192 pages arguing for a specific heart-change approach to sanctification, Ortlund spends 192 pages trying to bring a heart-change in the reader.
The outline of the book is as follows with a quote that I think sums up the point of each chapter:
Chapter 1, Jesus: “One common reason we fail to leave sin behind is that we have a domesticated view of Jesus.” (21)
Chapter 2, Despair: “If you are not growing in Christ, one reason may be that you have drifted out of the salutary and healthy discipline of self-despair.” (38)
Chapter 3, Union: “Only in the relaxed safety of your eternally secured union with Christ can true growth blossom.” (57)
Chapter 4, Embrace: “The love of God is not something to see once and believe and then move beyond to other truths or strategies for growing in Christ. The love of God is what we feed on our whole lives long, wading ever more deeply into this endless ocean. And that feeding, that wading, is itself what fosters growth. We grow in Christ no further than we enjoy his embrace of us.” (70)
Chapter 5, Acquittal: “If we long to grow in Christ, we dare not do what comes so naturally—namely, say we believe that the verdict over our lives is decisively settled in our justified status before God but then move on to other ideas and strategies when it comes to our emotional lives and daily pressures.” (98-99)
Chapter 6, Honesty: “You are restricting your growth if you do not move through life doing the painful, humiliating, liberating work of cheerfully bringing your failures out from the darkness of secrecy into the light of acknowledgement before a Christian brother or sister.” (114)
Chapter 7, Pain: “Our natural instincts tell us that the way forward in the Christian life is by avoiding pain so that, undistracted, we can get down to the business at hand of growing in Christ. The New Testament tells us again and again, however, that pain is a means, not an obstacle, to deepening in Christian maturity.” (125)
Chapter 8, Breathing: “You wouldn’t try to go through life holding your breath. So don’t go through life without Bible reading and praying. Let your soul breath. Oxygenate with the Bible; and breathe out the CO2 of prayer as you speak back to God your wonder, your worry, and your waiting. He is not a force, not an ideal, not a machine. He is a person.” (156)
Chapter 9, Supernaturalized: “We don’t need the Spirit to be different on the outside; we do need the Spirit to be different on the inside. Yet again: we don’t need the Spirit to obey God; we do need the Spirit to enjoy obeying God.” (164-65)
In the conclusion, Ortlund reiterates his heart-change approach to sanctification: “My goal in this book has simply been to coach you into that single, simple, all-determining impulse of the heart: looking to Jesus. If you look to him, everything else is footnotes. All else will fall into place. If you do not look to Jesus, no amount of techniques or strategies will finally help you; all will be for nothing.” (172) Again, he explains the approach he has taken throughout the book: “I have not sought to be exhaustive in this short book… Instead, I have asked the question: what must happen in the individual human heart, most fundamentally, most deeply, for a man or woman to get traction and grow? And the message of this book is that the way we grow is receiving the heartfelt love of Jesus.” (173)
Strengths of the Book
I’ll begin by saying that I think this book was incredibly helpful. I devoured Gentle & Lowly, constantly wondering if the truths conveyed in that book were too good to be true, and just as often being convinced by Ortlund that they weren’t. So, I had high hopes for Deeper when I picked it up. Those hopes were certainly met (though in a much different way than Gentle & Lowly, as I’ll explain in the last section).
I do believe the biggest strength of the book is that Ortlund does what he believes will change us rather than simply arguing for or explaining his approach. He says that growth happens by exploring the unsearchable riches of Christ (22), and then he explores those riches. He says that the ceiling of our growth will match the ceiling of our understanding of God’s love for us (70), then goes on to help us understand God’s love for us. He tells us, “the process of sanctification is, in large part, fed by constant returning, ever more deeply, to the event of justification” (86), then spends the rest of the chapter massaging the event of our justification into us.
A second strength is Ortlund’s insistence that we must constantly come back to God’s word to recalibrate our (mis)understanding of who God is and what he is like. The following is a sampling:
“Fallen human beings enter this world wrong. We do not look at ourselves correctly, we do not view God correctly, we do not understand the way to be truly happy, we are ignorant of where all human history is heading, and we do not have the wisdom that makes life work well. And so on. The Christian life—our growth in Christ—is nothing other than the lifelong deconstruction of what we naturally think and assume and the reconstruction of truth through the Bible.” (145)
This is what he does for us as he pours Scripture out in front of us.
A third strength is Ortlund’s awareness of our (often unspoken) assumptions and objections. The thought I had time and time again is, ‘How does he know me so well?’
When explaining the need for despair, he quickly raises an objection:
“Why does the Bible do this? Does God want us always feeling bad about ourselves? Is he eager to chop us down to size, to lower the ceiling on our joy lest we be too happy?” (37)
In explaining the depths of God’s love for us he pauses:
“And yet it often isn’t that simple is it? Some of us, no matter how much we try, no matter how much Bible we read, find the experience of God’s love elusive.” (80)
As he speaks of mortifying our sin, he draws a distinction:
“Is it not a constant temptation for Western Christians to engage in such self-flagellation psychologically and emotionally, if not physically? What’s your response when you are aware of your sin? If you’re like me, you know Christ died for that, and you’re grateful. But just to show how grateful you are, or to seal the deal, you do a bit of psychological self-inflicted pain to top it off.” (138)
Almost every time that I thought, ‘But what about _____?’ he was right there addressing my objection. He doesn’t let us dodge the incredible assertions of this book with unanswered protests.
Weaknesses of the Book
In my estimation, the one weakness in this book is its organization. As I mentioned, Ortlund does something to us in this book. But he does it so subtly that I found myself confused as to what his direction was until he explained his outline on the first pages of chapters 4 and 5. And when I became frustrated in chapter 5 that he wasn’t talking about effort or the need for labor in our sanctification, it wasn’t until chapter 9 (and more fully in the conclusion) that I was reminded that his approach wasn’t to give a guidebook to mortifying our sin or growing in holiness, but rather a tool to enact heart change. I think a way to help readers understand the flow and direction of the book better would be to read the introduction and the conclusion as they begin the book. In some ways, the conclusion is a reassertion and an expansion of the introduction.
Uses of the Book
I would like to end with some advice on how to best read this book.
Read it slowly… but not sporadically. Ortlund says in the introduction to take your time with this book; don’t rush through it. (18) While I agree, I also want to give a caution, especially to those who enjoyed Gentle & Lowly. This book builds on itself in a way Gentle & Lowly did not. Reading three chapters in a week, then coming back a couple weeks later (having been in and out of five other books) to read three or four more will likely hurt your understanding and experience of the book. Try to work your way through the whole book in a consistent timeframe so that you are able to get the big picture.
Reflect as you read. As I mentioned, Ortlund is a master at asking questions that expose our subconscious assumptions and sinful tendencies. But those questions will only do their work if we honestly ask them to ourselves. At those points in the book, resist the urge to read the next sentence before you think of examples in your own life and heart. Because of how intensely personal the book is, I don’t think this is a great small group resource Instead, I think it could be profitable in a group of two or three where all members know and trust one another well enough to process these questions together.
For teachers and preachers, use this as a handbook. Ortlund is right that this doesn’t address a number of important issues that it could have (18, 173). But in the topics that he does address he offers a gold mine of quotes and resources. I’m teaching on suffering next spring and plan to use the categories he offers in “Pain” (chapter 7). One who is struggling with understanding the individual’s role in sanctification will be greatly helped by the scheme offered in “Union” (chapter 3). Incredibly insightful quotes and stories from Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, and Jonathan Edwards show up on nearly every page. In the introduction he says that “the vast majority of wisdom available to us today is found among the dead” (17) and he brings that wisdom to us time and again in this book. The book is primarily a work of the heart, but it is not lacking in theological rigor and clarity. And those teaching God’s word will be greatly helped by it.
Deeper is a rare book. It is applied theology. It is doctrine pressed on the heart. It is a book that enacts an approach to change rather than simply arguing for that approach. For all those reasons, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to any sinners who long for real change.
Mitchell Carter is an Assistant Pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He is a husband to Lauren and a father to Hadley, Maddie, Audrey, Hodge, and Owen. He is a graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.
"Look to Jesus" by Patrick Ramsey
"The Gentleness of God" by Mark Johnston
"Sanctification: The Definitive Aspect" by David Smith
"Keep Advancing!" by Joel Wood
"The Gospel for Bruised Reeds" by Dan Doriani
Growing in Grace, ed. by Joel Beeke
Sanctification: The Long Journey Home, with Derek Thomas and Greg Gilbert