Gentle & Lowly In Light of a Few Years

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Crossway, 2020), by Dane Ortlund, has been very well received in the broader Reformed and evangelical world. I was asked to review this book years ago, but it seemed that any form of engagement other than full appreciation was going to bring on more drama than what seemed worthwhile for a review. A few years later, and given my own practice of handing out this book to certain people I have counseled, I wish to offer some thoughts on the book.

The title gives a good description of the book’s aims, namely, how we can better understand the heart of Christ towards sinners, particularly Christians who sin. This is a book on the Christian life. In it, Ortlund makes copious use of various Puritans and their heirs (e.g., Jonathan Edwards), with a particular focus on Thomas Goodwin’s memorable work, The Heart of Christ in Heaven Towards Sinners on Earth.

Having done some work on Goodwin’s Christology, I may be a little biased in saying that his work on Christ’s heart is probably the finest work on practical Christology that exists in the English language. To see a present–day book do so well, which relies so heavily on Goodwin, makes my own heart leap for joy. I am sure Ortlund and I share the same desire for readers to also go to Goodwin’s work and read his masterful treatment. Ortlund’s book is a good entry to Goodwin.

Gentle and Lowly is an easy and enjoyable read. An Introduction, twenty-three short chapters, and an Epilogue are offered, often piggy-backing off of a particular theologian’s insights on crucial theological questions, in an attempt to reveal the heart of Christ.

In the introduction, Ortlund says “This book is written for the discouraged, the frustrated, the weary, the disenchanted, the cynical, the empty” (p. 13). For Christians who are genuinely struggling with their sin, and don’t always understand the richness of Christ’s love, this book will be just the tonic for them. And how amazing that the Puritans should be so helpful in offering us that tonic when so many think of them as being legalistic, cold, and ultimately unhelpful doctors of the soul. Ortlund is to be commended for making popular the somewhat unpopular.

In the book Ortlund looks at Christ in his high priestly ministry. In one place he examines the well-known verse in Hebrews 4:15 that speaks of Christ’s ability to sympathize with us in our weakness. Ortlund draws the conclusion that Jesus is not detached from us, but “In our pain, Jesus is pained; in our suffering he feels the suffering as his own even though it isn’t…his heart is feelingly drawn into our distress” (p. 46). Later he says that Jesus “co-suffers” with his people (p. 49). However, in my own reading of Goodwin and Owen, I tend to think that Jesus is no longer pained or distressed, nor does he suffer. Goodwin addresses this very question in book III of The Heart of Christ In Heaven. He affirms that Christ’s current spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:44) possesses affections that are spiritual, compared to how they worked during his time of humiliation. His spiritual body is still a true human nature, but the affections he now possesses in his body do not affect his soul as they did before his resurrection. Now, in glory, his affections of pity, mercy, sympathy, etc., are still resident in him, but, says Goodwin, “they do not afflict and perturb him in the least” (4:145). His body is now “altogether impassible, namely, in this sense, that they are not capable of the least alteration tending to any hurt whatever. And so, his body is not subject to any grief…” (4:145). Christ now pities without any pain to himself. Christ’s present “sympathy” is a gracious desire to relieve us in our temptations and weaknesses as sinners, but he himself is not suffering, properly speaking. So there is now a type of “majesty” we should ascribe to Christ in his state of exaltation that was “veiled” or awaiting fulfillment during his ministry on earth, and this ought to affect how we speak of him.

The matter of Christ’s present sufferings seems connected to an oddity that does not seem to go away in the broader Reformed world. Ortlund is keen to connect the heart of God with the heart of Jesus (p. 72). So, looking at Hosea 11:7–9, he says, “We are given a rare glimpse into the very center of who God is, and we see and feel the deeply affectional convulsing within the very being of God. His heart is inflamed with pity and compassion for his people.” He adds, “Let’s not dishonor God by so emphasizing his transcendence that we lose a sense of the emotional life of God of which our own emotions are an echo, even if a fallen and distorted echo” (p. 73). He appeals, in a lengthy footnote, to the work of Rob Lister. He affirms divine emotion, but says for those who don’t like the term that they can substitute “affections” for “emotions.” However, discussing the word “sympathize” in relation to Christ’s present priestly ministry, Owen affirms that this word can only be true of Christ in regard to his human nature, “in contradistinction unto God absolutely, whose nature is incapable of the compassion intended” (Works, 20:421). These are anthropopathisms, designed to show what God will be towards us in the person of Christ who, alone, is capable of sympathy. God is not actually capable of sympathy, as far as classical Reformed theology is concerned. This may make God a “platonic power divorced from the welfare of his people” (see Ortlund’s comment in fn. 5, pg. 73), but it is the orthodox view of God’s impassibility that Ortlund seems to want to affirm on the one hand but then deny on the other hand. I do not think, however, we need to discredit the book because of this off-hand statement, which (perhaps) could be clarified quite easily by the author.

I appreciate the desire in the book to explore the true humanity of Jesus, a theme that has many practical advantages to our Christian life. There is, as Ortlund shows, a rich pastoral theology that emerges from a focus on the humanity of our Lord.

In the book Ortlund frequently reminds his readers of Christ’s intense desires for his us, though we may be cold towards him. In one place he draws attention to the risen Christ in Revelation 3: “There he says (to a group of Christians who are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked,” v. 17): ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door’—what will Christ do?— ‘I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me’ (v. 20). Jesus wants to come in to you—wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, naked you—and enjoy meals together. Spend time with you” (p. 116). This is heart-warming. The grace Jesus shows to the Laodiceans is remarkable, but one gets the impression that the full story is not quite told by Ortlund. Conspicuously omitted is not only Christ’s threat that he will spit these Christians out of his mouth (v. 16), but there is an obvious call to repentance here that is required if the Laodiceans are going to enjoy communion with Christ (v. 19). It is not that Christ is unwilling – of course, who could deny that? – but that we need to own our sin, repent, and then – and only then – can we truly enjoy the friendship with Christ he is so willing to have with Christians who have gone off of the path of obedience, as the Laodiceans sadly did. I think he could keep the main points and emphases of the book, but also not be afraid to drive home these other aspects of Christ’s more “severe” type of prophetic proclamation to his people as we see in the letters to the seven churches.

One of the big pushes in the book is Ortlund’s claim for how we typically live the Christian life versus how we should live the Christian life. In one place, he says: “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.” (p. 181).  In another place he says, “The purpose of this chapter, through reflecting on the book of Galatians, is to bring the heart of Christ to bear on our chronic tendency to function out of a subtle belief that our obedience strengthens the love of God” (p. 182). These statements are indicative of many in the book where Ortlund might overstate a little his case or fail to recognize the truth in what he seems to be rejecting. Often, I found myself saying this is not an either/or issue but a both/and. It is possible to live from the heart of Christ, according to his (unconditional) love of benevolence. But, like any proper relationship, we can also live for the love of Christ, reflecting the Reformed view, held by almost all of the Puritans, on the love of complacency between Christ and his people. In one of Goodwin’s best-used verses in The Heart of Christ, he makes reference to John 15:10 (“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love”), which clearly has in view living for the heart of Christ rather than simply from the love of Christ. It seems impossible to deny that we do, in some sense (i.e., according to the love of complacency), live for the love of Christ when one considers the teaching of passages like John 14:21, 23. True, as Ortlund states, we cannot “strengthen” God’s love, but keeping his commandments seems to be one way in which we are better able to receive his love and fellowship with him. Samuel Rutherford noted that our good works “cannot make our Lord love us less or more, with the love of eternal election.” Yet John 14:23 shows that we “may make God love us more with the love of complacency, and a sweeter manifestation of God in the fruits and gracious effects of his love.” I could demonstrate from the Puritans quite easily that there is a very real sense in which true communion with God and Christ means we can live from and for the heart of Christ. I suspect that Ortlund would not deny this distinction, though I do think it qualifies his statement on how we live the Christian life.

Another theme that runs throughout the book is the idea that our sin is, in a sense, something that draws Christ to us rather than away from us. Ortlund says, “And if the actions of Jesus are reflective of who he most deeply is, we cannot avoid the conclusion that it is the very fallenness which he came to undo that is most irresistibly attractive to him” (p. 30). One the one hand I can see why this might make some uneasy, mostly because it can be misunderstood. Our fallenness is not the “most irresistibly attractive” thing to Jesus, since he is of purer eyes than to look upon iniquity (Hab. 1:13). Because he looks upon us now as members of his body, who possess the Spirit of Christ, he is necessarily drawn to us, but it is despite our fallenness not because of it. Jesus, like God, hates the sin but loves the sinner (a thoroughly Reformed position). But this may be a sort of hyperbolic statement to highlight that Jesus came to earth to save sinners, not the righteous.

In conclusion, Ortlund has written a book about the heart of Christ and God, and we are probably going to be a little frustrated if we want a full picture of Christ’s other affections. We have to be careful not to demand of the book what lies outside of the purview of the author. Yet, he does ask, in light of setting forth Christ’s gentle and lowly heart, “what are we to do with this?” He says, “The main answer is, nothing. To ask, ‘Now how do I apply this to my life?’ would be a trivialization of the point of this study. If an Eskimo wins a vacation to a sunny place, he doesn’t arrive in his hotel room, step out onto the balcony, and wonder how to apply that to his life. He just enjoys it. He just basks. But there is one thing for us to do. Jesus says it in Matthew 11:28. ‘Come to me’” (p. 215). This is not perhaps the ending I was hoping for in a book that has so much good in it, especially with its Puritanesque feel at times.

The Christian life is not a vacation where we do nothing. It is, as Bunyan shows in multiple works, even titling one work as such, a Holy War. We are, as the author admirably points out, to come to Jesus. But when we come to Jesus, then what? Some might think the author is advocating for a type of “quietism” (or, interior passivity) whereby the chief characteristic of the Christian life involves believers engaging in mental appropriation of Christ’s heart towards them. In connection with this, Ortlund believes the Christian life boils down to two steps: “1. Go to Jesus. 2. See #1” (p. 216). Goodwin himself actually ends his work on the heart of Christ by offering several “uses.” In one of them he notes that this doctrine (of Christ’s heart) is given for comfort. But in this “use,” Goodwin argues that the “greatest motive against sin,” so that we may be obedient, is to consider that Christ’s heart has “less joy in us, as we are more or less sinful, or obedient.” Our sin gives “blows” to Christ; his joy is “the less” in his people when they sin (Works, 4:150). It would be interesting to know if the author and readers would affirm this point by Goodwin.

I value a lot in this book. It seems to have been written at a time when many needed the comfort of Christ. As a pastor, I am grateful for that. It is not without a few areas that, I believe, could be tightened up or expanded upon. But I would like to think that we – speaking of our broader Reformed and Evangelical community – can acknowledge the obvious strengths of a book but allow for healthy engagement that takes the book seriously enough to ask certain questions. I don’t believe any author, past or present, is exempt from that. And, perhaps more importantly, I don’t believe any author worth their salt would want it any other way!

Mark Jones (Ph.D., Leiden) has been the minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA), Canada since 2007.