Groups like ACBC (The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors) are highly recommending Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund. You might be wondering, what is all the hype? Should I read it? Others are weighing in, saying this book is “dangerous”. Which is it—a gift or a stumbling block? I want to tell you who this book is for and how it could be helpful to you. I also want to address a few possible concerns.
Because of your ongoing battle with sin, do you struggle with really believing that Christ loves you? Do you feel like you need to convince God to be willing to help you to overcome your sin? Do you think you need to work hard to deal with your sin on your own so that you can come to Christ? Do forgiveness and mercy through Christ seem too good to be true? “This book is written for 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” (Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly, 13). “We are factories of fresh resistance to Christ’s love” (63). Whether you are a mature believer in Christ or you are new to following Jesus, this book will help you to delight in the kind and merciful heart of Christ!
The author labors to show us through Scripture and commentary from several Puritans and others that sinners and sufferers really can go to Christ. Ortlund’s premise is that we often do not go to Christ when we are suffering or sinning because we do not see Christ’s heart. We think that He must be tired of messed up people coming to Him for help. The author uses Matthew 11:28–30 as his starting point, and then labors for twenty-three chapters to show us that Jesus really will give us rest for our souls.
If you are looking to this book to rebuke a rebellious, stubborn, and unrepentant person, you will be disappointed. If you are hoping to get a thorough theological confession about Christ’s work, you will not find it here. The author is clear that his sole intention is to help us to see Christ’s heart. You will find strong encouragement to go to Christ to receive mercy and grace! If you are discouraged and downtrodden, you will see how much Christ wants you to go to him. This book could help you to go to Christ and then to walk with Christ as you are strengthened to see his merciful and gracious heart in his Word.
Listen to a few quotes from Ortlund:
“The point in saying that Jesus is lowly is that he is accessible. For all his resplendent glory and dazzling holiness, his supreme uniqueness and otherness, no one in human history has ever been more approachable than Jesus Christ” (20).
“Jesus can no more bring himself to stiff-arm you than the loving father of a crying newborn can bring himself to stiff-arm his dear child. Jesus’ heart is drawn out to you” (55).
“The battle of the Christian life is to bring your own heart into alignment with Christ’s, that is, getting up each morning and re-placing your natural orphan mind-set with a mind-set of full and free adoption into the family of God through the work of Christ your older brother, who loved you and gave himself for you out of the overflowing fullness of his gracious heart” (181).
This kind of meditation on Christ’s heart fills Gentle and Lowly. The author beautifully explains a multitude of Biblical passages which all work together to show us the heart of God. He brings in commentary from theologians from previous centuries who enrich us with their insights from lifetimes of study and meditation in the Biblical text. Ortlund seeks to honor the contexts of the Bible passages he quotes, whether it be his exposition on God’s “natural work” and his “strange work” based on Lamentations 3:33, Jeremiah 32:41 and Isaiah 28:21, or his explanation of God’s ways not being our ways in Isaiah 55.
But has Ortlund overstated his case? Has he gone too far? I would point to three issues in Gentle and Lowly that could be confusing to some.
“Gentle. Jesus is not trigger-happy. Not harsh, reactionary, easily exasperated. He is the most understanding person in the universe. The posture most natural to him is not a pointed finger but open arms” (19).
First, he speaks often of Christ’s “deepest heart” as if there were a distinction between Christ’s heart and his deepest heart. We know that Christ’s heart is not divided. His heart is his deepest heart. There are not superficial layers to Christ’s heart that have to be peeled back to reveal his deepest heart. However, when the author talks about Christ’s deepest heart, we understand that he is seeking to emphasize what is truly Christ’s heart according to the Bible’s revelation. What Ortlund says about the heart (or deepest heart) of God that we see in Scripture is wonderful and beautiful and thoroughly biblical.
“And just as we can hardly fathom the divine ferocity awaiting those out of Christ, it is equally true that we can hardly fathom the divine tenderness already resting now on those in Christ” (68).
Second, he talks about God’s mercy and compassion as what God actually wants to do and his wrath and judgment as what he is obligated by his character to do. This point is emphasized in Chapter 15, “His Natural Work and His Strange Work”. He describes God’s heart as spring-loaded to show mercy and reluctant to pour out wrath, but clarifies that God is never divided against Himself (Matt 12:22–28). While this sounds controversial, it doesn’t seem that Ortlund is going over into anything unbiblical. God does long for people to repent and He is slow to anger.
Finally, Ortlund claims that our sin attracts Christ to us. He says, “it is the very fallenness which he came to undo that is most irresistibly attractive to him” (30). These kinds of statements may seem extreme, but Ortlund also makes it clear that Christ disciplines us, forgives us, restores us and changes us. Christ never intends to leave us in our sin. As a doctor with wonderful medicine is drawn to those most ridden with disease, Christ is drawn to those with the worst of sins because he is able to save them to the uttermost. Although we can understand what he means with these phrases, they could be confusing, perhaps, if taken out of context.
“Do not minimize your sin or excuse it away. Raise no defense. Simply take it to the one who is already at the right hand of the Father, advocating for you on the basis of his own wounds. Let your own unrighteousness, in all your darkness and despair, drive you to Jesus Christ, the righteous, in all his brightness and sufficiency” (94).
Ultimately, my only concern regarding Gentle and Lowly is that it could be misused by someone whose aim is to use grace as a license to sin. However, someone using it this way would be sorely misunderstanding the book and its wonderful exposition of Scripture. If you take Gentle and Lowly in the greater context of all that Scripture says (in places like Hebrews and 1 John), it is very helpful. Ortlund has given us a wonderful gift in these twenty-three chapters shining glorious light on the heart of Christ!
If you haven’t read Gentle and Lowly yet, I would encourage you to take time to read it and to consider the Biblical teaching that Ortlund presents. As your own view of Christ is challenged by what he writes, honestly evaluate what the Bible teaches and allow God’s Word to convince you more deeply that Christ is gentle and lowly! You and I can go to Him and find rest for our souls!