Where do you look for enduring comfort and security?
The past twelve months have been a stark reminder that there is none to be found in this world. We’ve seen firsthand that nothing can guarantee our financial stability or physical health. In fact, the only constants seem to be chaos and corruption, as we languish under leaders that alternate between ineptitude and outright evil. It’s clear that we need a source of hope from outside this hopeless world.
In that same span of time, a book purportedly offering true comfort and security has taken the Christian world by storm. Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly has enjoyed immense popularity and near-universal praise. It was named The Gospel Coalition’s “Popular Theology” book of the year, the “Accessible Theology” book of the year by WORLD Magazine, and the ACBC Biblical Counseling book of the year. It was the consensus pick across most year-end lists. This runaway bestseller dominates study groups, Christian book clubs, and personal reading plans throughout the church. It’s possible—perhaps even likely—that you received a copy as a gift this past Christmas. A few people whose opinions we value highly (and generally agree with) have strongly recommended the book and given it five-star reviews. But we think it deserves a little more critical scrutiny.
Ortlund’s title and thesis flow out of Christ’s words in Matthew 11:29, “For I am gentle and lowly in heart” (ESV). Those words become the lens through which the reader is invited to examine the character and nature of the Savior. As Ortlund puts it, “If Jesus hosted his own personal website, the most prominent line of the ‘About Me’ dropdown would read: GENTLE AND LOWLY IN HEART” (p. 21).
For Ortlund, the word “heart” in Jesus’ invitation definitively proves that Christ was identifying lowly gentleness as the singularly defining attribute and the very essence of His character. This is the only place in all of Scripture, he says, “where Jesus tells us about his own heart” (p. 17). Ortlund repeats his central argument for emphasis: Matthew 11:28–30 is “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” (p. 18). And what do we find there? According to the author, “Gentleness is who he is” (p. 21).
But does Ortlund’s thesis really yield an accurate understanding of the character and disposition of Christ? Are “gentle and lowly” categorically more definitive of the eternal character of Christ than His fierce contempt for the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, or His threat to wage war against the church at Pergamum? Are the words of Matthew 11:29 truly more authoritative and illustrative of the divine perspective on sin and sinners than, say, Matthew 10:34 (“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”) or Luke 12:49 (“I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!”)?
To be fair, Ortlund begins with a nod of recognition that Jesus did indeed have a “harsher side” (p. 28). That’s a fact that would be hard to deny or explain away, since Jesus’ public ministry began (John 2:13–17) and ended (Matthew 21:12–13) with His overturning the tables of the money changers and driving out the animal merchants from the Temple grounds—both times while Passover crowds were at their peak.
Furthermore, Jesus’ public conflicts with the Pharisees are a persistent theme throughout all four gospels. For all the examples we have of Jesus’ tender dealings with needy, sick, and penitent people, there are just as many (possibly even more) words in the New Testament devoted to His public controversies and angry diatribes against the hypocrisy and false teaching of the Jewish leaders. In fact, every public encounter Jesus had with the Pharisees was antagonistic—and often it was Jesus who purposely provoked the argument.
Ortlund does spend a few pages dealing with Christ’s righteous indignation, midway through the book. He surveys a famous essay by B. B. Warfield, “On the Emotional Life of Our Lord,” in which Warfield gives good and helpful insight on the necessary connection between Christ’s compassion and His anger (pp. 105–111). Warfield’s complete essay is well worth reading. It is a careful but compact (and masterful) study of how God incarnate manifested the full range of human emotions in irreproachable holiness and perfect equilibrium.
But Gentle and Lowly is neither as thorough nor as balanced as Warfield’s essay—especially where it deals with the not-so-gentle aspects of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The Warfield essay devotes a major section (4200-plus words) to Christ’s anger. Ortlund’s entire book spends about half that many words on the subject. Warfield is careful, of course, not to read features of Christ’s human emotions back into his understanding of the eternal, immutable attributes of God. Ortlund seems to have no compunction about doing that—even insinuating that God is beset with internal conflicts or divine angst. (Hold that thought—we’ll come back to it.) Ortlund also does not seem to be striving for the balance Warfield defended. In fact, he more or less acknowledges that balance is not his aim. He writes, “If there appears to be some sense of disproportion in the Bible’s portrait of Christ, then let us be accordingly disproportionate. Better to be biblical than artificially ‘balanced’” (p. 29).
Fair enough. As noted, however, Ortlund fails to acknowledge how much space the gospels devote to Jesus’ endless public battles with the Pharisees, His occasionally stern rebukes of the disciples, and His dire prophetic warnings—not to mention His harsh words to some of the churches in Revelation 2–3. Christ in real life was far from the placid, avuncular portrait Ortlund wants to paint. But for some reason, Ortlund seems convinced that most evangelicals in the current generation have a perception of Christ’s character that isn’t mild enough—as if too much fear of the Lord is what has made postmodern evangelicalism so dysfunctional. One gets the distinct impression that Ortlund wants to tame the Lion of the tribe of Judah.
The fact is, neither tenderness nor severity completely defines Christ’s character. Holiness is His most prominent and all-consuming attribute as God incarnate. It is the sum of all His perfections, encompassing both His compassion for sinners and His fierce hatred of sin. When we contemplate the character of Christ, though He is fully and truly human, we cannot lose sight of His deity. He is, after all, fully and truly God, with all the perfections of the divine character. And yes, it is gloriously true that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16)—“merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth” (Psalm 86:15). But it is also a cardinal truth, reiterated often by precept and example throughout Scripture, that “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29; Numbers 11:1; Deuteronomy 4:24; Psalm 97:3).
Ortlund’s approach to understanding Christ’s character is like watching an IMAX screen through a jeweler’s loupe. God certainly never gives any indication that His people should be possessed of such doctrinal myopia. When God met Moses at the burning bush and told him His name, He simply said, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). When He later gave an abridged rundown of His attributes and characteristics to Moses, He accented both His tender, compassionate willingness to forgive and His unyielding commitment to perfect justice: “The Lord God [is] compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:6–7). God’s Word instructs us to worship Him in the fullness of His attributes—not merely through the prism of one or two favorites.
To deal with God’s attributes as discrete, rival components of a complicated character is to contradict the doctrine of divine simplicity. God is indivisible and irreducible. He is not made up of parts; He is not the complex product of His attributes (part love, part peace, part wrath, etc.). Rather, God is His attributes, in all their fullness and at all times. And the disparate aspects of divine holiness are not at odds with one another.
Yet Ortlund seems to pit God’s compassion against His wrath in a way that implies a conflict in the mind or the will of God. Regarding God’s judgment on Israel, he writes, “Something recoils within him in sending that affliction. . . . He is—if I can put it this way without questioning his divine perfections—conflicted within himself when he sends affliction into our lives. . . . But his deepest heart is their merciful restoration” (p. 138).
Unfortunately, there is no way to do justice to God’s perfection if you imagine that He is “conflicted within himself.” Such a view of God is a clear denial of the classic doctrine of divine impassability (more on this below). It also contradicts the apostle’s statement in 2 Timothy 2:13: “He cannot deny Himself.” Conflicted within Himself? In all candor, that sounds blasphemous. Surely Ortlund has a higher view of God than that.
Summing up this supposedly conflicted nature of God, Ortlund writes, “Mercy is natural to him. Punishment is unnatural” (p. 140). Ortlund sees God’s peaceful forbearance as that which “pours out of him most naturally” (p. 29), and this lopsided emphasis prompts several questions the author never attempts to answer. For example, when Jesus answers His critics harshly in texts like Luke 13:15 or Matthew 22:18; or when He delivers an angry jeremiad like Matthew 23—what are we to think? Were those confrontations somehow unnatural or un-Christlike?
Ortlund also makes far too much of anthropomorphic language. Regarding a passage from Hosea, he writes, “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” (p. 73). It’s hard to believe Ortlund really means what he’s saying here. “Convulsing,” by definition, lacks self-control. Certainly such uncontrolled emotions are not characteristic of the immutable God of the Bible, nor would they be a source of comfort and security to His people.
As noted earlier, this view of God as internally conflicted is a wholesale denial of the doctrine of divine impassibility. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes God’s fundamental nature as “without body, parts, or passions.” He cannot be affected from outside Himself—He cannot be influenced or pained by external forces. The Puritans were rightly careful and precise so as not to attribute to the divine nature things only fitting for human nature. Although men are often ruled by their passions, God is not.
It’s worth noting that Ortlund frequently quotes from the Puritans and other beloved theologians—not only Warfield, but also Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, and Thomas Goodwin. While his interest in these voices from church history is commendable, he quotes selectively and thus gives a skewed impression of what these authors believed. Goodwin, for example, was a delegate to the Westminster Assembly and helped draft the Confession of Faith, which unequivocally affirms divine impassibility. It’s hard to imagine that Thomas Goodwin would approve of the self-conflicted image of the Almighty that Ortlund’s thesis results in.
Ortlund has a habit of reaching beyond the confines of Scripture to illustrate his points, and this leads him to settle for several weak metaphors. He leans heavily on some of the empty, therapeutic jargon that dominates postmodern evangelical culture. He asserts, for example, that “God is opening up to us his deepest heart” (p. 150)—as though God has layers that need to be peeled back. Let’s be clear: He doesn’t. All of God is God, and nothing in Him is “deeper” or more fundamental than the rest of Him. Such sloppiness carelessly blurs the lines between Christ’s divine and human natures—lines that past generations of the church fought to protect—and ascribes to the Father characteristics that are not properly true of Him. This kind of imprecision is unhelpful and unhealthy.
Nowhere is the danger of his imprecision more evident than in Ortlund’s discussion of the gospel. He writes, “Here is the promise of the gospel and the message of the whole Bible: In Jesus Christ, we are given a friend who will always enjoy rather than refuse our presence” (p. 115). Elsewhere he argues, “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). You read that right—Ortlund says your sin is what makes you most attractive to your holy Savior. Put another way, “It is not our loveliness that wins his love. It is our unloveliness” (p. 75).
The man-centeredness of Ortlund’s gospel is exposed early on. “The minimum bar to be enfolded into the embrace of Jesus is simply: open yourself up to him. It is all he needs” (p. 20). That’s a far cry from the biblical call to repent and believe, and it woefully undercuts the true majesty of God’s work in salvation—that “God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4–5). There’s no hint of God’s gracious provision through the work of imputation, by which “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). In fact, there isn’t much attention paid at all to the eternal implications of our salvation—Ortlund’s focus is on Christ’s compassion and care for us here and now.
We shouldn’t be surprised by the imbalance. Evangelicalism has lost all appetite for a full-orbed, biblical view of God. For at least one hundred years, compromising evangelicals have been attacking classic theism, while simultaneously trying to weaponize the terminology of charity, meekness, and humility in order to intimidate into silence any fellow evangelicals who speak out with clarity and passion about the dangers of Pharisees and wolves. Your antennae should go up when someone suggests that Jesus’ firm opposition against hypocrites and false teachers isn’t really as much an expression of His true heart as the grace He extends to repentant sinners. Imagine how shocked and unprepared they will be when He finally appears with a sword in His mouth to smite the nations.
That’s why it’s hard to buy Ortlund’s suggestion that most people today have a view of Christ that gives lopsided weight to the severity of His hatred for sin. The state of the church suggests just the opposite. One of the besetting sins of both secular culture and the evangelical community is the presumption that God is basically an invisible friend with superpowers—that He is not really a consuming fire after all, and it’s not really such a fearful thing to fall into His hands. In that sense, Ortlund’s book is overcorrecting for a fault that simply does not exist among Western evangelicals in any significant measure.
Then why is this book so popular? For one thing, the human heart almost always prefers hearing things that are lovely and agreeable, rather than being challenged with hard truths. “Speak to us pleasant words, prophesy illusions” (Isaiah 30:10). Self-satisfied people cannot endure sound words; they insist on having their ears tickled (2 Timothy 4:3). And several generations of seeker-sensitive ministry philosophy have more or less legitimized (and even canonized) the notion among evangelicals that truth is supposed to be always mild and benign. Anything that sounds harsh or demanding is supposed to be toned down. People love to have that opinion reinforced.
Also, the events of the last several months have undoubtedly driven many in the church to seek the kind of comfort that Gentle and Lowly offers. It should not surprise us that the book’s popularity has exploded in the same time that countless Christians have been separated from their churches, out from under the consistent teaching of God’s Word and its sharpening, discerning influence. The hardships, uncertainties, and fears produced by these events has multiplied exponentially the number of beleaguered people who desperately crave rest, who are crying for their burdens to be lightened, and who wish to be liberated from their yokes of bondage.
And despite the deficiencies and dangers we have highlighted, Gentle and Lowly does have some perceptive observations and profitable words of encouragement for souls who are weary and heavily laden. The book is by no means utterly devoid of interesting and edifying thoughts. There are even moments of sublime insight. For example, chapter 16 is a fascinating study in which Ortlund draws many parallels between Moses at Sinai and the events surrounding Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. There’s an excellent discussion of Calvin’s comments on Isaiah 55:8 that corrects a common misunderstanding of that text—and reveals an aspect of Calvin’s theology that too many contemporary Calvinists miss (pp. 158–159).
Genuine highlights such as those—as well as Ortlund’s frequent quotations from Puritan authors—no doubt explain why the book has received endorsements from generally trustworthy reviewers. And if Ortlund’s use of Puritan literature whets the appetites of his readers to dig more deeply into the model of biblical exposition bequeathed to us by the English Reformers, that will certainly be a good thing.
The truth is, the best the book has to offer largely comes from the other authors Ortlund quotes. Without doubt, he is an engaging writer, but he lacks the depth and precision of the men on whose shoulders he’s attempting to stand. (For more on that, we recommend this helpful review by Jeremy Walker.) Those godly men wrote in an era when the goal was not merely to clear the bar of orthodoxy, but to continually elevate the church’s biblical discourse and doctrinal precision—particularly when it came to the person and work of Christ. The church today desperately needs to set similar priorities. Our advice to readers looking for a study of Christ’s tender compassion is to go straight to Thomas Goodwin’s The Heart of Christ or Richard Sibbes’s The Bruised Reed.
Why would we publish a mostly negative review of a popular book that other discriminating reviewers have praised—a book that is likely to introduce new readers to the Puritans? Because at the end of the day, the book’s problems outweigh its benefits. The imbalanced view of Christ’s human character would be trouble enough. But Ortlund’s view of the divine character is the deal breaker—God as internally conflicted, moved by complex passions. Again, that idea is a dangerous and significant departure from classic theism.
It’s a good reminder that God’s people always need to be Bereans, carefully evaluating everything by the standard of His Word. True biblical discernment is in short supply. Even those who have been well trained occasionally and inexplicably pull the goalie. And in trying times—perhaps especially then—believers need to faithfully guard their hearts and cling to the enduring truth of God’s Word. We cannot settle for less.
That leads to the other reason for this post. Put simply, we can sympathize with the desire for some comfort and encouragement in these dark days. But rather than picking for scraps, we want to point you to thoroughly biblical resources that will deepen your knowledge of God’s Word and strengthen your love for Him. We want you to know the lasting hope, encouragement, and security that come from God’s testimony of Himself—from Scripture alone.
To that end, we’re going to spend the next several weeks looking at Christ’s intercessory work on our behalf, God’s pursuit of His elect, and the nature of His saving love. Join us on the blog for this deep dive into Divine Compassion.