I am currently working on a PhD in the area of Christology, love my Lord Jesus Christ, and delight to see Him clearly in Scripture. For this reason, I was delighted to receive a copy of Dane Ortlunds’ Gentle and Lowly as part of the Crossway Blog Review program. I confess having mixed feelings as I put down the book; on the one hand, Ortlund displays the glory of Christ’s humility and merciful heart in beautiful, readable prose. On the other hand, I don’t think Ortlund succeeds in showing his thesis. In other words, Gentle and Lowly fails to demonstrate what it is explicitly seeking to but beautifully succeeds in doing something else. Let me unpack that a bit.
Dane Ortlund wants to show us the “heart of Christ.” That is, he wants to draw out what the Bible says about Christ’s essential identity, who he is at his “heart” (13). By “heart,” Ortlund intends the very depths of a person, the driving identity that shapes all a person’s actions. Through the books 23 (short) chapters, Ortlund wants to display Christ’s essential merciful, humble, and gracious character. His key text is Matthew 11:28-30, “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” (18). He argues that this text shows us who Christ is in his essential identity. “Heart,” Ortlund writes, “in biblical terms, is not part of who we are but the centre of who we are” (18). So when Jesus says he is “gentle and lowly in heart,” he is describing his essential nature (19). The problem with this sort of argument is that heart has a lot of potential meanings, and nothing in the context suggests that Jesus is telling us “what animates him most deeply, what is most true of him” (19). Indeed, the Greek syntax suggests that Jesus intends “I am gentle and [I am] lowly in heart.” The latter phrase intending to specify what Jesus means “lowly,” for it can often refer to physical poverty or asceticism (as Ortlund observes, 19-20). To add the modifier “in heart” is to specify that “lowly” is the attitude Jesus has towards His people: He is gentle and has a humble heart (the phrase works well in English) towards them. Like the Puritans whom Ortlund follows in this book, his theology often overtakes his exegesis. That is, he says many beautiful and essential truths, yet the texts to which he turns to show them are not always teaching that truth. In this way, Ortlund doesn’t demonstrate his thesis: nothing in Scripture identifies a single aspect of Jesus’s attitude or character as essential over against everything else. I think John Frame accurately captures the Biblical teaching concerning the Character of Christ and God in his discussion of Divine simplicity:
If the attributes are perspectives on a single reality, that reality will be simple by comparison, though also complex, as a I must keep insisting. And evidently, since there are many attributes that characterize God’s essence, they are not separate from one another. Indeed, all of his attributes have divine attributes! God’s mercy is eternal, and his creative power is wise. So the biblical teachings about God’s attributes suggest a profound unity in his nature and among the attributes that characterize his nature.Doctrine of God, 229
However, though Ortlund fails to demonstrate his thesis, I believe he succeeds brilliantly in another regard.
If we take Gentle and Lowly to be an exposition of a neglected aspect of God’s Character, of Jesus’ Character, it does the church a great service. Over and over again, Ortlund draws our attention to oft-neglected texts, showing how God’s heart towards His children is not one of stern anger or ferocity but patient, gentle mercy and love. No matter what we may or have done, we see throughout the book, God welcomes His children with open arms and delights to shower His mercy upon them. Every time we sin, God has abundant mercy to cleanse us from our sin. This aspect of God’s Character is something I treasure dearly and am delighted to be so clearly reminded of it once again. There are many men and women in my life who need to hear this aspect of God’s Character, and for this reason, Ortlund’s book is a great service to the church.
Don’t read Gentle and Lowly to find out who God is essentially, what aspect of His Character we can elevate above the rest. Ortlund suggests that this is what we ought to do, but involves—in my opinion—a selective reading of the evidence. God IS rich in mercy, God IS loving, God IS kind, yet God is also equally just, righteous, and holy. Each of these is a perspective on God’s simple, glorious character. God’s mercy is just, righteous, and holy, as his justice is good and loving. By selecting wrath as the contrast with mercy, Ortlund skews the evidence a bit, for wrath is a not a characteristic of God in the same way as justice, mercy, or love; wrath is the expression of justice and goodness in the presence of sinfulness. If we focus on wrath, then any of God’s attributes will seem more important.
Instead, read Gentle and Lowly as an exposition of an oft-neglected aspect of God’s Character, an aspect that is arguably at the certain of redemptive history—of the story of the creation. God is truly merciful and kind, abounding in grace and steadfast love. Ortlund reminds us of this truth and leads us to treasure it. One thing, in addition to the comments above, that Gentle and Lowly could use is practical application. Ortlund shrugs of the need for explicit application (215), but I think this is a disservice to the readers most likely to pick the book up. Christ’s character is definitely something to bask in (215), yet it is also more than that. We should—we ought to—respond to Christ’s Character; we need to imitate him (examples of how this would play out in the church would have been effective), we need to worship him (we need to be reminded of this often), and we need to obey him. It is true that Christ’s “yoke is easy” (Matt 11:30), yet it is nevertheless a yoke. Sometimes we need a hand gentling guiding us in what it means to follow Jesus; after such a beautiful exposition of His merciful, gentle character, gentle guidance in the ways we ought to imitate Christ in this regard would have been effective and helpful.