It’s been some time since I have seen a Christian book receive the widespread accolades as Dane Ortlund’s new book, Gentle and Lowly. Pastors, Bible teachers, and laypeople that I respect and admire from all walks of my faith, ranging from personal friends to more famous believers, have given this book glowing reviews and noteworthy compliments.
So I naturally had to get a copy of Gentle and Lowly and read it myself. I have read it twice now, months apart, and slowly both times. I took in only a chapter or two (at most three) a day for both readings. As such, I processed the material carefully. If any book deserves this treatment, it is this one. Because Ortlund communicates poignant and undertaught truths from our Bible. Even as a man who has pastored for two decades, I can admit this book educated me. And clearly, that has been the case for countless others.
I’m going to divide this review into three sections, with parallels to a traffic light. There are truths that Gentle and Lowly expounds that I plan to teach strongly and frequently. I.e., “Green Light” truths. There is one thing I will teach from this book more cautiously, like a yellow light. And there is a final major point in this book I disagree with and will never teach. The one “red light”.
Green Light Truths
Seeing as how edifying and marvelously written Gentle and Lowly is, this will be the biggest section. I unashamedly confess that I often think and live in Galatians 3:3 as though I am saved by grace but sustained by good works. And when I fail, I am worthless and unworthy to come before God, even through Jesus Christ. This book shattered my unbiblical pretenses about these things.
First, I deeply appreciate the truth that compassion, mercy, and grace are not simply things that Christ showed while on earth, but things that flowed from his very heart. Literally from his bowels1. This is the thesis of Gentle and Lowly, using Matthew 11:28-29 as a primary text, and Ortlund nails it from the opening.
I especially like this, from chapter two: “This is deeper than saying Jesus is loving or merciful or gracious. The cumulative testimony of the four Gospels is that when Jesus Christ sees the fallenness of the world around him, his deepest impulse, his most natural instinct, is to move toward that sin and suffering, not away from it.” And then he delves into Leviticus to explain why, with Jesus being God, this is more significant than our modern ears tend to comprehend. The biblical support Ortlund gives is thorough and beautiful.
Secondly, I very much needed the explanation in Chapter 5 about Jesus dealing gently with the “ignorant and wayward”. And what those sins mean in Hebrews. They are not mild terms for sin and Ortlund goes back to Numbers 15 to help the reader understand.
Even though Luke 15 clearly gives us a picture of this, my own “older brother” self-righteousness dominates my view of harsher sins and prodigal children coming back to God. I often do not live as though I want Hebrews 5:2 to be true. This chapter convicted me deeply. I had no idea how poorly I lived this until COVID happened and people abandoned the church.
A third startling truth that has changed how I think and how I pray is in Chapters 8-9. I always, every day, thank God for the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. But have I ever thanked God that Jesus is still interceding for me at present? The ministry of Jesus is not merely about finished work in the past, as crucial as Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday are. No, Hebrews makes it clear Christ continues, both to the present and future, to connect us to God “to the uttermost”. I needed this for a fuller and more complete understanding of salvation.
And finally, the explanation in Chapter 15 of Lamentations 3:33 of God not afflicting us “from his heart” was mind-blowing. Any preacher who preaches the whole counsel of God knows that God afflicts. Isaiah 45:7 teaches this, as well as a whole host of other passages. But the nuance of how this is not something God does from his heart nearly caused me to break down and weep as I read.
There are many other things I could share that blew me away from Gentle and Lowly, but that is a good sampling of the kinds of teachings Ortlund gifted the church with. Granted, he credits many other teachers, primarily Thomas Goodwin. But kudos to Ortlund for bringing these truths to the modern reader. I know when I look back at my 25 years of following Christ, I am bent to think first of my sin failures (notably lust, apathy, and fear), ministry failures, and all manner of times and seasons where I felt weak, stupid, ignorant and like the scum of the earth.
Which is exactly what the heart of Christ is drawn to. That alone is worth reading this book.
A Yellow Light
Although I find Ortlund’s case for the “heart of Christ” being gentle and lowly convincing, there is a sense in which I feel like more could be said about when Christ and God are not like this.
Granted, he deals with this upfront on two different occasions. First to say that what this book teaches is not who Christ is indiscriminately and explains the difference as to how he is to those who ask for forgiveness and those who do not. And then later gives three qualifications about the times Jesus is not gentle and lowly to people. The last of which is how he did not feel the need to be artificially imbalanced if the Bible is not on this topic.
I think I see what he is saying, and he does deal with Flipping-Tables-Over Jesus in the chapter on Jesus’s emotional heart. But I also think about God coming at Job in a whirlwind (the opposite of gentle and lowly) and Jesus’s harsh first response to the Syrophoenician woman, among other examples where we need not be artificially imbalanced in discussing who our God is in how he responds to sinners and sufferers.
Perhaps Job is explained by the fact he needed to repent (though God claims Job spoke correctly about Him). I do not know. I just know this book makes a case about who Jesus “is” and not merely what he does or what he shows to people. I’m not quite where Ortlund is on that yet, but I do not disagree to any real level. This is just a part of the book, as I mentioned, I approach with more question marks and less certainty than the book itself does.
The Red Light
I am Free Will Baptist and Arminian, so this disagreement is expected. Yet I think I should, with no apology, make this clear: I am in complete disagreement with the book’s firm and passionate stance on the eternal secure position of those who follow Christ. This is not communicated in a passing comment or with many nuances. Ortlund is clear about it and frequently brings it up. Note these quotes:
“…my two-year-old’s grip is not very strong…If I have determined he will not fall out of my grasp, he is secure…”
“Yes, once a sinner is united with Christ, there is nothing that can dis-unite them.”
“In order for you to fall short of loving embrace into the heart of Christ both now and into eternity, Christ himself would have to be pulled down out of heaven and back in the grave.”
“For those united to him, the heart of Jesus is not a rental; it is your new permanent residence. You are not a tenant; you are a child.”
“Nothing now can un-child you. Those in Christ are eternally imprisoned within the tender heart of God.”
“If you are his, heaven and relief are coming, for you cannot be made un-his.”
At one point in Chapter 6, he claims what he is teaching is bigger than “eternal security” because he is trying to communicate the security we have in the love of Christ. The heart of Christ is the focus of Gentle and Lowly, so this makes sense. He teaches this security well and I absolutely agree with him there. But that is not the whole of what he teaches. He clearly states outright that security in the love of Christ is eternal security. But I think the Bible disagrees with him there. Because of the love of Christ we are eternally secure against everything. Except ourselves.
I will not rehash all of my former writings on the subject of apostasy, which you can find here. Yet I will say two things in response to the quotes above.
First, books like Hebrews and 2 Peter make it clear to my mind that a genuine person “in Christ” can fall away because of sin and unbelief and be outside of Christ. Both books were written to Christians and about Christians (Hebrews is addressed to “brothers and sisters” and Hebrews 6 gives a detailed description of Christians who fell away while 2 Peter is addressed to Christians and refers to those who “escaped the corruption of this world by knowing our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus”).
And both books explicitly teach some people have departed the faith (Hebrews uses phrases like “drift away,” “fall away” and “turn away” to the point of not being renewed again to repentance, and Peter says “they have become again entangled in the corruption of the world” and are worse off than before.). Verses like Hebrews 3:12 make no sense to me if a true believer cannot abandon Christ because of sin and unbelief.
Secondly, notice the phrases Ortlund uses. They are creative and powerful: “dis-unite,” “Christ…would have to be pulled down out of Heaven and go back into the grave,” un-child you,” “made un-his”. Using these phrases, he really stokes emotions, tickles the brain, and appeals to our affection for the beauty of a Father who unconditionally loves his child. The problem is that in the book they never flow from any interpretation of any passage. They are logical arguments, not biblical ones. John 6:37 clearly refers to those who “come to Christ”. Once a person stops doing that, he can eventually fall away.
The fundamental disagreement he and I have based on his words from Chapter 6 (page 66 specifically) is if those who do fall away were ever saved, to begin with. I think Hebrews and 2 Peter are clear on this. And make no mistake, I cannot teach what this book teaches on security, even if I agree about Christ’s heart if apostasy is possible for the true Christian. This is not merely a secondary doctrinal divide. It matters enterally. I have to warn Christians if I am correct about this. This book can be confusing to true believers if I am correct.
Yet I think despite the one disagreement, the book is absolutely worth reading, studying, and sharing with other Christians. We need to understand this topic beyond “God gives grace and He is merciful”. It’s much deeper than actions and adjectives. It is about Christ’s heart and nature.
As such, I endorse the book as well. Four stars out of five.
- What “compassion” literally means in verses like Luke 7:13. ↩