A Review of Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly

Introduction

Gentle and Lowly is an expositional attempt to tell us what Christ’s heart towards sinners and sufferers is. The answer provided in this book states that Christ is full of compassion toward those who are hurting. The key text for the book comes from Matthew 11:28-30, the only passage in the Bible, Ortlund says, in which Jesus reveals to us his heart.[1]

Because this book attempts to uncover Christ’s heart, it is not written in a cold, dry, academic style, rather it is more personal and warm. Since its aim is telling us what Christ thinks about sinners,[2] it is down to earth. The whole book explores 23 verses, each of which gets its own chapter, that are supposed to tell us what Christ thinks about sinners.

With this as background, we shall examine this book under four main headings: exegesis, audience, history, and the probable theological and practical effect on the modern church for whom this book is written.

If you are short on time, just skip to the conclusion.

I. Exegesis

His exegetical profoundness varies greatly. His chapters can be put into three categories: sometimes he states previously un-thought of and insightful truths; sometimes he states truths that nobody disagrees with, offering a desert with no main course; and sometimes he cherry picks passages and doesn’t state the whole picture, and at those times the exegesis is bad. The chapters that most thoroughly represent his argument I have chosen to deal with in this paper. The good chapters he has already stated well, so few comments are needed except to read him; but for those chapters that are weak or unbiblical I humbly offer a rebuttal.

1. Matthew 11:28-29 (Chapter 1)

In chapter one he gives the key text, from which the book gets it title: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-29) As mentioned before, he says it is the only place where we can find Christ’s heart. However, this statement is entirely subjective. It is only the only place where Christ reveals His heart because Ortlund wants it to be.

What about John 17, where Jesus prays to the Father? Doesn’t that reveal His heart? What about any one of the seven sayings on the cross? What about Matthew 23:37-39, prophesying judgment on Jerusalem for her rejection of God’s gracious revelation? To say that only one doctrine, or only one passage really cuts to what Christ truly thinks and feels and teaches often times leads to imbalanced, if not erroneous views of Him. The context for this passage is also vital. Jesus had just said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force” (Matt. 11:12). And then he goes on to prophesy just seven verses earlier the complete destruction and judgment of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for disregarding God’s grace. Other than this, though, I agreed with him in this chapter.

2. Hebrews 5:2 and John 6:37 (Chapters 5 & 6)

Chapters 5 and 6 are two great chapters on assurance of salvation. His key text is Heb. 5:2, “He can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided.” The premises of this chapter basically teach that all who come to Christ in humility and repentance will gain the full salvation for their souls. In chapter 6 he uses the text, John 6:37, that is used of all times for those who doubt God’s grace, “The one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” He quotes Bunyan and others and overall makes a profitable chapter.

3. Hosea 11:7-9 (Chapter 7)

His text for this chapter is Hosea 11:7-9, which says, “So My people are bent on turning from Me. Though they call them to the One on high, None at all exalts Him. How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I surrender you, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart is turned over within Me, All My compassions are kindled. I will not execute My fierce anger; I will not destroy Ephraim again. For I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, And I will not come in wrath.”

He goes on to state that our sins do not evoke God’s anger but His compassion. God is not angry, but compassionate when we sin. He even states “at some level the presence of disease draws his heart out to the child all the more” (p.71). The disease in the context refers to a believer’s sin.

At the beginning of the book, God commands Hosea to go and marry a harlot, and tells him that she is a picture of Israel (Hos. 1:2). In chapters 1-3 God illustrates Israel through the story of Hosea and Gomer. Then, in chapter 4, He begins a sturdy rebuke of Israel. He even says that Israel will not be able to find Him, though they seek for Him (Hos. 5:6).

For the next five and a half chapters until Hosea 11, God blasts Israel for their sins. Their sins are evoking his great wrath, and not His compassion as Ortlund insists. He even says in 9:15 (emphasis mine), “All their evil is at Gilgal; Indeed, I came to hate them there! Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them from my house! I will love them no more.”

In chapter 13, God comes to climax explaining how sinful OT Israel was. And then in chapter 14 He says that even so He will leave a remnant. Now if an average Israelite at that time had read or listened to Hosea and had come away saying that God was full of mercy towards them despite their sin, he would have been totally confused, and would have missed Hosea’s whole point. The point of Hosea, and most OT prophets for that matter, is to beseech Israel to repent and to plead with them to forsake their sin in the sake of God’s judgment. A chapter similar to this one would be justified in a 400-page commentary on Hosea; but if you can only spend one chapter on Hosea, then you should focus on God’s wrath, which was clearly Hosea’s intent in the book, not God’s grace, which is only briefly mentioned.

4. 1 John 2:1 (Chapter 9)

In this chapter Ortlund moves to discussing Christ’s advocacy from 1 John 2:1. In the beginning of the chapter he makes some helpful comments about advocacy, such as differentiating between Christ’s role of intercession and His role of advocacy. The main problem with this chapter comes in the section of application:

“Consider your life. How do you think about Jesus’ attitude toward that dark pocket of your life that only you know? The over dependency on alcohol. The lost temper, again and again. The shady business with your finances. The inveterate people-pleasing that looks to others like niceness but only you know. The entrenched resentment that bursts out in behind-the-back accusations. The habitual use of pornography.” (p. 91)

What message could be more against John’s point in his first letter? “Don’t worry about your pornography,” although Jesus says to cut off our hand or remove your eye to kill those lusts? “Don’t worry about your anger,” although Jesus says it is murder? “Don’t worry about your people-pleasing,” although Jesus says that if you don’t confess him before men, he won’t confess you before His Father?”

And again this is clearly not John’s main intent in 1 John. In this short epistle, the apostle proclaims, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6). Again, just two verses after Ortlund’s verse, John says, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3-6).

John has explicitly said in this letter, “No one who is born of Him sins” (3:6) and again if we hate our brother, we do not have eternal life (3:15). Numerous other verses throughout the book such as 1 John 2:9-11; 15-17; 3:23-24; 4:4; 5:2-5; and 18 contradict the point of this chapter. To cherry-pick the particular verse you want out of a book that clearly teaches Lordship salvation is not exegetically accurate. Again, as with Hosea, I would not mind such a chapter in a commentary on 1 John, but to take only this verse without the nuance of the rest of the book must surely turn out theological imbalance, if not inaccuracy.

5. Matthew 10:37 (Chapter 10)

Chapter 10 was one of the best chapters in the book on child-evangelism. He talked about how we need to teach our children the truth, and quotes extensively from Edwards’ sermon to the children of his church. Ortlund balances penitence with grace, and makes a very good formula for child evangelism. “Our job is to show our kids that even our best love is a shadow of a greater love.” (p.100) He brings out the importance of instilling doctrine and the biblical principles in our kids from the time they are young, so that when they leave the house they will never forget what they heard in their youth. If you can only read one chapter, this is the best.

6. John 14:16 (Chapter 13)

Chapter 13 misrepresents the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit’s role, in summary, is to turn our postcard apprehensions of Christ’s great longing affection for us into an experience on the beach, sitting in a lawn chair, drink in hand, enjoying the actual experience. The Holy Spirit does this decisively, once for all, at regeneration. But he does it ten thousand times thereafter as we continue through sin, folly, or boredom to drift from the felt experience of his heart.” (p. 126)

      a. The passage itself

Ortlund’s main text is John 14:16, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper.” However, this is a mistaken interpretation. The word used here is parakletos. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says that it is most commonly used when referring to an advocate, a defender, a helper, and an auxiliary. Philo uses of Joseph standing before his brethren at the end of the book of Genesis.[3]

When John Wycliffe first translated the Bible, the Catholic Church was persecuting him. He translated this word parakletos as Comforter (Com, with+ fortis, strength). The Holy Spirit is the One coming with more ammunition for the battle. He is the one buttressing the fort against the attacks of the devil. He is not making life as comfortable and leisurely as a holiday resort.

Throughout the book of John, Jesus was consistently persecuted. In a few hours, He would depart from his disciples, so He told His disciples that what they needed was strength from their Auxiliary, the Holy Spirit, to withstand the tough times after their master left.

      b. Examples from Church History

And this is exactly what happened in the book of Acts, the book that mentions the Holy Spirit more than any other in the Bible. When the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, Peter boldly preaches. He can stand up to the scribes and Pharisees, when before he denied his Lord. Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, can face ridicule, persecution, and stoning while praying for his enemies. The Spirit fills Paul with courage so he can sing in jail, and Peter so that he can sleep on the night of his execution.

Throughout all church history, those who were the most Spirit-filled did amazing and hard things. Their lives were far from easy, but God praised them for it. Blandina faced persecution after persecution without falling, Polycarp stood fast up to the very end,[4] Blanche Gamond endured years of persecution,[5] and so did countless others throughout church history, from the early church, to the Albigenses, to the Waldenses, to the Hussites, to the Huguenots, to the Puritans, to the Boxer rebellion in China, to the Iron curtain of Russia, to those suffering now in persecution. The Holy Spirit’s role is to give us strength to keep going, to keep fighting with our sin, and even to give us words to evangelize our persecutors with. “When they arrest you and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11).

      c. Other Passages Dealing with the Spirit

Thus, the Spirit-filled man is able to kill the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:22-23) and gives the power to put to death the deeds of the body. “If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). John records Jesus later on in the Upper Room discourse using the same word parakletos, to saythat the Spirit will come to convict the world of their sins.

This best example of this is found in John Bunyan’s The Holy War. He is the Lord-high secretary whom Prince Emmanuel sends to put His hand overtop of our hands as we are struggling to kill our lying, and gossip, and our anger and our lust, and gives the extra power we lack to put the sins to death,[6] or to “mortify them” in old English.

      d. Conclusions

If we take Ortlund’s illustration of the Holy Spirit giving us a vacation at the beach as spiritual and metaphorical, then it is unbiblical, for spiritually we are to be killing, constantly active, and not resting and lying back; and if we take it physically and literally, then we arrive at the prosperity Gospel. In either case, this teaching is unbiblical. This is not to say there is nothing good in the illustration. If he is trying to say our experience of Christ’s love should be sweet, then the example might fit, but the primary role of the Spirit is to help us kill our sin.

Ortlund’s main problem is not in what he said about the Holy Spirit, but in the primary truths that he ignored. If one has only one chapter on the Holy Spirit, he should focus on killing your sin and strength to endure persecution, which are the primary roles of the Spirit in the believer’s spiritual life, and not his work allowing us to just lie back and let God.

7. Lamentation 3:33 (Chapter 15)

Chapter 15 on the book of Lamentations hid the true meaning of the text. He quotes from Lamentations 3:33, “For He does afflict willingly or grieve the sons of men.” This verse, Ortlund says, is “the literary high point to the letter,” since “it is the exact middle of the book.” (p.137) This is only because he wants to teach his doctrine from Lamentations, and not because it is exegetically accurate as shall be soon seen.

First of all, the context of the book is mourning over God’s judgment. The words anger and wrath are used 14 times in this book, while mercy and grace are not used once. All of the eight references to heart refer to a heart that is overcome, a heart, that is faint and weary, and in the book the Lord’s offers no rest. The whole book God blasts Israel for her sins. Indeed, Jeremiah even says that, “We have transgressed and You have not pardoned. You cover Yourself with anger and pursued us; You have slain and have not spared. You have covered yourself with a cloud So that no prayer can get through” (Lam. 2:44). God will not even consider their prayers. He will not forgive them. He covers Himself in a cloud to prevent those who have had repeated warnings and have ignored Him from getting anything from Him.

Over and over throughout the book Jeremiah laments how God will not forgive His people. In his conclusion (which sounds much more like the high point of the book) he says, “Restore us to You, O LORD, that we may be restored; Renew our days as of old, Unless You have utterly rejected us And are exceeding angry with us” (Lam. 5:21-22). In his conclusion, the truth that Jeremiah ultimately wants us to leave the book with is that it is possible for God to utterly reject His people, so that they cannot return. He leaves it hanging up in the air.

And we know that for a short time between the first and second advents God has rejected Israel his people. “For if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either” (Rom. 11:21). God wearied of the constant rebellion of the Jews, and so He says, “As I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest’ ” (Heb. 3:11). God removes lamp stands, the symbol of light, which we should shine to the world (Matt. 5:13-16), from churches that lose their original fervor (Rev. 2:5).

Again, as with Hosea and 1 John, a chapter like this might not be out of place in a commentary on Lamentations, because all the comments about God’s wrath from the preceding sections of the commentary would balance out that chapter. But when one only devotes one chapter to Lamentations, focusing on the one section mentioning God’s love, and ignoring the rest of the book about his wrath and judgment, such a practice is exegetically incorrect. Lamentations, among all books of the Bible, should give us clear teaching on God’s wrath and judgment, which is precisely opposite to saying from Lamentations that His “natural” work is grace and His “strange” wrath.

8. Galatians 2:20 (Chapter 20)

In chapter 20, Ortlund really seems to have arrived his main point: if God is full of mercy, why then are we trying to work? This is conveyed in the title, which says, “Our Law-ish Hearts, His Lavish Heart.” He summarizes his main point thus, “We can go through the whole day trumpeting the futility of works to please God, all the while saying the right thing from an ‘of works’ heart. And our natural of works-ness reflects not only a resistance to the doctrine of justification by faith, but also, and even more deeply, a resistance to Christ’s very heart.” (p.185) This chapter is more exegetically sound than the previously discussed chapters because the book of Galatians openly and repeatedly attacks the law and focuses much more simple faith in Christ. However, this is not the only theme found in Galatians, and definitely not in the Bible.

      a. Audience and Author

First of all, let us note the author and audience to whom he was writing. Paul was writing to 1st century new believers, whose faith was being greatly challenged by false teachers of Judaism. Paul himself states that he was a champion of works both before and after his conversion (Gal. 1:14), so the author is one of the hardest workers ever; and the audience too is hard working, but the primary danger they face is losing justification by faith.

      b. Earlier References to Killing Sin by Killing Self

Secondly, Paul makes several references in the book to working hard and killing sin as tools in the effort to gain assurance of your salvation. Just three verses earlier, Paul makes it very clear that we must still work: “But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be!” (Gal. 2:17) And then in the same verse that Ortlund uses, Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20) Paul killed the flesh. He was actively crucifying it.

In Luke 9:23, Jesus uses the same root stauros (cross) to say that we must take up our cross if we wish to be His disciples. This would have sounded to the Jew or Galatian of that time like the following saying sounds to us now, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his gun daily and follow Me,” and for Paul, “I have shot myself with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” What did Paul shoot and what did Jesus want us to shoot? They desired to kill our flesh and our sinful desires.

      c. Galatians 5

Thirdly, Paul has a lengthy section at the end of the book in chapter five, where he explicitly says, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Paul wants us to work. He wants us to be free, but he wants to use our freedom to actively kill the flesh. This is kind of like a man, who adopts a boy of 12 years,[7] and who when he turns 17, gives him the freedom to return to his old way of life, but knowing that now the boy will choose the much better life with his new family.

Paul continues talking about the works of the flesh, and openly states what they are, and how to avoid them. “These are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (Gal. 5:17). And then he wraps up this section saying, “Now those who belong to Christ have crucified [from the same root stauros] the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24).

      d. Conclusions

In his page of conclusion at the end of chapter 20, he sums up the whole book very neatly, “Clouds, no clouds—sin, no sin—the tender heart of the Son of God is shining on me” and “we are perversely resistant to letting Christ love us.” (p.187) We could also add to that last statement “and to full obedience to His law.” The main problem with this chapter is that this does not reflect the actual heart of man. In actuality, we all love hearing a message of love. We enjoy hearing that we are doing pretty well like a six year old enjoys birthday cake. But, as Thomas Á Kempissaid, “All men are frail,” but “admit that none is more frail than yourself.” We all tend to belittle our sins, not realizing that we have not “lived well throughout one single day.”[8] So this chapter cannot be true because all “have gone astray,” and all think that their way is best (Isa. 53:6).

9. John 13:1 (Chapter 22)

In chapter 22 he really makes some excellent comments about John 13:1, “He loved them to the end.” If you can only read one chapter, read this alone. His comments about Christ’s bearing the Father’s wrath are inspiring. “What must it have been like for the sum total of righteous divine wrath generated not just by one man’s sin but ‘the iniquity of us all’ to come crashing down on a single soul? …I cannot believe it was physical extremity that killed Christ. What is physical torture compared to the full weight of centuries of cumulative wrath absorption?” (p.200)

II. His Audience

Having dealt with his exegesis, we found that while Ortlund may have a good goal, he often takes passages out of context, or otherwise ignores the true meaning of them. However, the main concern is his audience to whom it was written.

One of my elders, who greatly surpasses me in Bible knowledge and spiritual growth, read this book and said it helped him see the love of Christ. This friend is the most prayerful, probably the most dedicated Christian I know. If this book is written to an audience of godly Christians, then it could be profoundly helpful. If he is writing to the modern-day David Brainerd’s he sees, who spend days praying in the woods and who constantly doubt their salvation, then this may be a good book. But this is not is his audience.

On the first page of the introduction, he says, “This book is written for the discouraged, the frustrated, the weary, the disenchanted, the cynical, the empty.” (p.13) All these phrases are supposed to describe the “normal Christian.” He is writing for the average man, the man who does not have the nuances of theological training.

His problem arises because he makes no distinction between the normal Christian and the fake Christian. All the references to his audience do not have to apply only to the wheat. They could also apply to the tares. For the spiritually mature this book could be helpful, but to the carnal or fake Christian, it may, unwittingly to be sure, lead them into great danger.

Having handed out tens of thousands of tracts, in places as diverse as the suburbs of Chicago to the rural villages of Zimbabwe, it is apparent that there is not a multitude of modern-day Robert Murray McCheyne’s that are confessing their sins daily for hours. Instead, there are millions (this is not an overstatement) of goats pretending to be sheep while still living for the devil, and many more carnal sheep that still bear the marks of a worldly lifestyle. The middle-class, once-a-month Christian and the poor animistic fear-bound villager are the same in this regard. They both know what a worldly lifestyle looks like, and that it is sinful, and that they wish to excuse it.

What message then could be more damaging to a nominal Dutch-reformed Afrikaner than to hear, “Don’t worry about your sin, don’t worry about your cursing, your alcohol, your anger, your racism, your fornication. Grace has it covered”? What could harm the African more than to hear, “Don’t worry about your love of money, your fear of ancestors, the fact that you still are not married after ten years of living with her. Grace has it covered”? What could deceive the materialistic American more than to hear, “Don’t worry about your love of this earth, your setting of affections here rather than in heaven, and your hedonistic searching for entertainment. Grace has it covered”?

The carnal man would have little or no problem with this book. “Great, you’re telling me Jesus forgives me no matter what my sin is.” “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1-2) When you actually ask any of them about true Christianity, they all fail. All men are very comfortable with themselves, when they should be pricked by their conscience. In short, Ortlund comes with a book of consolidation, when the church needs a book of repentance; he comes with a book full of sunshine, when he should come with one shook by thunder. Even the average Christian will probably receive more harm than good because he will be tempted to neglect his spiritual duties rather than fight his sin.

III. His Use of the Puritans

The Puritans, whom Ortlund loves, could all be called doctors of grace, or doctors of repentance. He says in his introduction that he will quote from “the Puritans Goodwin and Sibbes and Bunyan and Owen and others such as Edwards and Spurgeon and Warfield.” But all these men clearly taught repentance.

Bunyan over and over balances his pleas of grace with scenes like the stately palace which must be fought for in the Interpreter’s house, the Old man whom Faithful must reject to enter heaven, the rough road on which Pilgrim must walk, the conversation with fakes like Pliable, Formalist, Hypocrisy, Ignorance, Talkative, By-Ends, Atheist, and others who are not willing to pay the price to kill their sin. Bunyan by no means focuses solely on grace. He openly teaches the doctrine of synergistic sanctification, or, in other words, we work with God to become more holy.

Owen wrote the work The Mortification of Sin, on how to kill your sin. Goodwin, whom Ortlund quotes probably more than any other author, wrote a whole book in his ten book series on faith on the subject of “Though faith be a difficult work, yet we ought to use our endeavors to believe.”[9] He gives one of those lists that the Puritans were known for, in which he gives many directions to obtaining faith.

Goodwin deals with this at length saying, “It is the most difficult matter in all the circle of theology to give both [faith and works] their limits; for whilst duties are only taught, faith is lost, and whilst faith is urged, carnal people dream (says he [Luther]) that good works are spoken against.”[10] The great problem with Ortlund’s work, according to Goodwin himself, would be that he offers no balance to his message of faith and grace. Goodwin says “We speak not against duties, but would reduce you to a right method and order in attaining to the right performance of them… good works do not bring forth faith, but faith brings forth good woks: Titus iii. 8, ‘These things affirm constantly that those which have believed may be careful to maintain good works.’ That is the right method, first to exhort men to believe, then to fall a-doing.”[11] He even says that good works are a “means appointed by God to convey Christ, as conduit pipes convey water; or to bring us to Christ.”[12]

My point is not to say that Goodwin did not teach what Ortlund said he taught, my point is to say Ortlund did not represent the full picture, or works and faith. James 2 tells us we cannot be true Christians without both. Philippians 2:13, which Goodwin uses to say faith comes along with works, commands us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

And Ortlund refrained from mentioning William Gurnall, who wrote The Christian in Complete Armour, a 1,200 page double column, small print book on spiritual warfare,and Richard Baxter who wrote The Christian Directory, on how to become holy in every area of life, who was constantly promoting holiness. And what shall we say of Thomas Á Kempis and John Wesley, who specifically dedicated themselves to holiness? To only quote the Puritans insofar as they promote free grace given to all sinners alike, but not when they mention warring with the flesh, is not presenting the whole picture.

This is not to say these men didn’t teach grace. The point is that they taught much more than only grace. They had much to say about holiness and killing sin, and if we would emulate them, we would become more non-conformist and less engaging to the culture.

Another reason why the Reformers and Puritans may have focused much on grace was their placement in history. The Catholic organization at this time was the main enemy of the Church, and it clearly taught synergistic justification, in other words, we work with God through our prayers to the saints, offerings to the church and needy, and other notable acts of devotion to bring about payment for our sin. If this were the case today, a book like this would truly be much more defendable. Nowadays an insurmountable amount of entertainment is increasingly causing modern Christians to be lazy.

IV. The Impact on the Modern Reader

1. Socrates’ Problem with Books

Ultimately, whether this book will be helpful or dangerous spiritually, boils down to the reader. In Plato’s dialogue “The Phaedrus”, Socrates ends the dialogue with an interesting speech where he argues against writing and books.

According to Socrates, Theuth invented the alphabet and writing. Coming to Thamus, he asks to give these gifts to the Egyptians to increase their ability to remember and record deeds. Thamus responds, “The specific [tool] which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be the hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”[13]

Socrates goes on to say, “Writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence…You may imagine that they have intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives an unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, and to whom not.”[14]

Socrates’ critique consists of two parts. 1. Writing will discourage memory, because it will give the reader the appearance of omniscience when he really knows nothing. 2. A teacher can help a student by giving him the exact piece of truth that will help him, but a book is a teacher without discretion, for a book cannot tell what truths the reader needs. I fear the second critique applies to this book.

This book is like a teacher that does not know its pupil, and therefore cannot tell him the particular truth he needs. If a thief read this book, he may say to himself, “Great, Christ is full of mercy, I’ve got this covered, I can go on with my stealing,” and everyone would say that he, deliberately or unwittingly, misunderstood the book. And yet, no matter how comical the misunderstanding, the book cannot reply to balance the false sentiments it had just imbedded in that man. That is what could happen with Ortlund’s work. Because it does not know its reader and does not know what truth he needs, the book could state some very unhelpful, and indeed damaging truths. Carnal Christians will read it, find an excuse to live sinfully, and thus a worldly church.

2. Objections

One might counter, “If something is true, then it can’t be harmful.” But in fact in many situations knowing truth is very damaging. For example, take the thief described above, and give him the truth that the next-door neighbors have $10,000 and that their doors are unlocked. Many truths are actually very unhelpful.

Or consider Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when she is on the duffer’s islands. As she flips through the magician’s book looking for the spell to make invisible things visible, she finds a spell to hear what others think of you, and she wrongly says the spells and to her dismay discovers what her friends truly think of her, and this ruins her relationship with them forever. This truth was very unhelpful.

And so it is with this book. Give a book like this, no matter how heartfelt, to a worldly church, to a group of carnal sheep and goats, and you are bound to give many an excuse for living in sin. If the readers were all mature, godly Christians well versed in the scriptures, the effect could be more positive, but in the era in which we live, these truths may do great damage.

Conclusion

“The heresies in church history are not universally upside-down depictions of Jesus, but lopsided ones” (p. 28). I fear the author’s words may apply to himself. Origen, who taught that Christ’s divinity was inferior to that of the Father, was a more godly man than you or I, and yet, by teaching this, he opened the way for Arianism, which still plagues the church to this day. Augustine, whose view of ecclesiology helped create the Catholic church, was called the “bright star in the firmament of early Christian history.”[15] Constantine, who began the state church, little realized into how much trouble his views would cause the church he so desired to help. And Zwingli, who persecuted the Baptists, little knew of freedom of religion. If all these men had seen the great error their well-meant teachings and actions would lead the church into, they surely would have changed their actions. Yet their deeds are done and we, their indebted sons in many ways, are also left with the consequences of these grave errors.

May it not also happen with this book? Sinners are always searching for an excuse for their sin. What better excuse could there be than to say that God does not care what your lifestyle is like and will always give grace? While it may be well intended, this book is like an unwieldy weapon, a double-edged sword that could end up doing significantly more harm than good.

Ortlund’s book may be helpful for some, and for that we must thank God. But when anyone examines this generation, one sees a church that is not as holy, not as godly, not as dedicated, not as diligent, and not as spiritually warm as in past ages, and to restore her to her glorious, Puritanic past we need a trumpet blast to awake the sleepy, dreary church, rather than a book to comfort her with God’s grace and her great successes.

Reviewed by Caleb Meyers


[1] Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly (Wheaton, Illinios: Crossway, 2020) p. 28

[2] Ibid., p. 16

[3] James Orr, M.A., D.D. General Editor, “Entry for ‘Paraclete’” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915) found at www.biblestudytools.com.

[4] Eusibius, History of the Church, c.303 AD, Book 5, Chapter 1, Section 17-30 and Book 4, Chapter 15.

[5] Blanche Gamond and Others, Stories of the Huguenots in France and Italy for Young People, (Harrinsonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 2004)

[6] John Bunyan, The Holy War rendered in modern English by Thelma Jenkins,(Grand Rapids, MI: Evangelical Press, 1976) p. 101.

[7] I took this example from one used by Ortlund earlier in the book.

[8] Thomas Á Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Publishing Group), p. 59.

[9] Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, Vol. 8: The Objects and Acts of Justifying Faith (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), p. 520.

[10] Ibid., p. 523.

[11] Ibid., pp. 528-9.

[12] Ibid., p. 529.

[13] Mortimer J. Adler, The Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 7: The Dialogues of Plato Translated by Benjamin Jowet (Chicago, London: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1952), p. 139.

[14] Ibid.

[15] S. M. Houghton, Sketches from Church History (Edinburgh, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1980), p. 24.

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