Dane Ortlund, senior pastor of Naperville Presbyterian Church and son of woke Gospel Coalition contributor Ray Ortund (who famously told Christians to read the Koran after the Bible), released his book Gentle and Lowly in April of 2020 to near-universal acclaim and it became (at least in evangelical circles) a runaway bestseller. Churches gobbled up copies for study as weary Christians responded to the book’s premise of showing its readers the true heart of Christ.
It earned the accolades and praises of doctrinal stalwarts like Russell Moore, the always manly Paul David Tripp, the clearly-not-feminist Rosaria Butterfield, and “no way he’s still gay” Sam Allberry on top of being named the Gospel Coalition’s “Popular Theology” book of the year.
Yet even with this clearly solid list of endorsements, something was amiss. It took a comprehensive, theological, and critical review from the editors at Grace to You to expose the book’s theological and Christological imbalances, but most tellingly it exposed (once again) the doctrinal and dispositional softness of modern evangelicalism.
Soft and effeminate evangelicals were aghast that the team at Grace to You (long the sworn enemies of woke evangelicalism) would dare to criticize such a tender and empathetic take on the person of Christ. The book was (ironically) given away at the 2020 Shepherd’s Conference, but upon a closer read merited a more in-depth analysis by Jeremiah Johnson and the Grace to You team.
While scripture is clear about Christ’s gentle and lowly heart (Matthew 11:29), Ortlund’s book characterizes gentleness and lowliness as the primary and defining characteristics of Jesus, writing on page 18 that this verse 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.” Of course, orthodox Christianity understands the entire revealed Word of God to be a revelation of who He is, and the divine simplicity of God to mean that all of His attributes work together to comprise His holiness. Simply, one characteristic does not outweigh the others – Christ’s sword is not tempered by his gentleness, nor is God internally conflicted as Ortlund seems to teach on page 40 – “Mercy is natural to him. Punishment is unnatural.”
Most ridiculously, the very premise of the book is that the modern church is beset by a scourge of Christians who hold a view of God that is too judgmental and holy. That is, if only Christians could understand how Jesus “feel[s] about his people amid all their sins and failures” (book description), we might stop “suspect[ing] that we have deeply disappointed Him” or that we have “permanently diminished our usefulness to the Lord” (from the book’s introduction). Both of the aforementioned feelings are sinful for the Christian, for the record.
Instead, the modern church is infected by a Christianity that does not take God’s judgment and righteousness seriously enough. It is not that our view of God is not gentle and lowly enough, it is that our view of God is not holy enough. We don’t take Christ’s hatred for sin seriously enough. The reason Christians flocked to the comforting arms of Gentle and Lowly‘s premise is the exact same reason we flock to seeker-sensitive ministries that feed us what we want to hear and teachers who seem to compete for who can best soften and equivocate the Gospel so as not to offend anyone. Ortlund’s Gospel “presentation” in the book follows the same man-focused pattern, as revealed in Grace to You’s critique:
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).
In the same way we are being fooled into navigating by feelings and accepting them as automatically valid (you know, empathy) despite the clear teaching of Jeremiah 17:9, we are being told that the church needs a softer understanding of the character of Christ, and there are plenty of beaten-down, feckless Christian leaders anxious to be self-affirmed by this characterization. The premise (and indeed the book itself) affirms what so many Christians want to hear: Jesus is a soft, emotional crier just like them. If Christ has to fight, he fights with the feelz.
While there are plenty of examples on Twitter of “gentle and lowly” Christian leaders responding to Grace to You’s critique without the (admittedly subjective) gentleness and lowliness they demand from others, perhaps the best example of the kind of softness the critique exposed comes from none other than Ray Ortlund, who will apparently mute critical voices on Twitter because he needs “uplifting” voices in his life (not Bereans or discerners, of course):