Ray Ortlund Jr. is an honorable man of God. I’ve been hanging out with him for the last decade, and in all that time, I’ve seen no breach in his integrity. I have heard him confess many sins and watched him wrestle through many difficulties. But I’ve never seen him shy away from following God into the fray. The reason, I think, is simple. Ray fears and loves God.
My memories are filled with the evidence.
Rather than try to catalog the things I love about Ray or the many ways God has used him in my life, I’ll simply share three memories that are precious to me, on the occasion of his recent retirement as pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville.
1. “The Bible Is Right. I Was Wrong.”
In the early days of Immanuel Nashville, there was a group of 30 to 50 men who met on Tuesday nights in an old “fellowship hall” for theology, community, and honesty. We used to circle up the chairs in those days—no “head of the table.” So you never knew where Ray would sit. As a young man, I hoped it would not be next to me. We revered Ray. (We still do.) His stare was unsettling. (It still is.)
One night we were working our way through a passage of Scripture when Ray made a passing observation about a verse leading up to our main verse for the night. The observation was wrong, but it was clearly not the point Ray was driving at and not the verse we were focused on. But that didn’t stop one guy (that guy) from circling back to highlight Ray’s mistake.
Many of us, I’m sure, were indignant on Ray’s behalf. Ray was not. He replied on a dime, “Oh. That’s right. The Bible is right. I was wrong.” We moved on. But some of us never got over it.
As I reflect on the vibrancy of Ray’s ministry at Immanuel, this event stands out as an instance of his continual posture before the Word of God. The Bible is always right.
2. “I Am a Sexual Sinner.”
One of the first sermons I heard Ray preach made a deep impression. It was in the early days of Immanuel, and there were about 200 people present. Ray began as he always does, with the text of Scripture—1 John 1:7: “If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” He read verses 1 to 10. He paused. He didn’t look down at his notes. He looked us in the eye. “I am a sexual sinner.”
Another pause. I don’t know for how long. But in that interval of time, I wondered if perhaps I was witnessing the last day of Immanuel Nashville. Looking back now, I believe it was the first day of the new Immanuel. He continued. “I’m not cheating on my wife. I’m not looking at porn. But I am a sexual sinner. If all of the thoughts that went through my head this week were put up on the screens this morning, none of you would want to be my friend.”
I’d never heard a preacher say something like that. None of us had. We were disarmed—as if the Spirit had opened a portal into a new reality and Ray, stepping through, was inviting us to join him on the other side, in that place where the blood of Jesus flows freely for sins and the fellowship of the saints is more than skin-deep. God marked us with the reality of 1 John 1:7—and it is a flagship verse of Immanuel to this day. Many blessings have followed in its wake.
3. “The Sheer There-ness of It All!”
There were only two hunters in the congregation when I began attending Immanuel. When I discovered that Ray was the other, I invited him to turkey-hunt with me on the property of a family friend. The property is picturesque—big, green, rolling Tennessee hills skirted roundabout by mature hardwoods. It was early morning. The view was stunning. When Ray stopped me mid-stride and looked me square in the eyes, I had no idea what was about to happen.
What he said next startled me: “T. J., I’m amazed by the sheer there-ness of it all!” I was turkey-hunting. But Ray was worshiping the Creator—in awe of the “there-ness” of creation as it really is but doesn’t have to be. In all the time I’ve known Ray, I’ve never seen him miss an opportunity to reflect joyfully on the glory of God or the glory to come when in the presence of natural beauty.
Ray is a determinedly joyful and thankful man, but it isn’t a shallow delight in God. Ray has suffered in the service of Jesus, and by God’s grace it has done a good work. I think that’s what makes him so “Jesusy.” The pain has produced a depth in his life and worship. Jesus feels nearer when Ray’s around, because Ray himself feels Jesus nearer.