A year ago, while scanning through the endorsers of a popular decade-old book about the gospel, I was shocked to realize that, of those 17 prominent Christian leaders, six had stepped down or been removed from their ministry positions. That’s a fallout of more than one-third in just 10 years—and it seems as though more fall every day. Though leadership failures are nothing new, two things have been particularly striking in recent years. First, the reasons for removal have frequently been something other than sexual sin.
Consider these descriptions (all from Christianity Today) of well-known leaders who have stepped down or been removed:
- “manipulation, domineering, lack of biblical community”
- “arrogance, responding to conflict with a quick temper and harsh speech, and leading the staff and elders in a domineering manner”
- “spiritual abuse through bullying and intimidation, overbearing demands”
- “insulting, belittling, and verbally bullying others”
- “various expressions of pride”
These leaders, due to their harshness, anger, and pride, are unfit for ministry.
Christians know that God loves them, but can easily feel that he is perpetually disappointed and frustrated, maybe even close to giving up on them. As a result, they focus a lot—and rightly so—on what Jesus has done to appease God’s wrath for sin. But how does Jesus Christ actually feel about his people amid all their sins and failures? This book draws us to Matthew 11, where Jesus describes himself as “gentle and lowly in heart,” longing for his people to find rest in him. The gospel flows from God’s deepest heart for his people, a heart of tender love for the sinful and suffering. These chapters take readers into the depths of Christ’s very heart for sinners, diving deep into Bible passages that speak of who Christ is and encouraging readers with the affections of Christ for his people. His longing heart for sinners comforts and sustains readers in their up-and-down lives.
Secondly, and unfortunately, the leadership problems have been close to home. All of the above descriptions are of leaders who have been connected with The Gospel Coalition in one way or another. This isn’t merely a problem “out there.” In a day in which many secular leaders are increasingly unkind, uncouth, and unhinged, it’s important for Christians to heed Jesus’s instruction that it should “not be so among you” (Matt. 20:26). All too often, it is so.
There’s another serious problem, this one more quiet, less dramatic, but nonetheless as pernicious and pervasive, as common in the pew as in the pulpit.
Why Do We Feel Spiritually Dry?
Many Christians who know the gospel nonetheless struggle to experience and enjoy the Christ of the gospel. Perhaps that’s in part because they’re not at all sure he enjoys them. They live with the sense that Christ is often slightly fed up with them; that they’re just a few sins away from exhausting his patience; that he’s more grumpy than glad when he thinks of them; that even if he’s willing to forgive, he does so reluctantly and reproachfully. I remember sitting with a dear old saint who confessed to me that for years she had struggled with low-grade guilt. Although she was trusting in Jesus, she never felt as though she measured up. In her mind, she was always letting him down.
Both of these problems do untold harm. Leaders who flame out fail to show Christ’s heart to others; Christians who can’t bask in the gospel they believe fail to know Christ’s heart for themselves. At root, both problems stem from a failure to experience Jesus as he really is. And let’s be honest—Reformed, gospel-centered lovers of Jesus need to see and know Jesus as he really is just as much as anyone else does. For all our good theology, we’re also in desperate need of knowing what makes Christ’s heart beat, alongside our friends in other traditions.
Christ rejoices to love his people even more than they rejoice to receive his love.
These are some reasons why I’m so grateful for Dane Ortlund’s timely new book, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. In 23 crisp chapters, Ortlund (re)introduces us to “the heart of Christ for sinners and sufferers.” Ortlund wants us to know who Jesus really is, what is most natural to him, what flows from him most freely and instinctively (13). At his core, Jesus is gentle and lowly. Christ’s heart is most fundamentally a tender, open, welcoming, understanding heart—a heart that rejoices to love his people even more than they rejoice to receive his love.
Because we know Jesus preeminently through the biblical text, Ortlund’s book is relentlessly Bible-focused. Because we’re helped in our understanding of the Bible through the wisdom of those who’ve gone before us, the book frequently mines the 400-year-old wisdom of the Puritans, particularly Thomas Goodwin, Richard Sibbes, and John Bunyan.
Because the Bible’s message about Jesus’s heart is truth to be savored, not just known, and because the Puritans were spiritual shepherds, not just intellectual titans, this book is more pastoral theology than textbook truth. It aims to comfort and console, to welcome its readers into an enlarged and enlivening experience of Christ. It does so with intellectual rigor—neatly summarizing the flow of Bible books for the sake of contextual interpretation, regularly engaging with writers from church history, and helpfully dealing with significant interpretive and theological questions (e.g., does Christ’s present intercession suggest there’s something lacking in the atonement?).
One of book’s most important contributions is its case for how love and judgment fit together in the heart of the triune God.
It’s nuanced, too. Ortlund recognizes that the gentle and merciful Christ also burns with holy wrath and always works with perfect justice (28–29, 108–12). In fact, one of the book’s most important contributions is its case for how love and judgment fit together in the heart of the triune God. Following Goodwin, and drawing on passages such as Isaiah 28:21, Jeremiah 32:41, and Lamentations 3:33, Ortlund argues that God’s judgment—although clearly part of his sovereign character and rule—is nonetheless his “strange work.” He brings judgment with a reluctance that’s different from the way he feels about his works of mercy and redemption. His deepest heart—his innermost desire—is to show mercy to his people.
How to Experience Christ’s Love
In a book that seeks not just to persuade the mind but to heal the heart—to foster a new experience of Christ—language is crucially important. Beautiful truth must be beautifully expressed. Words and images must move through the mind and nestle in the heart. Just listen to these word pictures and simple, poignant ways of stating truth:
- “What helium does to a balloon, Jesus’s yoke does to his followers. We are buoyed along in life by his endless gentleness and supremely accessible lowliness.” (23)
- “Intercession is the constant hitting ‘refresh’ of our justification in the court of heaven.” (80)
- “His heart for his own is not like an arrow, shot quickly but soon falling to the ground; or a runner, quick out of the gate, soon slowing and faltering. His heart is an avalanche, gathering momentum with time; a wildfire, growing in intensity as it spreads.” (203)
He brings judgment with a reluctance that’s different from the way he feels about his works of mercy and redemption. His deepest heart, his innermost desire, is to show mercy to his people.
Explaining Christ’s intercession, Ortlund asks us to imagine hearing Jesus praying aloud for us in the next room. Unpacking Thomas Goodwin’s exposition of Hebrews 4:15, Ortlund asks us to imagine a friend taking our own two hands and laying them “on the chest of the risen Lord Jesus Christ” so that we may feel “the vigorous strength of Christ’s deepest affections and longings” (45).
Ortlund believes, “It is impossible for the affectionate heart of Christ to be overcelebrated, made too much of, exaggerated” (29). Agreed—particularly for those of us who must daily be persuaded of Christ’s eagerness to forgive and embrace us yet again.
Unexplored Facets of a Diamond
The book’s “facets-of-the-diamond” approach, studying Christ from many angles rather than developing an argument that builds from chapter to chapter, runs the risk of feeling a bit repetitive at times. But this particular diamond is so exquisite that it’s worth studying intently. In fact, I’d love to see a few more facets explored.
How does Jesus’s love for sinners relate to his passion for God’s glory? Asking and answering this question will ensure that we don’t have a self-centered or claustrophobic view of Jesus’s love for us. How is Jesus’s love for sinners related to the intra-Trinitarian love of God within himself? Jesus was loved by the Father from before the foundation of the world (John 17:24), and he makes the Father’s name known to his disciples in order that “the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26). What does it mean that the love of God for God is now within us?
Early in the book, Ortlund asks his readers: “Do you live with an awareness not only of [Christ’s] atoning work for your sinfulness but also of his longing heart amid your sinfulness?” (16). It’s a crucially important question, one each of us will do well to ponder. I pray that many will read this book attentively, and that God will use it to fashion kinder, gentler Christian leaders, and to form more confident, joyful Christians. Christians who know deep down that they’re gladly welcomed into the longing, lavish heart of Jesus.