Gentle and Lowly
Author: Dane Ortland
Reviewer: Tony Fowler
I’ve frequently been disappointed by books that come highly praised by well-known Christian authors. The books may be good – just not as good as the blurb suggests! So, when I first saw the advert for Dane Ortlund’s book ‘Gentle and Lowly’, and noted the comments that suggested, in effect, that this is ‘the best book since the Bible’, I thought ‘Ay, right!’ And I didn’t buy it.
Just a few months later, I came across a copy in the second-hand section of a Christian bookshop. It was in pristine condition. It looked as if it hadn’t been read. Unable to resist a bargain, I bought it; and have now bought extra copies for friends and for the church library – we’re keeping our own. Both Linda and I are reading it for the second time within a matter of months – so helpful have we found it. Linda always makes notes as she reads a book, for further reflection. She had to stop doing it this time – because she was copying out almost the whole book!
The book’s subtitle – ‘The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers’ – is an accurate description of its contents. The title comes from the only occasion in the Gospels where the Lord Jesus describes his own heart. Matthew 11:29: ‘I am gentle and lowly in heart…’ (ESV). From that starting point, Ortlund traces the theme of God’s amazing and undying love for His people through the Scriptures. In doing so, he frequently corrects our mistaken thinking about God’s character. We say, ‘God is love’; but so often we don’t live as if that’s the case. We limit His love. We doubt that He really loves us. What we know in our minds, too often fails to touch our hearts. Our lives are impoverished as a result.
Ortlund’s teaching challenges us in a way that’s both encouraging and heart-warming. Yet he does this without sentimentalising God’s love. He retains a balance with other aspects of God’s character – notably His justice. As a retired minister, I wish that the themes Ortlund sets before us had found a far greater place in my preaching. Too often I focused on what we should do in response to God’s love, rather than allowing the Lord’s heart to overwhelm us with His grace.
I started off slipping slim pieces of paper into the book to highlight passages that I might share in this review. My copy rapidly began to sprout spines like a hedgehog! I personally found the chapter on legalism (‘Our Law-ish Hearts, His Lavish Heart’) particularly helpful. But other chapters will speak specifically to your heart, I am sure.
This is a book that more than lives up to its billing – so why did it end up unread in a second-hand bookshop? In his introduction Ortlund makes clear that he’s influenced by the Puritan writers of the 17th Century – particularly Thomas Goodwin. Many people have a distorted view of the Puritans. The word ‘puritanical’ stands for what is strict, harsh and unyielding. Perhaps this put the first owner off the book? If so, they have missed out on a real treasure; for the Puritans’ writings give us a vital perspective on the gracious character of our God, and the undying persistence of His love for His people. Ortlund does us a great service in making their thinking available to us, using helpful paraphrases and modern illustrations to enable us to cope with the challenges of their old-fashioned language.
I’ll close with one quote that exemplifies the value of this book. Commenting on Romans 5:6-11, Ortlund writes: ‘In Christ’s death, God is confronting our dark thoughts of him and our chronic insistence that divine love must have an endpoint, a limit, a point at which it finally runs dry. Christ died to confound our intuitive assumptions that divine love has an expiration date. He died to prove that God’s love is, as Jonathan Edwards put it, ‘an ocean without shores or bottom.’ God’s love is as boundless as God himself’ (p.192).
Read, enjoy, and be blessed by the reality of Jesus’ love for you!