Before planting a church nearly four years ago now, I sat under the preaching of Ray Ortlund at Immanuel Church in Nashville, TN. I’ve never experienced a worship service that could capture your heart the way the Lord used Ray to seize ours in those days. I remember people telling me they would get up early in the morning to drive home from vacation just to make it in time to hear the welcome.
To all who are weary and need rest
To all who mourn and long for comfort
To all who feel worthless and wonder if God cares
To all who fail and desire strength
To all who sin and need a Savior
This church opens wide her doors with a welcome from Jesus, the mighty friend of sinners.
Every week, without fail, I found a welcome from Jesus in those words. Every week, without fail, that reality surprised me. I didn’t grow up knowing this Jesus—this gentle and lowly one, drawing me near to himself not in judgment but in grace and mercy. His words in Matthew 11:28 came alive to me in new ways. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” As I was to discover during my time at Immanuel, this was the real Jesus.
What Ray’s words did for an entire church full of people every week, his son Dane’s book does for any who crack its spine and read the first sentence. “This is a book about the heart of Christ.”
Have you ever read a book about the heart of Christ for you? Is your head full of knowledge about his sovereignty but lacking the reassurance of his love? Are your bookshelves stocked with practical steps to take in your Christianity but void of the call to come to him and rest? Do you know who Jesus is—who he really is, his very heart for you? Do you know how Jesus feels about you?
Dane Ortlund wants you to know. Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers is his wonderful attempt—one that, in my opinion, succeeds far beyond my already very high expectations.
The Gospel’s Heart
John Piper wrote a book whose title has always stuck with me: God is the Gospel. If that’s true (and it is) it means that the very person of God is the very message of the gospel. In other words, all the comfort we find in that wonderfully freeing message of the gospel comes not from some angry Old Testament God now placated in the death of Jesus but from the everlasting and eternal God whose heart longs for his people and always has. God is the gospel. The gospel is the message of God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s salvation of sinners.
God, then, is the one who loves, truly and perfectly, sinners and sufferers. He loves those who can’t get their act together. He loves those who can’t get their sin under control. He loves those who can’t heal what’s most broken about themselves. He loves those who have no more answers and come to him with only a bucket-full of need. He loves those who’ve reached the end of their rope and have no strength left to reach for another. He loves the weak, the wounded, the impotent, the broken, the ones at the bottom of this world’s barrel. Can you find yourself in that mix? If you can, you have an opportunity to see the massive heart of Christ for sinners and sufferers of every stripe.
Jesus is not Trigger-Happy
Maybe you grew up with a vision of Jesus like me. He was there to save me from my sins but not to love me in them. Yes, the cross was effective, and it covered my past sins. But look at me now. What a failure of a Christian. How could he not be disappointed? So imagine my surprise when studying the book of Hebrews, I found this amazing passage. “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers” (Hebrews 2:10-11).
The Bible presents to us not a Jesus who can’t wait to come in judgment but a Jesus who is patient and long-suffering, not wishing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9). In Ortlund’s words, “Jesus is not trigger-happy…He is the most understanding person in the universe. The posture most natural to him is not a pointed finger but open arms” (p. 19).
The open arms of Jesus are not a one-time invitation. They are a life-long standing appointment. All we have to do is show up. He does the rest. He gets us the best seat in the place. He provides the most satisfying meal. He pays the bill. And when we show up late, he’s not giving us the cold shoulder. He’s not asking why we wasted his valuable time. He’s not looking for someone else to lavish his gifts on. We arrive disheveled and frantic, mopey and depressed, anxious and worried, hard and cold. He shows up gentle and lowly.
That is not to say, as Ortlund puts it, “mushy and frothy.” This is the kind of careful explanation you can expect from the book. Jesus is the strongest, greatest warrior in the universe (Exodus 15:3) but his disposition toward all who come to him—however imperfectly—is full of forgiveness and mercy. Abounding in sympathy (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Bible-Soaked and Puritan-Hearted
Where does Ortlund get this vision of Jesus? From the Bible. And not just from the New Testament. Throughout 23 chapters, Ortlund shows us verse after verse from the whole Bible what the heart of Christ looks like for us.
But we all need a little help from our friends. Ortlund certainly has his. Their names are John Bunyan and Thomas Goodwin. John Owen and Richard Sibbes. Charles Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards and B.B. Warfield. Like Christian’s companions on his Pilgrim’s Progress, these dear ones help point out the dangers and the beauties along the way. The message is, frankly, so shocking that it would be unbelievable without a historical witness. That Jesus could be this open to helping those most undeserving could be found to be a sham if not for the witness of those who experienced it in the past.
Ortlund says this book was seven years in the making. I remember those early days as he began to think through the heart of Christ. We emailed a few times about our mutual reading in John Bunyan’s work Christ a Complete Savior based on Hebrews 7:25, “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” I could see this wasn’t merely an intellectual exercise for Ortlund. This was a matter of how to live as a Christian. Dane, and for the matter, the entire Ortlund family, isn’t interested in Christianity as a stepping-stone to one more place in life; they’re interested in Christianity because they love Jesus.
Gentle and Lowly is a book written by someone who loves Jesus. More importantly, it’s a book written by someone loved by Jesus.
Loved by Jesus
We can never feel too loved. We can feel smothered. We can feel caged in. But we can never feel too loved. Love doesn’t smother nor cage; it frees and gives. In my experience, the problems we have in our Christian journeys are not because we feel too loved by Jesus but because we don’t receive his love as we ought. In other words, for most of us to make significant progress in our Christianity, we need to open our hearts more to the massive love of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We need a love we cannot contain. We need a love as big as God. We need a love that dies for us and lives for us.
Jesus died for us, but he also now lives for us. This intercessory work of Jesus in heaven now, seen in passages such as Hebrews 7:25 and 1 John 2:1, is the key to Ortlund’s book. Without neglecting the work of Christ in his earthly life, on the cross, and in the resurrection, Ortlund shows the value of the heavenly intercession of Jesus for us right now. We have an advocate. We have one who loves to the uttermost. His heart did not stop beating for his people when he ascended to heaven; it flows down in power right now today. The love you need right now is freely available in Christ right now. All you have to do is open the eyes of your heart by faith to see him.
The everlasting, all-sufficient love of Jesus is where the power of this book lies. If you need a love you don’t warrant but can’t stop longing for. If you need a love bigger than your sin. If you need a love that sits with you in the ashes of your burned-out life. If you need a love too great to be limited to what you deserve, this book is for you. It’s for all who will come. It’s for all who sin and suffer and reach for a savior that understands their need. It’s for all who are weary and need rest. It’s for all who mourn and long for comfort. It’s for all who feel worthless—of which I never seem to stop feeling—and wonder if God cares. This book will help you see he does. Oh, he does!
Editor’s Note: Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers is available for purchase.