An Author Interview from Books At a Glance
Greetings, I’m Fred Zaspel, and welcome to another Author Interview here with Books At a Glance. Today we’re talking to Dr. Dane Ortlund about his stimulating, captivating, wonderful new book (I would add more adjectives, but that’s all I come up with right now!). It’s entitled, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. It’s a wonderfully enriching book, and we’re very glad he can talk about with us.
Dane, welcome – great to have you with us, and congratulations on a really good book.
Thanks so much Fred. It’s really great to talk today.
Tell us what your book is about and what the contribution is that you hope to make.
It is a book, as the subtitle suggests, on the heart of Jesus Christ. I mean that in a very specific and explicit way. If we were to go through a standard seminary curriculum, we would have a class on and learn about the person of Christ, and we would learn about the work of Christ. I’m writing about something that certainly connects with and is related to those vital aspects of theology, but the heart of Christ. Really the north star text that launches the book, which is where the title comes from, Gentle and Lowly, is Matthew 11:29. Spurgeon points out that that is the only place Jesus ever talks about his heart, and it is not what we might expect Jesus to say about what his heart is. In the one place where he talks about it, he says it is “gentle and lowly,” or “humble,” you can translate that second word. So that’s what the book is about. The Puritans and others throughout church history, as you know Fred, talked a lot about the heart of Christ.
We don’t talk about it as much today, and I don’t like that. I’d like us to talk more about it. We certainly recovered, as we do need to each generation, the objective side of the gospel—justification, adoption, imputation, the legal side of the gospel. But there’s a complementary, subjective side, which is what Christ’s own heart is, so the book is just trying to say, “do we not tend to create Christ and God in our own image and expect him to love like we do, only better?” In fact, he does love better than us. He also loves differently than we do. He is drawn out to his own people in their sins and in their anguish and in their defeat. So I just want to say look, if we follow what the Bible says under the tutelage and coaching of the great saints of the past, we discover that astonishingly way we feel most defeated in life that where Christ heart lives. That is where he is most strongly drawn.
I think this is really picking up on something is needed here, and there really isn’t much written on it. Warfield wrote that famous essay on the emotional life of our Lord, and there have been hints and pieces here and there, but I don’t know about a book-length treatment of the subject, at least for some things, and I think you’ve already alluded to it, but let’s pick up on that again just so people don’t miss it, lest they think that your focus here is a little bit out of focus, or a bit disproportionate, as you already mentioned. The one time that Jesus talks about his inner life, if we put it that way, his heart, he’s humble and gentle and lowly, so when he pulls back the curtain, like you say it, but expand on that a little bit more for us.
No one, on the one hand, spoke more readily and frequently of hell and the horrors and eternality of it and the wrath of God than Jesus did. We need to be very clear on that. In fact, earlier in Matthew 11, the very text where he speaks of his own heart being gentle and lowly, in the preceding paragraph, he is denouncing woes on unrepentant cities, Chorazin and Bethsada. So this is a big Christ. This is not a one-dimensional Christ, and we need to understand that we can’t domesticate an imaginative one-dimensional Christ. To the degree that we diminish our sense of hell and divine wrath, that is to the degree that we diminish the comfort and consolations of what Christ’s very heart is.
But I just want to point out that we could make more out of it, and we should, that the one place where Jesus speaks of his heart is as gentle, that this is the tip of the iceberg. It’s a representative statement, not a peripheral or out of proportion statement that Jesus makes. It fits with how he is in passage after passage of all four Gospels which themselves flow out of what we know of God and God’s own heart from the prophets. So, while on the one hand, Jesus is the one who spoke of gouging out an eye and cutting off the hand, and spoke denunciations, say in Matthew 23 to the Pharisees. He was searing and denunciating to the impenitent, but to the penitent, to the reduced, to the trusting, to the faith-filled, to those who are coming to him, not as those who fear his denunciations on the impenitent, that tender and gentle and abiding is his merciful heart towards the penitent.
What about the Gospel writers? How do they convey the heart of Christ to us?
One way to answer that, Fred, would be by simply getting out of the way—standing back and letting the real Christ stand forth, and not taming him down the way we are inclined to. We try to trim him down to our size, and the Gospel writers are giving us true historical records of the Christ who lifts our eyes to the wonder of what his heart is, and let them show us the way he time and again is hugging lepers, making time for the destitute, ignoring the worldly impressive people to make time for the beggar on the side of the road, welcoming prostitutes, making tax collectors his own disciples, and weeping at the death of Lazarus. There is actually only two times in the Gospels where we are told that Jesus cried. One was at the death of Lazarus, John 11, and the other is over Jerusalem in Luke 19. Both times it’s not weeping over his pain inflicted upon him. It’s the anguish of others, and this is again just a representative anecdote from the sweep of all four Gospels, to show us that his heart is drawn out to the pain of others.
You mentioned Warfield (and you’re the expert on Warfield, brother) on the emotional life of our Lord. What an amazing classic essay! He goes through and just notices what are the repeated actions and emotions in the life of Christ that the Gospel writers drive, and his conclusion is that the one that brings mostly loudly and clearly is compassion. The compassion, which both in Greek and Hebrew, the underlying word there has to do with our guts, what you most viscerally feel when you are confronted with suffering, so the Gospel writers pervasively, I mean, I don’t think you can read the four Gospels open-mindedly and open-heartedly and not be arrested with the gorgeous compassion of the heart of Jesus.
Of the New Testament epistles, Hebrews highlights this theme in some poignant ways. Can you give us a sample or two?
It sure does in Hebrews. I have trouble understanding Hebrews. It’s probably in the New Testament the most difficult book for me to track the points. It just takes a lifetime of delving into it. But a couple passages from Hebrews have meant so much to me. At the very end of chapter 4 and into chapter 5, of course, the whole message of Jesus in his priestly office and in chapters and chapter 4 and 5, it speaks of Christ as our high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. Actually, it says we don’t have a high priest who is unable but who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. So apparently minus sin, there is nothing of this fallen world that Jesus himself did not walk through.
John Owen wrote seven volumes of his works that were given a phrase by phrase walkthrough. He disappeared, got the book of Hebrews, and then drew this out. He has basic statements on the heart. Thomas Goodwin’s book, the Puritan Thomas Goodwin’s book, The Heart of Christ, who is in heaven for sinners who are on earth, you know, the Puritans would take a verse, they would ring it dry, and 300 pages later, send off the findings to a publisher. A single verse! And it was Hebrews 4:15 that ignited Goodwin’s book, The Heart of Christ. We go to the high priest who is able to sympathize. In the mornings I am often assuming, and I don’t even realize that I’m doing this, Fred, but I’m assuming I have a high priest who loves me but he can’t really sympathize with everything—and I’m corrected!
Chapter 5 goes on to speak of Jesus as the supreme high priest. It speaks of him dealing gently with the ignorant and the wayward, dealing gently and again, just a beautiful statement of what the high priest needed to be, and what Jesus supremely was. One other text, very briefly, in Hebrews is towards the end of chapter 7, where again, speaking of his priestly office, and specifically its intercessory work, a neglected aspect of the work of Christ, his intercessory work, says he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Christ.
Why? Because he always lives to make intercession for them. So here I am. I am a sinner to the uttermost center. I need a to the uttermost Savior, and I have one because it is hard for me, he doesn’t run dry or grow cold. He always lives to make intercession for me. He is up in the court of heaven, constantly hitting refresh time and again, on his atoning work from 2000 years ago in the court of heaven. The angels are looking on rejoicing, God the Father is, happily, not reluctantly, but happily embracing and accepting that intercessory work. I am totally safe, and Hebrews really helps us to see that.
Ah, that is wonderful! He makes intercession, he knows the needs that we have, and at every point, he is able to make it because he’s been there. But the point is, he does so not in an impersonal way, or in a dispassionate way, but precisely because he is sympathetic with his people. We have got to love that.
Moving on, how does the apostle Paul convey this understanding of Christ?
I’m reminded of something J. I. Packer said when comparing Goodwin and Owen, two of the Puritans. Packer said no one ever understood the mind of the apostle Paul better and the heart of the apostle Paul better than Goodwin. And if you were to get Thomas Goodwin’s 12 volumes, the first two volumes, over a thousand pages are devoted to verse-by-verse sermons of Ephesians.
So, when you ask about Paul and the heart of Christ, the heart of God, what firstly to my mind, Fred, is the book of Ephesians. That is where we have phrases such as “God is rich in mercy”—not middle-class, but rich in mercy. Goodwin points out, nowhere in all the Bible does it say that God is rich in anything else. God is wrathful, but he is not said to be rich in wrath. He is just, but we are never told he is rich in justice.
Now we don’t want to threaten the doctrine of divine simplicity. We don’t want to look at God as a pie cut up into different attributes, as if some attributes are bigger than others or in tension with others. Any attribute that God is, he is fully, and eternally/infinitely. He is simple at the same time, if we follow the biblical witness.
God does speak, the Bible does speak of God as having something pour out most deeply in the way that other things don’t. Lamentations 3 is so rich in mercy. Ephesians 2, Paul in the next chapter, in speaking of the love of Christ, you can tell at the end of chapter 3 of Ephesians, Paul is grappling, almost seems to be in a sanctified way, frustrated that he can’t speak more adequately up the love of Christ. Paul is praying for power for the saints, not power to do miracles or walk on water—power to know how much God loves—and he says power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, this famous passage, to know the love of Christ.
Apparently, there’s only one other reality in the universe that is endless, that has no border in breadth like height and depth, and that is God himself. Paul uses that way of speaking of the love of Christ. Romans 5 which speaks of a reconciliation, in that chapter Paul takes the doctrine of justification, from Romans 3 and 4 and in chapter 5 he plunges into our hearts and he says now look, basically in 5:1–11, if you were that screwy, if you were that messed up back when Christ died for you, then now that you’re adopted, justified, and reconciled, how much more, that’s the phrase uses three times in the chapter, how much more loved and safe. Paul is one of our great teachers on this theme of the heart of Christ.
Just because some may find this a bit surprising we should not overlook that the Old Testament itself reveals this about the heart of God, right?
Actually, Fred, the strongest and most unblushing expressions of heaven’s heart come from the Old Testament. So, this is not a God of wrath that is followed by a God of love in the NT. Take a book like Jeremiah as an example. Jeremiah is 52 chapters, and for 29 chapters are God’s judgment on Judah and Israel, and they have been very wicked. When he comes to chapter 30, the book of consolation, chapters 31, 32 and 33 and God says all this is true. Chapters 1 to 29 are still true, God has loved his people with an everlasting love. The text speaks of God’s own bowels when describing his love. We don’t use that language today, for obvious reasons. But if it means the innermost parts of it, the ESV translates it as “heart,” as he says that God calls his people a “darling child,” and then the big last part is of Jeremiah is God’s judgment on the nations, but this island in the middle is the point of the book of Jeremiah, despite chapters 1 to 29 years, who I am going to be for you.
Hosea 11 is about God’s heart recoiling over his people, and he cannot give up his sinful people. Zephaniah 3 is about God rejoicing and singing over his people. It is all over Isaiah. Exodus 34, where God puts Moses in a rock and God passes him, and it is all over the Old Testament, it comes up about a dozen other places later in the New Testament. In the Old Testament where God passes by and declares his name and the focus is on God’s mercy and grace. This doesn’t mean I’m a frothy God, and I will by no means clear the guilty, but it says he’s going to visit the iniquity of the fathers down to the third and fourth generation elsewhere in the Old Testament.
God speaks of visiting his kindness down to the thousand generations. So, there is almost a wonderful, and I hesitate to use the word, but a biblical disproportion, and I don’t want anything to threaten God’s impossibility or simplicity. I just want to go where the text goes, and that we are so, so slow of heart to believe God’s goodness in this way, and it is really worth bringing drying celebrating.
Yeah, I think before I let you go, we’ve got to go back to that a little bit more, how if we missed this, this is such an unusual approach. And yet, as you point out throughout the book, which is such a dominant theme throughout the Bible, so talk to us more broadly about how the Scriptures then direct us themselves to think about Christ, and maybe how that relates to orthodox Christology. Does not compromise it in any way?
No, no, no. I think that’s a great question, and a perceptive question that I think we need to bear in mind the distinction, of course, between the deity and humanity of Christ, John Owen is very helpful in this instance. He was very careful in his commentary on this issue. Likewise, to speak of the heart of Christ being drawn out. We need to connect that to the humanity of Christ. We don’t want to say anything that would threaten absolute divinity, the deity of Christ in a way that makes Christ divinity changeable in some way. We don’t want to do that!
But you’re right, I think we have neglected this theme, and I think in part, and this is speculative, in part, it’s because of liberal theology has hijacked things, such that if we talk too much of the love of God, the heart of God, it’s almost like in our evangelical world, we can usually get suspicious of such language, wondering if such talk is jettisoning the wrath and retributive justice of God. I just want to hold both of those up.
I actually am considering the idea of writing a book at some point in the next 5 or 10 years, if God allowed me, on the wrath of God, because that doctrine is also a neglected and misunderstood doctrine. We need to recover that doctrine. When I think about what I want to leave me behind as the flavor of what I believe for my five kids, about what I believe Christianity is, and they say nothing else, but that Jesus is drawn out to us in his gentle and lowly in heart, they could do a lot worse.
We’re talking to Dr. Dane Ortlund about his wonderful new book, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. I have to say, my heart just leaped and rejoiced while reading through this book. It is one of the richest, warmest reads I’ve come across in a long time, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Please, do yourself a favor and get a copy to read and enjoy. Get a dozen, and hand them out to people you love. It’s a truly enriching book, and there is just not much else like it being published today.
Dane, thanks so much for this excellent book and for talking to us about it today.
It was really a pleasure to do it, Fred. Thank you.
Buy the books
GENTLE AND LOWLY: THE HEART OF CHRIST FOR SINNERS AND SUFFERERS, by Dane C. Ortlund