Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund has been one of the most celebrated Christian books of the year. In the midst of many positive reviews Jeremiah Johnson’s Grace to You review stands out as an exception.
Johnson sharply criticizes the book, going so far as to say that one portion “sounds blasphemous.” While I already had the book near the top of my reading list, Johnson’s negative review pushed it to the very top. What sort of book would evince such strong reactions, both positive and negative?
While Johnson offers a multifaceted critique I want to focus on the “blasphemous” line, which comes from a quote from chapter 15 where Ortlund explores God’s judgment against Israel: “Something recoils within him in sending that affliction. . . . He is—if I can put it this way without questioning his divine perfections—conflicted within himself when he sends affliction into our lives. . . . But his deepest heart is their merciful restoration”
For Johnson, we cannot describe God as “conflicted within himself” without doing violence to God’s divine perfections. To do so denies God’s simplicity and his impassibility (doctrines of Classical Theism) and passages like 2 Timothy 2:13 which says that God cannot deny himself. Despite Gentle and Lowly’s popularity, we must evaluate Johnson’s charge. Does Ortlund present a low, myopic, and nearly blasphemous view of God when he says that God is “conflicted within himself?”
Evaluating Ortlund’s Claim
To evaluate Ortlund’s claim, that God could be conflicted within himself over the judgment of Israel, and Johnson’s claim, that Ortlund approaches blasphemy, we need to step back and evaluate the context of this quote.
Ortlund’s big idea in the book is that Christ’s heart for sinners and sufferers is best described by the phrase “gently and lowly” (Matthew 11:29). Ortlund: “[W]hen Jesus tells us what animates him most deeply, what is most true of him — when he exposes the innermost recesses of his being — what we find there is: gentle and lowly.”
Ortlund focus’s on the person of Christ but, as the book draws to a close, he moves on to show how Christ’s heart mirrors that of the Father and Spirit. In Chapter 15, he focuses on the heart of God displayed in the Old Testament. He states, “[W]hen we see Christ unveil his deepest heart as gentle and lowly, he is continuing on the natural trajectory of what God has already been revealing about himself throughout the Old Testament.”
He takes as his principal text for this chapter Lamentations 3:33
“for he does not afflict from his heart
or grieve the children of men.” (ESV)
Ortlund affirms that God, in his sovereignty, brings about affliction, but that he does not do so, “from his heart.” That distinction, between what God does to bring about retribution on Israel for her sins and his desire to restore Israel, is what leads Ortlund to say that “something recoils within [God] in sending affliction” and that God sends judgment only with “divine reluctance.”
The Puritans and the “natural” and “strange” work of God
Ortlund isn’t pulling in new liberal ideas from a therapeutic culture, as Johnson claims. He’s attending closely to biblical language about God found in the prophets and is standing on the shoulders of Puritans such as Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Goodwin. Here’s what Goodwin has to say: “[T]hough God is just, yet his mercy may in some respect be said to be more natural to him than all his acts of [vindictive] justice itself that God does show… When he exercises acts of justice, it is for a higher end, it is not simply for the thing itself. There is always something in his heart against it… The act of mercy pleases him for itself. There is no reluctance in him.”
Similarly, Jonathan Edwards, another Puritan, commenting on Hosea 11:8, says that “He is a God that delights in mercy, and judgment is his strange work.” Ortlund makes much of this section of Hosea. In the context, God threatens judgment but relents: “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim.”
Borrowing the language of Goodwin and Edwards Ortlund describes God’s mercy as his “natural” work and his judgment as his “strange” work (Edwards got his language from Isaiah 28:21). “Mercy is natural to him. Punishment is unnatural.” While both flow out of his perfect character, mercy gives God delight as an end in itself, the judgment only as a means to an end.
What is God’s disposition?
Ortlund, for his part, anticipates the critique that he is violating God’s simplicity. He cautions: “We must tread carefully here. All of God’s attributes are nonnegotiable. For God to cease to be, say, just would un-God him just as much as if he were to cease to be good. Theologians speak of God’s simplicity, by which they mean that God is not the sum total of a number of attributes, like pieces making a whole pie; rather, God is every attribute perfectly.”
And yet, he goes on, following the language of Scripture, we see that “there are some things that pour out of God more naturally than others. God is unswervingly just. But what is his disposition? What is he on the edge of his seat eager to do?”
Ortlund here is touching on a tension, though not a contradiction, within the biblical text. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, in his commentary on Jeremiah, calls this God’s pathos. On the one hand, God declares that he will bring judgment against Israel because she broke her covenant. On the other hand, God longs to restore her. Brueggemann states, “This will [to a continuing relationship with Israel] is rooted in nothing other than God’s inexplicable yearning, which is articulated in Jeremiah as God’s pathos.” He goes on to state that “This deep tension forms the central interest, theological significance, and literary power of the book of Jeremiah.”
Jeremiah contains fearsome descriptions of God’s judgment and depicts that judgment as a necessary response of God’s justice. And yet, God only seems to bring about his wrath when he can hold it back no longer. Perhaps Ortlund might say that God “holding back” his judgment shows us the divine reluctance to exercise his “strange work.”
I will rally three more passages to Ortlund’s defense. In Ezekiel 33:11 God says, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways!” In 2 Peter 3:9 Peter says that God “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Finally, Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:4 that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” These three verses speak about what God wants, to his desires, to his heart. He does not want the wicked to perish. He wants them to turn, to come to repentance, and to come to a knowledge of him.
Does Ortlund cross a line?
Does Ortlund cross a line when he says that God is “conflicted within himself?” If Ortlund had meant that somehow wrath was foreign to God’s character and that in his wrath he somehow ceased to be truly God-like, then yes, Ortlund would have crossed a line. But that’s not what Ortlund is saying. He affirms that out of the same God flows perfect justice and perfect mercy. God is being no less God when he exercises judgment than when he shows mercy.
Instead, Ortlund draws on language inherent within the text and story of the Bible. Does this language exist in tension with classical expressions of God’s simplicity and impassibility? Yes. Does that mean we should abandon the language of Scripture? No. Does that mean that we should abandon the idea of God’s simplicity? Again, no. But, and here I will tread on dangerous ground, I am impatient with expressions of systematic theology that tell me I must say of the biblical text, “God didn’t really mean that” as in “God doesn’t really recoil within himself” (Hosea 11:8). To be biblical, we need to let the Bible speak for itself. If that means certain passages will be hard to smooth over with our systematic theology, then so be it. It is better to live in the tension than to do violence to the text.
Ortlund has expressed a beautiful truth. We find love at the center of God’s heart. God longs to express that love by sending mercy to sinners and sufferers. Showing mercy is his natural work.