The Controversy Behind Dane Ortlund’s ‘Gentle and Lowly’ Explained

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In 2020, Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers became a real hit. Released in the early days of the pandemic, Ortlund’s book portrayed a Jesus rarely discussed in contemporary popular theology — one that makes gentleness the central theme of Jesus’ life and character. “If Jesus hosted his own personal website, the most prominent line of the ‘About Me’ dropdown would read: GENTLE AND LOWLY IN HEART,” Ortlund writes. The book would be an enormous comfort in the best of times and, since 2020 was decidedly not the best of times, was all the more popular with readers in need of a reminder of Jesus’ compassion. It was named The Gospel Coalition’s “Popular Theology” book of the year.

And that would have been the story, but for a review from Grace to You has ignited a new contentious conversation around the book. Grace to You is the media ministry run by John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church. The review, by editorial manager Jeremiah Johnson, took serious issue with the book’s depiction of Jesus.

“One gets the distinct impression that Ortlund wants to tame the Lion of the tribe of Judah,” Johnson writes, arguing that Ortlund puts too much emphasis on Jesus’ gentle lowness as the expense of his table-flipping indignation. “Ortlund seems convinced that most evangelicals in the current generation have a perception of Christ’s character that isn’t mild enough,” Johnson writes. “As if too much fear of the Lord is what has made postmodern evangelicalism so dysfunctional.”

The review gets increasingly hostile, with Johnson accusing Ortlund at various points of using “empty, therapeutic jargon”; expressing “dangerous” ideas; “sloppiness” and and even being “blasphemous.” In one particularly head scratching moment, Johnson attributes the book’s success to social distancing, writing that “it should not surprise us that the book’s popularity has exploded in the same time that countless Christians have been separated from their churches, out from under the consistent teaching of God’s Word and its sharpening, discerning influence.”

The fact that Ortlund’s characterization of Jesus run afoul of a certain kind of Reformed Christian understanding of Jesus is probably no surprise, but it did set off a lot of conversation among many people who found the review uncharitable.

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The controversy was clearly an overall net positive for the book, in any case. As publisher Justin Taylor notedGentle and Lowly rocketed to #134 on Amazon’s bestseller chart.

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