I don’t like commenting on current, Internet controversies in the Christian community. But, because I will be asked, I was deeply disappointed in the GTY review Of Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly. I love GTY and the ministry of John MacArthur. I’m grateful to God for what I have learned from this ministry. And I wish no ill on GTY at all.
Why then am I disappointed in the review? I’ll share a few things that come to my mind right away. And, I have no intention of this being any sort of point-by-point refutation. Who knows, maybe I’ll reread G&L and find that I missed a lot my first time through.
First, when we criticize another’s position, we should not argue against a position that our opponent would not agree is his own. Having read Gentle and Lowly, I do not believe that Ortlund would agree that his position or doctrine was at all fairly represented in the GTY review. The review faulted Ortlund with his lack of emphasis on the wrath and judgment of Christ. However, the intent of the book was in no way to say that there is no wrath or judgment in Christ. Instead, the book was intended to display for many Christians who do not see it the sweetness of the love of Jesus for those he has redeemed. To say that G&L does not paint a complete picture of Jesus is of course accurate. The book was never intended to do so. The book intended to focus on a vital aspect of who Jesus is that is often missed by believers.
As a similar comparison, take any Christian hymn you love. I will argue that it does not paint a complete and fully orbed depiction of Christian theology. “In Christ Alone” does not talk about election or Christ’s existence from eternity past. “Holy, Holy, Holy” does not speak of the fact that holiness of God is expressed with grate wrath in the fires of hell for those who persist in their bent against the Lord. Should we do away with these hymns because they do not fully depict our theology? No, we understand that there is only so much time in any song, and every song focuses us on a set of thoughts to the necessary exclusion of others. Similarly, every good book focuses us on certain points of fact about the Lord to the necessary exclusion of others.
Do not skip over the fact that Ortlund is abundantly clear in this book that he is writing about the heart of God for the redeemed. It makes little sense to then repeatedly temper that discussion with the wrath of God for those who are not forgiven. A genuine understanding of propitiation would declare to us that the wrath of God for the sins of believers was fully satisfied in the death of Christ on the cross. Thus, God now looks at his chosen with a deep and abiding love that is beyond what many Christians have ever imagined. This is not cheap grace but glorious propitiation.
Second, I do not find the review at all charitable. In the GTY review, there are far too many pithy, gotcha phrases that seem to me to be aimed more at scoring points or garnering tweets: “taming the lion of Judah?” Eventually the review even drops the word blasphemy, though only as a hint rather than as a full accusation.
Reading the review, I was saddened by the ugliness of the tone. Not only did I feel the tone was harsh toward the book itself, but also it seemed ugly toward those who have found good in the book. The GTY review offers a set of reasons as to why they believe that someone might have found G&L appealing. For the most part, these reasons are belittling at best.
Thirdly, I do not believe that the review fairly addresses that much of how Ortlund chooses to describe the Lord is in keeping with exactly how God describes himself. God uses anthropomorphic imagery so that we might, in our finitude, understand him. Thus, God speaks of being moved, of regret, of his arm, of his heart, and so much more. Yes, a solid systematic theology helps us to understand that these images are images, and they require more thought to understand how they work as we truly grasp the holiness of the Lord. But I fully disagree that there is a problem with letting yourself focus on a single description God gives of himself even if that focus is not, in the moment, balanced by other biblical truths. Sometimes you need to focus on the mercy of God without taking time out to remind yourself that Jesus turned over the tables at the temple. And sometimes you need to focus on the genuine anger of Jesus turning over the tables without tempering it with Psalm 23.
I’m sad, because, had this review been written differently, I believe that the folks at GTY could have raised very helpful cautions for Christians to consider in their reading of G&L. Perhaps those concerns could have even helped others decide not to read G&L, that would be fine. But I fear that the harshness of the review will only serve to convince those who are already negative toward what they see in G&L as wishy-washy or sentimental while pushing those who are most likely to be influenced by G&L away from future helpful teaching from GTY.
I would have loved to see this review as a caution. I would have loved to see this review raising questions. I would have loved to see this review suggest that, if a reader is not careful, he or she could draw theologically incorrect conclusions. After all, any book that focuses us on a single aspect of the heart or character of God could lead a reader to believe that the attributes of God are parts, thus denying divine simplicity, the oneness of God. All that God is, God is. There is not part of God that is love and part of God that is wrath. God is God, fully, all the way through. And God does not change so that emotions are stirred in him the way that ours stir in us.
I would have loved to see this review remind believers not to allow an emphasis on the love and mercy of Christ to confuse one regarding Christ’s attitude toward sin. God hates sin. We should too. And we do not want to allow our embracing of the depth of Christ’s grace to allow us to think that Christ has ever loved sin. This caution could have been raised without mocking or out-of-context quotation.
I love GTY and the ministry of John MacArthur. I believe that the church would be far better were we to learn far more from him. And I will certainly not let this review prevent me from continuing to learn from and grow from that ministry at GTY. But I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed because the review is just not even-handed, not gracious, not honest in its depiction of G&L. I found G&L, a book I was given at the Shepherds’ Conference in 2020, a lovely read, something I intend to read again, because it helped me to love the mercy of Christ. I’ll certainly reread G&L with the cautions in mind. But I know already that my first reading of G&L did not even begin to make me think false things about the Lord or his nature.