Clarity and Charity: A Response to Johnson’s Review of Gentle and Lowly

Earlier this week, Grace to You posted a critical appraisal of Dane C. Ortlund’s popular book, Gentle and Lowly. But to call Jeremiah Johnson’s review a critical appraisal might be understating it a bit – at one point, Johnson accuses Ortlund of a “dangerous and significant departure from classical theism.” And to say that the review kicked off some controversy is also an understatement.

Now, let me declare two things upfront.

First, I have been incredibly blessed by the ministry of Grace to You and by the writing of Dane Ortlund. I’ve commended both to many.

And second, I don’t like weighing in on conflicts like this. I want to say it is solely because I desire a spirit of unity and don’t want to be quarrelsome. While that is somewhat true, the biggest reason for my reluctance to engage is because I am in way over my depth in this debate. I’d be very comfortable sitting on the sidelines while these two parties I respect, along with countless others who are more educated and eloquent than I, hash this thing out.

However, the work of shepherding often pushes us out of our comfort zones. Our church has commended Gentle and Lowly in several different forums, so members of the congregation had questions when they saw Johnson’s review. Some of those questions were sent my way, and I felt like I had to prayerfully and thoughtfully respond. And so It’s with great humility as well as a great deal of appreciation and affection for everyone involved that I write the following: Dane Ortlund could have written Gentle and Lowly with more clarity, and Jeremiah Johnson could have written his review with more charity.

What is the Book About, and Who is it For?

When reading Johnson’s review, my first thought is that he and I have a very different understanding of what Gentle and Lowly was trying to address – and more importantly, who was being addressed. It seems that Johnson is engaging with this book as if it were intended to be a robust Christology – a work, primarily, of theology. Through such a lens, Johnson’s repeated demands for balance make sense. However, I understand Gentle and Lowly to be a succinct pastoral work aimed at a very specific audience – discouraged Christians who feel beaten down by a too-big view of their sin and a too-small view of Christ’s heart for His own. And through that lens, Johnson’s criticisms seem to miss the point.

Johnson seems to deny that this audience (those who have an unbalanced view overemphasizing Christ’s hatred of sin) exists in any material number. He asserts that “Ortlund’s book is overcorrecting for a fault that simply does not exist among Western evangelicals in any significant measure.” While I agree with Johnson that insufficient fear of God is a widespread problem in Christian circles, I have pastoral concerns about him dismissing the notion that there are those suffering from the opposite problem. I’d cite the unexpected success of this book as evidence that perhaps this audience is larger than any of us realized, which ought to warrant some prayerful reflection.

I would also humbly posit that the type of Christian who is attracted to Grace to You (or Grace Community Church, or for that matter, the church I serve at) is more likely than the average Christian to fall into the category that Johnson dismisses as insignificant. Those of us who subscribe to Calvinistic soteriology tend to have a very big view of depravity, giving substantially more weight to sin than the average church-goer.

Given my understanding of the book’s intended audience, I feel Ortlund displayed an appropriate balance while still emphasizing his main point. I understand that Johnson disagrees, but I think his demand for equal treatment of every attribute of Christ misses the book’s point. Ortlund states that he is not intending to write a balanced work and explains his reason why. Johnson acknowledges this, and his response, verbatim, is “Fair enough.” However, Johnson then criticizes Ortlund as if he had missed the mark on a book that he never claimed to be writing.

This expectation of balance causes Johnson to misinterpret Ortlund in several places. For example, early in the review, Johnson asks, “Are the words of Matthew 11:29 truly more authoritative and illustrative of the divine perspective on sin and sinners than, say, Matthew 10:34 (“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”) or Luke 12:49 (“I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!”)?” In doing so, Johnson holds Ortlund to a dichotomy that Ortlund never proposed. Throughout the book, Ortlund repeatedly makes clear that he is writing about Christ’s heart for (this is important) His own. I am not sure why Johnson presents Christ’s words to His enemies as a “gotcha” towards Ortlund’s premise that Matthew 11:29 teaches that Christ’s heart is gentle and lowly towards His own. Ortlund didn’t claim to be writing a well-rounded work on hamartiology that covers all of mankind – he’s trying to tell weary Christians that Jesus welcomes His own to find rest in Him.

I see a similar misplaced demand for balance in Johnson’s appraisal of Ortlund’s use of Puritan sources. Ortlund’s book has had the effect – whether accidental or intentional – of reviving a seldom discussed understanding of the Puritans. The Puritans wrote with both precision and passion. As the church has rediscovered the Puritans, it seems we mostly talk about the former, not the latter. Johnson criticizes Ortlund for not presenting both sides of the Puritans equally, but I think that’s an unfair demand. There are countless volumes written on the Puritan’s theological precision, and I don’t think it’s incumbent on Ortlund to rehash all of those points before presenting one of their less frequently discussed qualities.

The Importance of Clarity and Charity

I realize that up to this point, I come across unbalanced on the side of Ortlund. The second point, however, is where Ortlund holds much responsibility.

In many ways, Ortlund’s writing style reminds me of John Piper – both authors make striking statements that provoke an emotional reaction, and then spend the rest of the chapter carefully defining terms, explaining nuances, restating the initial claim a variety of ways, and ultimately demonstrating that the initial claim is not as shocking as it appeared at first reading. While this writing style is part of Gentle and Lowly‘s winsomeness, it also makes the book ripe for misinterpretation – especially when one or two lines are viewed in isolation. (That is not a criticism of Johnson. It’s unreasonable to expect a reviewer to quote entire chapters at a time.)

In Johnson’s review, we see several instances of this issue. He criticizes Ortlund for over anthropomorphizing on page 73, yet seems to have missed footnote number 5 on page 72, in which Ortlund spends 240 words giving the same careful warnings that Johnson did. Again, this is not entirely Johnson’s fault – such a critical clarification should probably not have been buried in a footnote. Similarly, Johnson accuses Ortlund of ignoring Divine Simplicity when Ortlund spends several pages on this topic, albeit in chapter 15. Could Ortlund have explained this important doctrine a dozen chapters earlier? Probably. And so forth.

Overall, it seems that there is a pattern between author and reviewer.

  1. Ortlund makes an evocative claim in language that is easy to misinterpret.
  2. Ortlund anticipates objections and addresses them.
  3. Ortlund further refines his premise and shows from Scripture (and from Puritan writings) that the initial claim is not as shocking as the initial read.
  4. Johnson engages with the evocative claim (#1) but either ignores or handwaves away #2 and 3, reading #1 through the least charitable interpretation.

It seems that the tendencies of this particular book and this particular review create a downward spiral. Gentle and Lowly is written in a way that could lend itself to multiple interpretations, and this review is written in a way that assumes the least charitable of those interpretations. The fault is shared between Ortlund and Johnson. On the one hand, in our culture the onus of being understood rests with the messenger, not the recipient. But on the other hand, giving fellow believers the “Christian benefit of the doubt” and choosing to read their words through the most charitable interpretation seems to be consistent with 1 Corinthians 13:7.

Given the book’s subject matter, it feels deeply ironic for me to say that Ortlund’s book needs more clarity and Johnson’s review needs more charity.

Some Closing Thoughts

Finally, there are some things in the review that just came off the wrong way. At times, it seems like Johnson brings his own agenda and projects it onto Ortlund. For example, I’m not sure why Johnson alludes to COVID-19 restrictions or the seeker-sensitive movement. It seems neither here nor there.

But more concerning than that, I found the ending of Johnson’s review distasteful. I believe it was done with good intent, but the “commercial” for Johnson’s upcoming blog posts was a bad decision. It, unfortunately, gives the appearance that Grace To You published a provocative critique of a popular book to use the ensuing controversy to drive clicks to their own upcoming blog series on the same topic. I think the inclusion of the last two paragraphs shows poor judgment by Johnson, his editors, and Grace to You.

Overall, I agree with Johnson that Ortlund should have been more careful in phrasing certain ideas and concepts. However, I strongly disagree with Johnson that Gentle and Lowly contains dangerous teaching. I saw nothing in Johnson’s review, nor have I seen anything in my multiple readings of Gentle and Lowly, that would cause me hesitation in continuing to recommend the book to Christians who would be well served by meditating on Christ’s kindness towards His own.

David Mitzenmacher

David Mitzenmacher is a Christian, husband, and father. He serves as a lay elder at Faith Bible Church in Naples, Florida, and is working on his Master of Divinity at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.