Q&A: Dane Ortlund Answers Your Questions about the Heart of Christ for Sinners

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

A Conversation about Christ’s Heart for You

A couple of weeks ago, we asked readers to submit their questions for Dane Ortlund, and many of you sent in questions from around the world. Questions like how Christ's gentleness fits with his wrath, whether or not we should really say God has emotions and if so, what they're like, and how Jesus, God Incarnate, can really understand what it's like to face temptation like we do.

Gentle and Lowly

Dane C. Ortlund

How does Jesus feel about his people amid all their sins and failures? This book takes readers into the depths of Christ’s very heart—a heart of tender love drawn to sinners and sufferers.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:37 - What Prompted You to Write the Book?

Matt Tully
Today we’re going to share a few questions that listeners have sent in from around the world related to your remarkable book Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Before we jump into their questions, could you just briefly share any of your thoughts on the incredible response to the book since it was published just this past April?

Dane Ortlund
I am overwhelmed, as you all are. I actually don’t know how to interpret it. Apparently, God had a ministry in mind that neither I nor any of us were aware of. So, God be praised! I submit. I yield. So be it. I think every Christian author would say, when they sit down with a project, that they have a sense that God has laid something on their heart to share. That’s true, but never have I had such a strong sense of being merely a channel, not a source. God is the source. And I don’t mean that in a weird or mystical way, but God had something to say—I don’t know how else to put it—that we had not been thinking about much in many quarters of the Christian church. So, hallelujah!

Matt Tully
That is actually a good segue into the first question, and it’s from a listener in the city of Kettering in the United Kingdom. He writes, “Thank you for writing Gentle and Lowly. I’m really enjoying it. What prompted you to write the book?”

Dane Ortlund
Wading into the Puritans and realizing that they were talking about something that we don’t talk about. Namely, the heart of God, the heart of Christ. The thing is, Matt, they did not leave behind the wrath and justice of God when talking about Christ’s heart. It actually was their view of divine wrath, of real justice, that made their vision of his heart that much more real and precious and unspeakable. So one answer to that question is simply my own reading and what I was learning and growing in, but another deeper layer to the answer is my own life, my own folly, my own weakness and lack and need, my own sin and suffering. That book is not theory. It’s not a scientist with a white lab coat on in a sterile environment and a petri dish. I am an ordinary Christian trying to stumble my way forward in life, and this truth of Christ’s heart, which the Puritans taught me about in a way no one else today was, has been oxygen to my normal up and down Christian life. So it was just me trying to survive would be one answer to the question of what prompted the writing of the book.

Matt Tully
Do you remember the moment when you were, presumably, reading the Puritans—reading a specific Puritan—that the core concept that Christ’s heart toward sinners and sufferers is maybe something different than what we thought? Do you remember when that crystallized for you and you had that realization?

Dane Ortlund
Yes, I do. It was reading Thomas Goodwin’s The Heart of Christ in Heaven towards Sinners on Earth—for Dane Ortlund. Actually, the real title is about four times longer than that. Several pages in, Goodwin starts talking about the heart of Christ in a way I thought we were not allowed to talk about.

Matt Tully
What do you mean by that?

Dane Ortlund
In effusively blushing terms: You may take your hands and you may lay them on the breast of Christ, and you may feel the way his heart yearns and beats for you even now as he is in Heaven. Yea, more now that he is in heaven, as his very own Spirit abides within you—this kind of thing. I didn’t know you could talk about him that way. I thought only the liberals could talk about him that way, and actually, they can’t. So it was reading that little Puritan paperback that Banner of Truth published that it suddenly all started to explode in my heart, and they showed it to me in Scripture and I began to find it in some of the other dead authors, but Goodwin most of all.

Matt Tully
Why do you think it is that this way of viewing Jesus—why did we lose it? Why is it so foreign to many of us?

Dane Ortlund
I don’t know the full answer to that. One or two thoughts are that it feels mushy to us—that could be one answer. Another is we have done a wonderful job recovering the centrality of the gospel in an objective way in our generation. Atonement, justification, redemption, adoption—those are glorious realities we dare not ever stop talking about and celebrating and singing about and praying our way through. But, those are essentially objective realities. It is what, in a black and white way, is true of me as someone who is in Christ. But as someone who is in Christ, there is also this subjective reality of how he, especially as the God-man, feels about his little pinky toe—Dane Ortlund—on earth, of which he is the head. His own body. How he feels. And the Scripture will not let us wiggle out from under the conclusion that he is drawn most strongly to us when we are at our worst, if we are his body. And that’s just a wondrous truth that we have not been talking about much.

Matt Tully
Do you remember the moment that you decided not just that you were amazed by this discovery and convicted by this discovery and how you thought about Jesus, but actually thought, You know, I think I could write a book about this. I feel like I need to write a book about this. Do you remember that moment?

Dane Ortlund
Yes, it was slowly building over time, Matt. I had some discussions with my former colleague and your current colleague, Justin Taylor, and told him what was beginning to marinate in my own heart as I was reading the Puritans. I said, I would love to write a book on this grand theme. I’d like to do it in my 60s. In his gracious, godly, humble way, he gently rebuked me for that and said, It’s a little presumptuous of you, Dane, to think, number one, that you’ll still be alive then; and number two, that you will still have this fresh in your own heart. That’s a realistic comment! So he said, Why don’t you just think about giving it time now? So I said okay, very well. I was thinking I would give it decades to percolate, but I think, actually, there’s a lot of wisdom in what he said. So I did it about 22 years sooner than I was planning and began conversations with Crossway, and it has been so much fun working with my favorite publisher on the planet about this glorious theme.

09:52 - Where Do We See the Heart of Christ throughout Scripture?

Matt Tully
It’s been a delight for us too. Another question here from a listener from Burnaby, British Columbia: “As you say in your book, Matthew 11:29 is the only place where Jesus specifically talks about his heart. [The Greek word there is kardiá I believe] What, in your opinion, are the other two or three most important places in the Scriptures where we get a picture of the heart of Jesus even though the word heart is not actually used?”

Dane Ortlund
Wow, what a great question. There are many places. A couple that come to mind, Matt, are of course Hebrews, which I just pick up a couple of brief verses in the book, but Hebrews is littered and strewn with reflection on the solidarity of Christ with his people. It’s such a focus on the humanness and on his solidarity with us on the way in which he moves through life and knows exactly what we are going through. In Paul, you get a strong sense of Christ vicariously, in a substitutionary way, taking our place. That’s glorious. In Hebrews, you get the complementary truth of Christ not bumping us out of the judgement seat and bearing our punishment—actually, you do get a little bit of that in Hebrews—but you also get this way in which Christ with us experienced what we do. Especially at the end of chapter 2 and at the end of chapter 4. In every way—minus sin, bracketing out sin—in every way he knew what we walked through. So, Hebrews would be one. John 14–16. I don’t spend much time there in the book, but John 14–16 is a place where, as Christ is in the upper room, where his heart is on full display. He might not say This is my heart, but that is what is pouring out of him as he talks to his disciples. One other passage that comes to mind—Matt, this is such glory—the end of Ephesians 3. This is so completely unpreachable. You cannot ever touch the ceiling on this. Ephesians 3 where Paul prays—who would ever have expected him to pray like this?—he is praying that the Ephesians would have power. Now, hang on. Power for what? To walk on water? To raise the dead? To heal people? No. Power—supernatural power—to know how much Jesus loves them. To know the love of Christ—the height and breadth and length of it—that passage (Eph. 3:14–19). The meaning of the text, as you expound it and look at it very closely, is that you actually can’t know and experience and feel Christ’s loving heart for you without heaven giving it to you, without the Holy Spirit supercharging that experience, letting your heart crack open to that more deeply than we ever could in our own natural resources. So that’s Christ’s heart, too, in Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3.

Matt Tully
Going back to something you said at the very beginning of our conversation, it does seem like we can be so often focused on the objective elements of the gospel and of salvation that we miss that Paul is praying essentially for an experiential knowing of salvation that we’ve been given, not merely the objective reality behind that.

Dane Ortlund
Exactly right. It’s a both/and. Wouldn’t you say, Matt, some of us are more comfortable with one than the other? Some of us are Let’s just go to school. I want to write my papers, take my tests, do a multiple choice exam, and I am really comfortable in Galatians 3 and Romans 4.

Matt Tully
We’re not putting our hands up in worship as much.

Dane Ortlund
Right. Others of us, we are just wired the other direction. But it’s a both/and. Of course, the biblical language of knowing (Old Testament and New) is not one or the other (objective or subjective). It is the whole human experience. That really reflects what we’re talking about anyway when we talk about the heart of Christ. The heart is a total human experience category. It’s not just the emotional side. It’s the thinking, judging, rationalizing, feeling—yes—experiencing. So as we talk about Christ’s heart, that lands on us in a total experience, total knowing, our own total heart receiving that.

14:30 - Can Jesus Really Understand the Temptations We Face?

Matt Tully
Here is another question that actually relates to the book of Hebrews and these other passages that speak to this issue. From a listener in Santa Cruz, Bolivia: “Hebrews 4:15 says that Christ sympathizes with us in our weaknesses because he was tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin. Yet, human temptations are so strong because of indwelling sin, which Jesus never had. So how are Christians consoled with the knowledge of Jesus’s temptations with that big difference?”

Dane Ortlund
Human sin certainly does make us more prone to cave into temptations, for sure. I accept that premise. I’m not sure, Matt, I would agree with the premise that indwelling sin itself strengthens the temptations themselves. Maybe that’s true, but even if I were to concede that, I would want to put back to the questioner the notion that Christ had temptations we don’t. Okay sure, maybe we have indwelling sin so we cave in a way he never did. But Christ, as the God-man and as the last Adam, succeeding in every way we don’t, had temptations we don’t fully experience, or certainly experience certain temptations more fiercely than we do. In other words, his difference from us, I think, yes, perhaps at one level made things easier for him because he didn’t have indwelling sin—I don’t know exactly how to think about that—but also harder. And here’s a great way to try to think about what I’m trying to say right now: C. S. Lewis talks about temptation in terms of a man walking against a strong wind. He says if a man finally yields to that wind and lies down, he doesn’t know how strong the wind would have been ten minutes later when he’s that much more tired. That’s what Jesus did. He never laid down. So actually, the logic of that is Christ knew more intensely what all of our human temptations are than we ever do because we do give in from time to time, or often. So I would just say let’s let Hebrews say what Hebrews says: that he experienced all that we experience, minus sin.

Matt Tully
Do you think there’s a limit to our ability to understand some of these kinds of issues when we get to Jesus’s person and the two natures that were at play there?

Dane Ortlund
I’m sure you’re right. When we read Luke 4 and Matthew 4, the two accounts of the temptation of Christ being tempted by Satan, it’s a little mystifying. What exactly, mentally and psychologically, was our Lord enduring? We can understand to a degree, truly. I don’t believe, as you are rightly saying, Matt, that we can understand exhaustively, experientially what Christ was walking through given his unique role as the coming Christ, the Messiah, David’s son and what he was fulfilling on behalf of all of his people for all of human history. No wonder he was sweating blood when he was on the eve of the cross.

17:49 - How Does Christ’s Gentle Heart Fit with His Wrath?

Matt Tully
Here’s another question from a listener in Chicago, Illinois, right down the road from us: “I long for the gentleness of Jesus, but when I realize that my repentance is not as deep as it should be and my ongoing sin is still great, I am terrified of Jesus’s wrath and violence so often depicted against those who fail in faith. How can I make sense of this and reconcile Jesus’s gentleness but also his wrath against sin when I’m not as faithful as I should be?” Another listener in Amman, Jordan had a similar question: “How do you understand the emphasis in the Old Testament in particular of God being judging and wrathful compared to Jesus?”

Dane Ortlund
Those are big questions. Those are urgent questions, Matt. Actually, I’m touched by that first questioner and the way he or she puts it. You can hear where they are at, can’t you? I would say, actually, the very posture of that questioner reflects the answer to the question. It’s the person who doesn’t ask that question in that kind of way who may be in peril of experiencing the wrath of Christ eventually. We can’t see, of course, who this person asking the question is and where they’re exactly at spiritually and so on, but I think I heard the questioner speak of longing for the gentleness of Jesus and to realize that my experience of repentance is not as deep as it should be. That’s honest. That reflects a certain freshness of heart before the Lord. The heart of Christ exists to calm and assuage that kind of concern and fear. That’s the whole point. If you’re asking, I don’t know if I’m doing things right to get Christ’s heart, you probably are, because you want it. If you’re assuming you don’t need to ask that question and that you have everything pretty well put together inside of you, then you may be in a spiritually perilous position. So, I love hearing that question; it almost answers itself. Now, having said that, the question does remain and needs to be wrestled with and answered: How does Christ’s gentle heart fit with his wrath? That’s an urgent, immediate, obvious thing that we need to keep wrestling with. One way to tackle that, I think, is to say there would be no gentleness of heart if there were no wrath, no taking sin with utmost moral seriousness. If Jesus were a big softy with no wrath, no judgement towards hardness of heart towards impenitent sin, actually, I believe, then his gentle and lowly heart dissolves too. It’s both, or neither. Otherwise, if he’s not a wrathful, judging Christ to the impenitent, then he’s not really gentle and lowly in heart; he’s just smilier than us. He’s just nicer. It’s froth. But people tend to think of wrath and gentleness from Christ like two ends of a seesaw—one goes up, the other goes down. It’s much more like two elevators rising and falling together, as if they’re tied together and if one goes up the other has to go up. It’s both, or neither.

Matt Tully
Even if that’s true from Scripture, and you would want to make that case from Scripture, do you ever struggle to accept that reality that they aren’t a see-saw but two elevators going up and down together?

Dane Ortlund
No, I don’t. Maybe I should more. I’m actually really relieved that he is a Christ of wrath and judgement. If not, what can we say to the victim who has been deeply, deeply mistreated and, actually, whose life has been ruined through the sin and mistreatment or abuse or whatever of others? If there’s not a Christ who is going to right all wrongs—Jonathan Edwards preached this and took great comfort in it as he was getting unjustly fired—if there’s not a Christ who will right all wrongs, I don’t think that’s a Christ to whom I can open my heart for his heart—his lowly heart—to come in. Because it’s a partial Savior, it’s a partial Christ, and it’s not one I can put the full weight of all of my commitment onto.

22:41 - What Is Your View of Divine Impassibility?

Matt Tully
Another question from Dallas, Texas: “Hi, Dane. Can you help me better understand your view of divine impassibility? Do you believe that God experiences emotional change via his covenantal relationship with us?” Could you start answering that question by helping to define that word divine impassibility first?

Dane Ortlund
We are getting into deeper and deeper waters here, brother. Divine impassibility is the notion that God’s own internal affections, what is happening within the Godhead, are not at the mercy of circumstance. He is not reactionary and reacting to us and at the behest of what is going on in the world. So we don’t want to speak of God as emotional in the same way that we are. Here’s what I would want to say: Does God have emotions? Yes. We emotion-laden creatures are created in his image. Surely, among other things, one thing that must mean is the level of emotion. The difference is we are fallen creatures, so our emotions go haywire. Our emotions are at the mercy of our circumstances. God has emotions, yes; but he is also impassible. He is not at the mercy of circumstances. No, he is not. I think people can get worried about divine impassibility because they assume that the answer to both questions are yes. Does he have emotions? Is he at the mercy of circumstances? But, it’s a yes/no. The Puritans were very, very careful to navigate this with theological care because there are traps laden everywhere. So, we want to speak the way the Scripture does about God. God is impassible, but he is also, the Scripture says, a passionate God. He would not be God if he were not. He is an overflowing fountain of love. That’s who he is. As Bible Christians, we are not Neoplatonists. We don’t believe that there’s a deity up there who is cold, aloof, and distant. Actually, perhaps many of us in our Christian evangelical churches actually functionally do believe that. But that’s not what the Scripture give us. Ultimate reality is not cold, dark, empty space; but an unceasing explosion of intra-Trinitarian love spilling out to engulf his people. That’s actually what ultimate reality is. So let’s affirm divine impassibility, but also say that.

Matt Tully
You said that God is not reactionary in his emotions to the changing circumstances around us. How would you distinguish between God being reactionary on the one hand and being responsive to his people, responsive to our needs and even having emotions in response to us? Where’s the line there?

Dane Ortlund
Excellent question. He reacts; he is not reactionary. He responds; he is not at the whim, mercy, and behest of what he is responding to. I think maybe one way into that, Matt, is to understand the nature of the covenant relationship with which he engages his people. Calvin is very strong on this in the Institutes. He comes to us in such a way that is sort of getting down on our level and looking us in the eyes, kind of like if you or I—each of us stands about six feet tall—get down with a little two-year-old. We get down and speak to them on their level. We might get on our hands and knees. It’s out of our love for them. That’s a very imperfect analogy. God, by covenant, has in a sense bound himself to us in relationship. He has chosen—not because he has to; he is God—but he has chosen in his condescension to interact with us in a meaningful, relational, personal way. The doctrine of the covenant is, I think, one way to understand that in Scripture. So yes, he does respond to us. You cannot read the Bible for long without concluding that God interacts meaningfully with us. But he is also God. So we need to hold both of these things together. He responds, he is personal, he meaningfully engages us on the one hand; and he is transcendent, glorious, utterly beyond both in space and time anything within us.

27:35 - How Does Christ’s Heart Relate to Our Union with Him?

Matt Tully
Another theological question from Hutchinson, Kansas: “Union with Christ is the central core of the gospel. It’s the thread that stitches together the whole Bible. How do you see the relationship between the gentle and lowly heart of Jesus with his indescribable gift of eternal union with him?”

Dane Ortlund
That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? I don’t know exactly how to connect the dots here. I do know we all love union with Christ. Wow! That is the macro doctrine in terms of salvation in the New Testament. It is, as this questioner rightly said, it is the core of the gospel. Maybe we could say something like this: Christ’s heart embraces those in union with him. Remember, we are his own body. Acts 9:4: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Not, Why are you persecuting all those Christians way down there who are disassociated from me?

Matt Tully
My followers.

Dane Ortlund
My followers. Right. Why are you persecuting me, my own body parts, my members? The New Testament speaks of union with Christ in two ways: a macro way and a micro way. In a macro way, he is our federal head. We are in Christ in the sense that unbelievers are in Adam. As his fate goes, so goes ours. So in that way, Christ’s heart comes out to us sort of like a father to his children. He is our federal head. But also in a micro way, the second half of 1 Corinthians 6 makes this very clear. In a micro way, there’s an intimacy to being in Christ, one with him, where it’s more like marriage, like a husband’s love for his bride. So as a father’s heart for his kids, as a loving, healthy husband’s heart for his wife—in both ways I think we could say the New Testament speaks of our union with Christ and how we experience his heart.

29:42 - What Was Your Main Purpose in Writing Gentle and Lowly?

Matt Tully
That’s so beautiful. You mention in the book a common practice for the Puritans was to take a single verse and just squeeze every last drop from it. Usually they would even write a whole book out of it. This person from Little Rock, Arkansas writes: “These days, a quick browse of the average Christian’s bookshelf reveals that we don’t do that as often anymore. Is that something that you were trying to do with your book?”

Dane Ortlund
No. I did want to treat the Scripture like that, but I was looking at 20 or 25 passages, not just one. Well, Matthew 11:29 I guess sort of was that, but I was also going all over the place. I was not trying to do what the Puritans did.

Matt Tully
Maybe even to broaden the concept, you were taking a pretty focused concept or theme and really trying to unpack it from Scripture and then not just summarize it like in biblical theology, but actually apply it to the listener in a really focused sort of way.

Dane Ortlund
That’s true. You’re right, brother. I remember talking with the Crossway publishing team and saying, *What I want to do is take the heart of Christ and look at it like a many-faceted diamond. One chapter is this facet, another chapter is this facet, etc. So just in the same way that you might go to downtown Chicago and look at the Sears Towers and you have 20 people looking at it from 20 different angles and they’re describing what they see. They’re all looking at one thing, but they’re describing it differently. That’s what I wanted to do with the heart of Christ because it demands it, and we haven’t been talking about it.

Matt Tully
Is there any other doctrine or point of our salvation that you feel would also deserve a similar kind of exploration?

Dane Ortlund
Wow! Actually, I think there are several that I think we have not been talking about enough. One is the intercession of Christ. Another is hell. The old timers talked about hell much more freely. Lots of healthy things happen when we reflect on hell in the right way. And another is heaven. We don’t talk and think and sing enough about heaven. So there are other things, but I would say those are all—is this right to say?—those are all offshoots of the heart of Christ. That’s not quite the right way to put it, but the heart of Christ is so central. You can stake a whole life on what Christ’s heart is. And there’s a sense in which everything is footnotes to that. So, I’m glad we’ve been thinking about that more.

32:17 - I Want to Read the Puritans; Where Do I Start?

Matt Tully
Maybe as a last question, this is a listener in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: “I’m a young church leader who has recently started delving into the Puritans. Do you have any top recommendations for good books to start with?”

Dane Ortlund
I certainly do. There are so many! A couple come to mind. One, of course, is Richard Sibbes’ The Bruised Reed where he does what you just said the Puritans did—they took a single verse and wrung it dry and whatever came out 300 pages later, send it off to the publisher.

Matt Tully
What verse was he looking at there?

Dane Ortlund
He was taking Matthew 12 where Jesus says “A bruised reed I will not break; a smoking wick I will not snuff out,” (Matt. 12:20) which is a quote from Isaiah where it’s talking about the servant to come. Jesus is applying that to himself. What a beautiful picture. Just one sentence about that book: Jesus is the kind of savior, apparently, who if you are like a tall, green frond by a river and you’ve been trampled by animals and, in a sense, you’re back is broken—you are crippled, you have endured the falleness of this world and the slightest little breeze will knock you over to your destruction—he’s the kind of savior, apparently, who comes by and doesn’t knock you over. He comes by and bandages you, heals you, props you up, and gives you fresh strength. He’s not the kind of savior who comes by and licks his finger and thumb and snuffs you out when your flame is almost out. This is the biblical image there in Matthew 12. He’s the kind of savior who fosters fresh blaze. That’s the kind of savior he is. So, Richard Sibbes. John Bunyan, Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ. Have you ever heard a better title to a book than that? Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, on John 6 where Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). It was Bunyan’s favorite verse. He never said that, but I deduced that because it’s the verse he quotes more than any other in other books not expounding that particular verse. Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, found in Volume 1 of his published works that Banner of Truth publishes is his extended reflection on that verse. And it’s not just evangelism. It’s not All you unbelievers come; it’s for us believers who keep screwing up—you—come and welcome to Jesus Christ. That’s a couple.


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