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What is the Heart of Christ? – Dane Ortlund

Home » What is the Heart of Christ? – Dane Ortlund

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Ortlund about his recent book, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Topics of conversation include: 1) How we see Jesus’s gentle and lowly heart in his actions throughout the gospels, 2) How Jesus’s happiness pairs with our sinfulness, 3) How the incarnation illustrates God’s gentle and lowly heart 4) How Jesus’s role as high priest connects with Jesus as the lowly one, 5) Other authors and resources helpful in understanding this aspect of Jesus’s heart toward us.

Dr. Dane Ortlund serves as the senior pastor at Naperville Presbyterian Church in Naperville, Illinois. Dr. Ortlund has a PhD in New Testament from Wheaton College and is the author of Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Crossway, 2020).

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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:17):

Jesus Christ is the most studied figure in history. Libraries are full of books about him. Some of the most beautiful paintings in history are of him. And some great music has been written to him. And some really bad music, too. Even our dating system centers on Jesus. Many people know his story and what is claimed about him. Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. He became flesh through the Virgin Mary at Christmas. He lived a life of perfection. He died on the cross for sinners. And he rose again from the dead on Easter. Many people know facts about Jesus, but they don’t know him. What is Jesus like? What is his character? What did he say about himself? How did his interactions with others demonstrate who he is? Jesus once said that eternal life is to know him, and to know him is to know what makes him tick, what moves his heart. Well, with us today to help us understand what Jesus is like is Dr. Dane Ortlund, the senior pastor at Naperville Presbyterian Church.

Brian Arnold (01:12):

Dr. Ortlund has a PhD from Wheaton college and works as a publisher at Crossway. About a year ago, Dr. Ortlund wrote a masterful work—Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers, which is already hailed by many as a modern classic. Folks, if you haven’t read this book, please let me encourage you to add it to your next Amazon purchase. It will help you grow in your affection for Christ by teaching you of his affection for you. Dane, I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for quite some time. Thanks for joining me.

Dane Ortlund (01:44):

Oh, it’s my pleasure, Dr. Arnold, thanks for having me on.

Brian Arnold (01:48):

So we always ask our guests one big question. Today our question is this—what is the heart of Christ? And this question obviously means a lot to you, having just written a book on this topic. What led you to write this book?

Dane Ortlund (02:01):

Well, at one level, we weren’t talking about this biblical theme, which is there in the Old Testament and the New. It’s a neglected biblical teaching. But far more personally and urgently for me, immediately urgent, was my own ongoing sinning, regret, shame, guilt feelings…just wanting to grow and flourish as a disciple of Christ and not getting the kind of traction I needed. And I needed to know actually how Jesus feels about me. And it was some guys who’ve been dead about 400 years who helped coach me into this glorious, breathtaking truth. It’s right there in the Scripture. It wasn’t them. It wasn’t the Puritans. It’s them just showing me what’s in the Scripture. And I needed to know what they had to teach me.

Brian Arnold (02:54):

And they have a lovely way of doing that. We’ll talk about them a little bit later in the podcast, but I like how they’ll just take a phrase and expound on it and expound on it, over and over, and just show you, like a diamond, all the different facets of who Christ is and what his heart is for us. Well, you take as your text for this book, Matthew 11:28-30, and I was even struck as you opened your book saying that Spurgeon was actually the one who had said—this is the only time when Jesus says, “if you want to know my heart, this is it.” So how did that just kind of open this world to you, then?

Dane Ortlund (03:27):

That’s an amazing observation from Spurgeon, because what we know from the Scripture, of course, as you know, that the heart isn’t just what we feel, and then like the head is what we believe and think. The heart in the Bible is the fountain of everything we care most deeply about. It’s our motivation headquarters. It’s why we do what we do, Old Testament and New. And when Jesus shows up and says, here’s what his motivation headquarters is, what does he care most deeply about? It is really a very deeply surprising claim. None of us would ever pick these two words—gentle and lowly—to be what he says is his deepest heart. And that is just deeply consoling and it’s worth a book.

Brian Arnold (04:14):

It absolutely is. And let me just read this section. If listeners are hearing this, and they’re not sure what passage we’re referring to, it’s Matthew 11:28-30, where Jesus says this—”Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” And you did. You picked out these words. Jesus says, I am gentle and lowly. Words we may not immediately associate with him. So describe these words, even in Jesus’s own ministry. How do you see him as the gentle and lowly one?

Dane Ortlund (04:55):

Oh man. I mean, it’s really a breathtaking claim. And it is…those are maybe the most precious words ever uttered by a human voice box—that he is gentle. In other words, when I come to him, the way he approaches me, he is the least rough handling person in the universe. He does not manipulate me. He doesn’t talk me into change and into his embrace. He is gentle. He’s tender. In a sense, he’s accommodating. Not spineless, not morally mushy, you know, not at all. But he is…there’s no, like, bar I need to get over, no prerequisite class I need to take in order to get into his arms. You simply collapse. Anyone can collapse. Anyone can fall, if you have the humility to do so. And many of us don’t.

Dane Ortlund (05:51):

But he’s gentle, and he’s lowly. In other words, he’s accessible. He’s not like a politician you have to get through security to get to, he’s not someone who’s going to, you know, you dial him up and he puts you on hold. He doesn’t tell you to go to the end of the line or take a ticket. He is supremely accessible. And this is, of course…we’re talking about someone who is the divine resplendent Son of God, the Revelation 1 Christ who has a double-edged sword kind of coming out of his mouth, and he’s blazing. I mean, John has to fall down and worship before him. But that’s the one who says his deepest heart is gentle and lowly. It’s astonishing.

Brian Arnold (06:26):

It is. And even just saying like the only prerequisite is to collapse—that really is it. I mean, Jesus is looking for people who run to the end of themselves and recognize I have nothing of my own to offer, nothing to bring. I bring my sins, that’s it. And he, as Savior, meets us, arms open. But that is what he’s looking for. And so of course he’s gentle, of course, he’s lowly, if that’s the posture he wants us in, so that he can get the glory by lifting us up. And I think that just comes across so well in your book, as you even stitch together the Puritans, but also the way you bring you in even some modern examples of how this looks. Well, you don’t just hang out in Matthew 11, either. So it seems like, chapter by chapter, you are giving us just another piece of what Jesus looks like. So Matthew 14:14, “Jesus had compassion on them.” So we see him as this Lord who just…his heart just breaks for people.

Dane Ortlund (07:28):

Hmm. Right. In other words, he says in Matthew 11…what he says, you know, didactically, what he teaches with his words is “I am gentle and lowly in heart.” But then that’s not out of sync or out of accord with what we see him walking around on two legs doing in the rest of his ministry. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are filled on every page with him proving by his actions—as he is reaching out and touching lepers, as he is giving prostitutes back their dignity, as he is rebuking his disciples for not letting him sweep up little kids into his arms—we see him doing with his actions, what he says he is. So the tip of the iceberg is Matthew 11:29, where he says here’s his deepest heart. And the rest of the Gospels are him proving it.

Brian Arnold (08:15):

That’s a really good way to say that. Yeah, that’s what his heart is. We should expect to see that in all of his actions. And that’s exactly what we see time and time again—every interaction, even the ones that come across shocking to us, we can still see his gentle and lowly heart, if we understand what motivates those types of responses. And we will come back to those in just a little bit. You connect an interesting pairing, which I think will be surprising to a lot of people. And that is the idea of Jesus’s happiness and our sinfulness. So how do you weave those together?

Dane Ortlund (08:47):

Well, I probably wouldn’t, if the Puritans hadn’t shown me how to do it. And what they said—Richard Sibbes, Thomas Goodwin, John Owen, John Bunyan—what they like to do is say, “Jesus is the kind of Savior who is himself comforted and consoled when his people come to him to draw afresh on the riches of his saving, atoning work.” In other words, it’s not like he saves us and then he tolerates us coming to him again. That is actually what gives him joy. Just as…I mean, we are…it’s actually logical. If we are Christ’s body, Acts 9—”Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” when Saul was persecuting Christians. But Jesus, the risen Jesus, doesn’t say, “Why are you persecuting my people, my Christians?” He says, “Why are you persecuting me?” Okay. So we Christians are Christ’s body. All right.

Dane Ortlund (09:44):

If I have a hurt body part, if I have a body part that is out of sorts, that is broken, that is hurting, that is acting in a stupid way, I want that body part, because it is part of me, to be healed. So when we cower and we’re reluctant as we bring fresh guilt and sins to Christ, but actually that comforts him, the Puritan say. That comforts him. And they defend it from the book of Hebrews, when we come to him for fresh solace, for fresh forgiveness. And so that’s an everyone wins kind of scenario.

Brian Arnold (10:20):

It is. You have this quotation in there from Thomas Goodwin where he says, “we are apt to think that he, being so holy, is therefore of a severe and sour disposition against sinners, and not able to bear them.” And I think that’s the view of a lot of people. And if I’m honest, that’s my view a lot of times, like…I get it when other people sin I’m like, “hey, there’s a great Savior for your sin. Just go to him.” And when it’s me, I think, “well, hey, I’m a leader. I’ve been a pastor, I’m the leader of a theological institution. And so I should know better.” So Jesus is even more disappointed with me than he must be with other people. And we feel that sense of even rejection from the one who wants to receive us. So what kind of things would you say—you’re a pastor—to people who have that feeling?

Dane Ortlund (11:06):

Oh man. The Lord Jesus Christ’s holiness does…it means all kinds of things. In every way, he is unlike us. So yes, that means morally, in terms of moral purity, he is infinitely above me in holiness in that way. But it also means he’s unlike me—more happily—he is unlike me in that he is drawn to weakness and to need. He is merciful and enjoys being merciful to those who need mercy and ask for it. So his holiness doesn’t only mean that he is distant from me in terms of his moral purity. It also means he’s not like me in the sense that when his compassion erupts in a way that my mine does in just a shadow of a way when I am feeling compassion towards one of my kids or a beloved person in my life. His holiness is something we can take comfort in, take refuge in, as well as something which—and this is more common in our evangelical world—as well as something that sets us off from him and in need of saving.

Brian Arnold (12:15):

And if we just predate the Puritans by about 150 years, we get back to people like Martin Luther and John Calvin, as they’re wrestling through the doctrine of justification and Christ’s holiness as a comfort for us in that we receive his holiness. It’s imputed to us by faith in Christ. So the holiness of Christ is a comfort to us in that we actually receive that too, by nature of our wedding to him in faith.

Dane Ortlund (12:42):

Precisely right. We are legally acquitted and justified as we are united to Christ. We are also once and for all cleansed, once and for all rendered holy. We also are progressively sanctified, but the way the New Testament uses the language of sanctification most commonly is to speak of definitive sanctification. We are once and for all….we’re given a gospel bath, and we are once and for all made holy. And that is equally a great comfort.

Brian Arnold (13:09):

I do love the doctrine of sanctification, that idea that we are positionally sanctified because of what Christ has done. We are considered saints. We are considered the holy ones. And yet, Jesus isn’t done with us. He’s begun a good work, he’s going to continue that good work until we are made glorious with him in heaven, but we get to, with the Spirit, strive against sin. And when we do sin, when we do stumble and fall, we have a gentle and lowly Savior there to receive us. And one of the ways that he does that, we see, or where it comes out, maybe most clearly in Scripture, and you’ve alluded to, is the book of Hebrews. And so you spend quite a bit of time in the book of Hebrews, looking at Christ as our faithful High Priest, one who can sympathize with us, because he was like us in every way except sin. So how does Christ’s role as our High Priest work into Christ as the gentle and lowly one?

Dane Ortlund (14:03):

Oh man. Well, Jesus Christ is our King in that he represents God to us. He is also our High Priest, as you just said. Which means he represents us to God. So there he’s standing with us, facing the Father. This is just wondrous. The whole priesthood, that whole institution throughout the Old Testament is simply to give us the category of what it means that the Son of God is our High Priest. And throughout Hebrews, I mean, that’s the controlling category in the whole book book of Hebrews—the priesthood, and the temple, Christ as our High Priest. And really what it means is that…of solidarity. He is with us, so there’s…Christ is our substitute, on the one hand, he takes our place. The apostle Paul speaks of this often. Hebrews does speak of Christ as our substitute, but more commonly as one who is in solidarity with us. It’s the with-ness of Jesus, that he experiences all that we go through—minus sin, he’s the perfect holy High Priest—but he experiences everything that we go through. He himself has walked through it all—the end of Hebrews 2, the end of Hebrews 4, are very clear on this. So we are never out ahead of him in our pain and anguish. We’re never out there and he’s saying, “hey, I’m so sorry about this—I don’t quite know how that feels.” No, he knows exactly what we’ve walked through. So even if no other human being knows exactly what we’re feeling, he does.

Brian Arnold (15:33):

If God had said in the Old Testament, you know, “Come to me, I am gentle and lowly of heart” without the incarnation. Or if the incarnation, it just never happened and God said that’s who he was. It would have been harder for us to probably really understand or believe that. But the incarnation, because he’s like us in every way, and he can sympathize with us, it really gives a lot more weight to the words “I’m gentle and lowly in heart.”

Dane Ortlund (16:00):

It really does. I mean, we read, Dr. Arnold, in a passage such as Isaiah 57:15, he says, I am the high and holy one, I dwell way up high in heaven—I’m paraphrasing—and I also dwell way down low with him who is of a lowly heart. So he dwells in two places—way up high in holiness, and way down low in our places of need. Okay, we read that, that’s comforting, that’s glorious. But those are words coming down to us from heaven. But what if those words and that promise put on flesh and blood, and went walking around this world, and we saw him prove that that’s who he is? And as you rightly say, that’s what the New Testament is doing. It’s putting on…God is putting on the clothing of our human flesh of our humanity and proving, vindicating beyond a shadow of a doubt, that that is his deepest heart. So the Old Testament and New are working wonderfully in a complementary way together, to say, “God, isn’t like you, Dane. His heart is effusively drawn to you and to his people in their deep…at their worst, in their deepest regions of darkness, pain and anguish.” And that’s the kind of God that I can follow, the kind of Christ that I want to be a disciple to.

Brian Arnold (17:18):

And the kind of God that he’s revealed himself to be in Christ. Which is, again, the essence of your book. And you even say in there, and I love this line—”it is impossible for the affectionate heart of Christ to be over-celebrated, made too much of, or exaggerated.” So here we are, we’re talking about this. And I mean, my heart is full, just thinking again of who Christ is. But I do want to mention, you have had some critique of this book by people who would say maybe it is too lopsided. Maybe there is too much, if you will, over-celebration or exaggeration. When we think about a book like Revelation, Jesus comes back on his white charger, the sword of his mouth ready to slay sinners. Or we think about him building a whip in the temple, or his words to the churches of Revelation, where if you don’t overcome, if you don’t withstand, you will not receive the crown of life. So I would love for you to kind of speak to that, because I do think that people could raise that question. And it’s not that I don’t think you handle it, but I want to give you a chance here even to address that kind of concern.

Dane Ortlund (18:31):

Well, we have to be whole Bible Christians. The book that I wrote is not a comprehensive Christology, still less is it philosophical theology. So I affirm divine simplicity. I believe that God is every one of his attributes, 100%. He’s not like a pie, and different pieces of the pie, greater or less, are different attributes. Absolutely not. But my book is on what Christ’s heart is, and he said his heart is gentle and lowly. That’s it. That’s what the book is about. So…and that is not in tension with the harsher side of who Jesus is. Actually, it shines all the more brightly, given the harsh, judging side of Jesus Christ. And I just want to reflect on, you know, Ephesians 3:8 speaks of the unsearchable riches of Christ, and goes on to speak of the love of Christ in the next paragraph that has, you know, without breadth and width and height and depth and so on.

Dane Ortlund (19:30):

That’s what I wanted to glory in and celebrate. And I think, Dr. Arnold, that we actually find…now I’m speculating a little bit here, but I think we actually find the judging side of God and of Christ more intuitive. It’s more natural to us to know that that is there. We know deep down we’re sinners. It is not intuitive that his heart is drawn out to us in mercy at our worst, as we come to him. We deeply resist that. And so we need to keep writing books on the Revelation 1 Christ and the judgment of Christ, absolutely. But that was not centrally what my book was aiming at.

Brian Arnold (20:13):

I think, yeah, like you said, it’s not a comprehensive book on Christology. And even just seeing Christ’s gentleness and lowliness in driving out the money changers, let’s say, in the temple. He is gentle and lowly towards those who are being taken advantage of. And even in his eradication of sin at the end of time, it is his heart that is just for his people, right? And his heart for sinners is that sinners would turn and come to him, and be part of his family. And so I don’t…yeah, I don’t see these at odds. And I think you did a great job in even saying—this is not necessarily to convey all of who Christ is, but look at who he says he is when he says, “This is my heart. This is who I am.

Brian Arnold (21:01):

It is that I’m gentle and lowly.” So thank you for speaking to that. Because I can see how some people might raise that kind of question. And we want to be sure, like you said, to be whole Bible Christians, who take all those things into account. So not only did you kind of survey the New Testament of who Jesus is, but you also relied on some other authors. And so I was hoping you might point our listeners to some helpful resources. Who did you read that you were most compelled by, even in the Puritans? So I love that you used the Puritans—again for our listeners who maybe hear that word and react against it, it always makes me think of C.S. Lewis and The Screwtape Letters, where he said, “the value we’ve given to the word puritanism is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years.” That’s coming from the mouth of one of the demons, saying—if we make them think the Puritans are bad, we’ve won. Well, I think your book hopefully drives your reader to the Puritans as this treasure trove of Christian living. So who did you find to be the most helpful guides?

Dane Ortlund (22:00):

Oh, I love that line from Screwtape. Thomas Goodwin was number one. I mean, he is the guy who wrote the book, The Heart of Christ in Heaven Towards Sinners on Earth to say, “you think that Jesus being way up high in heaven is distant, cold, calculating, removed from you—how wrong you are!” And spends a couple of hundred pages defying our natural intuitions. John Bunyan was…unlike Goodwin or Owen, Bunyan was not educated, but…so he uses very visceral, earthy, vivid language, kind of Spurgeon-like. And I love…of his big, fat, three-volume collected words, Volume I is the one that’s really the treasure trove of works. Richard Sibbes…if you wanted to really start anywhere on this theme, then I think, Dr. Arnold, Richard Sibbes’s The Bruised Reed. Where he just wants to say, “Jesus is not the kind of Savior who’s going to knock you over when you’re wounded and limping along, but he heals you.” The Bruised Reed, Richard Sibbes. And, I mean, John Owen is heavy sledding, but you could pretty much parachute into anywhere…take Communion with God, by John Owen, and it gives you much of this as well. To name just a few.

Brian Arnold (23:13):

I think those are excellent. And yeah, I would probably agree—beginning with Sibbes’s Bruised Reed. If somebody out there has never been introduced to Puritan literature, that might be the greatest single entry point. Well, Dr. Ortlund, thank you for taking your time to think about the heart of Christ with us today. I’m grateful for it, and I am helped by it.

Dane Ortlund (23:37):

Oh, it’s such a joy to talk to you, Dr. Arnold. Thank you.

Brian Arnold (23:40):

Well, just a few days ago, it became clear to me again how important the heart of Christ is. My seven-year-old daughter came to me with tears in her eyes, and said, “dad, I think I sin too much for Jesus to love me or forgive me.” And so I wiped away her tears and grabbed her up my arms and said, “Jesus loves sinners. He’s a great Savior for big sinners.” And even in that moment, I knew it was the words that my own heart needed to hear and remember, every single day. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. It’s who he is. And he’s worthy of my worship, love, and praise because of who he is. Again, Dane, thanks for joining us.

Dane Ortlund (24:15):

You’re most welcome.

Outro (24:17):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at ps.edu.

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