Gentle and Lowly: A Modern Puritan Classic

Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund has been extremely popular since its release last year, and for good reason. The book is fantastic. Plenty of reviews have been written on its merits and drawbacks, but I want to reflect on an aspect of the book that was striking to me: Gentle and Lowly reads like a classic Puritan work. I don’t mean that it reminds me of any particular Puritan work but rather that Ortlund has written his book in the style of the Puritans. I believe this is one of the chief qualities of the book that has made it so cherished so quickly.

1. Deep reflection on a single verse

At one point in the book Ortlund describes the way that Puritans would write books. “The way the Puritans would write books is to take a single Bible verse, wring it dry for all the heart-affecting theology they could find, and, two or three hundred pages later, send their findings to a publisher.” To some extent Ortlund takes this approach in his book as he reflects deeply on the significance of Jesus being “gentle and lowly of heart” (Matthew 11:29). More accurately this is the approach that he takes in each chapter of his book. You can see this in the chapter titles: “Able to Sympathize” (Heb 4:15), “He Can Deal Gently” (Heb 5:2), “I Will Never Cast Out” (John 6:37), “To the Uttermost” (Heb 7:25), “An Advocate” (1 John 2:1). In each chapter of Gentle and Lowly Ortlund would “take a single Bible verse [and] wring it dry for all the heart-affecting theology [he] could find.”

2. Theologically rigorous but accessible

If you’ve read a book by any of the Puritans then you know that it can be daunting. Even once you get past the archaic language (or perhaps you have a modernized version) the pages are simply dripping with theological ideas and vocabulary. Rather than the more easily understood topics we find in most Christian books today (grace, mercy, perseverance, forgiveness) we find in the Puritans categories like justification, sanctification, intercession, and high priestly mediation. These are intimidating to modern ears. Yet as we begin to read we find that the same pages that are steeped in theological vocabulary are also highly accessible. This explains why The Pilgrim’s Progress, which introduces characters like Evangelist and Piety and Apollyon, is one of the best-selling books of all time, after the Bible. Most Puritan writings were theologically rigorous but accessible to most Christians. Gentle and Lowly again fits the Puritan mould. I read Gentle and Lowly a few months after it gained international recognition, and I was surprised by how theologically rich it is. This was not the book I expected to encounter after seeing how widely received it had been, but I am thankful for it.

3. Solidly biblical but imaginative

As the puritans were theologically rigorous but accessible, so were they solidly biblical but imaginative. If you are going to write 300 pages on a single Bible verse and be faithful to the meaning of the verse while doing so, biblical imagination is required. This was the stock-in-trade for many Puritans and is one of the primary reasons that their books are still so relevant today. The Bible doesn’t change, and the human heart doesn’t change, so a book that wrings heart-affecting theology out of a single Bible verse is timeless. Many modern books err on one side or the other. They are either rigidly biblical with little imagination or else they let their imagination float free, untethered by any biblical anchoring. While the second is certainly worse, the first is often dry. In Gentle and Lowly we find a book that is not “new for the times” but timeless. There is nothing in this book that could not have been written 400 years ago. Rather than making the book immediately outdated, this is a gleaming quality to be cherished. And it is a quality that will quite possibly make Gentle and Lowly a Christian classic to be read for decades to come.

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