Archive for March, 2022

Our March memorization “verse” is Colossians 3:12-13. I want to spend some time talking through it. Here it is:

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. ESV

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. CSB

I want us to think about the gospel logic (Sinclair Ferguson’s term) of this passage so that we’ll understand both the gospel doctrine found here, and the gospel culture it encourages if we live out the doctrine. As John Frame says, we don’t really understand a text until we apply it. This text has clear and vital application for every church, not just the one Paul wrote to.

Gospel logic is the pattern of gospel indicatives (facts) which produce gospel imperatives (commands). The former are the gospel doctrines and the latter gospel culture (Ray Ortlund Jr. uses these terms). We have to get the pattern correct or we lapse into legalism or liberalism. Facts and doctrine must precede commands and culture. If you stop at the doctrine you can become lax, antinomian. Faith is reduced to right thinking (orthodoxy). We can fall into the trap that discipleship is about information transfer.

That is necessary in discipleship, but insufficient. There must be a resulting right living (orthopraxy). If we try to live right without right doctrine, we fall into legalism (focused on personal morality) or liberalism (focused on being kind or just). The gospel of Christ’s message of salvation as our Prophet, His saving works as our Priest, and reign as our King is the foundation of Christian living.

Gospel Indicatives

The CSB indicates this with the “Therefore” at the beginning of verse 12. The ESV implies it, but begins with the gospel imperative. Either way you want to translate it, Paul’s mind is indicating that what he’s about to say is to be understood and applied on the basis of this great salvation from sin that he’s been writing about in chapters 1 and 2. Christ, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (not simply tabernacle) has made atonement for us and our sin on the cross, triumphing over His enemies (and ours) and has given us His Spirit as part of His rule. He has freed us from human regulations, angelic mediators and ascesticism.

The explicit gospel indicative here is we are “God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved”. You are a recipient of this salvation because God chose you. It may look and feel like you chose God, but behind that He first chose you like He first loved you. You are secure, you are holy or set apart on account of His choice of you.

The doctrine of election is humbling, but it is not meant to be cold and sterile. Love is at the root of it. We see this in Ephesians 1 as well. We were chosen in love, and we were chosen in Christ. Rightly understood, election flows from His inexplicable love for us despite our profound sinfulness, and involves Him placing us “in Christ”. He chooses to unite us to Christ so we receive the benefits of His death and resurrection, as well as His obedience in our place.

We received a gospel identity. A freely given identity based on Christ’s record and not our own. Our minds need to be renewed so that we see ourselves this way with increasing regularity. We are not to view ourselves as the old man in Adam, but as the new creation in Christ.

We are also to see our brothers and sisters in Christ that way too. We need to stop viewing one another according to the flesh, but according to our gospel identity. We are to see those annoying, off-putting, sinful and boring people at church as “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.” God has invested them, just as much as us, with this gospel identity. This gospel doctrine should produce a gospel culture where people are prized because of Jesus rather than kept at arm’s length because of themselves.

Gospel Imperatives

Now comes the commands, beginning with “put on”. In light of God’s grace they were to change their clothes (a common use for the verbs in this section). They were told to put off the way of life (sin) of the old man (Adam). But we are not to be naked or “innocent”. We are to put on the new life of Christ. We are, literally, putting on Christ (Rom. 13), clothing ourselves in Him. “(C)ompassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” are among the communicable attributes (character traits) of Jesus. This was who He was as a person. As we are renewed in His image, we increasingly share these character traits. We see our responsibility in the command to these on like we’d put on our pants, shirt, socks and shoes.

These are also among the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5), so the Spirit is producing Christ in us. It is not all us. But when we keep in step (follow) with the Spirit we put off sin and become more like Christ. It isn’t about guidance in the various decisions of life but the mortification of sin and bringing to life (vivification) of godliness. Become personally what you have been declared to be positionally in Christ. Become who you are!

A gospel culture will be marked by these character traits. Our churches are meant to be full of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience toward one another. This should be the standard operating procedure, the atmosphere in which we live and move as a community. This is what the gospel alone can produce, and its presence is meant to be essential to evangelism. Where they are lacking, so will conversions. When we are not much like Jesus we won’t attract people. Worldliness on our part repels people.

We are all to be growing in these things. None of us is perfect. There are issues of personality differences, personal and corporate sin, differences in preferences and more that make these necessary but also difficult. Living together can be hard.

Paul applies all this further: bearing with one another and if one has a grievance forgiving one another. Bearing with others faults and weaknesses, forgiving their sins. Gospel culture is one where we bear and forgive. We are not to be fault-finding, bitter and holding grudges until so-and-so gets their act together.

“How can I forgive them? Do you understand how they’ve hurt me?” Paul reminds us of God’s forgiveness of us in Christ. We have been profoundly forgiven in Christ, and in Christ we are to profoundly forgive. We do need to remember that the atonement for their sins against us in Christ’s atonement. They don’t need to make atonement- Christ already has!

Too often churches can be like my house, particularly the cats. The amount of hissing has increased dramatically. I’m not sure why, but they hiss at each other which communicates “don’t too close right now.” Congregations can send the same vibes, holding one another at arm’s length. The root is frustration with the weakness and sins of another. The surface sins would be avoidance, critical spirits, complaining, entitlement (I should get MY way and not consider your interests). These kill community. They are anti-gospel.

When the culture of a congregation falls into these sinful patterns members leave and visitors don’t come back. People hear the criticism, pride, condemnation and more in the comments before and after worship and in fellowship gatherings. They don’t want to hang out together because too many are nullifying the gospel by their actions and attitude. They hold to gospel doctrine, but aren’t practicing gospel culture.

We have to return to gospel doctrine to restore gospel culture. You are chosen by God, holy and dearly loved, therefore live in keeping with these God-given realities. Let your gentleness be evident to everyone, grow in humility, kindness and patience with one another. This will show itself in bearing with one another in an awareness of your weaknesses and foibles not just theirs, and forgiving one another in an awareness of God’s mercy in forgiving your sins. His grace is sufficient!

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Theological and practical differences are an ever-present reality in this fallen world. It can be difficult, at times, to decide which battles to fight and which ones to extend charity toward those with whom we differ.

Gavin Ortlund develops this question in Finding the Right Hills to Die On. He builds on Al Mohler’s article on theological triage. He produces, in my mind, a helpful book that pastors and elders should consider. Many others should too because this is not simply an issue for church leaders, but often people break friendships and leave churches over differences that really shouldn’t matter.

Perhaps this is an extreme example, but at lunch today with other pastors, one shared what happened when he left Independent Fundamentalist circles. People broke fellowship not because he denied the faith, but no longer accepted their doctrine of separation and cultural applications. For instance, one person is no longer his friend because his wife will sometimes wear pants. This was a man’s hill to die on.

The book begins with a forward by D.A. Carson who summarizes Ortlund’s approach. Ortlund advocates for four tiers of triage: doctrines essential to the gospel; doctrines urgent for the health and practice of the church which may divide denominations; doctrines important for one branch of theology that shouldn’t lead to separation; doctrines unimportant to gospel witness and collaboration. He notes that Paul designated some doctrines as of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3) and allows for differences of opinion (Rom. 14:5). All Christians were to accept the first, and all were to forebear over differences in the latter.

In the introduction, Ortlund develops the idea of triage. It “is essentially a system of prioritization.” Doctors do use it all the time to determine which patients should be treated first. In terms of theology, not all hills are worth dying on. We often have an implicit system of triage, but Ortlund encourages us to make it explicit. In terms of quick examples he gives the trinity as a first rank doctrine, baptism is second rank, the millennium is third rank and the last includes the “adiaphora” or things indifferent, like musical style.

He wants us to pursue unity in Christ’s body. This process can help us know what “partnerships and alliances” are suitable among denominations and networks, or between churches and parachurch organizations. He wants us to consider the best attitudes and types of speech is more appropriate based on these differences. He wants us to consider what it looks like to handle these differences with integrity and transparency. These are the practical implications of doing theological triage.

The Danger of Doctrinal Sectarianism

I blogged on this chapter individually in light of some controversy in my denomination (PCA). It will not repeat what I have said aside from noting is that this view thinks most differences are worth division. All or most hills are worth dying on.

In a recent online discussion, someone mentioned that we have the Westminster Standards. While these are the doctrinal standards of our denomination (and many others) not all chapters are of equal weight. Disagreeing with the doctrine of the Trinity means you are likely not a Christian. Disagreeing with the doctrine of election means you should likely be in a different denomination. Disagreeing with the Standards on divorce shouldn’t affect membership, and the whether or not to sing contemporary songs is not something to break fellowship over. Songs that teach heresy? You address them.

The Danger of Doctrinal Minimalism

The opposite error is to fight over little or nothing. There is seemingly no hill worth dying on. He quotes Richard Baxter who notes that “many an error is taken up by going too far from other men’s faults.” In disputing with another, we tend to get more extreme in our positions. But liberals, and many younger generations tend not to want to fight. These are no longer the days when your view of baptism might get you killed (because it affected not only your ecclesiastical status, but your relationship to the State).

Minimalism tends to used only two categories: essential and non-essential. It refuses to acknowledge that non-essential doctrines can affect the peace of the church too. They can be significant even if they don’t warrant division. They are not part of the esse but the bene esse of the church (as Sproul would put it).

First he argues that even nonessential doctrines are significant since they are in Scripture. They have been revealed to us for a reason. They can impact the health of the church because they impact its practice. These doctrines are also important to understand church history. Christians have literally died for more than the essential doctrines, or those essential to salvation. These nonessential doctrines shape how we live the Christian life. For example, your view of sovereignty impacts your prayer life (as does your view of how the fall still affects you).

Indifferentism about doctrine makes no heroes of the faith.J. Gresham Machen

Ortlund develops this further. Some doctrines provide pictures of the gospel. Others protect the gospel. One example he gives is one’s view of Scripture. A low view will produce weak Christians most of the time. Some pertain to the gospel particularly since no doctrine exists in isolation. They are all connected in the mind of God, and we should seek to understand those connections as best we can. Failing to see the connection between justification and sanctification led to easy believism, and then its opposite of Lordship salvation. There are times to fight! But we should fight in a godly fashion.

His Journey on Secondary and Tertiary Doctrines

Ortlund gets a little autobiographical in the next chapter since it has bearing on this whole discussion. He grew up (mostly) in conservative Presbyterian churches and attended Covenant Theological Seminary. While there he became convinced of credobaptism which meant he could no longer serve in the churches in which he had connections. However, he was an amillennial and this meant that many baptist churches would not want him to serve in their congregations. He also differed with some common practices of baptist churches regarding mode. Another issue that proved limiting for him was not being a 6-day, young earth creationist. He is an old earth creationist.

You can see that his views on these secondary and tertiary doctrine had consequences. They limited his opportunities.

I can identify. I grew up Catholic and was converted to Christ in college. I had no clue what church to join when I went home and ended up in a Conservative Baptist Association congregation which was a great fit for me. It was not legalistic (or any more so than other churches in New England at the time). I could still enjoy a beer and go to movies. It wasn’t overly traditional, and when I discovered Calvinism I was not kicked out. I found men who loved the Puritans like I did. Early on I was dispensational, but shortly before leaving had shifted to historical premillennialism.

I decided to got attend Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando due to Sproul. While there I shifted to an amillennial and partial preterist view of eschatology. I was now covenantal but still a credobaptist. I struggled to find a position in baptist churches, particularly SBC churches (I just never fit). Eventually the coin dropped and I “got” paedobaptism (Marcel’s book helped me more than it helped Ortlund, particularly the introduction which got me to think about epistemology). I joined the PCA and soon was in the ARP serving a small church in Florida. During a pastoral transition, I considered the E Free because they weren’t dogmatic on baptism, but that millennial issue remained even after they revised their doctrinal statement. What I believe affects where I can and cannot serve.

Why Primary Doctrines Are Worth Fighting For

These are the doctrines that determine whether or not you are a Christian. The others determine what kind of Christian you are. First tier doctrines are the boundary markers between Christianity and other religions or ideologies. Some concern the gospel directly (justification), others are needed to defend the gospel (inspiration of Scripture) or to proclaim the gospel (Great Commission).

He interacts with Erik Thoennes and Wayne Grudem to help evaluate which are primary doctrines. I’m not sure I’d depend on Grudem that much since he is a biblicist rather than a confessionalist, but I won’t excommunicate Ortlund for that. There are issues of clarity, relevance to God’s character, direct connection to the gospel, how frequently the doctrine is addressed in Scripture, its effect on other doctrines, how the church has thought of it over time, and current cultural pressure (Thoennes).

Grudem considers additional ideas like the effect on church life, precedent and methods used by advocates. He wants us to exclude issues like what our friends think, what it might cost us to change views, and other consequences.

Ortlund distinguishes between what must be affirmed and what must not be denied. We must also distinguish between what a Christian must believe at conversion and what they should believe as they mature. A new Christian will believe in Christ, but over time should be able to articulate the doctrine of justification. I think, with Packer and Spurgeon, that Calvinism is biblical religion. Many will deny them by ignorance or believing mischaracterizations without affecting their salvation. Those who understand and willfully reject them may be a very different category. The first are sheep, and the second could be wolves.

Ortlund digs into the virgin birth. We tend not to think of it too much these days, but during the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy in the early 20th century is was controversial. Machen defended the doctrine at length. He argued that it was “essential to the church’s worship, witness, and vitality.” Without the virgin birth, Jesus is not a suitable Savior. It is a primary doctrine, though it need not be confessed at conversion, though it should not be denied.

Machen distinguished between differences of interpretation made in good faith and differences that arise from different understandings of biblical authority. This distinction is very important as we look at a number of issues. Some complementarians, for instance, fully affirm biblical authority and interpret 1 Timothy 3 as permitting women deacons. Egalitarians have a very different view of biblical authority and reject (in my opinion) clear biblical teaching on exclusively male elders.

Machen also used the virgin birth to help identify those who affirmed Christ’s deity and resurrection, but used different definitions of them from historic Christianity. This doctrine rules out a host of Christological heresies, and is a foundation for the incarnation and sinlessness of Christ which are essential to His office as Mediator between God and man.

Ortlund then turns to justification by faith alone. This is not a doctrine that was discovered by Luther. It was developed more fully during the Reformation, but did not originate there. He quotes John Owen here: “Men may be really saved by that grace which doctrinally they do deny; and they may be justified by the imputation of that righteousness which in opinion they deny to be imputed.” He would distinguish those who do so from ignorance (often implicit faith in Roman Catholic dogma) from those who understand and reject it.

Justification is not the totality of the gospel, but it is a major component of the gospel. It is a doctrine Paul was willing to fight over, and he condemned those who rejected it. We see this clearly in Galatians. He notes that Oden provides ample evidence that the church has consistently affirmed salvation by grace through faith. The Church has historically upheld this.

There are hills worth dying on, figuratively and literally. He points us to Jude 3 and comments:

Celebrating the gospel should be a matter of eagerness; contending for it, a matter of necessity. Regrettably, for some Christians is is the reverse.

Bottom Line: if denying the doctrine destroys the foundation of Christianity, fight for it. Think of it like Jenga, will the tower fall if you remove it?

Navigating the Complexity of Secondary Doctrines

First tier doctrines require courage and conviction. Secondary doctrines require wisdom and balance. Such doctrines, as we’ve seen, are not essential to the gospel but are important enough to “justify divisions at the level of the denomination, church or ministry.” We are not excommunicating people, but being part of the same denomination or congregation becomes untenable. Still Christians, but not worshiping together.

These doctrines do affect our witness. They affect our understanding of the gospel. They affect how we go about ministry.

In this context he discusses baptism, spiritual gifts and women in ministry. Ortlund is not trying to resolve these questions but discuss about how they affect witness or ministry to such a degree that differences are big enough to divide over, while recognizing that the other is a Christian.

This chapter is the most difficult and complicated of the whole book.

There are doctrines on the border. People will put them on different sides of the line.

I think the eternal submission of the Son fits this category, but others will disagree with me. Some may put open theism here, but I lean toward putting it in the first tier.

Ortlund wants us to remember that we aren’t just dealing with doctrines but doctrinal attitudes as well. Denominations and congregations have theological cultures: “unspoken tendencies and unofficial policies.” Theological controversies often hit the unspoken. Additionally it is not just what we fight about but how we fight about it.

Baptism is a doctrine that has many aspects to it. He’s not addressing baptismal regeneration in this book (which would clearly be worth dividing over but I think affirmation of that doctrine puts one outside of Christianity).

During the Reformation, the rejection of infant baptism was viewed as so dangerous that Anabaptists we killed. Due to the overlap between church and state, it was considered treasonous, or at least unraveling the social fabric, to reject infant baptism. Ortlund asserts that more will killed for this reason than the Roman Empire killed in persecution.

If we both reject baptismal regeneration, and a state church, why would we divide over whether or not babies of believers should be baptized? The doctrine of proper subjects for baptism has a big effect on your ecclesiology (and vice versa). This doctrine also affects how we witness to the world through this public sign and seal. The question of subjects leads to the deeper issue of the definition of baptism itself. There is a deeper disagreement about the nature of the covenant of grace, whether the subjective or objective nature of the sign is primary and which is secondary and more.

Dual practice churches can introduce confusion among members as a result. They can also produce issues of conscience among ministers. They have to be willing to perform both- which creates issues (potentially)in hiring pastors.

While he puts the divide over subjects of baptism as a second tier doctrine, he reminds us to pursue discussions charitably and seeking to understand one another.

Many churches have been torn apart by disagreements about the spiritual gifts. Ortlund points out differences between hard and soft cessationists. Soft cessationists hold that they are not normative, but God can still use the revelatory gifts in extraordinary circumstances (like in regions where a person can’t find a Bible to read or a church to hear the Word preached). There are also differences among continuationists. Are they open to the gifts or do they require tongues as evidence of spirit baptism? Debates often assume the extremes on both sides.

A soft continuationist can join a soft cessationist church, typically, as long as he doesn’t practice the gifts publicly (including small groups). A hard continuationist would try to force his views on others and split a church. A hard cessationist church would always be suspicious of any continuationist and make them miserable and possibly subject to discipline. I’ve seen a cessationist presbytery exclude a soft continuationist from transfer. I agree with that in terms of a pastor. But I would not exclude a soft continuationist from membership. I would not have them teach on this subject, except to work with me to provide a different point of view in a class. Like many non-charismatics, I am concerned that the gifts seem to become central and abused when they are practiced (I have been in a Pentecostal church that spoke in tongues without interpretation, and attended a church in college that included “prophesies” at times).

The primary reason this debate can become a second-rank issue is that cessationism and continuationism are mutually exclusive with respect to a church service or Christian gathering.

Churches have to decide whether they will ordain women to ministry. Here we also see mutually exclusive positions even though there can be variances among complementarians. Soft complementarians, like me, are okay with women deacons (seeing the office as one of service under the authority of the Session), but some are more rigid about the roles of women in the world (like Piper’s blog post questioning women as police officers) which sounds more like patriarchy to me.

In our day, this discussion is further complicated by the cultural moment in which we debate gender identity. We have to be honest that some of what we think about gender roles is culturally bound, not biblically defined. This would indicate a need for deconstructing our views to keep what which is biblical and consider the rest preference on which we can disagree.

The answer to this question shapes how a church disciples couples preparing for marriage and who are married. To see this listen to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill to see how Driscoll’s views were communicated in a spiritually abusive way by going beyond scripture in his views of sex, whether women should work outside of the house and more. My disagreement isn’t over the headship of husbands and male eldership, but how he applies that to his congregation and the way he leaves no room for disagreement on those applications.

This is a topic filled with unaddressed presuppositions, and competing understanding of Scripture. Some are seeking to faithfully understand and apply Scripture but disagree on how. Others marginalize scripture through “trajectory hermeneutics” (Rob Bell) or just exclude it based on “general revelation” or cultural norms. This disagreement typically breaks down along the conservative-progressive lines unlike baptism and spiritual gifts. However, as a “soft complementarian” who is seeking to understand and apply Scripture, I don’t see myself as a progressive, and neither would any egalitarian.

Ortlund brings up the Gospel Coalition. They include complementarianism in their doctrinal statement, but take no position on the subjects of baptism and spiritual gifts. They are criticized for allowing position pieces to help people make up their minds.

He mentions that in addition to complementarianism, their statement of faith includes other “disputed” doctrines like election, double imputation, penal substitutionary atonement that people like me fit into the basics of orthodoxy.

This dispute can “complicate or perhaps preclude partnership in ministry or in stronger forms of ecclesial alliance”. It affects the hiring of a pastor, the joining of a denomination etc.

Why We Should Not Divide Over Tertiary Doctrines

These would be the battles to avoid, calling us to patience and forbearance. Ortlund provides the examples of the millennium and the days of creation.

There are issues related to the doctrine of creation and eschatology that are worth fighting over. We should defend the creation, ex nihilo, of the universe by God. This is a first order doctrine. The physical, visible and future return of Jesus is also a first order doctrine. But a particular view of the days of creation and millennium are not of the same order of magnitude.

Fighting over tertiary issues is unhelpful. But fighting over tertiary issues while simultaneously neglecting primary issues is even worse. So here we will engage these two issues to illustrate where we can benefit from critical reflection on our doctrinal priorities.

Ortlund begins with the millennium and gives a very brief history of millennial views. During the modernist-fundamentalist debate one of the prime boundary markers was premillennialism (along with inerrancy and the virgin birth). Fuller Seminary’s faculty was divided over the timing of the rapture. They were premillennial but some were dispensational and some were historical premillennialists. Post- and amillennialists were not allowed.

The millennium is found in one passage of the most difficult book to interpret: Revelation. Disagreeing on this issue does not make on a heretic or a liberal. Many other passages in the Old Testament, and the Olivet Discourse, are interpreted in light of how one views Revelation 20 (rather than the other way around). That is a lot of weight to place on one passage. Additionally, it is unclear how this doctrine affects how we are supposed to live in the present. Does one live fundamentally differently based on their millennial view?

Ortlund mentions Walvoord’s critique of Warfield’s “spiritualization” of Revelation 20. Warfield was no liberal. He was a staunch defender and articulator of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Both men would agree that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative Word of God.

Historically, the American church’s view of dispensational premillennialism is an anomaly. While there was a minority that held to premillennialism, dispensationalism was not advocated by anyone until Darby and some Plymouth Brethren began to express it in the 19th century. To make this a litmus test for orthodoxy places most Christians outside of the bounds. This leads Ortlund to conclude that we can debate this issue from within the bounds of unity, maintaining fellowship despite our differences.

The issue of creation days is similar. Many orthodox teachers and theologians have held a variety of views on the days of creation (not its fact) over church history. The 6-day, young earth position has only recently become the norm in some circles. I hold to this position, though I haven’t always. I don’t demand others agree with me on this issue. Nor does my denomination.

Before Darwin published his work, Spurgeon argued that the world was many millions of years old before Adam was created (the unique creation of Adam and Eve should be a first tier doctrine). Warfield held to an old earth and universe. Thomas Chalmers advocated the “gap theory” and the “frame-work hypothesis” arose among the faculty of Westminster Seminary which had a high view of Scripture. Good and godly men have disagreed on this issue, and would have thought it weird to divide churches or denominations over it.

Often the very strength that would help you win a battle enables you to avoid the battle altogether. … So often, in life and in theology, it is the exact opposite- to avoid a fight takes a deeper and nobler strength than to engage in one. … We should eagerly pursue the kind of theological conviction and strength that is willing not only to fight for truth but also to avoid fighting in order to promote the gospel.

Strong theological convictions, in other words, help us to see what is worth fighting over and what isn’t. We recognize what doctrines are essential, and which ones are peripheral. They help us to see which impact the local community, and which really don’t. If every doctrine is worth fighting over, you are left in the minutest of fellowships, angry that no one agrees with you on every jot and tittle.

A Call to Theological Humility

“... if humility does not precede and accompany and follow every good work we do, and if it is not set before us to look upon, and beside us to lean upon, or behind us to fence us in, pride will wrest from our hand every good deed we do while we are in the very act of taking pleasure in it.Augustine

I used to be a truth guy. And then I saw other truth guys and how abrasive and unloving they could be. I’m a truth and love guy thanks to the ministry of men like John Newton and Jack Miller. Truth does matter! But if I have not love…. the truth doesn’t matter. Humility and love are just as important as truth. How and when we engage in debate and dying on hills matter as much as the dying on the hill. Or more.

Pride makes us stagnant; humility makes us nimble.

Humility helps us find the way to gospel unity. We remain committed together to tier one doctrines as Christians, may work together with those with whom we differ on tier two and enjoy full fellowship despite tier 3 differences. This forms a gospel culture. Dying on every hill offers no love and charity, the antithesis of a gospel culture.

Overall, Ortlund has given us a helpful and timely book as our culture and churches seem overly divisive and polarized. Theological triage offers us a way out of the ceaseless squabbling and division.

He doesn’t give us all the answers, but addresses matters of the heart that point us in the right direction to discover when to fight and when to bend. I commend this book to you.

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How do you follow up a popular book that is being read by many churches?

That is an intimidating thing to think about. I imagine this book was already in the books, but Dane Ortlund followed Gentle and Lowly with Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners.

Orlund continues to write books for those Christians who struggle with sin. The first focused on Christ’s heart for them so their attitude toward Him will change. This focuses on how Christ changes us so we become more like Him. As such, these books should likely be read in series and proper order.

This book is part of the Union series put out by Crossway. It is the second volume after Michael Reeves’ Rejoice and Tremble on the fear of God. Each book has a highly edited version for lay people. Yes, they will find the bigger volumes understandable. But many are not readers and the shorter volumes What Does It Mean to Fear the Lord? and How Does God Change Us? can be read quickly and easily.

The title of the shorter volume communicates the commitment to sanctification as a work of God. This doesn’t mean we are passive, but it is by grace not by “trying harder”. “Christian growth is bringing what you do and say and even feel into line with what, in fact, you already are.” Just as his previous book was for the discouraged and fearful, this is for the frustrated and exhausted.

The gentle and lowly Savior is patient with us and we need to have a similar patience with ourselves and one another. “We are complicated sinners. … We need time. Be patient with yourself. A sense of urgency, yes; but not a sense of hurry. … Slow change is still real change. And it’s the normal way God deals with us.”

I couldn’t say it better. This is particularly true with deep and profound sin. Some sin is more stubborn than others- life defining, altering and twisting. Change happens, but it is often quite slow. It is like climate change, not the weather.

In debates about the pace of sanctification for those with same sex attraction I do affirm change: real change. I don’t proclaim complete change until glorification. Yes, mortify the flesh. Yes, make use of the means of grace. Yes! The power of this sin will diminish. Yes! But it may never disappear completely in this life. And this is true of other life-dominating sins as well.

Patience is important (and Paul speaks of this in 1 Thessalonians 5 and 1 Timothy 1 among other places) because “one of the devil’s great victories is to flood our hearts with a sense of futility.” Demands for quicker change by friends and family (and pastors) can feed this sense of futility as well. Ortlund his writing as a pastor and not just a theologian. He wants sound theology, but is seeking to apply it to people: real people.

Ortlund is indebted to the giants who have gone before us. There is not much that is novel here. He provides numerous quotes from others. He breaks them down and “puts the cookies on the counter” so we can enjoy them. He also points us to many passages of Scripture. He would have a confessionalist, not a biblicist, approach as he weaves the Scripture with our heritage rather than one or the other. The heritage sheds light on the Scripture.

But the book.

Ortlund starts with Jesus precisely because we are saved by Christ to become like Christ. We grow in Christ (another chapter) not by our own effort. Jesus changes real sinners. These would be the people who realize they are profoundly sinful, not simply people who mess up once in a while. We must have an orthodox view of Christ, and not a domesticated view of Christ.

The purpose is not an exhaustive theology of Jesus. He does discuss that Jesus is unsearchable or incomprehensible, that Jesus rules as the highest authority in creation (and over it). He saves sinners and befriends them. He invites us into His confidence, particularly as the Spirit illuminates the Word for us. Jesus perseveres with vacillating human beings. We are the weak link in the relationship, but He is steadfast and isn’t looking for an out. Part of His steadfast nature is revealed in interceding for us. Jesus will also return to deliver His people and judge the rest.

“”Gently Jesus,” my elbow! The most striking thing about Our Lord is the union of great ferocity with extreme tenderness.” C.S. Lewis


Ortlund’s pastoral heart is most revealed in the second chapter. Most books on sanctification ignore the reality of despair. Despairing of change seems to be a very common experience for Christians. It is not only common, but necessary so we no longer rely upon ourselves but upon Christ alone.

We take steps forward, and steps back. God dwells with the lowly. Our joy in Christ comes as we despair of self and the world. It is the humble who are exalted. So part of God’s plan is to humble us by showing us how powerless and wicked we are.

So Ortlund addresses the sinfulness of sin. Sin has turned us into glorious ruins. “We construct our entire lives around the throne of Self. … Fallen humans are factories of filth.” God shows us the depth of our sin, often through our failure to resist temptation. One of the ways we mask our sinfulness is moralism. Moralism breeds independence rather than dependence on Christ. “You cannot feel the weight of your sinfulness strongly enough.”

Sounding much like Jack Miller he speaks of repentance as turning from Self to Christ. This is the main thing that separates true repentance from worldly sorrow. On the next page he quotes Miller at length. Despair drives us to seek Christ!


There is no change (or salvation) without union with Christ. It is a vital union, not simply an intellectual construct. He is the life-giving Spirit, the fountain of life. He points us to Romans 6:1-5 to explain our union.

In this chapter he discusses 3 wrong ways to view our relationship with God, and the right way to view it (God in me). It is not God working then I work, or God working while I do nothing (passivity)or me adding to God’s work. Ortlund seeks to hold both human responsibility and divine sovereignty together in examining sanctification. This happens by virtue of our union with Christ.

We are secure in Christ. Our union is unchanging (our experience of communion is, but he doesn’t stress this). Our union is both federal and personal in the macro dimension. Like Adam, Jesus is a federal head. Unlike Adam, Jesus brings life instead of condemnation. He also discusses a micro dimension, the organic union in which He shares communicable attributes. He explains that union is an umbrella doctrine: other things are true because of the reality of union. Sanctification is an increasing experience of our union with Christ.


I summarized this by Jesus fills our emptiness with Himself in our union. Jesus is the fullness of God. We are empty due to sin. Now united to Christ we are filled. The love of God is poured into our hearts and we begin to love God (embrace Him) in return. “We grow in Christ no further than we enjoy his embrace of us.” We grasp, in increasing measure, the measureless love of God for us.

“The love of Christ is his settled, unflappable heart of affection for sinners and sufferers- and only sinners and suffers.”

He affirms the reality of judgment elsewhere, so we shouldn’t think Ortlund is a universalist or that He loves all sinners in this way. His settled heart is intended to settle our unsettled hearts. We are often unsettled by guilt and shame. Like a good parent comforts an upset child, Jesus comforts us when we experience guilt and shame.

Ortlund discusses some blockages to knowing Christ’s love. One is to look at our lives instead of His life. We have to look at the right life. We often let our suffering to define us instead of His love defining us.


There is no sanctification without justification. There is no sanctification without growing in your understanding of justification. We don’t simply begin with justification, but continue in justification. We grow deeper in our experience of justification. Like Ryle, Orltund distinguishes justification and sanctification.

  1. Justification is outside-in, and we lose it if we make it inside-out.
  2. Sanctification is inside-out, and we lose it if we make it outside-in.
  3. And this inside-out sanctification is largely fed by daily appropriation of this outside-in justification.

He also warns of the danger of externalizing sanctification with rules. There is no power in rules. We are also in regularly in danger of judging our justification by our sanctification. This is the flesh’s approach to salvation. Our sanctification rests upon our justification.

At the end of the chapter he provides three portraits in Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. Luther tried to scrub his conscience clean until he realized that justification was a gift received by faith. Christ frees us from our idols (including self-salvation). Luther found his experience of justification precarious, and thus the need to pound the gospel into our heads.

Lewis had been a Christian for years but had an eye-opening experience focused on the reality of forgiveness rather than the intellectual affirmation of forgiveness. In justification we experience forgiveness. Too many seem to hold to a theoretical forgiveness instead of enjoying the actual forgiveness of their sins.

Schaeffer had been in ministry for many years before coming to a similar conclusion. He re-thought his whole theology during his crisis of faith. This would be deconstruction in the positive sense: discovering what you really believe and should believe. This was the road to confirmation of his faith, not apostasy.


Building on this, Ortlund brings us to 1 John 1 and the necessity for forgiveness to have fellowship with one another. We confess the reality of our sin to have fellowship with God and each other. “Walking in the light in this text is honesty with other Christians.” Putting on the mask of godliness impedes actual change. Honesty puts our image-management to death. The walls come down and we can enjoy intimacy with one another.

It is not this that cleanses, but the blood of Christ that cleanses us from our sin. But we don’t enjoy that cleansing while we hide our sins for God and one another. Confessing our sin slays our pride. We need not hide any longer, keeping people at a distance. We also are less likely to hold other’s sins against them.


While we often think of pain as an obstacle to Christian growth, in God’s economy is it a means of growth. “The anguish, disappointments, and futility that afflict us are themselves vital building blocks to our growth.” This is an unpleasant reality. God prunes us, and weans us from the world. He establishes the conditions by which we go deeper in Christ.

Here he speaks of the pain of mortification and speaks of the difference between mortification and self-flagellation. Mortification is a response to Christ’s work, not a fulfilling or completion of it. We starve sin and temptation by looking to Christ rather than satisfying our desires.


This is an odd title to the chapter on the means of grace. He explains it as inhaling (reading the Word) and exhaling (prayer). The means of grace are essential to knowing Christ, seeing our sin and God’s provision, and knowing who we are in Christ and what it means to bear His image. So many of us don’t grow because we either don’t read or don’t pray (or both).

He speaks briefly of how to read the Bible with Christ as the focus. You want to follow the Storyline that culminates in Christ. We “will go deeper with Christ no deeper than you go into Scripture.” Unfortunately he doesn’t really get into why we don’t read very much. Our intake of Scripture, sermons and books is frequently meager. We are being discipled in worldliness as a result.

In terms of prayer, he focuses on being children speaking to the Father who loves them so much He sent His Son to get them. He encourages the use of the use of the Psalms to learn how to pray.


This final chapter focuses on the Holy Spirit. The Christian life is supernatural due to the indwelling of the Spirit. It is not a self-improvement project. He dives into the already/not yet reality initiated by the coming of the Son and the sending the Spirit. We are in the new age, which overlaps with the end of the old age. Jesus continued His work through the Apostles by the Spirit. He continues the work of Christ, rather than replacing the work of Christ. His goal is to highlight Christ, not Himself, however. “The subjective work of the Spirit works in tandem with the objective work of Christ.”

Conclusion: What Now?

He briefly wraps all of this up:

“I have one thing to say. Look to Christ. You will grow in Christ as you direct your gaze to Christ. If you take your eyes off of Jesus Christ and direct your gaze to your own growth, you will prevent the very growth you desire.”

In this he quotes John Newton as well. Look to Christ. Pastors, point them to Christ.

Dane Ortlund has given us another excellent book. It is all there is to say about sanctification? No. But he speaks to the most important things. He wants a book that can be read, not one that is dreaded because it is so thick. He also keeps bringing us back to Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. There are no quick fixes, seven steps or other manageable means. He offers Christ, the One who changes us.

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