Last year Dane Ortlund released a book “Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Suffers.” This was one of my favorite books from last year. Recently, he released a new book called Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners. In this book, he addressed a common question, “how do Christians grow?”
There are nine chapters that explored growing in Christ, or as he called it, “real change for real sinners.” He argued a simple point throughout the book; we grow as we deepen our relationship with Christ. He said that growth in Christ is “relational, not a formulaic experience.” The relational aspect that he focused on is the heart of Christ for sinners and sufferers, which leads believers to daily fight the ongoing presence of sin by the power of the Spirit.
Ortlund simplified theological concepts and is skilled at using word pictures. For example, “justification is outside-in, and we lose it if we make it inside-out” and “sanctification is inside-out, and we lose it if we make it outside-in.” This means that justification is outside of us; Jesus’ finished work on the cross is the basis for our right standing before God, not our own performance. The goal of sanctification is a real change on the inside (heart), not mere conformity to external rules or behaviors.
The doctrine of sanctification is a highly debated topic. I appreciate how Ortlund held the tension between God’s sovereign work and our human responsibility. He emphasized an area that I think is missing when thinking about our growth in Christ, the heart of Christ, amid the ongoing struggle of sin. Ortlund said, “Though our sins will make us more miserable, they cause his love to surge forward all the more.” I think the natural instinct of our hearts is to feel that God is far from us when we struggle with sin. This occurs because we are more focused on our performance than on Christ’s heart and faithfulness to change us. He emphasized the grace of God, that our sins do not repulse Jesus, but draw us closer to his heart. His grace is enough to cover all of our sins, weaknesses, and failures. The security of knowing that Jesus will not leave us takes us deeper into his heart, instead of focusing on our performance as the basis for being accepted by God. The grace of God is the impetus for obedience, rather than fear, duty, or obligation.
My favorite chapter in the book was called “Union.” In this chapter, he dealt with our union with Christ, reminding us that the Bible addresses this over two hundred times. There is a connection between change and our union with Christ as Jeremiah Burroughs says, “From Christ as from a foundation sanctification flows into the souls of the saints: their sanctification comes not so much from their struggling, and endeavors, and vows, and resolutions, as it comes flowing to them from their union with him.” He continued in this chapter to discuss different ways believers understand growth (God then me, God not me, God plus me, and God in me). He said he found this taxonomy from Jerry Bridges. These different approaches reveal how we think about God’s work and our work in the change process. He concluded (God in me) showed, “both human responsibility and divine sovereignty in how we move forward spiritually.” I also like how Bridges used the phrase “dependent responsibility” to explain the same concept.
I think it is easy to forget our union with Christ when we talk about growth, because we naturally feel that God is far from us when we sin. We see him as a judge, not as one walking with us in and through failure. Ortlund argued that union with Christ means he is always with us. He explained the passive side, “Rest in the knowledge that your sins and failures can never kick you out of Christ. Let an ever-deepening awareness of your union with him strengthen your resistance to sin.” Then he discussed the active side, “You have been strengthened with the power to fight and overcome sin because the power that raised Jesus from the dead now resides in you, living and active-for Jesus Christ himself resides in you.”
Another important topic when talking about sanctification is the goal. He explained, “If you try to change simply for change’s sake, you can only change your behavior. You can’t change your heart. But mere behavioral change isn’t change at all.” In the Bible, the heart is the core of who we are, the place where our beliefs, thoughts, desires, motives, words, emotions, and actions all come from. We need the Spirit of God to change our hearts by looking to Christ, “Be astonished at the gracious heart of Jesus Christ, proven in his atoning work in the past and his endless intercession in the present.” I think that there needs to be more of this emphasis on Christ when we talk about sanctification.
If I only helped someone change their behavior and they do not love Christ more; I have not truly helped them. When one focuses merely on behavior, there is a subtle shift to focusing on performance (self), rather than on Jesus’ faithfulness to change us as we look to Him and grow in our love for Him. This is the thought of Robert Murray McCheyne, which Ortlund shared, “Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, all for sinners, even the chief! Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in his beams. Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love, and response in his almighty arms… Let your soul be filled with a heart-ravishing sense of the sweetness and excellency of Christ and all that is in Him. Let the Holy Spirit fill every chamber of your heart; and so there will be no room for folly, or the world, or Satan, or the flesh.”
Deeper is a book that I hoped would not end! I highly recommend this book. This book will draw you closer into the heart of Christ, where there is hope of real change for real sinners as we “look to Christ.”