Love Divine, All Loves Excelling – Charles Wesley
UM Hymnal #384
As I was taking a quick look at hymnary.org (an amazing research database) I was not surprised to find that this hymn appears in 1635 hymnals. It is a testimony to the relevance of this text which speaks to many different people, regardless of their theological view, culture, race and/or age. Contemporary hymn and songwriters are rediscovering the old texts, and just like Rev. Meredith Mills is helping us to see the theological depth and relevance of John Wesley’s sermons, so are worship leaders and enliveners taken by the theology exposed in Charles Wesley’s hymns.
Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven, to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, thou art all compassion,
Pure, unbounded love thou art;
Visit us with thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.
Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast.
Let us all in thee inherit;
Let us find that second rest.
Take away our power of sinning:
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith as its beginning.
Set our hearts at liberty.
Come, Almighty to deliver,
Let us all thy life receive;
Suddenly return and never,
Nevermore thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve thee as thy hosts above,
Pray and praise thee without ceasing.
Glory in thy perfect love.
Finish, then, thy new creation;
Pure and sinless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise!
The Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal informs us that this much beloved hymn first appeared in 1747 in Charles Wesley’s collection of Hymns for those that seek and those that have Redemption in the Blood of Jesus Christ. I think that is a rather lengthy title for a hymn collection, but it perfectly describes how Charles Wesley felt about salvation.
Actually, he kind of made a poetic pun. Henry Purcell, British Composer (1659-95) set John Dryden’s poem to music for his opera King Arthur.
Fairest Isle, all isles Excelling
Seat of Pleasures and of Loves;
Venus here will chuse her Dwelling,
And forsake her Cyprian Groves.
But that is truly more on a side note of knowledge that might come in handy when you want to impress at your next church musician luncheon.
The hymn Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, printed above, has been undergone numerous editions due to the various ideas about Christian perfection. Wesleyan theology speaks of the transforming work of the Spirit in us as an ongoing journey, not a one-time event. As soon as we recognize and accept the love of God for us, God’s grace is at work in us to perfect us. The ordination vows every United Methodist ordained person makes contain that very belief – ‘Do you believe in being perfected in Christ Jesus?’ Many people can jump on board with the idea of God continuing to heal our brokenness through ongoing sanctifying grace but cannot believe that we could actually reach perfection, meaning pure love for God and neighbor. Charles Wesley, however, believed in Christian perfection and expresses this in every stanza.
Stanza one is the beginning of the journey with God. Now, God journeys with us from before we have been born but due to free will we do not always accept and reciprocate God’s love. Stanza two goes more into detail about the Spirit’s work in us – to take away our power of sinning! This was a controversial view as well because of the notion that if God takes away our ‘power’ then we are no longer free willed people. John Wesley himself disliked the use of that word and simply omitted the whole stanza to avoid the subject. But, as in any Charles Wesley hymn, if we take stanzas out, we miss out on the whole story. Hymnal editors have replaced the word ‘power’ with the word ‘love’. Stanza three describes what Christian perfection looks like. Finally, stanza four brings the conclusion of why we want to strive for Christian perfection. Can there be a more desirable life than being perfectly restored in Christ? Not according to Charles Wesley. Yet, many hymnal editors have changed the word ‘sinless’ to ‘holy’, ‘unspotted’, or ‘spotless’. I think, when you read through this new lens of perfect love, you will no longer find it necessary to change Charles’ words.
As I had mentioned in a previous blog entry, hymns and hymn tunes are written in a certain meter and hymns and tunes with the same meter are interchangeable. Our hymnal has printed the tune BEECHER with this hymn but also give the option of the tune HYFRYDOL. Although John Zundel wrote BEECHER for these words, I often choose HYFRDYDOL because I find it more fitting to the text. It also reminds me of the text that is also paired with HYFRYDOL and the promise of perfect love coming to earth in ‘Come Thou Long Expected Jesus’. (This is also a Charles Wesley hymn). Reading more about BEECHER I realize that the composer Zundel gave tempo instructions for the singing of the tune and they are much slower than I have ever heard it played or sung. We are to sing it in about one beat per second. For now, I think that I still prefer HYFRYDOL until I can truly unhear the fast and bouncy tempo of BEECHER. This Sunday we will sing this hymn to the tune of HYRYDOL.
What does Christian perfection look like today? Can you imagine a life with only love for God and one another? Can you imagine no more division, no more hate, no more violence, no more pain? I think that today just like in Charles’ days, or Jesus’ days, or Moses’ days, or Abraham’s days humanity is broken and only the Grace of God will heal this brokenness and unite all of God’s creation in the most glorious celebration of a God of perfect love. I want to invite you to sing this hymn this Sunday with the vision of perfect love, and I too believe that our God is big enough to perfect us if surrender all and allow him to fully enter in.
Rev. Suzi Byrd