We all have our off-days—even all-time greats like William Wordsworth. Once, describing ‘a little muddy pond’ that he came across on a walk in the Lake District, the poet wrote:

I’ve measured it from side to side:
‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.
[1]

‘Sublime’ isn’t the word that springs to mind on that couplet, but we excuse him because of the many beautiful poems he wrote that were truly sublime. He was human, after all, and no-one can sustain a level that never dips into the banal.

Hymnwriters are the same—even the great Charles Wesley. The English-speaking church throughout the world still sings many of the hymns that flowed from his heart and his pen in the eighteenth century. And rightly so. He had a gift for expressing the deepest spiritual truths and Christian experiences in words remarkably concise and, at the same time, profoundly compelling. Take the following, for instance, which in addition to top prize for giving wings to our wonder at what the Lord has done for us, deserves a medal for daring to start with ‘And’:

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Saviour’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused his pain?
For me, who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Brilliant! But when you write nearly 7,000 hymns they can’t all be top-notch, even in a revival, and dear old Charles had his off-days. I’m going to stick my neck out and say it was on such a day—in 1747—that he penned ‘Love divine, all loves excelling.’

Yes, I know this hymn is probably in his top ten for general popularity, and for weddings it’s almost certainly Number One. But it’s poor stuff compared with his best. Somehow the meaning doesn’t seem to ‘flow’. In fact I’ve never been able to sing it without wondering what it’s really about. Is it a prayer for salvation? For some other blessing? For eternity and God’s presence? Or is it just, ‘More, Lord!’—without specifying more of what? Or does it ask for something completely different? I find it puzzling and frustratingly vague and, as such, very unlike Charles Wesley, who typically used words with care and precision.

To save you having to look it up, here it is. The Methodist Hymns And Psalms version has only three verses, but I have also included Verse 2 as this appears in some hymn books and is, I’m informed, genuine Wesley:

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
All they faithful mercies crown.
Jesu, thou art all compassion,
Pure, unbounded love thou art;
Visit us with thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, oh breathe thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast;
Let us all in thee inherit,
Let us find thy promised rest.
Take away the love 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 grace receive;
Suddenly return, and never,
Never more 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 spotless 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.

For sure, singing this hymn—especially to the tune Blaen Wern—leaves you feeling good, which is no bad thing. At a gut level it does the business. But if I were to ask you to summarise in a couple of short sentences what its overall message is, you may hit problems. Most of the folk I’ve asked have scrutinised it long and hard, with lots of Mmmms and a furrowed brow, only to duck out with, ‘Well, I’m not sure, really’.[2]

Maybe it would help to check a few hymn books and see in which category they place it. Here are a few I pulled off my shelf:

That doesn’t narrow the field much. In checking the various hymn books, however, I did notice a couple of other things. First, the punctuation varies, sometimes affecting the meaning. And second, there’s some variation in the wording. For example, Wesley originally wrote ‘Let us all thy life receive’ in Verse 3—which suggests it is a request for new life, for salvation—but the 1935 revision of the Methodist Hymnal changed ‘life’ to ‘grace’, which could make the request more general. Verse 2 has been changed the most. Wesley originally wrote:

Let us find that second rest;
Take away our
bent to sinning…

The reason this verse doesn’t appear in some hymn books, apparently, is that some find it doctrinally dodgy. The books that include it have adjusted the words to make it more acceptable.

But we’ll skip these minor issues for now and stick with the hymn’s overall meaning. I invite you to read it again, thinking about what Wesley actually says, then ask yourself, ‘What is his sequence of thought? What is the hymn actually saying?’ Like me, you will find some parts that are like lean meat among the gristle: tasty and satisfying, and you don’t have to chew too much. The second half of Verse 3, for example, which expresses so well our desire to be as liberal and unfettered in our praise of God as are the angels in heaven.  And the second half of the last verse, which reminds us that we are on a journey of sanctification that will one day end with unspeakable joy in his presence. The rest you might chew ad infinitum until you spit it out as unswallowable.

So what is it about? ‘Well, it’s all about love, isn’t it?’ say the bride and groom who have picked it for their wedding service.

I think we can safely ditch that idea. A couple in love spot the word ‘love’ in the title, read the first two lines and conclude, ‘Ooh, fantastic! It’s all about love. And we’re in love. And sometimes our love feels so wonderful it seems to have an almost heavenly, divine quality. And—would you believe it?—there’s the word ‘divine’ in the opening line! And Line 2 says this heavenly love has come down to earth. So, yes, it really does describe the love we share. Well done, Wesley! We’ll use this as the opener at our wedding.’

Even though this hymn hasn’t, in fact, the remotest connection with romantic or married love, the wedding congregation will sing it through without batting an eyelid—and without any clue as to what they are really singing about.

What the hymn is about, we can safely say, is sanctification—the process by which Christians leave behind their old, sinful ways and become in character gradually more like Jesus. Down the centuries, Christians have adopted various views about sanctification and how it works, and this hymn reflects one view that was popular in Wesley’s day but which other Christians, both then and since, have viewed with suspicion. They are the ones who omit Verse 2.

But let’s start at Verse 1 and try to work our way through the hymn, hopefully to get a grip on what it’s all about. Brace yourself: it’s not easy!

Verse 1

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down…

The whole hymn is a prayer, and here we are addressing Jesus. He’s the one who came down to earth from heaven to incarnate and demonstrate the Father’s love for us. So it’s not some abstract idea of love we are singing about, it’s him. This is confirmed later in the verse, where we address him by name:

Jesu, thou art all compassion,
Pure, unbounded love thou art.

Yes, he is the very personification of heavenly ‘love’, of God’s ‘compassion’. Good. All clear so far. The other two couplets of Verse 1 are where, in our prayer, we ask him to do something for us:

Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
All they faithful mercies crown.

We ask him to come and live in us—a ‘humble dwelling’ indeed for the one used to the glory of heaven and the Father’s company. But what we are supposed to mean by this request? Your guess is as good as mine. Are we asking him to save us? Maybe—though many of us who sing it are saved already, committed Christians in whom Christ, by his Spirit, already dwells. Since Wesley wrote it for Christians to sing, is there, perhaps, some further ‘coming and dwelling’ that the hymn may be requesting, one that will be the ‘crowning’ moment, the pinnacle, of all the ‘faithful mercies’ that God bestows on us, his children? Perhaps the remaining couplet will clarify what it is we’re asking for:

Visit us with thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.

The trembling heart, no doubt, is the excitement, tinged with holy fear, that we feel in anticipation of this unidentified coming and dwelling. Which leaves only, ‘Visit us with thy salvation’. Ah, there’s the answer, then: this is a prayer for salvation. In that case how can this be an appropriate hymn for already committed Christians to sing? Unless, of course, salvation somehow comes in two stages. But it doesn’t, does it?

Verse 2

This is the verse that many hymn books omit. As we have noted, some compilers have skipped it because of their doubts about its doctrinal soundness. In fact Verse 2 caused controversy in Wesley’s own day. Let’s take a look at it and see if we can fathom out why. It starts clearly enough, still addressing Jesus:

Breathe, oh breathe thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast.

We singers have a ‘troubled breast’, that is, a heart all a-flutter with worries and fears. We need something to calm the trouble, and that something is God’s reassuring love, so we ask Jesus to ‘breathe’ his ‘loving’ Holy Spirit into us. Wesley here uses the ‘breathing’ terminology of John 20:22. OK so far.

Let us all in thee inherit,
Let us find thy promised rest.

If you know your Old Testament you will recall that the term ‘inherit’ was used primarily of the Israelites entering the Promised Land.[3] The land was the inheritance that God had undertaken to give them. Entering it meant an end to the long years of wandering in the desert living in tents, and in that respect it represented the ‘rest’ that they needed. In Canaan they could settle at last, build houses and till the fields. So the land was both their ‘inheritance’ and their ‘rest’.[4] The New Testament takes up this imagery and points out that the Israelites’ entry into Canaan was just a figure of a far greater ‘inheritance’ and ‘rest’ to follow, namely the wonderful salvation that has become ours through Christ. In him we come out of the spiritual desert and give up the wearying struggle to please God by our own efforts, and so we enjoy the ‘rest’ of faith.[5]

It is this imagery that Wesley takes up here in Verse 2, where our prayer continues with the plea that we might find our spiritual ‘inheritance’, our ‘rest’. That fits in fine if this hymn is indeed a prayer for salvation. But I can assure you this was not Wesley’s intention because his original version had, ‘Let us find that second rest.’ What on earth did he mean?

In Wesley’s day there was a doctrine doing the rounds called ‘entire sanctification’. According to this view, an initial salvation experience—justification—was not sufficient. It needed supplementing with a second experience of grace, one of sanctification, by which the believer was freed from the power of sin and enabled to live a life of complete holiness or, to use a phrase common at the time, of ‘perfect love’. This second work, according to its proponents, was not so much a process as a powerful crisis-experience, received by faith, and some went so far as to say that the believer could, as a result of it, attain ‘sinless perfection’ this side of Christ’s return.

Charles believed strongly in this two-stage approach, and it is to an experience of the second stage that he refers in the line, ‘Let us find that second rest.’ Knowing this background, we have the key to the whole hymn. It is, in fact, the prayer of Christians who have experienced Stage 1 but not yet Stage 2, and their plea is that, as they reach out in faith, God might grant them the Stage 2 blessing.

So we can now look back to Verse 1 and better grasp what Wesley was writing about. The ‘trembling heart’, we now see, is one desperate for an experience of ‘entire sanctification’. While grateful for God’s ‘faithful mercies’ to us so far, including justification, we still yearn for those mercies to be ‘crowned’ with the ultimate mercy of a sanctifying experience, and we look to the one who is ‘love divine’ to ‘visit’ us with this second aspect of ‘salvation’, that is, to provide it.

Christians unable to subscribe to such views modified this line from ‘Let us find that second rest’ to ‘Let us find thy promised rest’, which is loose enough for us to apply to spiritual rest in a more general sense, whether it be peace in times of anxiety or the fulness of our inheritance that will become ours only at Christ’s return. But that is certainly not what Charles Wesley set out to say.

The hymn’s second verse also becomes clearer now. It is the ‘loving Spirit’ who will provide, through such an experience, the perfect love we want to fill our ‘troubled breast’. Wesley takes some liberties with the Bible’s ‘inheritance’ and ‘rest’ imagery. In the New Testament it refers to salvation by faith in Christ, but Wesley narrows it to mean the desired Stage 2 experience. The rest of Verse 2 continues the underlying sanctification theme:

Take away the love of sinning.

Believers in ‘entire sanctification’ maintained that a Stage 2 experience put an end once for all to the pull of the sinful nature, striking a death-blow to the very source of sinful impulses. Wesley’s original line—‘Take away our bent to sinning’—expressed this clearly. But some Christians, uncomfortable with Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification, could not in good conscience sing this line and so modified it to ‘Take away the love of sinning’, in the hope that all believers would be able to sing this as an expression of their general desire to live a life free from besetting sin. And sing it, praise God, we can.

Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

Here we continue to address Jesus, who is ‘the Alpha and the Omega...the Beginning and the End’ (Revelation 22:13). In the light of what we now know about the hymn’s doctrinal background we can be certain that here, according to Wesley’s intentions, we are asking Jesus who, as ‘Alpha’ and ‘Beginning’, has given us the experience of justification, to now fulfil his role as ‘Omega’ and ‘End’ by granting us the subsequent experience of entire sanctification and, in so doing, ‘set our hearts at liberty’ from their ‘trembling’ and troubles.

Verse 3

Now we’re on a roll because we know the nature of Wesley’s concern, and Verse 3 continues the theme:

Come, almighty to deliver,
Let us all thy grace receive;
Suddenly return, and never,
Never more thy temples leave.

Some might see a reference to Christ’s second coming in the phrase ‘suddenly return’, but it is highly unlikely that this was Wesley’s thought. In his theology, to pray ‘Let us all thy grace receive’ is to request the second grace of ‘entire sanctification’. Jesus, who is ‘almighty to deliver’, can rescue the Christians who have progressed no further than Stage 1 from the pain of their predicament, and can do it in an instant, in a ‘sudden return’ to their hearts. He has come once to bring justifying grace; now he will ‘return’ to bring sanctifying grace, and having done so, Jesus will never again leave them because these believers are ‘temples’ in whom Christ will now dwell permanently by his sanctifying Spirit.[6]

Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve thee as thy hosts above,
Pray and praise thee without ceasing,
Glory in thy perfect love.

At last a fairly straightforward bit. Yes, we do want to be as free and unceasing in our praise as the angels in heaven. For Wesley, of course, a Stage 2 experience is the key to triggering it in our lives here below, for this is an experience of ‘perfect love’—a much-used synonym  for ‘entire sanctification’ in his day. Today we sing these four lines without that connotation, and they remain an eloquent expression of our longing to give the Lord the praise due to him. We would say about them, ‘This is Wesley at his best’, though the man himself would probably turn in his grave if he knew how far we had strayed from his original sentiments.

Verse 4

In this final verse the sanctification theme persists as strongly as ever:

Finish then thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let us be.

We tend to read these words as an aspiration towards that happy day when Jesus will return to take us home. Then, he will purge away all remaining traces of sin and will put the finishing touches to the ‘new creation’ that took place when we were born again.[7] Wesley may also have had this in mind, but primarily he was talking about a Stage 2 experience by which the believer, this side of glory, could be ‘pure and spotless’ in his enjoyment of Christian perfection.

Let us see thy great salvation,
Perfectly restored in thee.

This couplet has always been, to me, the most puzzling in the whole hymn. Clearly I’m not the only one with a problem, because hymnbook compilers have changed it more than any other. One hymnal, for example, has: ‘Let us see our whole salvation perfectly restored in thee’.[8] Another has: ‘Let us see our whole salvation perfectly secured by thee’.[9] But Wesley wrote it as quoted above. It makes sense to see it as somehow in line with the theme of the hymn as a whole, but how? Many of us who sing it have quietly thought—to quote the man himself, in another hymn—‘Tis mystery all’.

Anyway, you’ll be pleased to know I think I’ve cracked it. The punctuation is the key. All the Methodist hymn books, including the current Hymns And Psalms, place a vital comma at the end of the first line. This serves to clarify that what is ‘restored’ is not God’s ‘great salvation but ‘us’, who see it. On this basis the gist of the couplet is: ‘‘Let that state of affairs come about whereby, in receiving the second blessing and thus being restored completely (‘perfectly’) from our Adamic condition to what you always intended for redeemed humanity, we experience (‘see’) your great salvation in full.’ If this is right, and I’m now sure it is, Wesley wasn’t producing his best writing here, which supports my ‘off-day’ theory.

The last four lines, by contrast, are wonderful:

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.

No need to get tied up in doctrinal knots here—we can all rejoice in such prospects. As for Charles Wesley, while he may have been prone to overwork the ‘crisis’ aspect of sanctification as a Stage 2 experience, here he clearly acknowledges that there is also a ‘process’ aspect to our becoming more like Jesus. He refers, of course, to Paul’s statement about that process in 2 Corinthians 3:18, which the KJV renders, ‘We…are changed into the same image from glory to glory’.

That process will culminate when ‘in heaven we take our place’ and find ourselves capable of praising and worshipping our Lord and Saviour in perfect bliss and without limits. Then we will gladly ‘cast our crowns’ at his feet, acknowledging him alone as King of kings.[10]

So that’s it. Now I know why I have always found this hymn so frustratingly vague: it’s because the original words have been seriously tweaked to mask its doctrinal dubiousness, and because what in an eighteenth-century context was crystal clear—the typical Wesley style—we today sing without that context and so are left with a string of inspirational phrases that are like a sheep’s coat: warm but woolly.

What will all this do for our attitude to Wesley’s hymn from now on? That we will all continue to sing it is, I hope, beyond doubt. The modifications made by history to his original words, to make them more acceptable, have been enough to push the hymn into the OK-zone. And if Verse 2 gives you problems even in its tweaked form, you can always choose to sing the three-verse version.

But you won’t be able to sing ‘Love divine’ now without knowing both the controversy behind it and its original meaning. Like Jacob who, after his encounter with Truth incarnate, walked with a permanent limp, you will always bear, as you sing, the scars of coming face-to-face with the truth behind this hymn. Happily, Jacob went on to live a long and productive life, and I hope that you will still find yourself able to sing Charles Wesley’s ‘off-day hymn’ frequently and productively as long as you live.

© David Matthew 2009

1. From Wordsworth’s poem The Thorn, stanza 3, part of his Lyrical Ballads, 1798.

2. Some have surmised that it’s just a general seeking after God. Others that it is saying, ‘Lord, finish the work you’ve started in me.’ A few see it as a prayer for salvation. Some Pentecostals think it may be a prayer for baptism in the Holy Spirit. Most just don’t know.

Charles’s Off-Day

‘Love divine, all loves excelling’

This is one essay in the Shades of Grey series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.


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3. E.g. Leviticus 20:24; Deuteronomy 12:10 etc.

4. For the ‘rest’ imagery see, e.g. Deuteronomy 3:20; Joshua 1:13, 15

5. See Hebrews 3:7 – 4:11.

5. See Hebrews 3:7 – 4:11

6. 1 Corinthians 6:19

7. 2 Corinthians 5:17

10. See Revelation 4:10

8. Golden Hymnal, No. 362.

9. Redemption Hymnal, No. 71.

Charles's Off-Day

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