Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
1 Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heav’n, 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 ev’ry trembling heart.
2 Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit
into ev’ry troubled breast;
let us all in thee inherit,
let us find the promised rest:
take away the love of sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its Beginning,
set our hearts at liberty.
3 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.
4 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 heav’n we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.
This is a song about sanctification. The writer (Charles Wesley) fixes the nature and source of our sanctification from the very beginning in the love of Christ, a love greater than any love; and vital to success in sanctification. As long as we think of repentance and good works merely as a duty or as a way to earn God’s favor or avoid His wrath, we will never truly progress. On the one hand, we will look to our own strength for the source of our labors, which is woefully insufficient. On the other our motivation will be fundamentally selfish, and how can we progress in righteousness motivated by sinful motives? But when we recognize that the love of Christ toward us is the source of all progress in truth, and the motivation for all our efforts in repentance and sanctification, then our efforts are on the proper footing.
Wesley demonstrates a rich understanding of the Scriptures throughout. Much of the thinking here is drawn from John 14-16, though there are references to many other Scriptures as well. The lyrics are a progression of thought through the Biblical doctrine of salvation, starting with the love of Christ, through the work of the Spirit, reuniting us to the Father, and ending with our eternal glorification. This follows well the process of salvation as we experience it subjectively in our own lives. We become aware of the love of Christ for us in what He did for us in His death. That love works more and more in us through the power of the Spirit, making us know and understand God better over time, leading more and more to despise the false ambitions, threats, and seductions of this world.
Wesley prays for the divine love to come and make a home in our hearts (verse 1), as Jesus promised to do. He does this via the work of the Holy Spirit (verse 2), and this is very helpful to know, for it helps us understand the way that our salvation is accomplished. The salvation of Christ is at work in us through the ministry of the Spirit of God. Jesus said He would send His Spirit to His apostles, and this resulted in the inspired Scriptures being sent. The Spirit comes to us as well, not that we might write new Scriptures, but that we might understand the Scriptures already written. Understanding the role of the Spirit in our salvation helps us give full glory to the Trinity for our salvation, but also to understand the means by which that salvation occurs so that we can be obedient to lay hold of the means of grace as we are instructed.
The Spirit of love is also the Spirit of adoption, and verse 2 recognizes this with a prayer that in the Spirit we might inherit the promise. The land of Canaan was a type of the promise we have in Christ, a figure to which Wesley refers in verse 2, “let us find the promised rest.”
Verse 2 also gives us a profound bit of psychological understanding. “Take away the love of sinning.” This is the great problem of sanctification, of course. We can develop disciplines, techniques, and habits, and these are all well and good, but in the moment of temptation, the problem is that we don’t want to follow those things. We want to sin. And ultimately we’re going to do what we want to do. Sanctification therefore requires a change in our desires, and this is work that only the divine power of God can accomplish. He’s promised to work through means, so we’re not passive, but we have to understand that this is not anything we can ever do in our own strength. Thus Wesley’s prayer, “take away the love of sinning.” The last part of that verse recognizes that God is therefore not just the One who starts us in the faith, but the one who preserves and finishes us in that faith as well—“Alpha and Omega be, end of faith as its beginning.” And the result of this is freedom—freedom from the greatest slavery mankind knows, the slavery to sin.
Verse 3 again calls on Old Testament imagery of the temple of God in Jerusalem, in which the presence of God dwelt. When that temple was corrupted by idolatry, the glory of God departed (Ezekiel 8-10). The prophets all promised a return to His Temple though, when the Messiah came and poured out His Spirit. The people of God are that temple (1 Peter 2:1-9), consecrated by the shed blood of Christ and indwelt forever by God. The consecration of Christ’s blood is so much better than that of bulls and goats (Hebrews 9:13-14), and this new temple to God will never be defiled. Thus, God will never again leave His new temple. Verse 3 goes on to reflect on the eternal fellowship of love and worship that the people of God will enjoy forever in this new temple.
So the final verse calls on God to complete the work that He has begun. The Christian earnestly desires to be free of sin completely. We do not desire to be merely forgiven sinners, but perfected saints. Forgiveness is only the beginning. When we are complete in our salvation, restored to the image of God, recognizing finally and fully that the love of God is greater than any other love, then we will finally be able to come before God and see Him face to face with no impediment, and return to Him all the glory and worship that He deserves.