This is the third of four hymn devotions for Lent. Read more musical devotions.
What does it mean to live as a Christian? How can we continue to grow in our faith? Charles Wesley’s “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” is a prayer for God to guide us in our spiritual journeys throughout our lives.
Lent is a time when many Christians focus intentionally on spiritual growth. Some attend Lenten soup suppers and Bible studies at their church. Others volunteer at the local food bank, join a spring break mission trip, or visit the lonely. Many others choose to donate to ministries near and far that work for justice and support those affected by unjust systems.
John Wesley, a founder of the Methodist movement and Charles’ big brother, called these activities means of grace. They are things we do to put ourselves in a posture to receive God’s grace in our lives (see The Means of Grace, II 1).
Some of these means of grace are worship and our devotional lives. They also include times of serving our neighbors and standing up for justice. Those who participate in these practices experience a deepening of their faith and understanding.
John called this process sanctification, or becoming “perfected in love.” He writes in a sermon, “If thou wilt be perfect… add love… It is not only the first and great command, but it is all the commandments in one” (The Circumcision of the Heart, I 11).
He is echoing Jesus’ answer when asked what the greatest commandment is: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind... [and] You must love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:37-40 CEB, cf. Mark 12:28-31 & Luke 10:25-28).
For the Wesleys growing as a Christian is all about being filled with love, which happens by the grace of God.
In an episode of UMC.org’s podcast Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Wesley scholar the Rev. Paul Chilcote describes sanctifying grace as “grace that pulls us forward, magnetically draws us deeper into love—God’s love for us and our love for others.”
“Love Divine All Loves Excelling” is a prayer for God to pull us deeper into love.
Because he first loved us
The hymn begins by acknowledging that love originates in God (1 John 4:7), and comes to us in the person of Jesus, “Joy of heaven to earth come down.” As we sing with Charles, we ask Jesus to make his home in our lives,
Fix in us thy humble dwelling…
Visit us with thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.
Because of God’s great love for us, we are invited into new life in Christ, are given the ability to accept that invitation by faith, and receive God’s forgiveness for our sin. In these beautiful lines of the first verse, Charles expresses the beginning of our life of faith.
With verse two, “Love Divine, Loves All Excelling” begins to focus on our journey toward “having the love of God shed abroad in our hearts” so that it guides every action of our lives. As we have found peace in first receiving Christ, Wesley prays to receive “second rest,” a new level of peace.
Our United Methodist Hymnal says, “Take away our bent to sinning,” but Charles’ original lyric is a bit stronger.
Take away our power of sinning,
Alpha and Omega be,
End of faith as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.
Wesley's prayer is to be so filled with the love of God that there is not room enough for any other motive. This removes our ability to sin, granting us a freedom fuller than that of our forgiveness, which Charles writes of in “And Can It Be that I Should Gain.”
Life as worship
Verse three continues the theme introduced in the very beginning of the hymn. We pray for Christ, the love divine, to make his home in us. Clearly though, this is not a one-time event. It is a way of life.
When Wesley writes,
Suddenly return, and never,
Never more thy temples leave.
he is not advocating spending all our time in church. He is instead praying for the transformation of every aspect of life into an act of worship. By participating in means of grace, we grow in God’s love until it permeates every aspect of our lives, every moment of every day.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve thee as thy hosts above,
Pray, and praise thee without ceasing,
Glory in thy perfect love.
All of this is a process in which we grow daily.
Charles reminds us in verse four that sanctification is not something we achieve, but something God accomplishes in us by grace.
Finish then thy new creation,
Pure and sinless let us be
Our role is to put ourselves in a position to receive the love God already has for us. We do this by practicing the means of grace throughout our lives, or as Charles Wesley writes,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise!
In his devotional The Song Forever New: Lent and Easter with Charles Wesley, Chilcote writes,
We live in that time between what has been (what is no longer) and what will be (but is not yet). In this meantime, God continues to change us from one degree of glory to another, conforming us to the image of Christ, and sinking us deeper and deeper into love.
These weeks of preparation for Easter are a wonderful time to focus on this “time between.” As we practice our Lenten disciplines, these means of grace, we seek to grow deeper and deeper into love.
The United Methodist Church is committed to assisting each of us find our unique giftedness, and equipping us to live into it.
Chilcote, Paul Wesley. The Song Forever New: Lent and Easter with Charles Wesley. New York: Morehouse, 2009.
Wesley, Charles. “Hymn IX.” Hymns for Those that Seek and Those that have Redemption in the Blood of Jesus Christ. London: Strahan, 1747. p. 11-12. Accessed through The Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition, Duke Divinity School.
This story originally posted on March 27, 2017.