St Peter Bushey Heath

22nd July 2007

Learning from Hymns

2: Love divine, all loves excelling

On each of my three Sundays at St Peter’s we shall be looking at a well-known hymn, all three of which were written at a time when the Church of England appeared to be falling to pieces.

Hymns, we decided, are a succinct, easily-remembered and popular way of telling the truth – and given that the English language contains the largest and best collection in the world (including, of course, those translated from other languages), we should make the fullest use of that resource. Not only by singing them – it’s difficult to sing and understand hymns at the same time – but by studying them at home. That will improve our understanding both of the hymn itself, as well as of the Bible and the Catholic Faith,.

To understand why Charles Wesley wrote the hymn Love divine, all loves excelling, we have to go back another hundred years before last time’s hymn – Fr Stone’s The Church’s one foundation – to what’s called the Age of Enlightenment. This Age was one when people came to think that all life’s problems could be solved by using nothing more than sweet Reason. In place of Religion, or History, or ancient texts like the Bible, all that was needed was for people to think rationally – about everything.

And, of course, there was much evidence available to support this view. The Industrial Revolution applied the newly-discovered Laws of Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics to the task of revolutionising transport, health and industry. Travel, both inland and overseas became possible for millions of people. Religious wars were seen as a thing of the past – and if it wasn’t for tiresome people like the French and Bonaparte, might be done away with altogether. The world was opening up to trade, new continents with amazing resources were being discovered, and there was a widespread belief that traditional Religion would likewise soon become a thing of the past.

That belief of course was not popular with Bishops and Clergy whose livelihood depended on Religion. So Bishops and clergy did what they usually do – they trimmed their beliefs to fit in with the secular beliefs of the time.

The result was what is called Deism. Yes, there is a God, they said. Yes He created the universe. Yes, His commandments should be obeyed. But, God chooses to play no part in the everyday world He created. Like a watchmaker, He put His creation together, wound it up, and then just allowed it to go on running according to the Laws of Nature. Believing that, you could keep your job as a Bishop, but avoid the accusation that you were (heaven forbid!) superstitious like those rascally Papists they have in countries like France, Italy and Spain.

Of course, Deism does away, at a stroke, with any idea of the Incarnation. Jesus may have been a very God-like man and all that We do well to take his teaching and example seriously; but any suggestion that he might be more than a Man – well, it stands to reason, doesn’t it, that the whole idea’s absurd? And as for people like John and Charles Wesley claiming and preaching to ordinary people that they could, and should, have a living, personal relationship with God – well, as Bishop Butler said to Charles ‘that Sir, is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing!’

The Wesley Brothers’ response was two-fold: John Wesley set himself to travel on horseback to preach the gospel, and in particular the Incarnation in Britain and America to those who had never heard it,; Charles wrote over 5½ thousand hymns, many of which have, as their central theme, the truth that God was incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ and that, through faith in Him, we can not only be saved but also enjoy a living, personal relationship with the God-head. So now let us look a this hymn in some detail.

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

At the Incarnation, God the Son who is at the Father’s right hand, became a man ‘for us and for our salvation’. He was born of the Virgin Mary, died for us on the Cross, but was raised from the dead and ascended into Heaven. This same Jesus says to St John in the Book of Revelation ‘If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and have supper with him and he with me’. The big difference between Deism and Christianity is the belief that Jesus Christ can be discovered not only by Reason, but through experience. As the hymn continues:

Fix in us thy humble dwelling/All thy faithful mercies crown and Visit us with thy salvation/Enter every trembling heart.

It’s not hard to see why ordinary men and women of the time, the vast majority of whom had received only the most basic education, responded so enthusiastically to the Christian message in terms of achieving an immediate, immanent relationship with God through Jesus Christ – as preached by people like Wesley and Whitefield.

It’s all very well expecting educated people to ‘follow their reason’ and realise that there must be a Creator God – though it’s by no means certain that even the well-educated could be brought to know Christ in this way. What is certain is that this is no way to ensure that The mournful, broken hearts rejoice/The ‘humble poor believe’ as he puts it in another hymn. Wesley continues:

‘Come, Almighty to deliver/Let us all thy all thy life receive/Suddenly return and never/Never more thy temples leave’

‘Your bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit’, wrote St Paul to the Christians in Rome. By the simple act of accepting Jesus as their Saviour and Lord, individuals found themselves being transformed from a Nobody into a Somebody, a Somebody for whom God the Son died, and Someone of infinite value to the God who created them.

So the next four lines describe the result of such a conversion:

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

In his Sermon 24, John Wesley wrote: ‘Christianity is essentially a social religion; and that to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it’. But that was precisely what the Deists had done. Faith, to a Deist was something essentially ‘between me and my God’. If the servant classes attended Church (and few of them did) they were expected to ‘know their place’ amongst their fellow worshippers. They were seen as, at best, a distraction, and at worst as having no right to mix with their social superiors. If faith made them honest and hard-working then perhaps it might serve a useful purpose; but as for the suggestion that it united all fellow-worshippers with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven – why the very idea was absurd!

But for the humble poor, a great surprise awaited them:.

Finish then thy new creation/Pure and spotless let us be/Let us see thy great salvation/Perfectly restored in thee

Faith in Jesus Christ not only transforms a man into a Somebody; it incorporates him into Jesus Christ himself. We are ‘perfectly restored in Him’. We become like him, Sons of God, for which very purpose God created us – and still the best is yet to come:

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!

The Deists had all but lost sight of Heaven. That is why some of them had such magnificent tombs built for themselves – so that their fellow-men should not forget them and their achievements when they died. But who, in his senses, would exchange a posthumous piece of monumental-masonry for the privilege of being allocated a place in heaven where earthly crowns are gladly cast away in favour of inheriting a share in God’s kingdom?

Small wonder then that the 18th century powers-that-be hated the Methodists (as they came to be called) and refused to have anything to do with them. And small wonder that God’s answer to the Deist heresy was to inspire people like John and Charles Wesley to bring people back to faith in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord.

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