Biblical Richness: "Love Divine All Loves Excelling"
Editor's Note: This is the third installment in a new series called Behind the Hymns. Dr. Roger D. Duke explores the history behind Christianity's most treasured hymns.
In the first episode, I offered a short introduction to Charles Wesley and his importance to the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition. We also tipped our hat to his contribution as hymn writer that affected all of Christian hymnody.
There was also a short discussion of the Wesley brothers' use of hymnals as a catechetical tool for the common folk. They understood the rank-and-file coal miners, shop keepers, and tavern owners would not do the rote memory needed to retain the doctrines of Christ and His Church. Although the memorized work would aid them along the road to personal sanctification. And the brothers also understood well the people would sing—and in the singing would be the catechizing.
Part II has to do with this hymn form and structure. It goes into some detail about how it is laid out and the theological flow. Its discussion sets the reader up for the theological reflections, Biblical themes, illusions and allusions of Charles Wesley the poet. That is the one genius of the lesser-known Wesley brother. He was a remarkable poet, he was also a gifted musician to boot. With this background on Parts I and II, please enjoy Part III: “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”
This is one of Charles Wesley’s best-known hymns. Notice, “Its religious temperament and implied doctrine belong to Methodism.” Since the “poem follow[s] a Trinitarian pattern, to Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Father, and the complete Godhead ([by] . . . inference).” This will frame the following theological reflections.
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.
The first stanza’s serves as invocation to the rest of the hymn. It is a five-fold prayer to Christ. Because His divine love excels all other affections that can be humanly known; Wesley calls on Christ to “come,” “fix,” “crown,” “visit,” and “enter ev’ry trembling heart.” Without a doubt—based on the Wesleyan body of divinity—Charles longed for this deeper “love divine” relationship with the Master. This love could be known corporately by the Church, but Wesley desired for all to experience it personally and intimately.
He prays Christ’s presence will not be for the Church-corporate, but every individual member will know this intimate love of Christ. The prayer has a basis in Christ’s Incarnation. When Christ comes experientially—the joy of heaven has come to earth; He has fixed in us His humble home; He has crowned us with His mercies; He has visited us with His salvation; He shall enter every trembling heart.
Secondly, note the descriptors Wesley applies to Christ. He calls Him; the “joy of heaven,” “all compassion,” and “pure unbounded love.” He considered one of Christ’s titles here—Immanuel—God with us. The continued meditation on Christ’s Incarnation must have captivated Wesley when he prayed and meditated on these words. The significance of his description shows a progression of thought and theology.
For Christ was full of unbounded love; that He possessed all compassion; that he brought down the joy of heaven. That joy of Heaven was Christ himself! From transcendence to immanence; from the Father’s right hand; to “be made in the likeness of men, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Christ himself, Christ’s Incarnation, Christ come down, Christ’s presence with us is “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”
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 bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.
Wesley continues his prayer with “longed-for results . . . [that] follow the indwelling Spirit of love: trouble relieved, rest secured, the desire to sin removed, release from the bondage of sin.” The Spirit will perform dynamics for and in the believer. The Spirit’s breathing on the believer references Christ when he “breathed on them and said unto them, receive ye the Holy Ghost.” This Biblical teaching of the Holy Spirit is resplendent in Wesleyan Theology; both in doctrinal expression and experiential application.
When Stanza 2 is sung, it becomes a catalyst calling forth remembrances of three biblical Holy Spirit images:
First, “ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise.” One sign of royalty in bible times was the king’s signet-ring. When he would send forth a decree; the scribe would melt wax where the document was folded, then the signet-seal was pressed into the wax. This ensured no one other than the right person at the right time should break the seal. In like manner, the Holy Spirit has sealed us until the day of redemption at Christ’s return in glory.
Secondly, “God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the spirit.” When there was a deal struck to buy a piece of land, the buyer would give the seller some “up-front” money. The seller would then give the buyer a hand-full of dirt. This served as witness by that there had been a good-faith transaction to redeem the land by the purchaser. This payment was called the earnest. The idea, there would be a future redemption. The buyer would pay the full price; the seller would relinquish the property when the price was fully paid. The Holy Spirit is given to us as an earnest until the day of redemption at Christ’s return in glory
Third, “ye have received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.” This may be the greatest teaching yet! To be sealed with the Holy Spirit is exciting. To have the Holy Spirit as an earnest looking towards to our final redemption is exciting. But now the Holy Spirit is known to us as “the spirit of adoption.” We are already spiritually adopted as sons and daughters of God. Paul uses the laws of his day when to express this idea. In Roman times, once a son was legally adopted, he could never be disinherited. We are “waiting for the adoption . . . the redemption of our body.” This will happen on the day of redemption at Christ’s return in glory.
The stanza ends with “Alpha and Omega be” and “End of faith as its beginning.” These Biblical expressions are to the finished work of Christ. But the Holy Spirit’s “office work” in the believer is Wesley’s main emphasis in this second stanza.
Hopefully you have pondered the Trinitarian work Wesley recounted in this hymn. He left it for all who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Stage and Story sincerely desires that the Gospel found in Charles Wesley’s “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” will cause you to think about your soul’s need and relationship to Jesus Christ. Please join us again for Part IV of this series “Behind the Hymns” as we bring to a close our exposition of this wonderful hymn of the Church.
 As an aside, some people do not realize that song writers are “poets with a guitar.” That is, songs are poetry before they are ever set to music.  Leland Ryken, 40 Favorite Hymns on the Christian Life: A Closer Look at Their Spiritual and Poetic Meaning (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2019), 62. Ibid. Albert Edward Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns: Background and Interpretation (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), 96. See: John 1:14-18, Philippians 2:5-11 John 14:23 See: II Timothy 4:8, James 1:12. I Peter 5:4, Revelation 2:10. See: Psalm 106:4. See: John 14:1-6. Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah 8:8, & Matthew 1:23. Philippians 2:7-8. Bailey asserts: “The ‘rest’ is the state of moral perfection which the Wesley’s believed could be obtained in this life. The ‘bent to sinning’ has been altered in most hymnals to ‘love of.’” See: Albert Edward Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns: Background and Interpretation (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), 96. Bailey, 96. John 20:22. Ephesians 1:13. 2 Corinthians 5:5; see also 2 Corinthians 1:22. Romans 8:15. Romans 8:23. Revelation 1:8, 1:11, 21:6, 22:13. Hebrews 12:2.
Dr. Roger D. Duke is an advisory board member and the scholar-in-residence at Stage & Story. Dr. Duke is an ordained Baptist minister and has taught at the college and graduate school levels for over 20 years. Dr. Duke holds graduate degrees from The University of the South’s School of Theology at Sewanee, TN; The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Harding University’s Graduate School of Religion. He has written or contributed to more than ten volumes (including works on John Bunyan). Visit his website at www.invertedchristian.com. His published work can be found on his website and his Amazon Author's Page. He has been happily married to Linda Young Duke for nearly 44 years. They have three adult children and four robust grandsons.