Charles’s Off-day

13 November 2019

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.

charles wesleyHymnwriters 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 Wernleaves 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:

  • Methodist Hymns & Psalms   The Praises of Jesus
  • Sankey    Public Worship: Songs of Praise
  • Christian Praise   The Man of God: Consecration and Discipleship
  • Grace Hymns   The Christian Life: Devotion
  • Redemption Hymnal    Worship: Aspiration
  • Golden Hymnal   The Christian Life: Fellowship with God and Union with Christ
  • Songs & Hymns of Fellowship   Jesus

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 generalVerse 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—justificationwas 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.

Footnotes

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.

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

6. 1 Corinthians 6:19

7. 2 Corinthians 5:17

8. Golden Hymnal, No. 362

9. Redemption Hymnal, No. 71

10. See Revelation 4:10


Repetition and repertoire

26 February 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective — 3.

In the days of hymns, people sang a hymn through once, and that was it. Fair enough, as many hymns had five or six verses, often with a chorus between. Modern Christian songs tend to be shorter, and thus lend themselves to having sections repeated several times. That’s fine, as repetition can drive a point home like nothing else.

worship bandBut repetition, if overdone, has the very opposite effect. It becomes mind-numbing, so that, far from entering more fully into the sentiment being expressed, the congregation is pushed towards either a semi-hypnotic state where meaning goes out of the window, or into crashing boredom. With me it’s always the latter.

Few aspects of music, therefore, need more careful handling than this if we are to get it right. How can we get it right? One obvious step is for the worship-leaders to look and see if the people are actually singing. There has been quite a bit on the web recently about Christian meetings where the congregation have virtually given up singing altogether. Why would that happen?

  1. Because the music has entered ‘performance mode’. This is especially true of mega-church congregations, where the scenario is ‘rock concert’ rather than ‘people at worship’. May we never allow that to happen!
  2. Because even if they sang as loud as they possibly could, they still wouldn’t be able to hear themselves above the high-volume sound pumped out from the sound-system. So they stop competing. The sound system should serve the congregation, not browbeat them into silence.
  3. Because the guitarist-singer is singing in the style of a performer, playing about with timing, cutting bits short, bending notes etc. They are singing, in other words, as if they were on stage, or singing in private. A congregation is made to feel insecure by this and tends to opt out rather than risk singing out ‘wrongly’.
  4. Because some of the songs are virtually unsingable.

This last point leads on to the issue of the repertoire. Speaking for myself, I am increasingly uncomfortable with many of the songs presented for us to sing. The words of some are at best lightweight, and in a few cases dubious in both their theological content and their standard of English. But here I will address a couple of the musical aspects.

  1. A competent songwriter knows the range within which a typical congregation is comfortable. In broad terms that will be within an octave from the D just above Middle C to the D or E above it. It’s possible to include the odd note outside that range, but this should be the exception rather than the rule. Some songs, alas, go so low that many people stop singing. Let’s ditch them.
  2. Many recent songs were originally composed for solo or group singing by Christian musicians and bands that tour around performing. They are fine for that context, and for listening to on mobile devices etc., but most don’t transfer at all well into a public setting. They often include non-intuitive modulations that throw a congregation completely and put them off trying to master the tune, as they quickly come to believe that there isn’t really a tune there to master.

In all this are we, perhaps, neglecting our rich heritage of older hymns and songs? I believe we are. Why, I wonder, is that?

One young Christian who was preparing to speak at a Bible study at his church was asked, ‘What commentaries are you using?’ He replied, ‘Oh, I don’t touch commentaries. I think it’s important to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to me today about the passage.’ To which another Christian, who had overheard the conversation, commented, ‘Strange, isn’t it, how those who make much of what the Holy Spirit is saying to them have little time for what the same Holy Spirit said about the passage to others?’

The same applies to songs in worship. We have a rich heritage of 2000 years-worth of Christian music and song, and we rob the congregation if we fail to include some of that heritage regularly in our times of singing and worship.

In particular, from the 18th century on there have been some superb examples of Christian songs. True, many of them will have the ‘thees and thous’ typical of that generation, but Christians today are surely robust enough not to let that put them off?

To me it’s very sad that, at some churches, they have two separate services, one ‘traditional’ (with the organ and hymn-books) and the other ‘contemporary’ (with a worship-band and projected words). This is unnecessarily divisive, in my view. Let’s have a good, rich mix.

There’s more to say on all this…in a future post.

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


Best bliss

29 October 2010

Hymns sung in my childhood and youth regularly come back to me. I usually sang them then with little appreciation of their depth and insight, but now, in my relative old age, I see them for the gems they are. I love to take them out, polish them up and admire their beauty afresh.

Here’s the latest treasure to get this treatment:

Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts,
Thou fount of life, thou light of men,
From the best bliss that earth imparts
We turn unfilled to thee again.

It’s that last couplet that gets me. How true it is!

I’ve been blessed with a good life and have enjoyed many moments of blissful joy and contentment. That’s right and proper—the Lord is the giver of ‘every good and perfect gift’ and he has given us ‘all things richly to enjoy’. But deep down I know full well that only Jesus himself truly satisfies.

So, ‘from the best bliss that earth imparts’ I find myself resetting my bearings to ‘turn unfilled’ once more to him.


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