Hymnology: Love Divine and perfectionism

Charles Wesley

This morning I read an interesting post on the Church Society blog: Should we stop singing ‘Love Divine’? Charles Wesley is a great hymn writer and Love Divine has always been one of my favourites, but this post did make me reconsider. The goal of this little ‘hymnology’ series is to think about hymns and the theology behind them – and sometimes that might mean taking down a sacred cow. If a hymn expresses theology which is unclear or unhelpful, then it’s probably not a good idea to sing it! We need to be concerned with truth and clarity in our songs as much as we are in preaching.

The post I mentioned above has done a pretty good job of outlining the problem with Love Divine, and I would suggest you read it before carrying on with this one; I just wanted to expand a little on the underlying theology of Charles Wesley. The teaching mentioned in that post is perfectionism – that is, the belief that moral perfection is attainable in this life. In other words, there can be a point in this life when someone is no longer under the power of sin.

John Wesley – Charles’ brother – seemed to teach perfectionism, although it should be noted that he was a man who is quite hard to nail down when it comes to this issue: he would say apparently contradictory things – sometimes he claimed that perfection was attainable, other times he didn’t. And, of course, Charles and John did have their disagreements on various aspects of theology. However, the perfectionism theology evident in Love Divine – in its original form at least – fits quite well with the general holiness movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. The movement believed that moral perfection was attainable when one surrendered all to God. There would be a second blessing of the Holy Spirit, and all of a sudden sin would disappear from your life. Most of this theology was based on a misreading of Romans 6.

What’s interesting about this teaching is that it was for many years mainstream evangelical teaching with the Keswick Convention. Keswick was started by a man named Thomas Dundas Harford-Battersby (brilliant name), who was himself influenced by the teaching of Hannah Pearsall-Smith and others from the holiness movement. The structure of the week, the ‘God-given sequence’, was designed to bring you to a point of surrender to the Holy Spirit and receiving his fullness.

However, it is exactly what happened to Harford-Battersby and others in the holiness movement which should give us serious pause for thought when it comes to perfectionism: many of them struggled with depression because of their sin. If you genuinely think that sin can be completely conquered in this lifetime, then if in your life you find that sin is not conquered – chances are you’re going to be devastated. Having too high an expectation of sanctification will inevitably lead to disappointment.

On the other hand, as the apostle John says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). The Bible makes it clear that at no point in this life can we claim to be without sin! Sin will be with us for as long as we live on this earth – there will come a day when it is gone, but not yet. We should hope and expect change to happen, of course – otherwise there would be no point in the Christian life at all! – but no-one will ever achieve perfection in this life.

Of course, most people (if not all) don’t have perfectionism in mind when singing Love Divine. I certainly don’t! And, of course, the words that we actually sing are a little different now to the words which Charles Wesley actually wrote. I think when I’ve sung it in church I’ve tended to think about it being looking to the future in a ‘new creation’ sense. But now I look at the words and actually analyse it – I can see how it fits with a ‘second blessing’ / perfectionism theology. Sadly I think the hymn has survived simply because it has some beautiful phrases and is usually sung to a rousing tune – rather than because it is clear and sound theologically. But I think the blog post I mentioned above may be right: perhaps it is time to quietly shelve Love Divine – it’s not as if there are a shortage of decent hymns out there, perhaps it’s time for some others to take the limelight.

Suggestions for good modern or traditional hymns about God’s love welcome!

Just for fun…

Charles Spurgeon was brilliant on perfectionism. Here are a couple of quotes, the first from the man himself and one from a book by David Watson recounting a story about Spurgeon:

One man, who said he was perfect, called upon me once, and asked me to go and see him, for I should receive valuable instruction from him if I did. I said, ‘I have no doubt it would be so; but I should not like to go to your house, I think I should hardly be able to get into one of your rooms.’ ‘How is that?’ he inquired. ‘Well,’ I replied, ‘I suppose that your house would be so full of angels that there would be no room for me.’ He did not like that remark; and when I made one or two other playful observations, he went into a towering rage. ‘Well, friend,’ I said to him, ‘I think, after all, I am as perfect as you are; but do perfect men ever get angry?’ He denied that he was angry, although there was a peculiar redness about his cheeks, and a fiery flash in his eyes, that is very common to persons when they are in a passion.

In the past, when men and women had been blessed by the Spirit (whatever they called it), they sometimes claimed that they were so dead to sin and so full of love that it was no longer possible for them to sin. When the great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon heard a man teaching such nonsense at a conference one evening, he poured a jug of milk over the man’s head at breakfast the next morning. By the man’s unholy reaction, the doctrine of sinless perfection was speedily disproved!

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