Exciting phrases, easy acronyms, and memorable lists formed from dense works of systematic theology can be helpful for the everyday Christian. While these reductions of God’s Word and His nature help us understand general frameworks, they are unable to help us understand everything the Bible teaches. It is one thing...
Do you believe in love at first sight? Charles Wesley did.
Wesley, the prolific hymn writer and itinerant evangelist, met the love of his life on August 28, 1747. Sarah “Sally” Gwynne, was the twenty-one-year-old daughter of his good friend, Marmaduke Gwynne. Wesley later admitted to Sally in a letter that “at first sight of you, my soul seemed pleased to take acquaintance with thee. And never have I found such nearness to any fellow-creature as to you.” After a two-year courtship, Charles and Sally married on April 8, 1749.
According to biographer John Tyson, Wesley viewed “all of life as an area of God’s activity,” and therefore his “hymns reflected the emotional challenges of real life.” For example, Wesley wrote more than 50 hymns about his courtship and marriage. The dominant theme in these hymns is his concern that his love for Sally and later, for their children, would somehow diminish his commitment to his Savior.
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” was published in 1747, perhaps shortly after Wesley met Sally. The familiar hymn begins this way:
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.
It’s significant that the first line reads “all loves excelling.” Wesley recognized that his love for Sally filled his thoughts and governed his actions. Yet, as intense as his love for Sally was, Jesus’ love for him exceeded it in both degree and longevity. In that way, his relationship with Sally gave Wesley a greater appreciation for Jesus’ “pure, unbounded love.” Consequently, even as his love for Sally increased, the principle desire of Wesley’s heart was still to glory in Jesus’ perfect love:
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.
Three Aspects of Jesus’ Excelling Love
In what ways does Jesus’ perfect love excel all other loves?
1. He laid down his life for us.
First, as he said himself,
Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13, NIV)
Sometimes, though, we focus so intently on his work of redemption—his physical death—that we ignore the other sacrifices he made on our behalf.
He left heaven to live on earth for 33 years. Would we be willing to leave the glories of heaven for someone? Jesus also laid aside his position as Sovereign of the universe to walk the dusty roads of Palestine—to feel hunger, pain, and sorrow. Are we willing to lay aside whatever independence and control we possess for someone else? And what if that person, for whom we sacrificed so much, spurned our love and mocked our sacrifice? Would we continue to love them, to pursue them, and to shower them with blessings?
That’s excelling love.
2. He made us co-heirs in the family of God.
Consider also what the apostle John wrote in his first letter:
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are. (1 John 3:1, NIV)
Redemption is an amazing gift. But we have also been adopted into the family of God. “Co-heirs with Christ” Paul wrote in Romans 8:17. Have you thought about that lately? All the riches of heaven are ours—mercy, grace, peace, joy—given freely to us because Jesus is willing to share his inheritance with us. Would we give someone else full access to our inheritance?
That’s excelling love.
3. He imparts his very life to us.
Third, as John writes in the chapter 4 of that same letter,
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. (1 John 4:9, NIV)
Jesus imparts his life to us so may become “like him” (1 John 3:2), or as Paul put it, “conformed” to his “likeness” (Romans 8:29).
The Message explains “conformed” so beautifully:
[God] decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love Him along the same lines as the life of His Son . . . . We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in Him” (Romans 8:29).
And Jesus, our High Priest, intercedes for us daily in heaven so that through his life in us, we may indeed become all that he intends us to be (Hebrews 7:25).
That’s excelling love.
Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise
When we meditate on these three facets of Jesus’ perfect love for us, we may be as overwhelmed with wonder as Wesley was:
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.
In the same letter to Sally mentioned at the beginning of this post, Wesley also wrote,
O that [our love] may bring us nearer and nearer to God, till we are both swallowed up in the immensity of His love!
May that be our prayer too. May we see every human relationship—spouse, child, or friend—as an opportunity to understand the love Jesus has for us on a deeper level. On the other hand, may we never allow any earthly relationship to draw us away from him. Neither should we attempt to find in human relationships what only he can provide—the “pure abounded love,” the all-excelling love, that makes it possible for us to even begin to love others as he has loved us.