This hymn comes from Charles Wesley (1707-1788), the brother of the Methodist reformer John Wesley. Both John and Charles were born into the Church of England, but each of their lives progressively evidenced reformatory tendencies relative to the established Church. The brothers each had a type of “conversion” experience in which he found his heart “strangely warmed” and when he made an active commitment to Christ. (Although the writer of music notes must here echo other scholars in noting that, far from being unrepentant heathens before their “conversions,” the brothers were involved heavily in ministry and missions [particularly in Georgia] before their conversion and, whilst it was an important moment for their inner spirituality, there was little noticeable change in the daily lives. This reinforces the fact that the Holy Spirit worked in them through their baptism even before they felt Him!) Much like the roughly-contemporaneous German Pietists, John in his preaching and Charles in his over 6,000 hymns sought to “personalize” Christianity and bring God “down” to humanity, rather than to “lift” humanity up to God.
To illustrate, consider the opening lines, “Joy of heav’n, to earth come down! Fix in us Thy humble dwelling, all Thy faithful mercies crown.” Here is God, in His Incarnation, descending from the cosmic expanse to live within our hearts. Charles is here concerned with “inward” light and feeling, much as he is in another hymn of his, “Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies” in which he implores, “Daystar, in my heart appear. . . joyless is the day’s return till Thy mercy’s beams I see, till they inward light impart, Glad my eyes, and warm my heart.” Wesley’s poetry induces us to look inward to the faith that God gives. This seems rather straightforward to us moderns, but consider the difference between Wesley and Isaac Watts. In his hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Watts is fond of this idea of “survey”—as though one is surveying a landscape on which the surveyor is only a small portion. Watts continues, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a tribute far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” To Watts, this “whole realm of nature” represents the magnitude of God. Not only can we not give to God what is already His—nature—but we are forced to confront our diminutive status within the universe. This awareness of the cosmic scope of Christianity is what demands “my life, my all.” Watts starts inward and proceeds outward (and arguably returns inward again.) But Wesley is always one to remind us that this omnipotent God will “breathe Thy loving Spirit into ev’ry troubled breast.” (Stanza 2) The third stanza has Wesley praying that God “return and never. . . Thy temples leave,” the term “temples” being a metaphor for one’s soul.
As any great Methodist would, Charles Wesley concludes the hymn with a prayer for sanctification, “Finish then they new creation, pure and spotless let us be.” Wesley reminds us that the Holy Spirit works in us so that we might be “new creation(s).” His last lines, “lost in wonder, love, and praise” embody a type of surrender to God which is only possible through God’s initial action, as the glories and splendours of heaven are opened to us and in which our intellects are too limited to comprehend or to respond. Like Luther, Wesley was no rationalist, believing to a certain degree that reason is flawed and subservient to faith, and it is this grand, mysterious, all-encompassing, saving faith which Wesley tries to put forth in all of his hymns, embodying the divine love that not only justified but sanctified humanity.