At church this morning, we sang the hymn, “O Perfect Love” (see here). At first, I just went through the motions of singing it, without thinking about the words that much. Then, I decided that the hymn might have some meat to it, so I decided to read the words. The words of the hymn were rather awkward, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. If it were straightforward, it would not be as interesting or thought-provoking, I don’t think.
The stanza that most stood out to me was the second one. It says:
“O perfect Life, be Thou their full assurance,
“Of tender charity and steadfast faith,
“Of patient hope and quiet, brave endurance,
“With childlike trust that fears nor pain nor death.”
What does this mean, exactly? A perfect life is to be their full assurance—-not so much that things will go well for them or that they will go to heaven after they die—-but that they will have charity, steadfast faith, patient hope, brave endurance, and a lack of fear of pain or death. Granted, the hope that they will go to heaven after they die may play a role in all this and serve as at least one reason or basis for those virtues. But, whereas many Christians talk about “assurance” in the context of people knowing they are saved and will go to heaven instead of hell after they die, assurance in this hymn focuses on something else: the assurance of having certain virtues.
What is the perfect life that is the assurance of these virtues? Is it God himself? Well, perhaps, but why would God be called a “life”? A life is something one lives, not the person who is doing the living. Could it be the perfect life of Jesus, the righteous life that Jesus lived on earth and that many Protestants believe is imputed to those who believe in Jesus? In this case, the point is that Christians’ assurance of having those virtues comes from the fact that they are righteous before God on account of Christ’s merits, that, when God looks at them, God sees Jesus’ righteous life covering up them and their sins, and so God can now proceed to work on them and make them practically righteous because their guilt no longer hinders their relationship with him. There is justification—-being considered righteous before God through faith—-and that is followed by sanctification—-leading a life of righteousness and holiness, through God’s Holy Spirit. Is the hymn simply reaffirming that God will sanctify whom God justifies?
Maybe. That sounds pretty Martin Luther-esque to me, though, and, according to the wikipedia article about Dorothy Frances Gurney, the author of the words to the hymn, Gurney was from an Anglican family and later became a Roman Catholic. That did not surprise me, for the part of the hymn about charity accompanying faith seemed rather Catholic to me (since some Catholics say that faith is not enough to save but needs to be accompanied by charity as well). And yet, my understanding is that Gurney wrote the words to the hymn in 1883, but that she became a Catholic later, in 1919.
Maybe Gurney does not just have in mind justification by faith when she uses the expression “O perfect Life,” but she has in mind the entirety of Jesus’ salvific work. Jesus came to earth to bring salvation, and the life that he lived would free people from sin, both its guilt and their bondage to it. Jesus also lives his life in people. His perfect life is the assurance believers have that they, too, can be righteous.
Here’s another possibility: Maybe that perfect life actually is Jesus himself. He calls himself the way, the truth, and the life in John 14:6.
Anyway, I think it’s fun to think about these old hymns—-what they mean, and why they say things the way that they do.