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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at / Published Life BPC , 2003-06-22

Text: Ephesians 2:4-7

The Scriptures abound with passages that express how wonderfully God has loved us. One of them is Ephesians 2:4-7 'But God, who is rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come He might shew the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.'

I. Expressing Our Debt To God

The words, 'when we were dead in sins' in v.5 show us how utterly undeserving we are of this salvation. What brings out the full extent of God's love here is the fact that He loved us while we were still dead in our sins, incapable of loving Him or doing anything worthy of His love in our state of depravity. And He loved us enough to make us alive with Christ, to raise us up, and make us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus! Dearly beloved, has this world ever known any love that is greater than this? Such great love, when fully known and revealed in all its magnificent glory, should move us to realise how much we owe to God. We should never cease to be amazed at how infinitely indebted we are to Him, for all the things He has done for us out of His great love for us!

Many who have meditated on this have been inspired to write some of the most inspiring hymns that have ever been composed and sung by God's people. Consider a few hymns that are familiar to most of us, which attempt to capture with words, the full extent of the irrepayable debt that we owe to our loving heavenly Father. It was Bernard of Clairvaux who wrote, 'What language shall I borrow to thank Thee heavenly Friend, for this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end? O make me Thine forever! And shall I fainting be, Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee!' (O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, RHC 188)

Isaac Watts, the great English hymnwriter wrote, 'But drops of grief can never repay The debt of love I owe; Here, Lord, I give myself away-'Tis all that I can do.' (Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed? RHC194). In another hymn, entitled, 'When I Survey the Wondrous Cross' (RHC551), Isaac Watts, wrote these words, 'Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a tribute far too small. Love so amazing, so divine demands my life, my soul, my all! More than a century later, a writer by the name of Elvina Hall wrote, 'Jesus paid it all, All to Him I owe; Sin had left a crimson stain - he washed it white as snow.' (Jesus Paid It All, RHC183)

II. McCheyne's Hymn

Of all the hymns ever written on the theme of the irrepayable debt, none has dealt with it so extensively as the one that was written by Robert Murray McCheyne, which we know today by its first line, 'When This Passing World Is Done'. This 4-stanza hymn was originally published as a 9-verse poem in the Scottish Christian Herald, May 20, 1837, with the title, 'I Am Debtor.' Here is the original poem:

When this passing world is done,
When has sunk yon glaring sun,
When we stand with Christ in glory,
Looking o'er life's finished story,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know-
Not till then-how much I owe.

When I hear the wicked call,
On the rocks and hills to fall,
When I see them start and shrink
On the fiery deluge brink,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know-
Not till then-how much I owe.

When I stand before the throne,
Dressed in beauty not my own,
When I see Thee as Thou art,
Love Thee with unsinning heart,
Then Lord, shall I fully know-
Not till then-how much I owe.

When the praise of heav'n I hear,
Loud as thunders to the ear,
Loud as many waters' noise,
Sweet as harp's melodious voice,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know-
Not till then-how much I owe.

Even on earth, as through a glass
Darkly, let Thy glory pass,
Make forgiveness feel so sweet,
Make Thy Spirit's help so meet,
Even on earth, Lord, make me know
Something of how much I owe.

Chosen not for good in me,
Wakened up from wrath to flee,
Hidden in the Savior's side,
By the Spirit sanctified,
Teach me, Lord, on earth to show,
By my love, how much I owe.

Oft I walk beneath the cloud,
Dark, as midnight's gloomy shroud;
But, when fear is at the height,
Jesus comes, and all is light;
Blessed Jesus! bid me show
Doubting saints how much I owe.

When in flowery paths I tread,
Oft by sin I'm captive led;
Of I fall-but still arise-
The Spirit comes-the tempter flies;
Blessed Spirit! bid me show
Weary sinners all I owe.

Oft the nights of sorrow reign-
Weeping, sickness, sighing, pain;
But a night Thine anger burns-
Morning comes and joy returns;
God of comforts! bid me show
To Thy poor, how much I owe.

III. The Life of McCheyne

The author of this poem was a very godly Scottish pastor and evangelist gifted in poetry and music. Beside this poem McCheyne had written over fifty others, some of which were published in a book called 'Songs of Zion'. But none of them have been loved or sung by God's people as much as this particular one. The hymn, 'When This Passing World Is Done' stands today as a gem among the pilgrim songs for heavenly people! At the time that he wrote it in 1834, McCheyne was at the point of completing his studies in Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. 

He was only 21 years old then, and would have only nine more years before he would be taken up to glory, for he died before he reached the age of thirty. But within his short life, Robert McCheyne served the Lord with such powerful zeal and ardour, that he became known as one of Scotland's shining lights as regards the preaching of the Gospel of Christ! Like Abel, he being dead yet speaketh (Hebrews 11:4). And his life stands as a powerful testimony for all who love and serve the Lord today, of how we should live as debtors to the grace of God. 

A. His Conversion

Born in the year 1813, the youngest child of a well-to-do Christian family at Edinburgh, Robert grew up with good prospects of becoming a successful lawyer, like his father, Adam McCheyne. He entered university at the young age of 14, and there he soon became an eager participant in the city's fashionable entertainments, spending his leisure hours in card playing, dancing and music.

However, during his years in university, Robert was the subject of much fervent prayer from his elder brother, David, who was the only real Christian in the family at that time, and who longed for the rest of the family to be saved. Robert loved this brother a lot, and alwaqys looked up to him for counsel and help, for David was nine years his senior. And so when David died in 1831, Robert was much grieved to have lost a wonderful brother and guide. But this loss proved to be the most important turning point in Robert's life. He refered to it later as the 'first overwhelming blow to his worldliness.' Through his brother's death he began to see the utter futility of spending his life on earth on pleasure, games, dancing, and much social partying. He missed his elder brother sorely, and longed to have a brother who could never die. And he did find such a Brother, when He turned to the Lord Jesus Christ! The last stanza of his hymn, When This Passing World Is Done, aptly summarises the conversion of Robert Murray McCheyne, as he wrote: 

Chosen not for good in me, Wakened up from wrath to flee,
Hidden in the Saviour's side, By the Spirit sanctified,
Teach me, Lord, on earth to show, By my love, how much I owe.

II. His Service

Two months later, at the age of 18, Robert surrendered his life to the Lord for full-time service. He presented himself to the Presbytery of Edinburgh and was accepted to study Divinity at the University. There, he earnestly prepared himself for the Lord's service. He joined the university's Missionary Association and engaged in visiting the poor in the slums of Edinburgh. He also developed an interest in overseas missions. 

After a short internship, he was ordained as the pastor of the new St Peter's Established Church in Dundee. This church was actually a pioneer outreach work, as Dundee was then a rapidly expanding industrial area at the height of the industrial revolution. The streets were overcrowded with thousands of poor and rough working-class people who flocked to Dundee to find work in the mills and factories there. With God's enablement, Pastor Robert McCheyne was able to build the church up from scratch so that within just seven years, it had a congregation of 1,200 members! The church is there to this today and is now known as St Peter's Free Church of Scotland.

What was the secret of his success in building up the church at Dundee so well? Many biographers of McCheyne's life agree that it was due to two things: His very disciplined devotional life, and his dependence on the Holy Spirit.

III. His Devotional Life

He would rise up at six every morning and spend two hours in private prayer and meditation. Then he would have breakfast and and family devotions. McCheyne fervently believed that a calm hour with God is worth a whole lifetime with man. His closest friend and biographer, Andrew Bonar, writes, 'the real secret of his soul's prosperity lay in daily enlargement of his heart in fellowship with his God. Meditation and prayer were the very sinews of his work.' Daily devotions were so important to McCheyne, that he devised a Calendar of daily Bible readings which would enable a person to complete the whole Bible in a year. And his calendar became so popular later on, that even Charles Spurgeon recommended it highly to his own church! It is still published today by Trinitarian Bible Society as an appendix to their Bibles.

IV. His Spirit-Filled Ministry

The other thing that contributed to McCheyne's fruitful ministry was his dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit, both to make him holy, and to win the lost to Christ. He once wrote to a friend, 'A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.' This conviction was something he had acquired through studying the lives of godly men such as Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd and Henry Martyn. He earnestly longed for the power of the Holy Spirit that had been so evident in their lives, to be granted also to him. You can see this in the third stanza of his hymn:

Even on earth, as through a glass Darkly, let Thy glory pass,
Make forgiveness feel so sweet, Make Thy Spirit's help so meet,
Even on earth, Lord, make me know Something of how much I owe.

And this prayer for the Holy Spirit's help was answered in marvelous ways. 

A. Manifestations of Revival

The first was in a powerful revival that swept through his church in 1839. This came about after three years of prayerful preparation, in which McCheyne sowed the seed with fresh Spirit-filled sermons from God's Word on Sunday and during the midweek prayer meeting, and also in his intensive home visitation programme in his parish of Dundee. McCheyne fully realised that just one word uttered in the power of the Holy Spirit could do more than thousands of words spoken in a spirit of unbelief. 

When revival broke out, the twice-a-week meetings in church became nightly meetings as the whole town was moved, and people came in droves to fill the church hall. The fear of God fell upon the ungodly. The Word was listened to with what is described as, 'an awful and breathless stillness.' A visitor remarked that the church there was filled with a 'Bethel-like sacredness' during the services. So packed was the church that they even had to have open-air meetings in the meadows at Dundee! At one such meeting, a heavy downpour of rain came while McCheyne was preaching, but the dense crowd stood right there till the end of the meeting.

During this revival, many who came under conviction wept aloud with tears of repentance that turned into tears of joy, as they gained the blessed assurance of true salvation. And instead of just one prayer meeting a week, there were 39 separate groups meeting for prayer every week, including five groups that were attended and led by children! There were enough Sunday School teachers now to staff 19 new Sunday Schools! This revival was not limited to Dundee alone. It also spread to many other places in Scotland, and was facilitated through the ministry of many other godly men who were contemporaries of McCheyne. It was a much-needed awakening for the Church of Scotland!

The interesting thing about this revival, is that it actually began in McCheyne's church at a time when he was away, and when his good friend, another Scotsman by the name of William Chalmers Burns, ministered in his church as a locum until his return. The revival at Dundee that started under William Burns continued in even greater measure under McCheyne after he returned from his trip, and stayed with him for the rest of his life. 

By the way, the name William Burns should ring a bell to us, as he is the Scottish root among the seven roots of the B-P Movement in Singapore. It was William Burns who became a missionary to China in 1847 and who brought the Gospel to Swatow and Amoy. Out of the Chinese converts who emigrated to Singapore from there, Life Church at Prinsep Street was formed. Before all that happened, William Burns was the pastor of a church at Kilsyth, who came over to Dundee to look after McCheyne's flock during the time that he was away on a mission trip. 

B. Missions to the Jews

This brings us now to the second way in which McCheyne�s prayer for the Holy Spirit to work in Him was answered. It was in the realm of missions. From his days of training for the ministry, he had already felt a burden for the lost in heathen lands. By 1836 he felt willing to go to India and prayed that God would make His will plain to him, but the bouts of ill-health he suffered then showed him that this was not God�s will for him. Instead the Lord placed in his heart, a burden for the salvation of the Jews. 

In God�s wonderful providence, the the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland at that time wanted to send a team of ministers to Eastern Europe and the Middle East (then under the Turkish Empire), in order to make a study of the Jews who lived there, and to recommend the best means of evangelising them. And when he was invited to join the team, McCheyne gladly went with three others, on a journey that was to last for six months. 

During this missionary survey trip, McCheyne's passion for souls was translated into a passion for the salvation of the Jews and Arabs. It was a great heart-ache to him that he could not speak their language, for he wanted to preach to them with the same zeal and fervour that he preached to his fellow scotsmen at home. But after braving the many hazards of this trip, including falling very ill on a ship to Smyrna, McCheyne and company returned back to Scotland and gave such a comprehensive and challenging report that was published into a best-selling book ('The Narrative of a Mission of Inquiry to the Jews'), that within a few short years, Scottish missions were established to the Jews in Eastern Europe, Poland, Germany and Hungary. In later years the work expanded throughout the Middle East, including several of the towns that McCheyne had visited. 

The Spirit of God used him to plant a deep concern for salvation of the Jews not only in the hearts of his Scottish countrymen, but also among the Christians of England and Ireland. In 1840, he went to Ulster to plead for the interest of the Jews. The following year the Irish General Assembly began efforts which led to the establishment of missions to the Jews in Syria and Germany. A year later, McCheyne's visit to London resulted in the formation of the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Jews.

Let us listen to what he wrote about the Jews: 'To the Jew first. Converted Israel, he declared, will give life to the dead world....just as we have found, among the parched hills of Judah, that the evening dew, coming silently down, gave life to every plant, making the grass to spring and the flowers to put forth their sweetest fragrance, so shall converted Israel be when they come as dew upon a dead, dry world. The remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many people as a dew from the Lord, as the showers upon the grass, that tarrieth not for man, nor waiteth for the sons of men.'

We look forward to the day when these words of McCheyne will be completely fulfilled. And we know that it will happen, because the Scriptures tell us that Israel is the firstborn son among God's dear children. We who are Gentile believers owe a tremendous debt to the Jews, because, as the apostle Paul wrote, 'unto them were committed the oracles of God' to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came' (Romans 2:2; 9:4,5).

And while our Gospel debt to the Jews is great, our debt to God Himself is even greater! This debt is truly one we can never repay, as Robert McCheyne has so aptly expressed in his hymn, and also exemplified in his life. His was a life that was entirely consecrated to the Lord, and was well used by the Lord even though he had a mere seven years of unceasing ministry on earth. But McCheyne himself would probably testify that even all that he had done can never repay the irrepayable debt he owed to the Lord for all the love and grace that God had shown to him. 

After a preaching tour of the churches in north Scotland in 1843, Robert Murray McCheyne returned home to Dundee at an unfortunate time when a severe typhus plague was raging there. He succumbed to the plague and was promoted to glory, 29 years old. He now stands on high with Christ in glory, and is experiencing what he had written in the first two stanzas of his hymn:

When this passing world is done, When has sunk yon glaring sun,
When we stand with Christ in glory, Looking o'er life's finished story,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know - Not till then - how much I owe. 

When I stand before the throne, Dressed in beauty not my own,
When I see Thee as Thou art, Love Thee with unsinning heart,
Then Lord, shall I fully know - Not till then - how much I owe.

Dear friends, let us join in this pilgrim song, praising and thanking God for the wondrous things He has done in our own life. And since our debt to Him is irrepayable, let us not spare any effort from now on to live our lives in full surrender to God, seeking and doing His will. Then our hearts will be able to echo the words of Robert Murray McCheyne: Then Lord, shall I fully know- Not till then-how much I owe.

Vision & Mission


To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

January 21 & 28 - The Power of Prayer

Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. James 5:16