The most significant break with earlier religious attitudes, the one with the most far-reaching psychological consequences because of its effect on the way people see themselves, is the elimination of feelings of guilt and of unworthiness as the foundations of religious life. This development coincides with the appearance of more permissive social standards, particularly in sexual matters. …Somehow religion has moved beyond ethics: what has become uppermost today is the religious experience itself.
J.I. Packer, in his own inimitable way, describes the same phenomenon as a day of “unwarrantably great thoughts of humanity and scandalously small thoughts of God.” Our day, he predicts, will be remembered as “the age of the God-shrinkers.” The result, he says, is that:
belief in God’s sovereignty and omniscience, the majesty of his moral law and the terror of his judgments, the retributive consequences of the life we live here and the endlessness of eternity in which we will experience them, along with the intrinsic triunity of God and the divinity and personal return of Jesus Christ, is nowadays so eroded as to be hardly discernible. For many in our day, God is no more than a smudge.
Part of the solution is to immerse ourselves afresh in the biblical perspectives about God and his holiness, and radically re-orient our mindset to what constitutes reality. Another part is to recognize that the Holy Spirit is still sovereign and has ways of overriding the barriers erected by erroneous thinking.
Consider the case of Mary Stewart, who, came to know Christ in that turbulent era of the late 1960s and early 1970s and found that she had some radical choices to make in her life. In her own words, she was:
a very liberated young woman at the time. I had had a rich sexual fantasy life almost since I could remember. …I had almost lost count of the number of men I had slept with in a serially monogamous fashion. I had taken advantage of the spirit of the Women’s Movement (in which I was quite active) to begin exploring my own bisexuality. And I had no intention of giving any of that up. When I accepted Christ, I figured that it was the spirit of the law, not the letter, that mattered, that “love” was the overriding principle, and that I could witness in bed as easily as anywhere else.
But to my progressive astonishment, I found all that changing. Not quickly. Not all at once. Not by anyone’s prying into my personal life or trying to send me on a guilt-trip (although I am sure I had lots of people praying for me). It was totally a process of God’s working on me, one item of behaviour at a time, over many months, like patiently peeling one layer after another off an onion.
As God’s Spirit began to enable her to “walk in his statutes,” as promised in Ezekiel 36:27, she came to find herself “progressively liberated, gentled and strengthened” and that, in her own words, “I wanted God’s Spirit more than I wanted transient physical titillation.”
Modern sensibilities be what they may, God’s Spirit and his sweet grace are ultimately, thankfully, and blessedly irresistible. And this gives us great hope and encouragement. Well did John Ryland, Jr., the close friend of Andrew Fuller (1754–1815) and William Carey (1761–1834), express this truth, albeit with reference to a much broader context, in a 1792 circular letter that he drew up for the Calvinistic Baptist churches of the Northamptonshire Association:
Surely the state both of the world, and of church, calls loudly upon us all to persist in wrestling instantly with God, for greater effusions of his Holy Spirit… Let us not cease crying mightily unto the Lord, “until the Spirit be poured upon us from on high” [Isaiah 32:15]; then the wilderness shall become as a fruitful field, and the desert like the garden of God. Yes, beloved, the Scriptures cannot be broken. Jesus must reign universally. All nations shall own him. All people shall serve him. His kingdom shall be extended, not by human might, or power, but by the effusion of His Holy Spirit [cf. Zechariah 4:6].
The Spirit’s work will ultimately be victorious—both personally in those whom he indwells and globally.
Michael Haykin, The Empire of the Holy Spirit, 47-50.