We are probably all familiar with the old story of the young man driving down to Cornwall for a weekend break and getting lost on the way. Pulling up outside a pub in a small hamlet in the West Country he asked an old boy sitting outside in the sun if he knew the way to Penzance. The old boy thought for a moment and then replied, ‘I do … but if I were you I wouldn’t start from here!’
Of all the questions I have been asked in 50+ years of ministry the most common by far has been to do with knowing the guidance of God. This ranges from the profound – ‘If God truly does have a plan for our lives (Jeremiah 29:11), a purpose for us to fulfil (Romans 8:28; Ephesians 2:8-10), how can we be sure and certain of it?’ – to the intimate and personal – ‘I am in love with Harry … but how can I be sure he is the right one for me?’ or ‘I have been offered a job in Manchester but it involves moving away from my family and friends … should I take it or stay where I am?’ Sadly, all too often, as a Pastor, I have had people come to me asking about guidance when they have actually already made a decision as to what they are going to do – accepted a job, moving away, got engaged, taken a role in the church or community, and so on. In reality they are presenting me with a fait accompli and asking me to pray for God’s blessing on what they have already decided to do. I learned a long time ago that ‘the need doesn’t necessarily constitute the call’ … which is why we need to seek the guidance of God particularly before, not after, we make any major decision to do something.
Knowing the guidance of God is a big subject, and a difficult one. Discerning ‘the mind of Christ’ (Philippians 2:5) is not always easy, and whilst prayer – ‘waiting upon God’ (Isaiah 40:31) for revelation and help – is an essential part of finding God’s guidance, it is not enough and all too often our prayers in this direction seem to remain unanswered. Personally, I have always found what has become known as the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’ helpful.
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a methodology for theological reflection credited to John Wesley, leader of the Methodist movement in the late 18th century (although the term itself was actually coined by the 20th century American Methodist scholar Albert Outler). After studying Wesley’s work for a number of years Outler concluded that John Wesley used four different sources in discerning the heart and mind and will of God for his life. These four sources were scripture, tradition, reason, and Christian experience.
Wesley believed, firstly, that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in scripture as the sole foundational source. The centrality of scripture was so important for Wesley that he called himself ‘a man of one book’ Wesley insisted that scripture is the first authority and contains the only measure whereby all other truth is tested. It was delivered by authors who were divinely inspired. It is a rule sufficient of itself. It neither needs, nor is capable of, any further addition (2 Timothy 3:14-17; 2 Peter 1:20,21). Although an evangelical, Wesley was not a fundamentalist (in the modern day meaning of that term) and therefore qualified his understanding of scripture.
Biblical interpretation had to be in keeping with orthodox Christian belief, so tradition became the second aspect of his Quadrilateral. For Wesley Christian tradition supplied a link through 1,700 years of history with Jesus and the apostles … an unbroken chain drawing us into fellowship with those who have ‘finished the race, fought the fight’ (2 Timothy 4:7) and who are now ‘seated with Christ in heavenly places’ (Ephesians 2:6). Wesley is somewhat wary of accepting new interpretations of Scripture that don’t accord with tried and tested traditional interpretations. When he speaks of tradition, however, he does not merely refer to ancient church tradition and the writings of the great theologians and Church Fathers of days past, but also of the immediate and present theological influences which contribute to a person’s understanding of God and of Christian theology.
Thirdly, every belief must be able to be defended rationally or reasonably. The Apostle Peter exhorts us to ‘always be able to give a good reason for the hope we have within us’ (1 Peter 3:15). Wesley did not divorce faith from reason. Although scripture is sufficient in and of itself and is the foundation of true religion, Wesley clearly believed that without reason we cannot ‘understand ourselves or explain to others’ the essential truths of Scripture. One of the more alarming features within evangelicalism today is the advance of ‘conspiracy theory’ over and against scripture – everything from modern Israel’s place in deciding world events, to Covid-19 being a ‘sign of the times’, with the necessity of Brexit (because the EU was endowed with the spirit of the antichrist) in between. It is almost as though the Bible alone is seemingly not as challenging or exciting for some Christians as it should be. God, however, gave us brains and expects us to use them. For me (and I suspect John Wesley) getting to grips with the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is more important than the vagaries of the Book of Daniel or the mysteries of the Book of Revelation
Finally, for Wesley faith was more than merely an acknowledgment of ideas and involved experiential faith. In other words, genuine truth should lead to vital personal experience for the Christian. Reason alone is not sufficient to bring us into a vital personal experience of God and his truth – it must be impregnated by the Holy Spirit if we are to understand the mysteries of God. To quote another great saint of God, Martin Lloyd-Jones, what is needed is ‘logic on fire’. Apart from scripture, experience is the strongest proof of Christianity. Having our hearts ‘strangely warmed’ (as Wesley describes his own experience of the evening of 24 May 1738 at a meeting in Aldersgate when he came to living faith himself).
For John Wesley, tradition, reason, and experience, however, are always subject to scripture, which is primary. Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, confirmed by reason, but made real and vital in personal experience. When seeking the guidance of God, therefore, on any matter – whether it be the profound or the intimate and personal – applying these four facets, in the context of waiting upon the Lord prayerfully, is key. It is no ’quick fix’ but it is (I believe) a tried and tested way of coming to know the guidance of God.
Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou are mighty;
hold me with your powerful hand.
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
feed me now and evermore.
Open now the crystal fountain,
whence thy healing stream doth flow.
Let the fiery, cloudy pillar
lead me all my journey through.
Strong deliverer, strong deliverer,
be thou still my strength and shield.
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
bid my anxious fears subside.
Death of death, and hell’s destruction,
land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises, songs of praises
I will ever sing to thee,
I will ever sing to thee.
~ William Williams (1717-91)