SERMON from 11-25-12: John Wesley on The Big Decisions

John 3.27

John answered, No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.


John Wesley on The Big Decisions


In seminary, you learn tons of information that is useless outside of a theological and academic venue. In other words, it lacks real-world application. As a seminarian–the term used to describe a seminary student–I engage in plenty of discussion and debate surrounding much of the same things that great theologians have been discussing for the last two-thousand years.


For example, my introduction to theology covered the very technical language and arguments surrounding things like penal substitutionary atonement, transubstantiation and original sin. Penal substitutionary atonement is the idea that Jesus’ death on the cross was a sacrifice for our sins. Transubstantiation is the idea that the bread and juice we consume in communion becomes like the body and blood of Christ crucified. Original sin is the idea that we are all saddled with being just as guilty as Adam and Eve for the sin of eating the wrong fruit in the garden.


Essentially, Jesus took the guilt for the sin we incurred from Adam and Eve, and we remember that sacrifice by partaking of Jesus’ body and blood. Actually, we protestants believe that Jesus is present in the act of communion–but he doesn’t become the elements. But, I digress…


What one realizes as their theological education goes along is that the theories and explanations of all of these ideas are multitudinous. Some ideas are theories contrived by academics. Some are debates that are ongoing to this day. Some are just theories one derives from bits and pieces of what is said in the Bible, or by the pantheon of historic Christian forebears.


This semester, I am taking a couple of courses that deal heavily with John Wesley, and how his ideas and hard work made the United Methodist Church what it is today. I would say that is why we are just finishing up a sermon series on John Wesley.


Today, we are looking at what John Wesley would have to say to us about the big decisions in our lives. Where do we start? Who do we look to? How do we go on when we find ourselves stuck?


To help us get started, I wanted to introduce you to something called “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” What is that, you might–but are almost certainly are–ask yourself? Well, it is a list of things we can use to figure out what it is we are supposed to do when we find ourselves in the midst of a difficult situation or decision.


There are four pillars–hence the “quad” prefix–to it. The first pillar is scripture. Wesley believed–and no one has ever disputed–that John Wesley referred to scripture whenever he found himself in the midst of a difficult situation. If scripture didn’t offer a solution, then tradition was next on the list. He would look to Christian history and the knowledge of our forebears in the faith, and see if they there was any knowledge to be had. If that didn’t work, John would look to experience. Finally, John used reason when the situation called for it.


That seems pretty simple, right? It’s a simple checklist that one can use if they are needing help solving a particularly vexing problem.


Only, it isn’t John Wesley’s quadrilateral.


Here’s where we get back to the geeky, theological stuff. Albert Outler is a historian and theologian. Specifically, he is a John Wesley historian and theologian. As far as Wesley experts go, Outler was the person to know when it came to John Wesley.


In his studies, he identified a pattern in the life of Wesley. There were a specific set of steps that Wesley would take when considering the faith, the church or life’s various circumstances. He called it “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” It was so important, Outler used it as he was enlisted in penning the theological statement of the United Methodist Church during the merger of 1968. It was that important.


I have been enamored with the Wesleyan tradition since I joined the church back before the turn of the century–yeah, it’s like 15 years ago. This was a bonus nugget of information that I hung onto as I grew up in the faith.


However, as I am working my way through seminary, I run into people who have disagreements with me on various ideas. That’s actually a good thing. As I told my friend during our first church history class, “It’s seminary, not church camp.” We don’t go there to have a 3 year, $60,000 pep rally for our faith. We go to be challenged.


If you’re a seminarian and have a faith that is as stable as a house of cards, there’s a good chance it will be toppled before you leave–and maybe irreparably.


I recently had a disagreement with a professor over the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. I used it in answer to a question posed by another classmate. It had to do with the authority of the Bible. I mentioned the quadrilateral, and I was quickly corrected. I won’t quote him, but the argument was that it should be called the “Outlerian” quadrilateral–since he came up with it and there is no record that Wesley ever used this. Essentially, Outler picked up on a pattern in Wesley’s life, identified it and gave it a name. It’s the same thing we do when we identify and classify different animals. We look for patterns that distinguish one animal from another and name those who act alike.


I promptly asked what the difference between the Outlerian and Wesleyan quadrilaterals were and didn’t receive an answer.


I asked my online friends what they thought about it, and I got almost the same response. However, one person went as far as to say it was dangerous. His claim was that some would use the experience and reason pillars of the quadrilateral to try to overrule scripture. For this reason–as the concern went–the Wesleyan Quadrilateral was an overused, academic theory.


It’s at this point that most people might desire to pound their heads against a wall to blunt their frustrations. Who cares, right? There’s pain out there right now. There are folks wondering if they are going to have a roof over their heads for the winter. There are people who are wondering if their loved ones are going to make it to see 2013. How do I make sure I am living my life to honor God?


There are things in our lives we need to deal with. How do we deal with the big decisions we face?


John Wesley first looked at scripture. For Wesley, this is where any pursuit began. The word of God was timeless and contained knowledge that was just as pertinent now as when it was written. That’s what Outler said. That’s what the church says. That’s what the church has always said. And that’s why Wesley looked for understanding in the history of the tradition of the church.


The church did not create the modern world in which we live. But considering it’s long history, it has gone through most of what the world has to offer. By looking at how Torquemada persecuted Jews and Muslims, we can know that it is–under no circumstance–all right to torture those who believe differently than us. By looking at the pre-Civil War south, we can look and see how not to use scripture to get our own way. By looking at the Catholic church, we can see how the modern church is NOT to conduct itself in the midst of great sinful behavior.


After scripture and tradition, there is reason. Of course, this is where people–like the ones I spoke with over the past few weeks–start thinking we can cross some sort of line. I can see their concern. We certainly have ways of reasoning to ourselves that this thing or that is okay, don’t we? It’s how things like abuse, crime and adultery go from something innocent enough, to something bigger than we had could have imagined. Our reasoning can get us into trouble.


For the same reason, our experience can get us into trouble. If we won a nice jackpot as a local casino, our experience might lead us to believe that we would do just as good the next time–and the next time, and so on. Before we know it, we’ve gotten ourselves into quite a bit of debt. Our experience is not something we can always lean on to help us out in times of trial.


What do we know? John the Baptist says, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.” We’ve been given scripture. We’ve been given what we know from our tradition. We’ve had our experience and we have reason enough to know that we have been given these things by God.


It is–and I’m speaking from personal experience here–easy make a mistake. It can also be easy to do the wrong thing and know we are doing it, and continue to do it anyway. Outler was just picking up on a pattern that Wesley showed in his life. Wesley was doing the things he had read about in scripture, learned about from the history of the church, and used his reason and experience to figure out the rest.


You know what he also did, though? He prayed. He spent time with God in those times in his life. He always spent time with God, but John Wesley prayed in those times when it seemed nothing else was going to help.


Got a big decision to make? What does scripture say? What does church tradition say? What does my experience tell me? What does reason have to tell me? But most importantly, remember God gave you all these things with which to work, and it doesn’t hurt to pull him into the conversation, as well.




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