Part of what it means to be “Christian” is to accept the pattern Jesus sets as the defining paradigm of our lives and churches. In the language of the New Testament, that defining paradigm is called “the gospel.”

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures ….

It was the gospel that shaped the life and ministry of Jesus. It was why he came, it was what he preached, it was what he commissioned his Apostles to preach. It was the gospel that shaped the lives and ministries of the first disciples. They preached it and lived it and shaped their churches by it. Nothing was more central or defining for the early church than that bundle of themes, ideas, and truths known as “the gospel.”

In Paul, particularly, the gospel served as the defining pattern of his thought and work. He preached it. He believed he’d been “set apart” for it (Romans 1:1). He thought of himself as a “servant of the gospel” (Ephesians 3:7). He talked about it whole heartedly (Romans 1:9), eagerly (Romans 1:15), ambitiously (Romans 15:20), and with great delight (1 Thessalonians 2:8). He believed it was a divine thing, rooted in the truth of God rather than human imagination (Galatians 1:11). He considered it “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). He became “all things to all men” for its sake (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). He was confident it contained matters “of first importance” for life and faith (1 Corinthians 15:3). He fought for it, defended it, suffered on its behalf.

And it was this gospel (Paul believed) that “established” disciples of Jesus and caused them to “stand firm” (Romans 16:25; 15:1). He talked about the gospel all the time in his letters to the early church. He repeatedly rehearsed its themes and reminded his churches of its importance. He would let nothing else take its place or hinder its effect in the hearts of his converts (1 Corinthians 9:13; Galatians 1:6-11). He urged believers to “hold firmly” to it (1 Corinthians 15:2). He was convinced that the gospel would bear spiritual fruit and cause spiritual growth (Colossians 1:6).

Ask Paul about the “pattern” that ought to shape a disciple’s life and the church’s character and he would answer simply: “The gospel.”

God, for his own reasons and purposes, created the heavens and the earth … he made human beings in his own image … we disobeyed and rebelled and were cast from God’s presence … he found ways to establish covenant relationship with us … when the time was right, he sent his own Son … Jesus died for our sins … he was raised to life by the power of God … we are reconciled with God through trusting his Son … transformed lives are now possible through the power of the Spirit … one day, Jesus is coming again and all the eternal purposes of God will be fulfilled.

Grand themes. Noble ideas. Spiritual common ground wide enough to embrace the world. Soul-remedies. Heady promises. A paradigm large enough for a life. Truth sufficient to build a movement upon.

I wonder what would have happened with us had we been content to keep first things first. I wonder what sort of people we’d have become had we kept this gospel front and center and relegated the pattern of the early church to its proper (and subservient) place. I wonder if we allowed restoration of the first church to become “another gospel” that was really no gospel at all.

If so, we are not unique. Others have allowed the essential gospel to be supplanted by some other, some lesser paradigm that, in the end, lacked the power to transform lives and sustain a movement. There is a pattern for this as well. There really is “nothing new under the sun.”New Wineskins

[This article was first published as a part of a Wineskins special publication edited by Edward Fudge on “Patternism”–]