Does you Bible have any red in it? I am sure that many of us know exactly what I am referring to. It has become fairly common, when we are turning the pages of Scripture, to see the type go from black to red when we hit any of the four gospels. Specifically, only the words that Jesus “spoke” are in red. Have you ever wondered why?
In this (short) post, I would like to invite you to give up your red letter Bible. I know, I know it is a tradition. Many of us grew up reading red letters. Our grandparents read red letters. However I would argue that the red letters in your Bible do much more harm than good, tradition notwithstanding. There is a more academic strain of error associated with so-called “Red Letter Christians” and there is a more subtle, popular strain of the same theological error. I hope by the end, you will have ditched your red letter KJV (I know, ESV has them too) and have left with a greater love for the whole Bible and its Christ-centeredness. My aim is joy and trust, not mere argument on opinion.
Born of Heresy
Marcion lived a long, long time ago in a place quite far away. Marcion was well-intentioned. But Marcion was a heretic. See, Marcion was concerned that the God of the Old Testament was fundamentally different to the God of the New Testament. He was hell-bent on saving God from any suspicion that He might be just or holy. As a result, Marcion ditched the entirety of the Old Testament scripture. Marcion would not stop there. He also cut out all references to Old Testament from his New Testament as well, denying whole books of the canon because they did not see to reflect the vision of God that Marcion had. He was left with a Bible of his own imagination.
Marcion’s error, while it may see silly to us, is very much alive today. Heresy, as Dr. Terry Carter once said, has a way of repeating itself. “Red Letter Christianity” is a phenomenon led by men such as Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo and Jerry Wallis. Such men hold the four gospels above the rest of Scripture. To be fair, they may still say that the rest of the Bible is important and even inspired. Functionally, however, they give themselves over to falsehood. They become 21st century Marcionites.
These men focus on the words of Jesus as if they were the real authority in the lives of Christians. This leads to a vast expanse of theological error and gospel confusion. Proponents of such theology tend to highjack the Bible to support their leftist agendas (highjacking in for rightist agendas is deplorable as well). The Sermon on the Mount begins to point less the Christ and more to a post-millennial, kingdom-bringing ethic to be enforced in the power structures that be. Jesus is hailed as a revolutionary, a deliverer of the oppressed and feel-good friend to all.
The damages of this are evident. The gospel is being lost amongst these groups. Jesus came to serve, sure. But the way He served was by ransoming a people from sin (Mark 10:45). The Sermon on the Mount is only expected to be lived out in the church, by those regenerate Christians, having a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees. This is plain to the average student of Scripture because we read on to Acts and the Epistles. Nowhere will you see political activism or “tolerance” in the rest of the New Testament. The Apostles are the best interpreters of the gospels because, frankly, they were there. They know that Christ died to save sinners (1 Tim 1:15). They know that Christ’s resurrection had less to do with defeating the evil oppressive powers and more with our justification before a Holy God (Romans 4:25). Jesus brings His kingdom, not by planting trees or passing legislation, but by earning a righteousness to be imputed by faith and dying in the place of ruined sinners. This is the gospel that “Red Letter Christians” miss. They say (really I’ve been told this), “You just need to be an imitator of Christ.” That is heresy if you plug it into the wrong place. The gospel is not “be an agent of transformation like Jesus.” The gospel is to repent and believe in the finished work of Christ to save from sin and satisfy your soul.
Closer to Home
WWJD, man? Have you heard this? No doubt, you have. Well, it is a poor summary of the message of the Bible. We are not called primarily to do what Jesus did, but to trust in what Jesus has done. When these “red letters” are given more weight than anything else, Jesus just becomes a slogan for our youth aged kids. Well mannered politeness becomes what it means to be a Christian instead of putting no confidence in the flesh and thrusting yourself on Jesus. It becomes an excuse for disobedience. I once heard my Methodist youth leader say that she only believed the things in red.
Sure, not everyone with a red letter Bible will fall into a pit of unescapable heresy. But you can see where it can be very deceiving. Let’s look at some texts that show that the red letters in your Bible are useless.
- All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)
Remember that Scripture is breathed out by God, meaning that God is the author of Scripture. Yes, yes there is a human author involved. But they were carried along by the Spirit (we’ll see soon) in such a way that it can be said that whenever the Bible speaks, God speaks. The primary author of the Holy Scriptures is the Holy Spirit. And He wrote it “all.” These apostles, post-Christ, seem to give no more weight to the writings or sayings of Christ above the rest of the written Word. That would have primarily included the Old Testament even. All of the Bible is as authoritative as any part, even the gospels.
- When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-14 ESV)
The Holy Spirit is seen to have specific roles within the God-head. His primary role is not self-exalting but Christ-exalting. The work of the Spirit is to glorify the Son. He does this by taking what is His and showing it to the heart in such a way that the Son is seen as He really is; namely, supremely wonderful and valuable in and of Himself. He guides in truth about the Son. So it does not make much sense to elevate the words of Jesus over the rest of Scripture whenever the author of the entire Bible is dead set to exalt the person and work of Christ. The whole thing is about Christ, not just the red parts.
- Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Peter 1:10-12 ESV)
Finally, we cannot put the words of Christ (the red letters) above the rest of the Bible (the poor, black letters) because Jesus didn’t ever physically write any of the words. Even the gospels were not written by Jesus’ own hand. The same apostles that wrote the rest of the New Testament wrote these gospels. But, at the same time, we cannot discount the rest of the Bible to focus just on what Jesus said because to do so would be impossible. Jesus said it all. Peter is getting at this in his first letter. The Old Testament prophets were speaking about the gospel, the same gospel that has saved you and I. They were given inklings of what we now know in full, the “sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.” Who told them these things? “The Spirit of Christ.” Christ, even then, was exalting His own person and work above all human efforts. It was by this that they served us, by preaching the gospel by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit that spoke the very Word of God.
Get Rid of It.
Really, please do. I hope it is clear that the red letters in your Bible just aren’t helpful. God would have us know Him by searching and understanding the full counsel of God (Acts 20:27). To know Jesus rightly, we must rely on all of Scripture, not just some of it. There is more joy in seeing Christ in the gospel from all parts of Scripture than there is in a truncated gospel of human flourishing. Real flourishing comes by faith in Christ. Eternal life is that we might know the Son (John 17:3) and enjoy Him forever (Rev 5 and 7).