“Red Letter” Christianity is kind of a hot topic these days. If you spend much time in the Christian blogosphere (which presumably you do if you are reading this) you are sure to encounter writers, thinkers, the occasional pastor and especially commenters, who proudly proclaim themselves to be “Red Letter” Christians. Whether it is referring to those involved in the formal organization headed by Tony Campolo (I know he would likely object to the description a formal organization and him as the head but that’s what it is and that is what he is) or just to individuals who self identify that way the basic idea is that they follow Jesus’ teachings, the things in red typeface in red letter editions of the bible, as a kind of canon within the Canon. They view the words of Jesus as more authoritative than all other scripture and functionally they tend to view the Old Testament and the New Testament Epistles as utterly irrelevant to the practice of Christianity. Tony Campolo put it this way:
“The goal of Red Letter Christians is simple: To take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.”
Now the problems with this approach to Scripture are legion, not the least of which is the functional denial of the doctrine of inspiration. If all of scripture is God Breathed (2 Tim 3:16) then all scripture is authoritative (incidentally when God the Holy Spirit inspired those words, He was referring to the Old Testament). And it is profoundly illogical to say you follow the teaching of Jesus and then take a view different than His regarding the authority of the Old Testament.
But what is really a head scratcher is that most “red letter Christians” ignore huge swaths of Jesus’ teaching and fail to understand much of the rest of it. If you were to click around the website of the organization Red Letter Christians, it becomes pretty clear that they think sticking to the red letters means jettisoning biblical ethics and the need to repent and place your faith for salvation in Christ. You will find discussions about wealth redistribution, the inequalities to the juvenile justice system, and feminism, but not a single coherent call to repentance, and no warning of the coming judgment.
You would think that anyone who claims to focus on the words of Jesus, would focus on the need to warn others of the coming judgment against sin, after all no one spoke of hell and judgment more than Jesus and the warnings found in the red letters are numerous and clear.
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. – Matthew 10:28
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. – Matthew 10:34
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. – Matthew 25:41
And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. – Mark 9:43
But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! – Luke 12:5
On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ – Matthew 7:22-23 (The Sermon on the Mount)
I could go on (and on and on) but you get the idea, Jesus spoke a lot about the coming judgment and the perils of hell, including in the Sermon on the Mount. You can’t honestly claim to be following the teachings of Jesus and ignore the coming judgment and the peril of hell. If you don’t believe in hell, you are not a “red letter” Christian.
I think the basic problem with their understanding of Jesus and His teaching and ministry is that they ignore the most important red letters in the Bible. In Mark 10:45 Jesus explicitly states why He came to earth. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” In this verse Jesus gives a succinct purpose statement for His first coming, and all of His teaching and ministry must be understood in light of it. It provides a road map to understanding all that Jesus said and did. Every other red letter verse must be read in light of Mark 10:45 to be understood properly.
While the red letter set is keen on the first half of this verse, the idea that Jesus came to serve, they ignore the second half that explains how He served, by giving His life as a ransom for many.
The word translated as ransom is the Greek word λύτρον. It refers to a payment that is made to redeem something or someone that would otherwise be lost, such as might be paid to obtain the return of captives taken in battle or it can refer to the price paid to free someone from slavery.
If Jesus came to give himself for the redemption of many, it simply makes no sense to read The Sermon on the Mount, or any other passage that records His teaching, as a checklist of how to please God, rather it points out our hopeless inability to please God. If men could fully please God on their own, there would have been no need for Jesus to come and give Himself as a ransom for sinners.
Rather than instructions for how to please God, the red letters of the Sermon on the Mount make it quite clear that we are incapable of pleasing God in our flesh. The bar is just too high.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” – Matthew 5:21-22
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5:27-28
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” – Matthew 5:43-44
It is impossible to honestly read the red letters of the Sermon on the Mount and not come to the conclusion that you deserve judgment. Who hasn’t gotten angry at someone, and hurled an insult (even if it was confined to an internal monologue) at them? Who hasn’t had a lustful thought? Who hasn’t failed to love their enemies and pray for them? (I wonder how often many self described “red letter Christians” pray for those who believe 1 Corinthians 6 is just as authoritative as Matthew 5?) If your understanding of the Sermon on the Mount leads you to believe that you are A-OK in God’s eyes or that you can please Him with your works, you don’t understand it. You are not poor in spirit, and the Kingdom of Heaven is not for you (Matthew 5:3).
Consider the familiar red letters of John 3. Although the red letter set tends to be big fans of 3:16, it is important to read it in its context:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
Reading the Sermon on the Mount and thinking that it doesn’t teach the inadequacy of man to please God is tantamount to unbelief. And Unbelief is deadly, and no way to follow Christ. Truly being a follower of Jesus, begins by obeying the first red letter command in the Gospel of Mark, Mark 1:15 – “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”