Red-letter Christianity – it’s a view of Christianity that gives preference to Jesus’ words in the Gospels. The thinking goes, “if I simply follow the teachings of Jesus – I can’t go wrong with my faith.” Red letter Christians don’t dismiss the rest of the Bible – they just really try to focus on Jesus.
Here is why red-letter Christianity makes some sense. Our faith is about Jesus. He is the center of the story of the Bible, and he is the one who perfectly reveals God to our world: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship to the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18, NIV; see also Hebrews 1:1-3). Red letter Christianity is also an important corrective for believers who only think about their forgiveness of sins through Christ but never get around to putting his teachings into action.
But here is my concern with red-letter Christianity: it isn’t Trinitarian enough. The Father, Son, and Spirit are always working as one in our world. And Jesus connects his words to the words of the Father and of the Spirit, which brings all of the Bible into play.
Jesus associates himself with his Father. Jesus states clearly “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the One who sent me” (John 7:16). Elsewhere, Jesus declares “I do nothing on my own, but speak just what the Father has taught me” (John 8:28). And again, “For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken” (John 12:49). And finally, “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” (John 14:24).
Jesus speaks in perfect harmony with the Father, the God “who was and is and is to come” (Rev 1:8), who also spoke through the Law and the Prophets of the OT. Jesus treats his Father’s words from the past (the OT era) as authoritative. A famous example comes from Jesus’ wilderness temptations. Three times, Jesus rebukes Satan with the words, “It is written,” followed by God’s Word from the Old Testament (Matthew 4:1-11). Jesus’ entire ministry is introduced by linking him to the OT in Matthew 1 (with a genealogy that runs from Abraham through David to Jesus) and in Mark 1 (where his ministry is connected to prophecies from the Old Testament). And, as mentioned in this blog post, Jesus’ most famous command, to love God with our entire being, directs us specifically to YHWH, the one true God confessed by the Israelites (Mark 12:29-31; Deut 6:4-5).
Jesus also links himself as closely as possible to the Spirit, who he promised would continue to bring Jesus’ teachings, through his apostles, to the world. Speaking to his disciples, Jesus says this: “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26). The focus of the Spirit’s teaching will be on Jesus: “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me” (John 16:13). Sometimes the Spirit reiterates Jesus’ earthly teachings (for instance in James’ letter, which applies much of the Sermon on the Mount to James’ flock, or in 1 John, which reminds believers of Jesus’ command to love one another), and other times the Spirit points people to the sacrificial work of Jesus on the cross and his glorious resurrection (which is exactly what the final chapters of each Gospel do, along with letters by the apostles Peter and Paul). The Spirit even inspired all of the writings of the Old Testament, which point to Jesus as well, as indicated by 2 Timothy 3:15-17 (“Scriptures” most likely refers to the Old Testament Scriptures in this passage).
Jesus’ teachings are to be honored, as are the Old Testament Scriptures he endorses and the New Testament Scriptures that testify to him. Each passage of the Bible, when properly interpreted according to its intended purpose, is God’s authoritative and profitable revelation to us. In a way, all of the Bible could be written in red letters.