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The deficiency of ‘red letter’ Christianity

Published: 5 December 2020 (GMT+10)

N.D., who requested his location be withheld, asks:

My question is regarding why the writings of the apostle Paul are considered inspired/authoritative? I recently had an encounter with a borderline ‘red letter believer’ and I did not feel I had a sufficient answer for him. He believes the words of Jesus in the Gospels and Revelation are authoritative. But, indicated that the epistles may not always be. As you may know, many in this group feel that dietary laws, sabbath keeping, etc. were done away with by Paul but practiced and endorsed by Jesus.

Lita Cosner, CMI–US, responds:

Thank you for this interesting question, which gives us the opportunity to consider the nature of the inspiration of Scripture.

First, we have to consider the Scriptures that came before the ‘red letters’. There are certainly words of God directly quoted in the Old Testament, but there are many historical accounts, poetic songs, proverbs, and other writings not directly attributed to God, but to human speakers. The simple ‘red letter’ answer would be to similarly say that the words of God in the Old Testament are inspired, but not necessarily the other parts. But the problem there is that the New Testament authors, including the ‘red letter’ words of Jesus, don’t differentiate in that way! If it’s Scripture, it’s authoritative and correctly referred to as God’s word, regardless of whether it is also attributed to a human author or speaker.

So, the question we have to ask is, “Are the epistles Scripture, and thus authoritative?” Paul saw his own writing as binding on the people to whom he wrote (which was originally specific churches in the Roman world, but more widely to all Christians), and the contemporary Apostles saw them as Scripture too. In 2 Peter 3:15–18, Peter says (emphasis added):

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.

Also, the entire church for 2,000 years has affirmed the Gospels as Scripture. While fallible humans can of course err, the unanimity of the entire church everywhere at all times is powerful evidence of the true inspiration of the epistles.

Many people like to invent a division between Paul and Jesus regarding the Law, but Jesus seemed to go out of His way to break the Pharisaical accretions around Sabbath-keeping (as opposed to following the Law, which He did perfectly). He also laid the groundwork for abolishing the food laws in Matthew 15:10–20. Also, part of the apparent (but not actual) disagreement between Paul and Jesus comes from the fact that Jesus’ life and ministry took place prior to His sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection, which fulfilled the Law. The New Testament is clear that Christians living in the light of the resurrection and Christ’s perfect fulfillment of the Law have freedom in regard to food and cannot judge another’s actions regarding these things (Colossians 2:16).

Whole books have been written about this issue, and so these few thoughts can only scratch the surface, but I hope they are helpful.

Helpful Resources

From Creation to Salvation
by Lita Cosner
US $14.00
Soft Cover
How Did We Get Our Bible?
by Lita Cosner, Gary Bates
US $3.50
Soft Cover
Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
US $17.00
Soft Cover

Readers’ comments

Dave F.
Hoping for a longer article
David S.
While I understand the reservations aired in these comments about printing the words of the Lord Jesus in red, there are situations when it can be useful. Some years ago I was listening to a young man playing his guitar and singing a song he had composed himself. He had identified his beliefs as in line with New Age thinking. The song contained references to faith and other generally "religious" topics. When he had finished I asked him if he believed in a deity. He had picked up that I was a Christian so replied: "Do you mean like Jesus?". When I answered yes he said: "The trouble is I have no idea what Jesus actually said". Having been visiting with friends in Australia I had picked up (swapped) some Gideon New Testaments/Psalms/Proverbs which were "Red letter" editions. That made it very simple to offer him a copy saying this will help you to easily see His words. David S. UK
Lita Cosner
I was not criticizing Bibles that have Jesus' words in red, but rather Christians who act like the words of Jesus are the only words from God that matter in the Bible.
David G.
Thank you for this clear and succinct statement. It is also worth noting that red-blindness affects about 10% of males. They see the words of Christ in grey-brown. Not quite so compelling!
Dee M.
These kinds of arguments amaze me. The entire book that we have called the Bible was not written by Jesus or God. It was written by man. It was written by men who were inspired and led by the Holy Spirit to write what GOD wanted them to write in order to maintain a consistent theology and "story". If I recall correctly, none of the books of the Bible were written when Jesus was alive. Thus they would have been written before or after his time on earth and thus everything is considered attributions or sayings.

I do not understand how "red letter" followers can claim that those words in the color red are the true words of Jesus, when they are still only attributed to him having said those words. What makes those words more HOLY than any other words that the Holy Spirit inspired them to write? If Paul's words were not inspired, then the other apostles would have said so, and his books would not have survived past the early years of Christianity.

Either the whole book of the Bible is inspired and Holy-directed by GOD, written by man's hand to be trusted and lived by, or, the whole book isn't. You can't pick and choose what is a true part and what is a false part. Just like you can't just believe the "death and resurrection of Jesus" part but not the "creation and ultimate universal restoration" parts. You have to believe it all.
Daniel V.
I have a friend who is expressing this view as well. These questions and doubts are planted by a spirit that harkens back to that of higher criticism and liberalism, casting doubt on God's word, which is ultimately is traced back to God's adversary with the words "hath God said". If genuine these people must be prayed for and ministered to according to the scripture in Jude 22-23.
John F.
Awesome write up! Yes! ! totally agree. Seems like the majority of proclaimed Christians do not understand that the dividing line of the two covenants was at the death of our Lord Jesus not His birth. "a will (or covenant) does not come into effect until the death. As far as the Law, most of us are Gentiles. We were never under the Law ! The Law was given to the Jews. We were without God, without a covenant. The Good News for the whole world both Jew and Gentile is we are led by His Spirit from within (those that have believed in the death, burial, resurrection of our Lord and received His life indwelling) and not trying to control the flesh by laws from without.........There is so much depth to this Great Gospel our God has given to us. Thank you so much to CMI and their part in sharing with the world God's wonderful work in creation and His work in and through His children.
Chuck R.
Seeing how Jesus told Ananias that Paul "...is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel." (Acts 9:15), we Christians can be assured that Pauls's teachings are God approved.
Rob M.
While not a scientific argument, but rather a legal one. Charles Colson brings up this subject in one of his books (I believe it is "Loving God") He sums it up by saying Red letter scripture would NOT even be admissible in a court of law (hearsay), and the letters of Paul would be (direct testimony) Ultimately the argument boils down to, is ALL SCRIPTURE really inspired by God?..(2Tim 3:16) Or is some MORE inspired than others? At first glance the argument "Jesus said it so it must be more important", sounds good, until you realize the Bible itself says ALL SCRIPTURE is inspired.(2Tim 3:16) and nowhere does it say some scripture is more inspired then others. "Red letter Christians" are essentially trying to pick and choose which verses to follow. The Apostle Paul's teachings (ie gender roles in the Church) cause a lot of problems from World itself, because it contradicts the World's teachings on these topics. By ONLY following what Jesus said, you're NOT following huge portions of what the Bible says about how Christians should live.
Alf F.
Well if the Evangelists wrote the words that Jesus said, how do we know if the Evangelists words are true and that he reported Jesus words accurately? Perhaps they colluded and made them up?? That is unthinkable. The Christian's first and last authority on earth is, as Jesus put it, "What saith the Scriptures?". If we can't believe that the Bible (all of it) is in fact God's Word, we cannot be sure either of what Jesus did or didn't say. But the Bible tells the truth about everything, so we know it is the Word of God, and Jesus affirms the Scriptures. And those who told us what Jesus said also tell us to receive what they say as from the Lord. They are the eye-witnesses that we rely on to even know that Jesus existed and taught what He did. The testimony of the Prophets and Apostles together are the essential foundations of the belief system defined as Christianity. Anything else is some other religion.
Rick J.
Re: dietary laws, etc. we have to realize Jesus closed out the Mosaic Covenant and his death ushered in the New Covenant. By this we mean the Mosaic Law has been replaced--but Jesus had to live according to that Law and fulfill that Law. Paul became a follower of Christ after the crucifixion and resurrection--so even though he was a Jew, he did not have to obey the law . . . see his writings to the Galatians and the Romans, but also what the author of the book of Hebrews has to say re: the obsolescence of the Mosaic Law.
Norman P.
An interesting question, well answered.
Of course, there are often deeper reasons for this red-letter stance, which the Jerusalem apostles pronounced upon in Acts 15, and for which the Gentile Church "rejoiced for the consolation". In Galatians 1, Paul's warning against the 'Judaisers' could not be starker. How blessed we are to have Paul's ministry of the gospel of grace, even to this day. He suffered greatly for it, even as our risen Lord had said he would (Acts 9:15-16). By God's grace, he was separated to the task from his mother's womb (Galatians 1:15).
As to inspiration, I find the Spirit will oil the key to the mind of Christ to turn perfectly, whereas all other keys are dry and clunky!
Malan G.
I have been requested to correspond with a leader in a Sabbath-observer group. He responded well until I pointed out that he owes answers to Acts 15:1-29, 2 Corinthians 3:1-18, Galatians 4:21-31 and Hebrews 12:18-24. I am waiting for his response.
Sandra H.
Clear and succinct - people who are really searching can use your references to the Bible to go deeper. Perhaps a short list of the books written would be useful.
Geoff C. W.
I have never been a fan of red-letter Bibles. They suggest that Jesus' spoken words are more important than God's inspired Word.

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