There is a movement among modern church, a group of people who identify themselves as “Red-Letter Christians,” The name comes from the common practice of Bible publishers to set off the words of Jesus in a red typeface.
I do not use a “red-letter” Bible, and I do not recommend it for others. My understanding of the inspiration of Scripture (and I think I am not alone in this) is that it extends to ALL the Biblical authors, not merely those writers who were transcribing the words of Jesus. That is, Romans 8:1 (“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”) is equally inspired as John 3:3 (“You must be born again,” words attributed by John to Jesus himself).
But my objection to the “red-letter” phenomenon is deeper than this. I believe the greatest danger facing the church today is the lack of emphasis on grace, and the attendant legalism and rules-based discipleship that emerges where grace is poorly understood.
The enthusiasm for this “red-letter” style of discipleship exacerbates this problem.
By emphasizing the teaching of Christ above the rest of the New Testament, these believers think they are standing strong for Jesus. But, as Martin Luther reminds us, the chief division in the Bible is not between Old and New Testaments, but between Law and Gospel. There is some Gospel in the Old Testament, but mostly Law. The four “gospels,” despite the name, are a mixture of Law and Gospel (as we shall see shortly). The Epistles are almost entirely free of Law. The Epistles speak to our current situation as Christians more directly than does the Old Testament or the gospels. This is because they are directed at an audience that is a mostly-Gentile body of redeemed believers.
The Law of the Old Testament never applied to Gentiles; it was a set of moral and civil and ceremonial regulations directed at a specific people (the Israelites) for a specific time (up to the coming of their Messiah). Its chief value to us is as a means of understanding something of the holiness and majesty and sovereignty of God. It is a useful instrument in the hands of the apologist and the evangelist, who can show by the Law that human beings fall short of the glory of God and are in desperate need of redemption.
But for those of us who already have placed our faith in Jesus the Messiah, the Law has finished its job. We may “cheerfully ignore it,” as Luther suggests. This is how the two irreconcilable verses are reconciled:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside [or ‘abolishing’] in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…”
For the New Testament believer, living in the age after the Cross, the Law has been set aside, abolished. It no longer has any claim upon him. Its work is done, as Paul says:
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
What about the Matthew passage, you ask? Think of the circumstances prevailing at the time of the Sermon on the Mount:
- The crowd was close to 100% Jewish.
- The Cross was still in the future.
- The listeners were under obligation to the Law.
The Gospels describe a large number of situations where Jesus brought not Gospel, but Law to his hearers. Consider, for example, this very poor evangelism episode:
Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
This is what’s called a Huge Opening. Evangelicals are trained for this very moment, to have a ready answer for the one who asks about eternal things. Surely, if ever, this was the moment to whip out the Four Spiritual Laws, or the Bridge of Life, and escort this willing fellow straight into the Kingdom! Hallelujah, what a Savior! Another soul won for the Lord!
But what does Jesus say to him? This will be disappointing to any Campus Crusader or Navigator:
Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
Sorry, Jesus. You’ve done it all wrong. That can NOT be the right way to win this man. “Keep the commandments”? Seriously? You give him more Law? More of what he’s already found to be insufficient? Are you trying to drive him away?
It is a strange response, viewed from our perspective as post-Cross Gentile believers. We have to approach this text as it is given to us, and ask honestly why Jesus gave this answer on this particular day.
Remember that in the remainder of the story, the man first claims to have perfectly kept the Commandments (the 613 mitzvahs of the Torah) since he was a boy (according to the Luka account); presumably, since he made his bar mitzvah at about age 13. From that day he became a “bar mitzvah,” a son of the commandment. Surely Jesus knew this answer was coming; his whole ministry he had been dealing with people who claimed moral perfection on the basis of their understanding of the Law (the Sermon on the Mount was a strong slap to such self-righteous thinking). This fellow was not to be dissuaded from his yeshiva training. He was righteous, according to everything he knew, so why did he still feel this lack of something?
Jesus has no reassurance to give him, Instead he loads him up with an extra commandment:
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
The result? The man “went away sad.” Again I ask you, is this any way to do street evangelism?
Now, the point is to come to this realization: The “gospels” – the four books recounting the life and ministry of Jesus, where all the “red letters” are – contain many stories in which the Gospel is absent, episodes that one would have to classify as pure Law. Jesus’ command to this man was made in recognition of his status as a Jewish man under the Law. The Law had not yet completed its work in him; perhaps (due to his own stubbornness, and not any fault in the Word of God; cf Isaiah 55:10-11) it never did. This is not to say that Jesus came to preach the Law to everyone; he clearly did not. But the words that we find in the “red letters” are often words of Law, which have no immediate bearing on our lives as post-Cross believers.
I am not a “red-letter Christian,” not because I reject the words of Jesus (far from it; they are the source of the Gospel!), but because I stand on the grace of God as expressed in the Epistles, especially the letters of the Apostle Paul. Those writings, more than anything else, have changed my life and brought me into a truer understanding of the riches of God’s grace.