Red Letters

Red Letters

What’s so great about Christianity?

Two words: Red Letters.

In older versions of the Bible it was customary for the publisher to offset the words of Christ in a red font. This way, the reader could easily see the recorded words of Jesus.

Upon reading Christ’s words, many walk away with the idea that Jesus is a great moral teacher and an exemplary human being–but no more. In this way one might make him equivalent to Mohandas Gandhi.

But Gandhi never claimed that he was the Son of God–with the authority to forgive sins and the power to restore sinful humanity to its perfect Creator.

C.S. Lewis addressed the “great man” argument in Mere Christianity when he wrote:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that
people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral
teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing
we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not
be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with
the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of
Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of
God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a
fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at
His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any
patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not
left that open to us. He did not intend to.


What Lewis is saying is that you must accept all of Jesus–or none of him. I choose to accept all of Him, and that brings me back to the red letters. They are not simply great teachings, they are the blue print for our personal morality, our public agenda, and our community concerns. They lay out, in plenty of detail, exactly how we should live as Christians in the world.

I call this, the Red Letters Life.

Over the next few posts, I want to explore the Red Letters Life through four key dimensions of Christ’s words.

Love. The ethic of the Gospel is love. Not a mamby-pamby love. The love your enemies and die for your friends love. A Red Letters Life bleeds love.


Forgiveness. Christianity offers forgiveness of sins–not through works–but through grace. The red letters offer forgiveness, so what should the Red Letters Life offer?

Mercy. Time and again we see the red letters telling us that mercy triumphs over judgment. Jesus’ ministry is marked with mercy and compassion for those around Him.

Humility. As Paul wrote in Philippians 2, Jesus completely emptied Himself of His heavenly position, and we are expected to do likewise.

These four qualities are the building blocks of a Red Letters Life. Emulating these–in our lives and in our churches–is the bottom line of what God expects of our lives. Cultivating them requires radical obedience because they are not the predominant values of our culture.

Yet, emulating these teachings changes our relationship–to God, to each other, and to “the world.”

I appreciate your continued comments on these thoughts, and look forward to this discussion over the next several posts.

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posted August 9, 2010 at 9:49 am

Amen, to who He is and says He is.

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posted August 9, 2010 at 11:17 am

…give it to us, Tom!
…sounds like a good series of dimensions, of which we need to be often reminded in our fast-paced lives here in the West, in particular!!
…’twould also be encouraging to hear how you, yourself and your family, live these out in your own lives, as you are as vibrant, busy and alive a family as I know.

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posted August 9, 2010 at 10:38 pm

After reading the book “Red Letters” I knew I had to do more than I was currently doing. From that came the Trick-or-Treat Pantry Sweep. I’m telling everyone I know and many people I don’t know about this opportunity to help feed the hungry this Fall. Thanks for pointing out the reality of the “red letters”. Check out “The Origin of the Idea” tab on the website to see the full story of how this went from a wake-up call for me to reality.

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jeff e.

posted August 10, 2010 at 12:31 am

tom – my first time reading your post – thanks for following me on twitter. you’re just down the highway (from fort collins) – like what i saw on your anti-trafficking site. keep pressing on…
a couple things… first its funny to me (and probably just to this sick head) that you’re using paul’s “black letter” description of jesus to define the “red letters”…so you’re not talking the literal red letters…or are you? sorry…
where we get into trouble with following the red letter words of christ alone, is its a bit like stating “the greatest commandment is to love god with your strength.” well, yeah, that’s a big part of it. using your body, your physical self, your ability to work, earn and serve and help others. it would be like only believing 2/3 of the trinity, and that’s not the whole story. god is father, son and holy spirit. jesus’ words are not the whole story, nor is the logos the entirety of the trinity rolled one neat little digital GB resting on my storage cloud somewhere in cyberspace (red letters or not).
boiling it down to this or that, or making something as vast as christianity, asking “what is so great about chrisitanity?” then implying that you can make it as pure and simple as two words is, well, actually one of the things that i think is not so great about christianity. i mean, i think i get the point you’re trying to make here, but you just cannot simplify a life of seeking the cross (death to self and the world) into one thing or another. its too complicated. too messy.
of course, i haven’t read your whole book, so i do want to say great concept, you’ll probably be able to sell a bunch of books and get lots of pats on the back for cleverly pointing out something that not a lot of people notice any more (or even knew existed). i like your approach. the four qualities you’ve chosen to share in this post are toughies, and take a lot of intentional work to become part of a personal ethic…
weird – i got interrupted and went to thank you for your twitter follow, but tweetdeck says you “unfollowed” me already! guess you knew somehow that i wasn’t going to let you slide w/o throwing out some questions! classic. either way – honest feedback or not — keep pressing on…seek only the praise of the father, and do everything you can not to be an “older brother…” pax-jeff e.

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posted August 10, 2010 at 12:33 am

“Red Letters” has changed my life, too. Next week I am meeting with the pastors in my community (approx. a dozen of them) to share how “Red Leters” has changed my life. I am giving each of them a copy of the book with the hope that they bring it back to their churches and our entire community gets involved. My big dream is to have Tom come talk to the my community. Bigger dream – not only my community but also the cities surrounding us. So far I am receiving support to everyone I talk to about it. I have stepped out of my comfort zone and I’m actually enjoying it. I cry (and pray) for the children of the world suffering because of AIDS/HIV and the sex slave industry. I am so thankful that my bible book store was having a special on “Red Leters” and I thought, for $5 I can’t go wrong. It was the best purchase of my life. I have now read the rest of Tom’s books and am checking out websites and other books. I’m preparing myself for the plans that God has for my future. I’m so excited. I was so complacent in my normal Christian life. No more.

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Tom Davis

posted August 10, 2010 at 12:55 am

Jeff – please don’t think Twitter is our all-encompassing guide to truth. It has the tendency to be in error, as many of us who walk on this earth do.
Of course I’m not making the case that the Red Letters are the only way to understand Christ or walk out our faith. But we all need triggers/reminders of things that are important in our faith. What could be more important than the things Jesus said? The Bible is a big book and for those who haven’t had the time to study the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in greek, I think it helps to be centered on the person, work, and words of Christ.
Happy to discuss this more. I’m out the door at 4:30 in the morning so forgive me if I’m unable to respond in a timely manner.

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posted August 10, 2010 at 4:01 am

Why do Christians quote this passage from Lewis as if it was Holy Scripture itself? Let’s analyse it, for a change:
“A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.”
What, like “love they neighbour” or “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”? Yes, I am cherry-picking. But so is Lewis. By the time your eye has passed over this paragraph, you are already thinking of the rather few passages where Jesus claims (or someone else claims and Jesus does not refute) supernatural status. Guess what? They are vastly outnumbered by statements that no moral person could disagree with. Of course Jesus was a great moral teacher, a great human being. That is not the issue, and whether he is also divine is logically quite a separate issue.
“He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.”
Pascal’s wager all over again. Who says I must make this choice? Lewis? He gets to define the only possible alternatives and then tells me I must choose between them? Sorry, I would prefer not to. Unlike those who choose to live in Lewis’ Manichaean, black-and-white universe, I can see alternative choices. Lots of them, in fact.
Let’s see how that would work from the other side. If an atheist writer tells you that either Jesus was a great moral teacher or he never actually existed, being just a composite of Middle Eastern myths, and that you have to choose one or the other, would you tamely make your choice and get on with your life? Or would you suggest that there may be another possibility? And if our hypothetical atheist does not get to limit the number of options, why does Lewis?
“But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Even more interesting. Apparently Lewis knew exactly what was happening *inside the mind of Jesus*. He is not presenting this as his opinion. He is presenting this as fact, a datum which, let’s face it, he could only have obtained by divine inspiration. I stand in awe. I can barely guess what is in the mind of the person next to me, but Lewis was able to divine the exact intentions of someone who lived two thousand years ago, and whose mind, being simultaneously human and divine, might have worked quite differently from Lewis’ own!
This is a really apalling piece of rhetoric. My Christian friends, if you have a point to make in this regard, fine, but don’t just keep on quoting this same piece of illogic and regarding the case as closed.

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posted August 10, 2010 at 8:07 am

(Why do Christians quote this passage from Lewis as if it was Holy Scripture itself?)
Resonse: All the sudden you know whats in the heads of every Christian that quoted Lewis?
(“A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.” What, like “love they neighbour” or “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”?)
Resonse: If those were the only things Jesus said then you would have a point, but he claimed divinity and said he was the Son of God, if he said these things knowing they were false, would he not be a liar?
And if he said thes things thinking he really was, but was not the Son of God would he not be a lunatic?
Seems quite logical to me.
Take care, and have an awesome week!

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posted August 10, 2010 at 9:16 am

clasmq: Lewis’ point, and mine here in this comment, are that the public statements of Jesus cannot be separated from the whole of who he is. The idea of assessing Jesus in his entirety and as a whole is very logically consistent, even if that’s not how you would approach him. I can appreciate the point you are making–examine the parts instead of the whole.
The Lewis argument is one of “non-compartmentalization.” There is inconsistency when we say, “I’ll take the teachings, but I’ll reject your claim to be the Son of God.” To assume the supernatural claims are irrelevant to the teachings doesn’t hold up. If he was crazy or lying about being God–then it’s possible the rest is just bunk also.
What would happen to the credibility of our moral leaders if they made outrageous claims? Do we admire Mother Teresa as much if she had declared herself the Queen of Mars? Would we follow her example? Would we even be inspired?

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Tom Davis

posted August 10, 2010 at 10:09 am

Kimberly, please keep me updated on the meeting. I speak all over the country and would love to visit your city and speak with the local church pastors there. HopeChest mobilizes churches to care for orphans in ways that are described in Red Letters. Let’s connect.

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posted August 12, 2010 at 2:40 pm

There are many scholars who still call themselves Christian (Borg, Knitter, Spong, Crossan to name a few) who are willing to admit that Jesus may not have ever claimed his own divinity.

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posted August 18, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Please consider the possibility that these people (Borg, Knitter, etc… ) may be wrong. They can reject the notion that Jesus made claims to his divinity, but they do so at the risk of missing what he himself said and the actions he took.
For example, the second chapter of the book of Mark records an event early in Jesus’ ministry in which he was crowded into a building and people could not get in to see him. A group of men break a hole in the roof of the building and lower a paralytic friend.
Instead of healing the man (the readily apparent need) Jesus’ first response is: “Son, Your sins are forgiven.” The teachers of the law gathered there understood the ramifications of this claim. They knew that only God has the power to forgive sins, not some ordinary man, nor even the Messiah has that power. No priest, prophet, king or judge in Israel’s history ever had that kind of authority. The ability to forgive sins is God’s and God’s alone.
When someone offends another person, there are two people offended: the person against whom the offense occurred and God himself (the one who defines the difference between offensive and good behavior). What right does someone outside these two people (a third party) have to offer forgiveness in this case?
Let’s say person A robs or offends (sins against) person B. Person C, a bystander, says to person A, “It’s okay, I forgive you.” Person C was not even involved! How can he, rationally extend such an offer. I don’t see how such a scenario even makes sense. Person C is not involved at all. We might even question the sanity of a person who would make such an offer of forgiveness under these circumstances. If Jesus (person C) was offering to forgive person A (the paralytic) of sins committed against God (person B) then he was, at best, insane or lying.
Since only God has the ability to forgive sins, and Jesus forgave this man his sins it follows that Jesus is God. Besides, if the teachers of the law (who understood the ramifications of Jesus’ claim to forgive sin) were wrong, why didn’t Jesus take the opportunity to clear up the misunderstanding? He could have said: “Well for the time being, I, the Messiah have been grated authority to forgive sins” or “No, you misunderstood me, I’m not truly forgiving his sins, he needs to pray to God for forgiveness.” Instead of using the opportunity to bring clarification, he took the thoughts of the teachers of the law and embraced it. He used their claim to prove that he had the authority and ability to forgive sins. He then put his words into action and healed the man! While never speaking a word as to his divine nature, he laid claim to it by his actions.
Again, in Matthew 28, at the event of Jesus’ ascension, he commands the disciples: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” How do you even break into that list with being coequal to God himself? The examples are numerous.
Listen to the teachings of those who may deny the divinity of Jesus Christ skeptically. They offer these teachings at the expense of rejecting of lessening the meaning of much of what He said and did. Capitalization intended this time.
– May The Spirit of God bear witness to this truth in your heart.

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