A red letter Bible is an edition of Scripture in which the words spoken by Jesus Christ are printed in red ink. The red letters are meant to help readers easily locate the actual words spoken by the Lord Jesus Christ.
The red letter edition of the Bible was introduced by Louis Klopsch, an innovative and philanthropic editor of the Christian Herald magazine. In 1899 Klopsch published the first red letter New Testament. Two years later, he released the first full red letter edition titled The Holy Bible: Red Letter Edition (Christian Herald, 1901). This first red letter Bible was a King James Version, but today many other translations exist with the words of Christ printed in red letters.
Klopsch, a close friend and contemporary of Dwight L. Moody, helped raise funds to support Moody’s Bible Institute in Chicago. Klopsch was also driven to print and distribute Bibles to as many people as possible. As owner and managing editor of the Christian Herald, he was able to fulfill that mission, publishing more than 60,000 Bibles each year.
Klopsch hoped that people would read the Scriptures and come to a deep understanding of who Jesus is and embrace the heart of His message. Once while writing an editorial piece, Klopsch came across the words of the Lord in Luke 22:20: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” The passage sparked in Klopsch the idea of printing Christ’s spoken words in red, the color of His blood. Jesus said these words at the Last Supper, while He and the disciples were celebrating the Passover. As animal blood sacrifices sealed the Old Covenant (Exodus 24), now Christ’s blood sacrifice would seal the New Covenant. The cup the disciples drank would become an everlasting reminder that Jesus had spilled His blood for them.
For Klopsch and the team of scholars he assembled to produce the new edition, the red-ink letters symbolized the New Covenant in Jesus Christ’s blood. The goal of the red letter Bible was to emphasize Jesus Christ as the central figure in human history and in God’s plan of salvation. The first red letter edition contained this explanation by Klopsch himself:
“In the Red Letter Bible, more clearly than in any other edition of the Holy Scriptures, it becomes plain that from beginning to end, the central figure upon which all lines of law, history, poetry and prophecy converge is Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. He expounded in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself and the Divine plan for man’s redemption, and the Red Letter Bible indicates and emphasizes this Divine exposition and personal revelation at each successive stage, making them so clear that even the simplest may understand” (source: https://www.crossway.org/articles/red-letter-origin/).
The early red letter editions of the Bible met with immediate success, and the red lettering continues to be a popular feature in many Bibles today. Unfortunately, red letter Bibles have had the unintended consequence of causing some readers to form a mistaken understanding—that the words in red are somehow more important than the rest of the words in Scripture. Such a perspective results in a piecemeal approach to the Bible. To concentrate on certain parts of the Bible to the exclusion of others, such as the group Red Letter Christians does, is unbalanced and spiritually dangerous.
It’s vital to keep in mind that red lettering in the Bible is a human invention. There are no red letters in the original Greek manuscripts. Most importantly, the red letters do not give Christ’s spoken words any more weight or worth than other words in the Bible. Jesus Christ is the Word (John 1:14). All of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, is the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16–17) and thus the word of Jesus.