Chuck Colson (1931-2012), who died yesterday, confounded the skeptics. In his early life they doubted whether his post Watergate/prison conversion was real. It was. Its credibility was proved by his faithful ministry to prison inmates to the end of his life. And yet, God providentially used his amazing past life and his unusual talents to speak prophetically to the church and to our society. Many of us who worked with him thank God for his extraordinary life.
Chuck Colson’s Unusual Journey
Distinguishing himself as a young Marine leader, then as a lawyer and political activist, Chuck Colson reached the pinnacle of career success when President Richard Nixon asked him to serve as his special counsel from 1969-1973. Chuck was the mastermind behind Nixon’s 1972 election landslide. He was known as Nixon’s “hatchet man” and infamous for his zeal to re-elect the president—once saying “I would walk over my grandmother if necessary” to get Nixon elected.
But all did not go well. The political victory was followed by the Watergate scandal of 1974 which took down the president. Many were implicated, including Colson. He eventually pled guilty to an obstruction of justice charge and went from the height of power to convicted felon serving his sentence in the Maxwell Prison in Alabama.
Later on, Chuck admitted that it was his own pride and out of control ego that led to his downfall, brokenness and humbling. But this was what God used to change his life. His best selling book Born Again, chronicled his amazing conversion and transformation in 1973.
At the time, many doubted Colson’s genuineness and said it would not last. They did not realize it would lead to what Colson called “a life sentence” prompting him to start an international ministry to advance the gospel to the broken and to bring the broken before the church. His ministry, Prison Fellowship, (and later Justice Fellowship, Angel Tree, etc, ) not only testified to the power of Christ, but set out to serve Inmates and their families. It also prophetically pointed out the brokenness of our prison system.
US federal and state prisons, and prisons around the world, often welcomed Prison Fellowship, because they knew that rehabilitation programs were producing little fruit. But whatever PF was doing seemed to “work” because it changed people from the inside out. Secular psychologists sometimes referred to these effective changes as “conversion therapy.” But Chuck and the many faithful people who worked with him kept on pointing to Jesus Christ.
Through the years, Prison Fellowship (www.Pfm.org) grew to become the world’s largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. To this he added Breakpoint (www.Breakpoint.org) a radio program of Christian perspectives on the news with over 5,200 broadcasts. And later came The Chuck Colson Center (www.colsoncenter.org) to help people grow a Christian worldview.
Chuck had a prolific writing ministry with books like Born Again, Life Sentence, Loving God, Kingdoms in Conflict, The Body, Against the Night, The Good Life, The Faith, and many others.
What he stood for
When I think over his life, Chuck seemed to stand for the following things.
1 First and foremost was his belief in the power of the gospel itself. He knew first hand that the crucified, risen and reigning Christ could raise broken people to newness of life. He was committed to the Great Commission and bringing the gospel to one of the hardest places on earth.
2 He understood that the church benefited immensely by “remembering the prisoner” and caring for the broken. He invited an army of volunteers to join him going back to prison.
3 Colson early on saw the justice implications of his prison experience. He knew that our prison system was not working, so he began to talk about desperately needed prison reforms. And by the way, back then, the USSR had the largest prison population in the world. Today the United States does.
4 Chuck pointed out the political illusion, the belief held by many that every problem has a political solution. While many in our society still believe this, he warned Christians not to fall for it, and reminded us that the deepest solutions are spiritual, gospel solutions. He also wrote about how presidents can manipulate Christian leaders who are easily seduced by power. Chuck knew firsthand about that, because he played that role for Nixon.
5 Along with the Great Commission of Matthew 28, Chuck talked a lot about the cultural commission of Genesis 1-2. He knew that politics is ultimately affected by culture. So he thought a lot about how to change culture. And yet, he knew that culture is affected by faith, so he kept coming back to working at spreading the faith and re-shaping the faith of Christians, helping them to think Christianly about everything.
6 In the 1980s Chuck realized that American culture was shifting and saw a crisis of “immense proportions” coming. He realized that as our civilization, (the West), let alone our country (the US), distanced itself from its Christian heritage we were coming apart. So he often wrote about the lostness and the chaos coming upon us, and yet kept pointing to the light of Christ and his Word.
7 Consequently, in the later part of his ministry, Chuck gave himself to speaking prophetically about key issues, and to teaching a Christian worldview to believers. He knew that as our culture changes, Christians need to think more like Christians in all areas of life.
8 Challenged by Francis Schaeffer’s call to co-belligerency, Chuck engaged in a series of conversations with Roman Catholic leaders like Richard John Neuhaus about contending for Christian truth in the marketplace of ideas. The discussions and statements that came out of this (known as ECT or Evangelicals and Catholics Together) were sometimes controversial. But they covered a broad range of issues and ended up with a statement in March of this year called In Defense of Religious Freedom.
9 It was these discussions that prompted his leadership with the Manhattan Declaration in 2009. This declaration drew together Evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox leaders to bear witness to three foundational issues in our society—the sanctity of life, the historic understanding of marriage and religious liberty.
10 At the end of his life, Chuck was calling for Christians to not be silent about things that are true. He did not, as some do, call for merely living out a faithful presence as Christians. Rather he believed that Scripture calls for living faithfully a life of grace AND speaking prophetically for the truth.
My relationship with Chuck
I first met Chuck shortly after he was converted when I was torn between the world of politics and ministry. He was immensely helpful to me. Shortly after college, I worked with him at Prison Fellowship doing “gofer” work. I helped him in his earliest efforts on prison reform. I also had the privilege of serving as his travel assistant when my good friend Michael Cromartie could not go with him! I travelled with Chuck to prisons all around the country—medium, minimum and maximum security.
This time marked a turning point in my life. Not only did Chuck introduce me to many of his reformed friends and their writings (J.I.Packer and R.C. Sproul), but it was through working with inmates in America’s prisons that I rediscovered the power of the gospel. And that is what God used to send me into the pastorate, working for changes from the inside out.
Knowing Chuck in those early years, I saw both the new Chuck and occasional glimmers of the old Chuck. But I knew that as fallible as he was, he was drawn to the righteousness of Jesus.
The man had a tremendous capacity for work. He was one of those ten talent people whom God used (with Patty’s gracious support) to accomplish so much. Last year, Chuck came to speak at my inauguration as the new president of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. He told me that he really wanted to slow down but said there is too much at stake, so he had to keep going.
It is no surprise that Chuck’s ministry came to a halt while he was speaking at a conference. You could say, that as an old soldier, he fell in the line of duty, serving the Lord he loved in the country he loved.
Chuck Colson was a great Christian leader and a great thinker. He lived out that famous quotation that he often repeated–“remain at your posts and do your duty—for the glory of God and His kingdom.”