I only met Chuck Colson on one occasion and it was purely by accident. I was boarding a plane with my wife, Kathi, and Chuck was already seated. I immediately recognized him and extended my thanks to him for his great leadership of the Christian cause. And for former US Marine and ex Nixon “hatchet man”, Charles Wendell Colson, that’s exactly what Christianity was, a cause, not an institution.
I could have met Chuck Colson many years earlier when he first got out of prison.A long-time friend, Lee Edwards, invited me to hear Colson speak of his spiritual conversion just prior to entering prison. Lee ran something called the Monday Club that featured news makers and conservative leaders. I’d gone a number of times, but I had no interest in hearing Colson. As far as I was concerned, Colson was not to be trusted and his so called “conversion” was just a ruse to advance some corrupt agenda he had.
I couldn’t have been more wrong and I regret to this day that I did not attend that meeting of the Monday Club. Chuck Colson was, like St. Paul, an unlikely Christian leader. Here is how an obituary of Colson written by his friend, Jonathan Aitken in Christianity Today described Colson before his transformation…
“When the [Watergate] scandal broke, the press and the prosecutors had Colson in their sights. They knew he was a major contributor to the unsavory moral climate inside the White House. He first hit the headlines in 1972 when he wrote an internal memo with the line ‘I would walk over my Grandmother for Richard Nixon.’ That symbolized his end-justifies-the-means ruthlessness as a political operator. It was no surprise that he became a prime suspect for being the architect of Watergate.”
“As he was later to admit, Colson had no moral compass for the first 41 years of his life. In that period he occasionally described himself as ‘a nominal Episcopalian.’ This was a considerable stretch of the word nominal. He was so unchurched that he had no idea who the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son were. The only recorded example of a conversation about faith during his political career ended with Colson telling his first Christian interlocutor, Fred Rhodes, ‘Oh, I think religion is fine, provided one has as little of it as possible.”
But by the time of Colson’s trial he was changed man. As Aitken tells the story in Christianity Today, Colson was sure he would not go to prison, so even though he left the White House under a cloud, he was determined to rebuild his law practice. In pursuit of this goal…
“He called on Tom Phillips, the chief executive of Raytheon who had recently come to the Lord at a Billy Graham rally. Colson was hoping to land some of Raytheon’s business. Instead Phillips talked with passion about his newfound faith and read aloud some passages from Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.”
“Colson first thought his host’s religious views were ‘pure Pollyanna.’ But the reading from the chapter on pride in Lewis’s book (The Great Sin) struck home. So did the prayer Tom Phillips said at the end of the evening asking Jesus Christ ‘to open Chuck’s heart and show him the light and the way.’ Later that night Colson broke down in tears at the wheel of his car and offered a prayer of his own. As he climbed into bed he told his wife, Patty, that he thought he’d had a conversion experience—but he did not know what that meant.”
Colson did have a true conversion to faith in Jesus and one of the first testimonies to the reality of that conversion is described by Aitken…
“Painful though it was, Colson’s repentance was authentic. The most dramatic sign of this was that he became so convicted of sin that against the advice of his own lawyer he decided to plead guilty. To do this he had to find a unique section of the criminal code (18 USC Section 1503), under which he admitted ‘disseminating information whose probable consequences would be to influence, obstruct and impede the conduct and outcome of the criminal prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg.’ Since Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers was never prosecuted, this plea was (to put it mildly) a legal oddity. But in the fevered atmosphere of Watergate a judge accepted it and sentenced Colson to a 1-3 year prison term.” The length of the term was later commuted by pardon to 7 months.
I was, as previously noted, unaware that Colson had truly repented. However, I took notice when Colson started Prison Fellowship Ministries in 1976 and then one day, on the recommendation of a friend, I picked up one of his books, Loving God. From that point forward I made it a point to read every book by this great Christian leader, commentator, activist, and apologist. It was in the pages of Loving God that I really began to understand what it means to be a Christian and to have a Christian world view—a term popularized by Colson. After reading Loving God, I read his bestseller,Born Again, which he wrote while in prison and that was published shortly thereafter. I not only read Colson’s books, but gave away many, many copies of his books including my two favorites, The Body and How Now Shall We Live?
No one, in my opinion, served as a better and more articulate spokesman for the Christian cause in the 20th Century than Chuck Colson. He was courageous when he spoke, whether it was in some of the worst prisons in the world, or when he was speaking to so-called Christians who showed no compassion or love for those who were in need. He rebuked those who only lived their faith on Sundays or only in the presence of those who were fellow believers, but lived like they were “of the world” during the week.
Chuck Colson “sold out” for the Lord. Yes, he was a sinner, just like all followers of Jesus, but he dedicated his life to serving the Lord. He was compassionate and committed, but he would not compromise his faith. He was an entrepreneurial risk taker who would boldly proclaim the saving good news of Jesus when others shrank back in fear.
He challenged Christians, including myself, to not only proclaim their faith, but to live as Jesus did, showing compassion to the poor, and helping the downtrodden.He encouraged Christ followers to look upon their treasure and wealth as God’s gift to be used in the pursuit of helping others and to proclaiming the Gospel. Throughout his 20 some books he told stories of great sacrifice made by Christians to assist others and to share the Good News of Jesus. His personal hero of the faith was William Wilberforce, the 18th century member of the British Parliament who, at great personal sacrifice, dedicated his life to ending the English slave trade.
Through BreakPoint Radio, his daily radio program broadcast over 800 radio stations, Chuck Colson spoke plainly and directly about our culture. He used this pulpit to encourage Christians to develop a Christian worldview that would govern their daily lives and transform American society.
Today Prison Fellowship Ministry is a global ministry, serving prisoners and their families in 150 nations. Colson also launched Justice Fellowship (a Restorative Justice ministry led by my friend, Pat Nolan), Angel Tree (that provides 300,000 Christmas gifts a year to the children of prisoners) and InnerChange Freedom Initiative (which spawned 15 Christian run prisons across the globe). In 1993 he was awarded the $1 million Templeton Prize for Religion which he donated to charity.
In the 21st century we need many more leaders like Chuck Colson who not only believe in Jesus, but seek to lead believers out of their comfortable lives to be participants in the Christian cause. For Chuck Colson, the race is run and the victory’s won! Pro Gloria Dei!