From ‘hatchet man’ to Christian Apologist
On April 21st , an eighty-year-old Charles Colson passed from this life.
Alongside C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, Colson will go down to history as one of the foremost apologists of the 20th century.
The author of more than 30 books, he pursued a relentless schedule of traveling and speaking.
His Prison Fellowship Ministries helped to reach millions of prisoners with the gospel and to bring prison reform to the United States.
He built a program for training lay leaders in worldview thinking, called Centurions.
Through the Colson Center website, he sponsored and published research on how the Biblical worldview relates to everything from literature to food. (To read some of my columns at the Colson Center, click here.)
His BreakPoint radio commentaries have inspired millions of Christians to think more deeply about their faith and how it relates to current events.
He worked to bring reforms in the U.S. criminal justice system, as well as spearheading work in prisoner rehabilitation.
When Christians of the late 20th and early 21st century were becoming confused by postmodernism and the emergent church movement, Colson brought Biblical clarity.
In the 90’s, he teamed up with Richard John Neuhaus to spearhead ecumenical work between evangelicals and Catholics, culminating in a joint statement of faith titled, ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission.’
In 2009 he was the principal writer and driving force behind another ecumenical statement, known as the Manhattan Declaration. This called on believers from the three main branches of Christendom not to comply with rules and laws permitting abortion, same-sex marriage and other matters that go against their consciences.
The ‘Evil Genuis’
Colson’s life was not always spent serving Christ. An ambitious lawyer, he occupied his younger days climbing the ladder of success, first as a marine captain in the 50s and later as the founder of a successful law firm. This culminated in him being appointed to serve as Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1973.
Known as President Nixon’s ‘hatchet man,’ Colson was willing to do anything to defeat the president’s political foes. Colson confessed that he was “valuable to the President … because I was willing … to be ruthless in getting things done.”
“Ruthless” was no exaggeration. He even once proposed bombing the Brookings Institution so his men could sneak in and steal politically damaging documents while fire-fighters were working to put the fire out.
It was not without some warrant that the press described Colson as “the ‘evil genius’ of an evil administration.”
During the investigation that culminated in Nixon’s impeachment, Colson worked to obstruct justice, leading to an indictment on 1 March, 1974 for conspiring to cover up the Watergate burglary.
Conversion to Christianity
As his life was unravelling and he was facing arrest, a close friend gave Colson a copy of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. This classic of Christian apologetics transformed his life, leading him to put faith in Christ.
Shortly after becoming a Christian, Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and was incarcerated for seven months in the federal Maxwell Prison in Alabama.
At first the news media was skeptical of Colson’s conversion, even as the Christians in Damascus had been skeptical of the conversion of Saul (later Saint Paul). However, any lingering doubts about the genuineness of his faith were laid to rest once Colson was released.
Ambitious for Christ
Upon his release, Colson remained as ambitious as before, but now his ambition was focused on advancing Christ’s kingdom. He started Prison Fellowship Ministries, using his first-hand knowledge of the prison system to effectively bring healing and salvation to those behind bars.
In the course of his career as a defender of the Christian faith, Colson received 15 honorary doctorates and was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by President George W. Bush. Despite these and numerous other honors, Colson always remained humble. He never lost sight of the fact that he was a convicted felon, nor that he was indebted to the grace of God for every breath he drew.
When lucrative book royalties and speaking fees began to pour in, Colson donated all the profits to the ministry of Prison Fellowship. When he won the highly coveted Templeton Prize in 1993, with a cash bonus of over $1 million for “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension,” he donated this also to the ministry.
Legacy and Lessons
One important lesson we learn from Colson is the importance of the church. Towards the end of his life, he became increasingly concerned with the effects of extreme individualism that he saw rising among the younger generation. The idea that you can love Jesus while hating the church was deeply troubling to Colson, who once commented that “The greatest single scandal in evangelical assemblies, and I can really only speak for that, is the low regard individual Christians have for the church.” In the last column he worked on for Christianity Today he reiterated Luther’s words, “he who would find Christ must first find the Church.”
An incredibly clear communicator, Colson never tried to be original and rarely ever was. Rather, he was an intellectual omnivore who was content to draw on what other Christian thinkers, past and present, had written and said. As such, his own ministry demonstrated the truth that was so dear to his heart in his declining years: that no Christian is an island, that each of us need one another, that Christ saves us to put us in communion with others. This was a vision that he shared in common with his spiritual hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though it sometimes got him in trouble with his fellow apologists. When his emphasis on Christian community and the visible church led him to work to break down barriers between evangelicals and Catholics, some prominent reformed theologians felt he had gone too far.
Another lesson we learn from Colson is the importance of a Biblical worldview. In the past 30 or so years, American Christians have rediscovered the importance of having a Christian ‘worldview.’ The term ‘worldview’ signifies an interpretive lens through which we interpret all of reality. Before this revival of worldview thinking, it was easy for Christians to accept a pietistic dualism which assumes that religion only applies to certain ‘spiritual’ areas. In his book Worldview: The History of a Concept, David Naugle traces how worldview thinking came back into the Christian understanding, and he points to Charles Colson as being seminal in this process. Colson helped to mediate to America the vision of the Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), who famously declared that there is no square inch of reality that Jesus Christ does not claim as His own.
While other apologists were working to show that the claims of Christianity were true, Chuck’s vision was larger: he wanted to show how Christianity is the explanation for literally everything. He wanted to show that there is no aspect of reality that falls outside the confines of the Biblical faith.
Putting this Kuyperian understanding into practice, the focus of Chuck’s ministry was incredibly broad. His Breakpoint radio commentaries ranged everywhere from offering insight into books like the Narnia Chronicles and Moby Dick to condemning social evils like abortion to giving advice to pastors to exposing the foolishness of Christian fads like The Shack.
A Life of Grace
Jim Liske, the CEO of Prison Fellowship, reflected what was on the hearts of many Americans when Colson passed away on 21 April, 2012:
“This truly is a man who is part of American history and part of Church history now. I think he exemplifies the fact that we have in our culture and even in our American psyche that grace exists. There was grace for him, even when he broke the law coming out of a presidential administration. And he preached, lived, taught and shared that grace. There are so many people who feel as if, at some level, he was the voice of God saying, ‘you know what, there’s a second chance for you in our country, and in the Kingdom of Heaven, there’s a second chance for you.”
This article will be appearing in the monthly magazine of Christian Voice, a UK ministry whose website is http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/. The article is published here with permission of Christian Voice.