Chuck Colson's name has been synonymous with conservative evangelicalism for as long as I can recall. Colson brings to mind courageous moral leadership and prophetic calls to action. Yet, his reputation was not always what it is today.
Charles Wendell "Chuck" Colson (October 16, 1931 -- April 21, 2012) was a public figure long before the Watergate scandal. Working in the Nixon administration, Colson served as Special Counsel from 1969-1973. Before he would become known as a hero of Christian ministry, he was known as one of the few in the world with direct access to the President of the United States, and something of a "hatchet man" for President Nixon.
On March 1, 1974, Chuck Colson became a target of public scorn. Among the famous "Watergate Seven," Colson was indicted for conspiracy to cover up the Watergate burglary, a crime about which he would later express deep regret. He was sentenced to 3 years in prison on felony charges, and would serve seven months of his term.
Colson emerged from his prison sentence as a new Christian and a man with renewed vision. His experience in prison opened his eyes to an often forgotten segment of society. With an adjusted perspective, Colson founded Prison Fellowship, a Christian ministry to inmates and an advocacy group for prison reform. Colson emerged from the most humbling experience of his life with a conviction that the Spirit of God could transform the hardest of hearts.
Until the end of his life, Colson's efforts were redirected from politics and law to full-time public Christian ministry. In addition to his work with Prison Fellowship, Colson authored 17 books, toured the nation as a guest lecturer, and advocated for the least of these in the public square. Colson was awarded 15 honorary doctorates in his lifetime. He called Christians to action, fidelity, and depth.
His most notable work, titled How Now Shall We Live (1999, Tyndale) received worldwide acclaim. Colson considered the book the most important of his life. Beginning after his release from prison, Colson published at a consistent pace: nearly one book every three years until the end of his life. Even at age 80, Colson published The Sky Is Not Falling: Living Fearlessly in These Turbulent Times (2011, Worthy). Colson was both a thinker and a statesman. Many have been influenced by Colson--including me.
Colson's legacy, like every persevering Christian, is one of a man brought low by his sin, but made new in Christ-- and used for his purposes in ways he would have never imagined. When Colson converted to Christianity, the timing of his conversion (1973) led many to speculate about the sincerity of his claim to faith-- they thought this might be a "jailhouse conversion." But nearly 40 years later, Colson's perseverance lends credit to his testimony.
William Buckley wrote in the Washington Star (June 28, 1974):
Those among us who consider themselves most worldly-- Pete Hamill, for instance; or the writers for the Village Voice-- treat [Colson's conversion] as a huge joke, as if W. C. Fields had come out for the Temperance Union. They are waiting for the second act, when the resolution comes, and W. C. Fields is toasting his rediscovery of booze, and Colson is back practicing calisthenics on his grandmother's grave.
Colson's life and ministry were certainly no "joke." Many would aspire to his example but few will have his impact. But it is a reminder that the Author of our lives is writing a story for the fame and name of Jesus, and chooses to write us into that story. Without the providence of God in his life, Colson might have continued down a path of political and legal work for his own gain. Had he authored his own story, it would not have read nearly as well as the version we reflect on today.
Not all who read this post will remember the Watergate scandal. Many simply know Chuck Colson as a respectable, evangelical, grandfatherly figure. But this generation will miss out on the transforming power of God illustrated in Chuck Colson's life if they do not discover the (younger) Chuck Colson of Watergate-- the man whom God brought from darkness into light. It is a tribute, not an insult, to his legacy to remember his entire life, because in his weakness the power of God was made manifest, until the very end.
"But He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may reside in me." - 2 Cor 12:9
Thank you, God, for Chuck Colson's life, and we pray your grace and peace on his family in this difficult time.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay's Missiologist in Residence. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Ed blogs daily at EdStetzer.com.