Remembering Charles Colson

May 02, 2012


Dr. Charles ("Chuck") Wendell Colson died on Saturday, April 21st. Many Westminster faculty were friends with Dr. Colson, and Rev. Dr. William Edgar writes this reflection.

Dr. Charles Colson

It is with great sadness, but also deep gratitude to God, that the Westminster community has learned about the death of Chuck Colson. In the few days since he passed into glory, his life and accomplishments have been well reported, both by Christians and in the national news media, as they should be.

Chuck distinguished himself as Richard Nixon’s Special Counsel. He was known as Nixon’s “Hatchet Man” because of his hardnosed defense of the President. He once boasted he would “walk over his own grandmother” if he had to, in order to get Nixon reelected. Then, he got caught up in the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s resignation. He was one of the “Watergate Seven” who had a role in covering up the famous break-in. Although he never had a direct role in the actual break-in, he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice when attempting to defame Daniel Ellsberg, whose Pentagon Papers revealed secret information about decisions made during the unpopular Vietnam War. For that crime he went to jail for seven months in Alabama.

In 1973, in the midst of the growing scandal, Chuck had become a Christian through a number of friends. Against his lawyers’ advice, he pleaded guilty to the charge, saying, that was “a price I had to pay to complete the shedding of my old life and to be free to live the new.” In prison he exercised grace and integrity, seeking to discover the underlying causes for crime, and looking at the deep flaws in the prison system itself. When he left incarceration he vowed he would never forget his fellow inmates. And he never did. Unlike a number of high-profile converts in the 1970s Chuck dedicated his life to the unglamorous work of bringing the gospel of Christ to prisons in America and around the world. He founded Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM) in 1976. This remarkable organization has made inroads in thousands of prisons and in the lives of hundreds of thousands of detainees. PFM not only provides spiritual guidance and worship to inmates, but advocates a series of reforms to make prisons more humane and less ruthless. As well, PFM works to change the social conditions which make crime more likely.

Strongly influenced by Francis Schaeffer, Chuck believed that Christ was Lord, not only of the church, but of every sphere of society. Accordingly he founded a number of organizations and opened a number of avenues to voice his views in an attempt to effect change in our culture. These include his numerous publications. The autobiography of his conversion, Born Again, followed by the film, became a best-seller. He wrote Loving God, Kingdoms in Conflict, How Now Shall We Live? (co-authored with Nancy Pearcey and Harold Fickett), and numerous other books. In 1983 he founded Justice Fellowship, an advocacy group aiming at reforms in the criminal justice system. More recently showing his great concern to develop leaders capable of articulating Christ’s lordship in every area of life, he created the Centurions Program. Its purpose is to gather Christians together “to learn how to live out their faith authentically and powerfully in the world” and to unite them “in an ongoing and growing network of worldview movement leaders.” Chuck’s Breakpoint Commentary is a radio program which airs weekly through some 1,200 outlets and reaches an estimate eight million people.

Colson’s concerns were wide-ranging. He was an advocate of faith-based initiatives. He fiercely opposed postmodernism. He was concerned for the lack of ethics programs in our leading business schools. He thought Evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics could agree on certain basics. He defended the traditional family. Most of all, he believed that society could be transformed only when and if its leaders were converted.

To find out more about this amazing figure, it is well worthwhile reading Jonathan Aitken’s biography, Charles W. Colson: A Life Redeemed (WaterBrook, 2005).

Chuck visited Westminster Theological Seminary a few times. He was our the graduation speaker in May of 1993. There he spoke about popular misconceptions about the church and our need to remedy them [Listen to his commencement speech, "Manning our Post in the Holy Nation"]. Chuck was the featured speaker at the Contemporary Issues Conference in 1995. His topic was “Presenting the Gospel in Athens.” It was a powerful evening. And just a year ago he spoke at our Business Ethics Today conference in Philadelphia. His memorable statement there was: “What we must do now is be salt and light, rubbed into the such a such a way that the people and institutions around us slowly begin to understand that they have embraced the Lie. Our job is to expose the Lie and replace it with the Truth of a biblical understanding of all of reality.”

On a personal note…Chuck has been a dear friend. His book, Born Again, had a profound influence on my wife's father, who had been in the State department and knew most of the players personally. Also, she and I were quite involved in his initiative for crime victims, called Neighbors Who Care, which focused on those who had suffered greatly because of the crimes perpetrated against them or against their loved ones. I was also privileged to be a regular instructor for the Centurion’s Program. Chuck and I spent many hours together, discussing world trends: Europe, China, America’s risks and opportunities. What an honor! Perhaps one of Chuck’s greatest gifts was encourager. He always looked for my next speaking engagement or my next publication so he could support my work. He deeply loved the Westminster apologetic. At one point, when he learned more about our approach, he said, “Now, I am an apostle.”

The character in literature Charles Colson most resembled is Valiant-for-Truth in John Bunyan’s immortal Pilgrim’s Progress. On his way to the Celestial city, Valiant battled three great enemies: Wild-head, Inconsiderate, and Pragmatick. Though it was three against one, these foes never had a chance against Valiant, for he stood for truth and he cried out to the One who is able to save his people, “though an host encamp against me.” They never had a chance against Chuck the Valiant-for-Truth! Only because he loved God’s grace, and his Son, Jesus Christ.

Chuck never imagined in his wildest dreams that his incredible effectiveness was because of his talents. Only the Lord could have accomplished these things. Our hearts go out to Patty, the children and the grand-children of whom he was so very proud. Thanks you, dear Lord, for Charles Colson!

Dr. William EdgarWilliam Edgar
Professor of Apologetics
Westminster Theological Seminary
Philadelphia, USA