The transformative life of Chuck Colson

I’ve known Chuck Colson, who died today at the age of 80, for 12 years and have been a fan of his for many more. Our friendship began shortly after I became the president of Crossroad Bible Institute. Colson’s Prison Fellowship ministry and CBI have been closely aligned for years; Prison Fellowship has referred hundreds of thousands of inmates to us for discipleship.

Chuck and I enjoyed numerous letter exchanges and engaged in wonderful conversations, even just a few weeks ago. I was going through security in an airport when I heard my name called. It was Chuck! After I gathered my belongings, we caught up in a nearby coffee shop. Before we parted to go our separate ways, he initiated a warm hug. I will miss him dearly.

Colson’s legacy is enormous. Convicted in 1974 as part of the Watergate scandal, Colson - then White House special counsel – was sent to federal prison. Paroled in 1975, Colson began Prison Fellowship the following year, helping to put prison ministry on the church’s radar. When society was saying, “Lock ’em up and throw away the key,” Colson was echoing Hebrews 13:3: “Remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison.” He reminded the church of Jesus’ words: “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” No one can think of prison ministry without Chuck Colson coming quickly to mind.

Chuck practiced what he preached, visiting prisoners continually, including every Easter Sunday for 34 years. He brought the news of the risen Lord to God’s people in need, lighting up the dark prison environment with the glory of Easter. He always said he couldn’t think of a better place to be on Easter Sunday.

But Colson’s legacy expands even beyond prison ministry. He was acutely aware that mass incarceration was merely the tip of the iceberg of society’s problems. He recognized that our prisons are a microcosm of a society in deep trouble: broken families, moral bankruptcy, educational failure and ecclesiastical ineptitude.

Primarily through his contacts with Dutch Reformed folks in Grand Rapids, Mich., Colson came into contact with the work of Abraham Kuyper. He was intrigued by the transformative power of Christianity and the idea of a Christian world- and life-view. That all of life is sacred and falls under the reign of King Jesus became his rallying cry.

Colson’s magnum opus of worldview is How Now Shall We Live?, a book whose title echoes the work of Francis Schaeffer. Colson replicated for today’s society the role Schaeffer held as a popular philosopher and theologian in his own day. Like Schaeffer, Colson presented a worldview with a strong evangelical tint, sometimes bordering on the political. But he differed, like Kuyper, in that he sought common ground with Roman Catholics.

Carrying on Colson’s legacy is the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, of which I became a regular contributor at Chuck’s invitation a number of years ago. His daily radio program, “BreakPoint,” and his Centurions Program to train people in Christian worldview underscored the seriousness with that which he took to be his mission in life.

And all of us are the better for it.

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I have personally experienced the resurrection power of the Gospel behind bars. I have shared the transformative vision that Chuck Colson saw, and I know the Christ he met face-to-face during his time in that dark place. Reading his memoir BORN AGAIN (now rightly a modern classic), I felt a deep, personal kinship with him—as though he and I were kindred spirits bonded through a shared new birth experience brought about by a season of incarceration. So, when I learned of his death this past weekend, I suppose I felt the loss more profoundly than most probably did.

Chuck Colson was one of the most important Christian leaders of our time. Too often we hear about the politicians and church leaders who have succumbed to the love of the world. Too often we hear about the falls from grace, the scandals that obstruct the Church’s effective witness to a watching world. Too rarely do we hear about those redeemed sinners who, like Chuck Colson, pick themselves up from the brokenness of a fallen world, forsake the ungodliness of their former ways, and testify effectively to the transformative power of the risen Christ.

Colson’s story is truly one of resurrection—of humankind’s ultimate triumph, in Christ, over all that binds and confines us, whether the physical bonds of a prison cell or the spiritual shackles of unforgiveness. In a world still entranced by shadows, Chuck was truly a beacon of light.

I mourn the loss of Chuck’s personal influence in a world that still desperately needs his vision. I pray ardently for the prospering of his abundant legacy and the many ministries that will continue in the wake of his passing. But, most of all, I rejoice that this man of God has finally reached the “better country” for whose Keeper he so faithfully served.

Chuck Colson was a powerful public example that Christ can change any life. No matter how entangled, guilty and exposed a person gets Jesus has the power to transform that person and that life. If Chuck Colson wasn’t stuck, nobody has to be stuck. I love that about Jesus!

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