Catch the Current
From Watergate to the Pearly Gates: Remembering Chuck Colson
"Open Chuck's heart and show him the light and the way." This was what Tom Phillips remembers praying that day. During the prayer, Colson would later admit that he felt the movement of God's Spirit within his soul, but could not bring himself in those moments to surrender to Christ. Later that night, however, when he was alone, sitting in the car "outside in the dark, the iron grip I'd kept on my emotions began to relax. Tears welled up in my eyes . . . and suddenly I knew I had to go back into the house and pray with Tom."
Since Phillips had already gone to bed, Colson wept and offered his own prayer as he gripped the wheel of his car that night in front of his house. Climbing into bed later that evening, he told his wife Patty that he felt he had undergone some kind of conversion experience but did not understand it all.
The next year in Colson life would bring many changes. While his enemies encircled him and he faced the threat of disbarment, public humiliation, fines and imprisonment, Phillips and other newfound Christian friends embraced him with spiritual support and discipleship. The always-capable Colson found himself in desperate need of God, of friends and of help.
From Convert to Prisoner
Colson's sharp mind and troubled soul attached themselves quickly to learning the Bible and embracing the friendship of other believers. He had an almost insatiable appetite for learning Christian truth and theology. The early theological influencers on his life included Nicholas Wolterstoff, R.C. Sproul, Carl Henry, Francis Schaeffer, and Richard Lovelace. He also came to greatly admire the example of William Wilberforce's work in England and soon committed himself to the cultivation of a true Christian worldview and to engaging it boldly in life and society.
Many people questioned the sincerity of Colson's conversion during these early days, seeing his "newfound faith" as sheer opportunism, an effort to curry favor and avoid potential criminal conviction. One pastor said to him, "Colson, I believe in Jesus Christ and I want to know how we can know if you're serious."
Colson answered, "I guess the best way to tell you whether I'm serious or not is for you see what I'm doing ten years from now."
One of the most surprising early evidences of Colson's conversion was his decision, against the counsel of his lawyers, to plead guilty. This sped along his prosecution and he ended up being sentence to 1 to 3 years, a longer period than several other Watergate figures. He was, however, paroled after seven months.
While in prison, Colson became troubled by the ineffectiveness of the prison system. He encountered numerous discussions among prisoners on how they would become more "effective" at their crimes once they left incarceration. He had the idea of designing a discipleship program for prisoners that would utilize a Christian retreat house. Eventually, Norman Carlson, the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, heard of his idea and approved it on an experimental basis. Launched in 1976, these were the early days of what would become Prison Fellowship (PF), now arguably the premier Christian prison outreach and criminal justice reform organization.
In the last quarter century, Colson became one of the most respected leaders in the evangelical movement. Sought out as a speaker at major Christian universities and organizations, he became a leading voice among Christian thinkers and a regular columnist at Christianity Today. He was a critic of post-modernism and debated that it is "incompatible" with the Christian tradition. He debated post-evangelicals, such as Brian McLaren, but endorsed the controversial "creation care" movement."
Robert Crosby is an author and Professor of Practical Theology at Southeastern University. Read his interview with Bobby Gruenewald, the Founder of YouVersion.com (the Bible App) and related articles at Christianity Today—The New Engagers and The Social Network Gospel.
Robert Crosby is the author of the new book, The Teaming Church: Ministry in the Age of Collaboration (Abingdon Press). Crosby's column, "Catch the Current," is published every other Tuesday on the Evangelical portal. Subscribe via email or RSS.