“Colson died!” That’s what my buddy Rich Van Pelt told me as he looked up from reading the news on his phone. That was on Saturday. Since then, I’ve been thinking about what Charles Colson meant to the church over roughly the last 40 years. I’ve been thinking about what Colson meant to me. I’ve also been thinking about what Colson should mean to the emerging generation of Christians.
If you weren’t alive during the tumultuous days of “Watergate,” it’s most likely difficult to really appreciate the Charles Colson story. I was in high school when Watergate was unfolding. Our country was already a dusty and confusing mess as the result of several assassinations (JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X), a brutal and divisive war, and an ideological generation gap that fueled anger on both sides. Now, the government seemed to be falling apart. I didn’t understand it all. But I knew the names of many of the characters involved in these stories. Charles Colson was a bad guy. . . a ruthless bulldog. . . a criminal. . . Nixon’s “hatchet-man”. . . and he was going to prison. But something happened to Colson during those days that would change his life. In turn, that change to Colson’s life would change the lives of countless others. Jesus got a hold of Charles Colson. This wasn’t some convenient jailhouse conversion as many in the media believed. This was genuine.
|From the newspaper – April 25, 1975 –
Charles Colson and Charles Givler at Geneva
Thirty-seven years ago tomorrow (April 25, 1975), Charles Colson stood before an audience as a free and converted man for the very first time. I was priviliged to be in the room. I was a freshman at Geneva College. It was one of our required convocations. Colson chose to speak at Geneva because of an engineering professor, Charles Givler. Givler and his family had developed a relationship with Colson while he was in prison. The Givler’s wrote regularly to Colson to encourage him in his new-found faith in Christ. Colson so appreciated the Givlers that he came to Geneva on April 25. At the time, none of us knew what God had in store for this man. We only knew that God had worked a miracle of redemptive transformation in his life.
The rest is history. As Colson began to use his brilliant mind to the glory of God, the church benefitted from Colson’s thoughtful and faith-filled critique of culture. By the time I was doing youth ministry in the late 1980’s, I was telling my students that Charles Colson was a modern-day Apostle Paul.
Like Paul, Colson was the chief among sinners. Like Paul, Colson had a Damascus road conversion experience. And like Paul, the God-transformed Colson became as much of a champion for integrated faith as he had been for the other side prior to his conversion. Along with Francis Schaeffer, Colson got us thinking about what it means to embrace an all-encompassing Christian worldview. I devoured everything Colson wrote and encouraged others to do the same.
Charles Colson was not a perfect man. He is not to be idolized. But he should be read and heard. Sadly, in recent years I have encountered fewer and fewer youth workers and young believers who know of or read Colson. That’s a sign of our market-driven and trendy times. Because Colson wasn’t young and sexy, he just wasn’t known. . . or as marketable, maybe. That’s sad. His books are worth our attention. If you don’t know Colson, a good place to begin is with his address upon receipt of The Templeton Prize in 1993. That address is titled “The Enduring Revolution.” We should also think about Colson’s example of faith in action. I’m still amazed at what’s been done through Colson’s Prison Fellowship.
I think that one of the most refreshing aspects of Charles Colson’s story is that his life after prison was a testimony to the power of God’s redeeming grace. Colson was truly a changed man. The media quickly stopped speculating about the “convenience” of Colson’s prison conversion. The change was real. It reminds us that nobody is beyond redemption.