Charles Colson, 1931-2012: A Life of Amazing Grace

It’s probably safe to say that Charles Colson was once one of the most hated individuals in America.  As special counsel to President Richard Nixon, Colson was a powerful and ruthless political operative. To get the president reelected, he once remarked, “I would walk over my own grandmother if necessary.”  His zeal led him to compile an infamous “enemies list” of Nixon’s political opponents and eventually embroiled him in the Watergate affair, perhaps our country’s most deeply scarring political scandal. 

Shortly before pleading guilty to obstruction of justice charges and serving seven months in prison, Colson read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and was, to use the term his subsequent memoir did much to popularize, “born again” as an evangelical Christian.  Many met his profession of faith with skepticism—the man that was so calculating in his White House role was surely positioning himself for sympathy and leniency. 

The remainder of Colson’s life, however, belied the critics’ estimation.  He went on to found Prison Fellowship, what is now the nation’s largest ministry for prisoners and their families.  A few years later, he started another, complimentary ministry, Justice Fellowship, dedicated to the reform of the criminal justice system to reflect the principles of restorative justice. 

Influenced by men like Abraham Kuyper (from whom comes the name of this blog) and Francis Schaeffer, Colson remained committed to the spread of the gospel and the application of a biblically shaped worldview to all of life.  And his was an influential voice.  His books sold 25 million copies and his Breakpoint radio commentary was carried by 1,300 stations.  He won the $ 1 million Templeton Prize for progress in religion in 1993.  He donated it, along his book royalties and speaking fees, to Prison Fellowship.  

Colson also devoted considerable effort to develop meaningful ecumenical dialog and collaboration.  Along with prominent Catholic intellectual Richard John Neuhaus, Colson was a driving force behind Evangelicals and Catholics Together, an initiative to emphasizing the common beliefs and encouraging the common witness of the two groups.  He was also involved with the Manhattan Declaration, which called evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians to defend traditional marriage, the sanctity of life, and religious liberty. 

Fittingly, Colson’s death last week of complications resulting from a brain hemorrhage has sparked a great deal of reflection on and thanksgiving for a life well lived.  In that vein, Peter Wehner, himself a former presidential aide and the co-author of The City of Man, offered some of the best I read:

Mr. Colson…was among the most consequential Christians of the last 35 years. He was a prolific writer, a sought-after speaker, and a tireless advocate for unborn children. Having once been a prisoner, he started a ministry for lawbreakers. Having been touched by grace, he never felt anyone was beyond its reach. 


He also warned about decadence and decline in the West and did everything in his power to reverse it. And he constantly argued for the importance of a proper worldview, challenging Christians to live as members of the kingdom of God and to be the people of God. 

In my encounters with him over the years, I found Colson to be candid, encouraging, principled, a source of wisdom, a person of enormous integrity, and something of a touchstone. He understood the inherent tensions of being a Christian in politics and seemed to get the balance as close to right as anyone. 

But most of all, Mr. Colson struck me as a man who fell in love and stayed in love with the Lord. He touched countless lives during his pilgrimage.

Executive Director of Summit Ministries, John Stonestreet, added this (quoted here):

Quantifying his [Colson’s] impact would be impossible. I meet those who have been impacted by him all the time—they read his books, or they listen to BreakPoint, or maybe their children were loved by Angel Tree volunteers while they were incarcerated, or they found Jesus Christ after hearing his story of redemption. …Chuck was doing social justice before it was cool. He went from prisoner, to prison minister, to prison reformer. …Chuck taught us that social justice, and any cultural work, must be undergirded by Truth, Truth with a capital T. For Chuck, Biblical worldview is more than theoretical posturing, it’s embracing and living out Truth with courage. And that Truth sets us free.

Not long ago I was reminded of the life of John Newton, the former slave trader turned pastor who wrote one of Christianity’s most beloved hymns, Amazing Grace.  The words of that hymn are no doubt familiar to many: “I was once was lost, but now am found/ Was blind but now I see.” Charles Colson would no doubt be the first to acknowledge that his life, both before and after his conversion, was not perfect. Likewise, his ideas and efforts sometimes occasioned criticism from fellow Christians. Even so, it strikes me that he will remain, along with Newton and so many others throughout history, as a sparkling testament to the amazing grace of God.

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