Chuck Colson: Why Faith Matters

Perhaps more than any recent figure, Chuck Colson's life is a testimony to the power of redemption and God's power to forgive and transform. 

A former marine and prominent lawyer, Charles Colson rose to become special counsel and hatchet man to U.S. President Richard Nixon. Tough and determined, he knew how to get what he wanted and wasn’t afraid to bend the rules. When the Watergate scandal of the 1970s erupted bringing down the presidency and those closest to it, Colson found himself disbarred and in prison with no future. But God wasn’t finished. As a fledgling Christian in a world behind bars, Colson realized God was calling him to a ministry to those whose world he now knew first-hand. That led to the founding of Prison Fellowship, now the world’s largest outreach to inmates, with 40,000 trained ministry volunteers in 100 countries. Though Chuck died at 80 on April 21, 2012, from complications resulting from a brain hemorrhage, his phenomenal legacy continues. In this interview, the cultural commentator and author talked about his book The Faith, what he would like to be remembered for, lucrative attacks on Christianity, and disturbing trends he saw in the Church.  

Phil Callaway: Hi Chuck. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. 

Chuck Colson: My pleasure, Phil.

When I was about 13 my mother left a book called Born Again on my night stand in some vain hope that I would read it. I did and it had a very profound impact on my life. So, thank you. I’ve read a number of your books through the years, and The Faith is definitely one of my favorites. I’m getting one for each of my kids in college. It captivated me.

Thank you.

When you came to faith in Jesus years ago, did you have any inkling that God was going to use you the way He has?

No. I needed Him and wanted Him and needed forgiveness and was so relieved that I could be forgiven. I thought at the time that I’d become a believer, go back to my legal world and put my life back together. I had no idea until everything fell apart through the scandal of Watergate and I went to prison. One thing I’d always wanted to do was to make a difference in the world, make a difference in people’s lives. But as a number one public enemy after Watergate I didn’t see that happening. But I underestimated the power of God to transform. Today I rejoice that he has chosen me to serve Him throughout the world. Prison was the worst thing and the best thing that ever happened to me because God used it for His glory.

Where would you advise young believers to start, to take a step of faith?

A friend had shared Christ with me. I was so nervous I changed the subject and then came back to him several months later as Watergate began to turn into a major problem. I’d been reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity that week and as we sat on his porch he witnessed to me and I couldn’t even get out of his driveway because I was crying. I knew God’s presence at that moment. I began to study. And my advice to a new believer would be: don’t just have an experience. It’s just the beginning of a whole new life. The most important thing you can do is to get well discipled. I had a prayer group that held me accountable, I read everything I could get my hands on, I studied hard. In prison, of course, I had seven months in which I could read voraciously and out of prison I was starting the book Born Again. I continued to study and a friend of mine challenged me to read Abraham Kyper, which I did, best thing I’d ever done. I read everything Francis Schaeffer had written. I would say to a new believer that you are just beginning to experience the joy, but only when you are spiritually mature, which comes through small group accountability, church accountability, regular discipleship and study, and then the renewing of your mind. As evangelicals today we don’t pay enough attention to the renewing of the mind, to know what that really means, to be transformed so that you’re seeing the world differently. So I tell people that they’ve embarked on the most interesting, fulfilling adventure in this world, to know the God who created us and called us to himself and how this impacts all of life. Study and don’t give up—keep refining your arguments.

No matter what your age?

No matter what your age.

In reading your books through the years it seems to me that your earlier works warned of the day when this book would be necessary.

Throughout America and Canada we can see a steady decline in biblical literacy. Fifty percent of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married! Bible college and seminary presidents agree that students coming now are biblically illiterate. We make converts but that’s not what the Great Commission says. It says to go into all the world and make disciples. We’re shortcutting the gospel, making it simply an experience and a one-time encounter and we’re failing to disciple people—they do not know their doctrine. Repentance and the desire to be in Jesus’ company are the crucial elements of any sincere conversion. One of the things that really sobers me are statistics that tell us that 57 % of all born-again evangelicals in America think all roads lead to heaven. That is shocking. That shows that we just haven’t been teaching people the truth. It also tells me it will be impossible for us to defend what we believe if we don’t understand it ourselves. The Faith was precipitated by my conducting a poll of good friends who are mature Christians, asking how many of the doctrines, for example, of the Nicene Creed they could tell me about. If they got two or three that was about it. I was stunned. So I undertook to write this book very much the way Luther started the Reformation—he tried to take the church back to the teaching of the church fathers. And that was his whole goal because over the years people were less and less aware of their foundational beliefs. So my goal was to take people back to the beginning of the early church and teach them the rule of faith and the basic truths that we all live by, which would include the Nicene Creed. There’s a theological integrity that’s been lost. So it’s really a primer, it’s Christianity 101. This is what we believe and why we believe it and if we all believe it, it makes sense.

I need to say that this is not stuffy in any way. I’ve been intrigued. In fact, I read it on vacation, which I usually reserve for John Grisham.

It’s very exciting when you begin to look into it. Evangelicals think that doctrine is dry and dusty but it’s not. This is the structure on which our whole belief system rests. I’m thrilled when a book like The Faith begins to bring people into serious study. People are telling me that unlike my other books, they’re really studying this one. My wife happened to be in a Bible study this morning and a woman came up to her and told her she was reading The Faith for a second time and now she’s teaching it to her kids. That warms my heart. It could meet a major need in the church.

Chuck, What is true Christianity?

My wife Patti and I were in London and visited St. Paul ’s Cathedral. The history of St. Paul ’s extends back through the centuries. There was a service on and when it reached the acclamation, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again!” I was struck by the realization that casual sightseers were hearing the heart of the Gospel proclaimed as it had been on that very spot for 1,400 years. Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever. Christianity is forgiveness and reconciliation, sacrificial love, concern for all people, and evil overcome by good. It is a worldview that speaks to every area of life and if we don’t know what we believe, how can we live it and defend it? Our ignorance is crippling us.

I picked up a book by Richard Dawkins in an airport several years ago and was startled to think this kind of diatribe against God and faith has received such wide-spread acceptance and been a bestseller. Why is our culture so ready to accept falsehood?

We’ve been conditioned to believe that if you hold a strong opinion and believe in absolute truth, you’re being judgmental. Nothing’s going to change the truth about God and that can be offensive to people. And it is. So was the cross. People today are scared to death of taking a strong position on any subject. I’ve had people tell me in church, I don’t like to talk about these things with our neighbors because they’ll think I’m judging them.

Imagine in your own life if someone hadn’t done this.

If you’re standing near a precipice looking over a cliff and someone warned you—that’s judgmental? People are lost and they need to hear that there is good news. And they need it explained. We don’t do the best job of explaining the gospel.

You say that 63% of Americans deny the knowability of moral truth. And that 53% of evangelicals deny it too. Where do we begin to counteract such a shift?

First, we should never be discouraged. I learned in prison that God could take the worst possible circumstance and turn it around. What we have to do is gently lead people to water and encourage them to drink. Sometimes have to illustrate it in a simple way. I get a lot of students who come to work in our ministry in the summer as interns, most of them from Christian colleges. I’ll do the same thing with every group every summer when I get them together. I’ll say, “How many of you believe there is such a thing as absolute truth?” And you’ll see them kind of shift uncomfortably in the chair and look at their neighbor; nobody really wants to be first to raise his hand. I’ll say, “Well, I realize that’s a politically incorrect question, but let me ask you a practical question. If you were standing on a street corner and saw an old lady standing there with shopping bags, the traffic is whizzing by in all directions. You’ve got three choices. Help her across the street. Ignore her. Or push her into the traffic. Which is wrong?” And of course, the kids all chuckle. And after I do that then I say, “Now how many of you believe in absolute moral truth?” and the hands all shoot up. Of course! The truth is written on the human heart. Paul makes it so clear in Romans 1. People are without excuse because that which has been made has been made known to them. So we see it in what earlier generations of evangelicals called “The Book of Nature.” We see it in nature. We know it’s written on the heart. And you can teach someone to answer the great questions of life: “Where do we come from? Why is there sin and suffering? What is the answer? Is there hope? What’s our purpose?” You can answer those—creation, fall, redemption, restoration—you can take that four-part grid. You can apply it to every other religion, every other worldview and see which ones rationally answer those questions. The only one that does is the Christian worldview. If you empirically study how various religious and secular belief systems work out in practice, you’ll see that the only one that is rational is the Christian worldview, all others fail. 

The problem is we have so exalted tolerance as almost our supreme virtue that we’re afraid to even say the obvious. I’ve found with kids, when you start working this through with them, all of a sudden their eyes brighten. I’ve been teaching the knowability of truth for years and have found a great response. 

Evangelicals need to be shaken out of their comfortable, lethargic accommodation of the culture and realize that we have something to say, which is a truth claim and has been since the beginning.

Why does truth matter?

Because the very heart of what we believe is at stake. When doctrine and truth are abandoned you don’t get liberal Christianity, you get another religion called liberalism. We saw how this led to the decline of mainline churches in the last century, and conservative churches are at risk today. Without truth the Gospel is perverted. The current fracturing of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in Canada is not primarily over gays being ordained, it’s over the authority of Scripture. When truth is abandoned, therapy takes its place. We learn how to cope with our problems instead of curing them. I am seeking truth, not therapy.

What are the rewards of embracing this truth?

First, if you live life fearful of offending others, you will never have the joy of knowing you have contributed to the transformation of someone’s life. Second, this life-changing faith is the only thing that will sustain you in crisis. Therapy can help you deal with a problem; transformation fixes the problem.

But why has the Church in North America , with so many great resources, not done more to address world hunger, AIDS, and human rights abuses?

Because too many see Christianity in terms of self-improvement or as a guide to successful living. They ignore the command to holiness. The Church’s mission is to make visible God’s invisible Kingdom in the world. God lives in the midst of His people, we are called to share in and reveal His loving character to our neighbors. Having said that, this understanding of holiness has moved Christians throughout history to some of the greatest advance in human dignity and freedom. I’ve worked loving with hundreds of prisoners stricken with AIDS and it is Catholic Charities that runs most of the AIDS facilities in America.

Francis Schaeffer said that bitter division gave the world the right to disbelieve the Gospel.

I’ve sometimes seen more bickering in Christian groups than I can remember in the secular world. Reconciliation requires a surrender of pride and a willingness to put God’s interests over our own. It is at the heart of the Gospel. Peacemaking should be a high priority. We must repent of division among true Christians. The scandal to the world must be the cross, not our division. Now admittedly, Christians are flawed, fallen, and broken people who often profess one thing and do another. But the Christian Church and the truth it defends are the most powerful life- and culture-changing forces in human history. They provide answers to the deepest questions in the human heart. The Christian West is under assault by the twin challenges of secularism and radical Islam—who roots have some unsuspected likenesses. Only through Christianity can Western Europe and North America meet these desperate challenges.

How can I know that my faith is alive?

You will experience changing affections and habits. Things that once appealed to you no longer will; things that weren’t appealing now are. You will experience increasing discontent and conviction over sins of the past and will respond with a genuine desire to turn away, to be changed.

Several antitheists claim that Christianity has made nothing but negative contributions to human history. Are they right?

The orthodox faith is the one source that can renew culture. We’ve seen this repeatedly. This is why the early church exploded. It was the Christians that took care of the dying and rescued aborted or abandoned babies. They knew what they believed and they were strong about it. Correspondence from the church fathers shows us how deep the people were in their faith. In the Celtic era there was a regeneration of belief in the church in the dark ages. And it spread to Europe . 19th century England is the most glowing example, but that was fuelled by a movement that was totally orthodox and transformed society. I think a weakened or experiential gospel or a church that doesn’t know what it believes is not going to change anything; not even themselves. But a church that really understands what it believes is going to let it out because you cannot believe that you’re actually created in the image of God and not let it change you and then it changes the people you come in contact with. It spreads. Without it there’s nothing to build on.

Throughout history you can trace the rise of Christianity with the rise of society and the decline of Christianity with the decline of society. The faith teaches how God can change humanity. It was our faith that met the needs of the late Roman Empire when paganism proved insufficient. It was the great evangelicals of eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain that helped it and the West cope with injustice. Our hope is that the same could happen again.

What are the results of embracing what Dawkins and friends are prescribing?

You’re watching it right now—the decline of the West, a moral decline. In the thirty-five year period since I got out of prison, the prison population has gone up ten times! This is a well-established fact. The breakdown of the family has led to chaos and it’s undermining society as a whole. You’re seeing today in England , Canada and the US what happens when you take away the props of a belief system. the economic collapse can be traced to this. We’ve abandoned the Christian work ethic. Politicians made a moral decision, together with Wall Street and mortgage bankers to convince people that money grows on trees. This is a total rejection of God’s Word. It’s pretty frightening. There are moral consequences to be paid.

Christianity is reeling from a bruising attack by aggressive atheism. In 2006, a clever and articulate Oxford evolutionary biologist by the name of Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion. He considers religious instruction a form of child abuse and calls on governments to stop it. Many critics liken politically active Christians to the Taliban. These authors are selling millions of books. Attacking God has become a lucrative business. They accuse us of wanting a government run by the church. This is absurd. It runs contrary to the most basic Christian teaching about free will and human freedom. Christianity gave the very idea of separation of Church and state to the West. Christianity doesn’t advance by power or conquest, but by love.

Have you had experience talking with atheists?

At a dinner before a governor’s prayer breakfast the gentleman seated next to me warned me that he was an atheist. I told him I was glad to sit beside him because I had never really met an atheist. “An atheist believes that the existence of God can be disproved. So please, tell me how you’ve done that.” He said, “Well, perhaps I should say I’m an agnostic.” I asked him when he’d given up studying about God. He admitted that he’d really never tried. “But an agnostic is one who says he doesn’t think God can be known, and you can only be an agnostic if you’ve tried to know him and exhausted the search. So I would say that while you appear to be a well-educated person, you’ve made an unsupportable statement.” He was rather quiet, but some weeks later I received a copy of the editorial page of the state’s largest newspaper. He was the publisher. His editorial talked about my visit and how it had affected his view of life and religion. He had found that his point of view was unsupportable. The presupposition that God is is not without abundant supportive empirical evidence.

There has been an all-out attack on the Bible too, of course. How can we know it is reliable?

The Christian Bible was assembled over four centuries of the most painstaking study, open debate, discussion, and research. And the New Testament scholars who participated in these discussions were close in time to the events, many were taught directly by the apostles or their immediate successors. Our Bible is the most studiously examined proclamation of faith ever compiled. Before the end of the 1950s, 25,000 biblical sites had been substantiated by archaeological discoveries, not one proved the Bible false. No other religious document is so accurate. The Book of Mormon, for instance, talks about a civilization in North America in 400-600 BC. Not a single artifact has ever been found. Thousands have been willing to lay down their lives for the Bible, from the Scillitan martyrs to the persecuted Church today. The Bible is also unique in the remarkable impact it has had on countless lives over thousands of years. What has become of the teachings of the Beatles’ guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, or Timothy Leary’s pal Baba Ram Das? Few know what these people taught anymore. But the message of the Bible continues to transform. If the Bible is evil like these anti-theists charge, why has it been the bedrock of forming the most humane civilization in history? How does it continue to turn hardened criminals into gentle lambs as I have seen throughout the world? In Medellin , Colombia is the most violent prison in Latin America . It averaged one murder a day. Until Prison Fellowship took hold. It now averages one murder a year. Why would the Chinese, in the midst of atheistic madness, turn to it as their refuge?

What about the attacks on the veracity of the Resurrection?

My personal experience in the Watergate scandal convinces me of the historic proof of the resurrection. The most powerful men around the president of the United States could not keep a lie for three weeks. And you’d have me believe that twelve apostles gave their lives for a lie? Impossible. As we are seeing with Islamic radicals today, people will die for something they believe to be true; but men will never die for something they know to be false.

You could have retired awhile ago. What keeps you going and revved up and energized?

When someone like you reads my book and it makes a difference. I also feel passionately that I’ve got gifts that should be used. I wouldn’t enjoy fishing and pleasure reading nearly as much as I enjoy doing God’s work. There will come a time when I can’t do it, but until then I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.

What are some things you keep on learning in your walk with God?

I’m a Type-A guy. If I hear something is impossible, that’s a real challenge to me and I want to prove them wrong. And after awhile you begin to think that you’re doing it. So there have been many days when I’ve had to go to my knees and confess to God that I thought I was in control and I’m not. I need to stay in a state of total dependence on God. The second thing—humility. It’s the most elusive of all virtues and when you think you have it, you don’t. I am really not comfortable with celebrity. At church I try to get out the back door. It’s not that I don’t like people, I’m just uncomfortable with the adulation.

Yet someone like me just wants to say thank you. Your books have made a difference in my life.

I know that and I appreciate that. You tell me that and it’s a real encouragement. A fellow stopped me the other day and said, “I just want to tell you how much you’ve meant to me.” I thanked him and kept walking. He said, “I was in prison and I came to faith in Christ because of your influence.” If I hear that I am so grateful. But there’s a fine line between indulging yourself and giving God the glory.

When the last chapter of your earthly life has been written, how would you like to be remembered?

Not as a great Christian leader or icon. I don’t think we’re called to anything more or less than just to do our duty. That’s how I look at my life. I want to use my gifts to the fullest.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to talk with you and for the difference you’ve made in my life.

God bless you and your ministry too, Phil.

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