With sadness, we reflect on the loss and legacy of Chuck Colson by offering a telling interview I conducted with him in 2007. You will hear a few of his prolific thoughts that influenced me and shaped Q from the very beginning. Near the conclusion of the interview, Chuck describes, in his own words, the legacy he hopes to leave behind.
Gabe Lyons: Chuck Colson, thank you for being with us today. I can go back in my life and see a critical moment where a few ideas out of your book, How Now Shall We Live, really changed everything for me. There was one term in that you unveiled that was something I had never considered, even after being a Christian for 25 years. It was the idea of common grace. Can expound on what common grace is?
Charles Colson: I appreciate, first, what you’ve said very much. I’ve enjoyed our friendship and relationship over the years and I have a high regard for what you’re doing and what you’re experiencing through this.
Common grace is a term that’s fallen into disuse in modern times, but the reformers understood it to be God’s grace spilled out in life for the benefit of non-believers as well as believers. Saving grace is grace which transforms us. Common grace is, to the just and the unjust alike, experienced when God’s people do what God’s people are supposed to do. It was also was used in the Reformation era as a synonym because it was less offensive than saving grace to people of the natural law.
We believe that God spoke into being the universe, and spoke to us and revealed to us the eternal, immutable laws—which go back to the beginning of creation. I think people can access those, non-believers and it’s one of the ways they know the truth. That was a little bit offensive to the reformers so they used the term common grace in lieu of natural law. But it’s the outworking of God that affects believers, as well as nonbelievers, all people in society.
If Christians are doing what they’re supposed to be doing—being the light, exercising their cultural responsibilities—then common grace is going to be shared abroad for the good of believers and non-believers.
GL: What is the biblical basis for this idea of common grace and for the idea of Christians being called to cultural renewal?
CC: Well, it’s all through the Scripture. It starts, of course, in Genesis. We were told to take dominion, to cultivate and till the soil, to name the animals. There is almost a co-creator mandate to people. It then came under the curse and under the fall; but as people are redeemed, they once again begin to see their responsibility to care for God’s creation that runs all the way from environmentalism to human rights to music to popular culture.
Throughout Scripture, you will see, we are told to read the signs of the time. Paul tells people to take every thought captive and obedience to Christ. We are told to be salt and light by Jesus. To be salt and light means you go into culture and enable people to see that you’re living out the faith.
Read Psalms 8. It is a worldview book where the magnificence of nature is speaking to the people. Romans 1 is a tremendous example of how creation speaks to people about God and when they rebel against it, they distort the moral order.
So, you see all through the Bible this concern for the world around us. I believe there is a cultural commission that is a commission to Christians to bring righteousness into the culture. We always have, by the way. That’s one of the proudest traditions, I think, from the Christian Church.
At the same time, we must fulfill the Great Commission, which is to make disciples baptized in His Name and teach them all He’s taught to us. They’re not one or the other. We Christians have a responsibility for both.
GL: That’s one of the ideas that was so central to “How Now Shall We Live” that I just kind of ran away with. Christians are called to redeem entire cultures, not onlt individuals in culture. Sometimes, we pegged this as “the social gospel, ” but in reality, it’s a lot more than that and I think you, Chuck, did a great job of just describing that. But as it relates to the local church, what do you see as the local church’s place in culture?
CC: I think the local church has to be responsible for making the invisible kingdom visible. I like what Calvin said: “When the local church is doing what the church is called to do—that is preaching the gospel, administering the sacraments, exercising discipline—inevitably the surrounding culture will be affected.” In other words, if we’re really living as Christians, it’ll happen.
Look at what I think is the most glorious period in Christian history: the rise of Christianity during the Roman era. What drew people to Christians wasn’t their efforts. They didn’t have evangelistic outreaches, they didn’t do great crusades and there was no television. But the church expanded exponentially in the 3rd Century, in particular, and this lasted into the 4th century because Christians were doing the Gospel. First of all, they had a community—a local community, local church—where people really loved each other and this drew the pagans in, who had nothing to live by.
Then, when the great plagues swept Rome and all the doctors fled, the Christians stayed and took care of the sick. They did what we’re called to do as Christians. As a result, even though they often died in the process of taking care of the sick, people wanted to become Christians because it was a better life than pagans and they saw something they wanted.
And so when Constantine declared Rome the Holy Roman Empire, people think he did that for political reasons. But, he didn’t. He did it because it was already Christianized and he just recognized the reality of what had happened.
GL: Don’t you think it really comes down to what a person’s view of the gospel is or what the Good News really was about when Jesus came? I’d love for you to just share kind of how you would define what was the Good News—what is it that Jesus is announcing as He is on this earth about the Kingdom and what’s to come.
CC: Well as an evangelical, the Good News is 1 Corinthians Chapter 15. The Good News is that Christ died on the cross for our sins and that we can be redeemed. That’s the narrow definition that evangelicals embrace. I think we’re wrong in that. I think we’re too limited. What He did, particularly if you read His first words in Mark, the first 27 words He spoke in Mark were announcing the Kingdom. He said that the Kingdom of God has broken through history and that you will be seeing in My life, I believe Jesus was saying, a picture of the Kingdom yet to come.
And then in Acts 4, you see this incredible story of the community of believers coming together. No one was in need because they were sharing their wealth and they were praying and they were studying the Bible. They created a community that absolutely dazzled the world at the time of Jesus or after Jesus.
I’m one of those who believe that, while the Gospel most accurately defines the Good News as salvation, it actually goes beyond that. Catholics take it beyond it. Evangelicalism says that, “The defense of human life is a part of the gospel because man is created in the image of God.” I think they got a pretty good point, to be honest with you.
I also think that when we think about Jesus ushering in a Kingdom as we pray—thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven—I think you see that the Gospel is a much broader context.
The Gospel cannot be a private transaction. It can’t just be Jesus and me. God didn’t come, break through history, break through time and space, come in the person of a babe, the incarnation and then the whole salvation account. He didn’t come just so you could come to Him and say, “Oh, I accept Jesus and now I can live happily ever after.” That’s not why He came. He came to turn the world upside down, which is why Jesus became such a radical.
I think we’ve missed that whole point, I believe. I think that’s one of the reasons, Gabe, I lean on you to tell me what’s going on with the younger evangelicals. I think that’s one of the reasons that younger evangelicals think that the Gospel is just dried, dusty doctrine. If it is just salvation then I can go home and live happily ever after. Younger people are saying, “I want something more than that” right? Well if you see the Gospel in its fullness, it’s a whole lot more. It’s the most exciting radical revolutionary story ever told.
GL: So with that in mind, would you reject the kind of terminology that’s become pretty popular the last couple of decades, this idea of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? How do you comment on just that phrase alone? Is that kind of false idea or is it partly true?
CC: Not a false idea, but it’s being used in a false context. We come to a relationship with Christ, which is the beginning of the Christian life, when we—I don’t like the word accept Christ anymore—we commit ourselves to Him. We surrender to Him. We exchange our life, our rotten sinful life for His righteous life at the cross. It’s an exchange that takes place. But one of the problems through the years and this has gone back centuries, was a back to Jesus movement that was trying to do was to take Jesus apart from doctrine.When you take Jesus apart from doctrine, now you just have a religious figure, perhaps a moral teacher, but you do not have the Jesus of the scriptures. You do not have the centrality of God’s message to people.
One of the things I do just for amusement, well, not amusement, I’m writing about this. What I really do is, I meet people and say, “What is Christianity?”
Fifty percent will say their relationship with Jesus and that’s wrong. Christianity is a way of seeing all of life in reality through God’s eyes. That’s what Christianity is. It’s a worldview; it’s a system of thought and life.
GL: I just love the way you say it. I love the experience and history and study and thought that go into the way you say it. I think a lot of younger evangelicals and just people in general who are younger don’t often know sort of this perspective and haven’t heard that from you and I. And it’s not because you haven’t written about it, it’s just they don’t really know you. I’m glad to introduce them in some ways to the Chuck Colson that I’ve come to love and know and has just helped shaped so much of my thinking.
CC: One of the things you might notice is that Christianity is exploding in the two-thirds world, in the Southern hemispheres, it is exploding. Everybody thought liberation theology was going to be wave of the future because the poverty stricken masses of South America, Africa, Southeast Asia would want liberation theology. They rejected it outright. What did they want? They want orthodoxy. Why? Because the Orthodox Christian account is far more exciting than Marxism repackaged, far more exciting.
And so, what Philip Jenkins is discovering at Penn State is that where there are these explosions of Christianity, it’s the real stuff that’s exploding. The problem is we’re not getting the real stuff here in America. We’re getting the pale imitation. No wonder people are turned off by it and no wonder, younger evangelicals don’t like Christianity.
GL: Now, Chuck one of the things that we did recently, our organization did, was we funded research that was focused on 16 to 29 year olds. We basically asked 16 to 29 year olds, what are their perceptions of Christians? What are some that first top of mind thoughts and perceptions that come to mind when somebody says, announces that they are Christian or when a teenager walks down the halls of schools and says, “I’m a Christian”. What are the thoughts that comes mind?
The top perceptions that came back were that 91% believed that Christians are anti-homosexual, 87% said judgmental and the list keeps going down. Hypocritical is the next one, too involved politics, boring. You have to go all the way down to number six to find the first positive one, which is caring.
I’m curious just when you hear that and when you think about the next generations and you think about 16 to 29 years olds and kind of the youth in American culture having that perception of Christianity, what is your response?
CC: Well, I’m dismayed by it. I do a very unscientific poll myself whenever I talk to young people and I know exactly the kind of answers you’re getting. They’re turned off by what they regard as right wing politics. Which is unfortunate. I wrote a book about this called “Kingdoms and Conflicts”, recently re-released and updated by Zondervan as “God and Government.” It says Christians shouldn’t be part of any political party. It’s a mistake when we are looked upon as marrying an ideology. The greatest enemy of the gospel is ideology. Ideology is a manmade formulation about the world and our work. We don’t believe in that. We believe in the revelation of truth in Scripture. So we should never be in any overt relationships. Now it is true in modern American politics, the Democratic Party is not a pro-life party. And the Republicans at least give it lip service. Some, many are passionately pro-life.
So it would be a natural tendency to move in that direction in terms of the great political issues of the day which have been opened up. Every single issue that Christians are involved in politically today is defensive. It came along at a Supreme Court decision that took away the rights of States to determine when life begins and whether abortion should be legalized and that was only the first. Now there had been about 20 of what were established moral conventions overturned by States or by legislature.
Christians are trying to defend these and rightly so. We don’t always do a very good job of it. We present a pretty ugly picture sometimes and we don’t seem much better than the people attacking us.
I think the kids that come to that response, Gabe, are picking up stereotypes from the media. Particularly over the last year, there have been 12 books written about theocracy. I don’t know a single Christian who believes in theocracy and I’ve been all over the world!
I’ve never met one except in the country of Tonga in the South Pacific where the Methodist king is the head of state. You could say that was a theocracy, kind of a benign place. But we don’t believe in that. We believe in pluralism. Yet, the press has really painted us into a corner. I think a lot of the young people are reacting to that.
Hypocrisy, yes. Goodness! Anybody who says that we’re not hypocrites doesn’t believe there’s a fall. We’re all hypocrites. When people say, “Well, the church is full of hypocrites” I say, “Good, come on in. You’ll feel right as home.” I mean let’s face it: we’re human. We’re going to say one thing and often do the other thing and I don’t care how saintly we are, that’s going to happen to us.
Boring is a different complaint and that’s the one that worries me the most, to be honest with you.
The political one will pass and we’re doing so many good things politically. I mean my ministry is involved with criminal justice reform and with getting to the prisoners. When they tell me it’s homophobic, I just cringe because I have hugged lots of guys dying with AIDS and women dying with AIDS and I don’t find any of those critics that call us homophobic coming into prisons with me doing that. So that kind of irritates me.
But what won’t pass is the boring business and we have succeeded in making Christianity tepid, lukewarm. It’s what Jesus, what God says, he’ll spit us out. It’s really a poor vanilla substitute for the real stuff. I understand it completely. The excitement can’t come back in just by what I call happy-clappy music, stepping on toes again. I do this all the time. It won’t come back in that way. It will come back in when we begin to understand the vibrancy and vitality of the biblical story. When we understand what the Kingdom of God is all about. It’s about helping the poor and suffering people. This is Jesus’ message, Read Luke 4:18 when he picks up the Scripture and goes into the temple of Nazareth and reads. We hear from the Lord that he’s come to set the prisoners free. This is an incredible message for which the people tried to kill Him.
But Christianity is the most exciting story ever told. I just think it needs to be told the way it is, not the way we’ve dumb it down in American life today. Kids, the young people have got a good legitimate gripe when they claim it’s boring.
GL: Do you think, Chuck, that your legacy might be to the church that you reinvigorated this idea of common grace and the cultural commission at a time when it had sort of gotten lost and buried on the shelf?
CC: I would hope my legacy will be that, the worldview notion and the idea that Christians need to put their faith in action, that we need to be instruments of righteousness, not only in bringing people to the righteousness of God for their salvation, but bringing righteousness into our communities. I’d loved to think I could have a little bit of a legacy like Wilberforce. He recognized you had to change the culture if you were going to change the politics which—I mean, I would hope that would be the message.
The other message, I hope people would remember me for is that it’s time for all Christians who confess the creeds to find a basis of working together and coming together because Jesus tells us to.