To learn more about Colson, pick up Strachan’s new book The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile World (Thomas Nelson), which releases this week.
You love the gospel. Great! But a question beckons, one that must be answered: what, exactly, does the gospel now do in your life?
The message of Christ crucified for us is no minimalistic phenomenon. You cannot box it up. You cannot rein it in. If you believe it, it will conquer and consume you. Plant it in fertile soil, and you will reap a harvest of spiritual transformation and ethical conviction. You are saved for intimate fellowship with Christ; you are saved to boldly—publicly—testify to his glory.
But how does this work? How can ordinary Christians be public witnesses for Jesus?
I want to offer an answer by tracing how one Christian leader, a born-again ex-con named Chuck Colson, arrived at his own response to this vexing question.
Colson and Wilberforce: Convictional Activists
Charles Wendell “Chuck” Colson (1931–2012) was a kid from hardscrabble Boston made good. He won entrance to Harvard but turned it down to go to Brown. In a meteoric rise, he won political campaigns for patrician senators, built a booming law practice, and eventually wound up working for the most powerful man in the world, President Richard Nixon, from 1969 to 1973.
But it all came crashing down when Colson was implicated in the corruption of the Nixon administration in 1973. Facing a staggering personal crisis, Colson heard about the redeeming blood of Christ from a friend and, minutes later, came to faith. He went to prison in 1974, was released in 1975, and found himself with a desire to minister grace to prisoners, many of whom were in desperate straits—as he now knew firsthand. He didn’t know exactly what to do, or whom to be, however.
As Colson mused on his plans, his research assistant Michael Cromartie presented him with materials on William Wilberforce (1759–1833). In Wilberforce, Colson found the ethical activist he longed to become. Wilberforce was a longtime member of British Parliament (1780–1825). The cosmopolitan evangelical took on the single most noxious element of British society, the slave trade, and during the course of his five-decade career vanquished it. Wilberforce was an activist driven by principle. This appealed at an existential level to Colson; this was who Colson was.
Wilberforce Against the World
Because of his conviction that slavery was wrong—a conviction grounded in Christian theology—Wilberforce agitated and spoke and voted to outlaw the slave trade. He knew how to roll up his sleeves and make things happen. “Almighty God has set before me two great objectives,” he wrote in 1787, “the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” To accomplish these objectives, Wilberforce tapped his network, called the Clapham Sect, and went to work with fellow elites like William Pitt (1759–1806) and Granville Sharp (1735–1813) to form, advocate for, and pass the legislation that would erode the slave trade, bill by bill. This was an early Downton Abbey—but with an abolitionist Parliamentarian stalking the hallowed country estate.
Wilberforce championed his cause while moving in the circles of influence that made Britain go. All his glad-handing was driven by a conscience that burned with a hatred of evil and injustice. John Wesley (1703–1791), alongside John Newton (1725–1807) and John Venn (1834–1923), helped fan this conscience into flame. In later years, Colson frequently quoted Wesley’s parting charge to Wilberforce:
Unless the Divine Power has raised you up to be as Athanasius, contra mundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils, but if God be for you, who can be against you? . . . Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall vanish away before it.
Behind Wesley’s plea to Wilberforce was unshakeable confidence in the Almighty. When Colson read Wesley’s charge in the mid-1970s, he resonated at a core level with these striking words. He felt called to stand contra mundum, “against the world,” as one who was “for the world” (an addition suggested by Richard John Neuhaus). Colson lived out this creed through his ministry, Prison Fellowship, and his public-square witness, work that my new book The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile World substantiates.
The Gospel Changes Everything
In the story of Colson discovering Wilberforce, we find the thread that connects Christ and our witness. We can put it this plainly: the gospel creates ethics. When Jesus saves you, you love the unborn (Ps. 139). You are given a great love for the natural family, which owes to God’s intelligent design (Gen. 2:14–25). You seek to advocate for religious freedom because you recognize that without it, people will wither and suffer (Matt. 22:21).
The message of Christ creates in the redeemed a thirst for racial unity and a hatred for racism (Eph. 2:15). It overcomes tension between the sexes (Gal. 3:27–28). It removes barriers between social classes (Philem. 1:16). It gives us a hunger to work in a thousand God-glorifying vocations (Col. 3:23). It makes us weep for every image-bearer who suffers under the curse and causes us to want to do good to everyone (Gal. 6:10). It awakens us to the duties of citizenship and the need to pray for political righteousness (Rom. 13; 1 Tim. 2:2). In sum, the gospel causes us to want to be salt and light in a darkened world in every possible way (Matt. 5:13–16).
Faith in Christ bestows on us a convictional inheritance. We don’t fashion our own understanding of righteousness, justice, fairness, and mercy as believers. Though some issues loom larger than others, we recognize that our ethics and convictions are God’s. This witness will influence others. Our belief in human dignity, our pursuit of our neighbor’s good, and our desire to live a holy life will speak a powerful word to our non-Christian friends. As they see us living virtuously, exhibiting genuine care for the weak and the suffering, they will witness apologetics made flesh.
The Scripture shows us that there is no hostility between private Christianity and public Christianity. Ethics and moral convictions do not get in the way of gospel preaching. As Colson found, our ethics, moral convictions, and righteous actions are nothing other than holiness in practice, Christianity made unstoppably public. You can no more tame the gospel than you can extinguish the blazing sun.
In the end, the same gospel that saves us is the message that calls us, as Wesley said to Wilberforce, to “Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might.” Until evils vanish and the glory of God covers the face of the earth, this is our call.