In 1969 Charles Colson was appointed as the Special Counsel to newly elected President Richard Nixon. In his role, he served as a political liaison between the office of the president and labor unions, special interest groups, and other lobbying groups. He was loyal to the president to a fault, and would be given special assignments to do on behalf of the president. He was described as "Richard Nixon's hard man, the 'evil genius' of an evil administration." Colson admitted he was invaluable to the president because he was willing to be ruthless to get things done. H.R. Haldeman, the president’s chief of staff called him Nixon’s “hit man.” In May 1970, four students were shot by the National Guard at Kent State University while protesting the Vietnam War. The next day, the White House began orchestrating a riot to respond to the protesters in New York City. Colson was responsible for instigating a group of union leaders who would have their construction workers who would riot and attack the 1,000 students protesting the Kent State Shootings and the Vietnam War. He also proposed that the White House find a way to bomb the Brookings Institution, a research think tank in D.C. and stealing files while the firefighters put out the fire. He also was heard on tape in a White House recording suggesting that they politically damage future senator John Kerry. However, most importantly, Colson was a key figure in the Watergate Break-in as well as one of Nixon’s hatchet men who did his dirty tricks related to dirty political shenanigans. He once said he would walk over his own grandmother to get Nixon elected. Suffice it to say, Colson was a bad dude.
Colson ended up being indicted for his role in covering up the crimes of the Nixon White House in 1974 and served seven months in prison. However, just before he was indicted, Colson visited with Tom Phillips, the president of the Raytheon Company. Colson had previously represented the company before he went to work for Nixon and was about to represent them again. But as Colson tells it, he had an ulterior motive in meeting with Phillips - he had just heard Phillips had converted to Christianity and Colson wanted to ask what happened. That night, Phillips read passages from Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis to Colson, especially the chapter on pride. Phillips shared his testimony to Colson that night while Colson was in despair over Watergate and his anxiety over him being a target in the investigation and the looming concern over being indicted as a conspirator. That night, as Phillips shared, Colson listened intently, not sharing his own concerns or his own need. Phillips offered to pray for Colson but Colson declined. He told him he would get back to him after he read Mere Christianity.
However, as Colson got in his car, he couldn’t leave the driveway. Here he was, this ex-Marine and White House “hit man” sitting in his car crying and calling out to Jesus. As Colson tells it, he didn’t know what to say, he just knew he needed Jesus, and that was when he was converted. Colson spent the rest of his days as a public speaker and apologists and leading the ministry he started, Prison Fellowship, the largest ministry that ministers to prisoners and their families.
What happened to me?
Our response to the gospel call is called conversion. Conversion refers to the faith we place in Christ to save us and the repentance we have for our sins. This is the message consistently preached at the beginning of the early church in Acts (Acts 3:19; 9:35) as well as the message Paul preached (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). Conversion is the great “about-face” in life, where we go from idol worship to worshipping the true God, turning away from sin to salvation. One minute you are serving idols, and the next minute you are not. One minute you are headed to hell, and the next minute you are not. One minute you are lost, and the next minute you are not. One minute you are a sinner, and the next minute you’re a saint. One minute you own your sin, the next minute you do not. One minute Jesus is nobody to you, and the next minute He’s everything to you. Jared Wilson writes,
“That initial decision to believe, to lay hold of Christ with the empty hand of faith, is the moment a predestined sinner minding his own business gets tangled up in the ordo salutis (order of salvation). God’s crosshairs were on him from time immemorial, but now the effectual call has met its appointed time. The planned way of a man has been interrupted by God’s guidance of his steps.”
For some, their conversion story is very dramatic, such as Saul on the road to Damascus. For others, it was an aisle walked down at church in response to the preacher’s invitation, a prayer prayed in children’s church, a realization of the need of a savior in a college dorm room. No matter the circumstances, there was a moment in our lives in which, after the gospel became clear in our hearts and ears and the Spirit gave us new life, we responded with faith and repentance.
It is important to note that this faith and repentance that make up conversion is not our own doing. The Bible teaches that ultimately Jesus is the Author of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) and we have been saved by grace through faith and that this faith is a gift, not earned (Ephesians 2:8-9). And although it is a gift, it is costly. Genuine conversion is a forsaking of our own lives and serving ourselves to serving the living God. The gospel Jesus presented and Paul and Peter preached was a radical call to discipleship, a call to follow Jesus, a call to take up our cross, a call to die to self, and a call to walk in obedience. Jesus did not plea with people to make a decision or pray a prayer. The gospel Jesus presented was “good news” of liberation of sin bondage and of forgiveness for repentant sinners. It was a gospel that challenged the righteousness of religious hypocrites and brought hope for those held captive by their sin. This gospel declared, “Go and sin no more” and “Follow me.” Yes, this was truly good news, but by no means did it just involve some religious ritual of walking an aisle, signing a card, or reciting a prayer as evidence of faith leading to salvation in Jesus Christ. While that may have occurred, that wasn’t what saved you.
The sad news, unfortunately, is the reality of false conversions. Not everyone who thinks they are truly believers in Christ are truly His. Jesus said in Matthew 7:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
Because of an acceptance of a diluted gospel, we have those in our churches who make Pharisaical professions of faith and fill pews thinking they are true followers of Jesus, yet their life shows no indication that He is Lord. Jesus’ call to follow Him was anything but easy or shallow, resulting in a quick response. Jesus turned away more followers than He won; He came to challenge the status quo, meeting an individuals’ needs and always ready to shoot down a person’s self righteousness, see through shallow commitment, warn against false faith, and reveal wrong motives. Real faith has at its heart a willingness to obey. In John 3, Jesus says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” That is the true test of real faith – does it result in obedience? Jesus contrasts belief with disobedience. Disobedience is the same as unbelief. Real faith obeys.
In 2013 I remember sitting with my grandmother on June evening and watching with amazement Nik Wallenda crossing the Grand Canyon live on TV (albeit with a 10 second delay in the event of an unfortunate accident) along with 10 million others in the United States. In order to prepare for this daring stunt, Wallenda, a seventh generation tightrope walker, spent many months training in Sarasota to prepare to endure the “worst-case scenario” of weather related complications that could deter this amazing feat. Media gathered for the actual event were required to sign paperwork stating they would not sue for post-traumatic stress disorder to the event that Wallenda fell to his death, while armed security was stationed at the bottom to protect his body from animals. Wallenda also relied upon his father and uncle who served as his safety coordinator and chief engineer. The Grand Canyon walk was the highest walk of his career.
While Nik Wallenda’s feat was astonishing, he joins a long line of daredevils who braved the elements to perform such an extraordinary, death defying achievement. Around 150 years earlier, Charles Blondin performed such walks over Niagara Falls. Setting up a rope of 1,300 feet and crossing without a net, Blondin routinely performed his tight-roping stunts to a gasping audience, both amazed and nervous at the potential calamity that could result of a slip or high winds, with some betting money that he would fall.
Blondin’s first attempt at crossing in 1859 garnered over 25,000 spectators. Upon tying the rope to an oak tree on the American side and a rock on the Canadian side, Blondin allowed hundreds of spectators the opportunity to examine the rope to determine the validity and the probability of this stunt. Blondin finished his crossing in just over twenty minutes and was met with excitement and jeers.
Blondin, never to be outdone, announced his next slay of stunts coming soon, promising that each one would outdue the next. The US President Millard Fillmore was counted among his gawkers at a subsequent show. At each show, as promised, Blondin continued to provide variations to his walking. Once, he pushed a wheelbarrow across the rope. Another time, he somersaulted and backflipped across. He would go on to crossing the falls at night, went across once with a chair and table and ate a piece of cake and drank champagne in the middle of the rope suspended over the falls, and walked across with a small stove and utensils and cooked an omelette over the fire.
Yet Blondin’s most impressive stunt involved walking across Niagara Falls with his manager, Harry Colcord, holding onto his back. Legend states that one day while walking across the tightrope performing his tricks, the Prince of England was in attendance. As the crowd gasped in amazement to see his walking, Blondin went into his routine where he walked across the rope with Harry tied to his back as well as pushing his wheelbarrow across. Upon his return to the other side where the crowd was gathered, he approached the Prince of England and asked if he believed he could do the same trick with the wheelbarrow while pushing someone inside of it. After seeing Blondin’s repertoire of tricks, the Prince assured Blondin that of course he believed he could do the walk with a person inside the wheelbarrow. In response, Blondin asked him a startling question: “Will you get in the wheelbarrow?” Real faith involves getting in the wheelbarrow. Mere intellectual assent or easy believism cannot save you. Remember, even the demons believe (James 2:9).
On the “flip side” is repentance. If faith is “turning toward” something in trust, repentance is “turning away” from something. Repentance in the original language means “a change of mind.” Charles Spurgeon defined repentance as “a discovery of the evil of sin, a mourning that we have committed it, a resolution to forsake it. It is, in fact, a change of mind of a very deep and practical character, which makes the man love what once he hated, and hate what once he loved.” More simplistically, John Piper defines repenting as “experiencing a change of mind that now sees God as true and beautiful and worthy of all our praise and all our obedience.” Repentance then is a change of mind as well as a change of worship and allegiance. When we repent, we turn from being idol worshipers and by faith turn into Christ worshipers. Real repentance is new worship, new desires, new life. Real repentance is being convicted of our rebellion against God.
Nabeel Qureshi grew up in a devout Muslim home. At a young age, he has read the entire Quran in Arabic and was being trained by his parents in Muslim apologetics. In August 1991, while in college, Nabeel observed a fellow student David Wood reading his Bible on his free time. Puzzled that Christians read the Bible, Nabeel engaged in a conversation with David that blossomed into a friendship based on two apologists trying to prove the other wrong. Time and time again, David challenged Nabeel’s beliefs and Nabeel examined the evidence of David’s claims and realized the reliability of the Bible and of Jesus. Little by little Nabeel began being convinced of who Jesus was. Nabeel recalled during this team having three vivid dreams about the truthfulness of Christianity and that Christ should be followed. Later that same year Nabeel presented the arguments for Christianity to various knowledgeable Muslims who failed to adequately respond to the claims and evidence of Christianity.
It was while a medical student that Nabeel finally accepted Christ. As he told it:
I began mourning the impact of the decision I knew I had to make. On the first day of my second year of medical school, it became too much to bear. Yearning for comfort, I decided to skip school. Returning to my apartment, I placed the Qur’an and the Bible in front of me. I turned to the Qur’an, but there was no comfort there. For the first time, the book seemed utterly irrelevant to my suffering. Irrelevant to my life. It felt like a dead book.
With nowhere left to go, I opened up the New Testament and started reading. Very quickly, I came to the passage that said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Electric, the words leapt off the page and jump-started my heart. I could not put the Bible down. I began reading fervently, reaching Matthew 10:37, which taught me that I must love God more than my mother and father.
“But Jesus,” I said, “accepting you would be like dying. I will have to give up everything.”
The next verses spoke to me, saying, “He who does not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for my sake will find it” (NASB). Jesus was being very blunt: For Muslims, following the gospel is more than a call to prayer. It is a call to die.
I knelt at the foot of my bed and gave up my life.
A few days later, the two people I loved most in this world were shattered by my betrayal.
After my family learned of my conversion, they have not been the same.
My mother has tears in her eyes whenever I see her, a quiver in her voice whenever I hear her, and absolute despair on her face in sleep and while awake. Never have I met a mother more devoted to her children than my mother, and how did I repay her? In her mind, decades’ worth of emotional and physical investment ended up with her son espousing views that are completely antithetical to everything she stands for.
My father, a loving, gentle, and big-hearted man with every ounce of the emotional strength expected of a 24-year veteran of the U.S. military, broke down for the first time that I had ever seen. To be the cause of the only tears I ever saw fall from his eyes is not easy to live with. To hear him . . . the man who stood tallest in my life from the day I was born, my archetype of strength, my father . . . to hear him say that because of me he felt his backbone has been ripped out from behind him, feels like patricide.
It was then that I wondered why God had let me live; why had God not just lifted me to himself when I had found the truth? Why did I have to hurt my family so much, and practically eschew the ones who loved me more than anyone else?
The answer was sought and found in God’s Word. After accepting him, it is my duty to work for him and walk his path. For now, my loss was to be comforted by his words found in Mark 10:29-30:
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.”
To this day my family is broken by the decision I made, and it is excruciating every time I see the cost I had to pay.
But Jesus is the God of reversal and redemption. He redeemed sinners to life by his death, and he redeemed a symbol of execution by repurposing it for salvation. He redeemed my suffering by making me rely upon him for my every moment, bending my heart toward him. It was there in my pain that I knew him intimately. He reached me through investigations, dreams, and visions, and called me to prayer in my suffering. It was there that I found Jesus. To follow him is worth giving up everything.
Nabeel spent the remaining years of his life as an author and apologist for the Christian faith, eventually earning advanced degrees in apologetics and New Testament studies as well as becoming an itinerant speaker, before succumbing to cancer at 34. What happened to Nabeel, and what happened to us who are in Christ, was nothing short of gospel transformation - going from death to life, and a transfer of allegiance. Repentance for Nabeel and repentance for us did not happen when he started to believe Christianity - it happened when he finally surrendered his life to Jesus in his apartment.