Watchman Nee was a Chinese pastor, theologian, and author. He was born in 1903, and was martyred for his faith at the age of 69. Communists arrested Nee in 1952, and he spent the next twenty years imprisoned in a Chinese Labor Camp. Although offered release if he promised to leave the country, Nee refused and died in prison in 1972. Some accounts say he died after authorities had cut out his tongue in an attempt to stop his preaching.
Watchman was not his birth name, but was what he called himself after his ordination to pastoral ministry. His grandfather was a pastor, and Nee saw himself as a guardian of the truth of the Chinese church, which he primarily did through his teaching and writing.
Nee’s name is attached to at least forty different books. Ranging from daily devotionals to complex theology, he was certainly a prolific writer. Yet it is very difficult to know with confidence what he actually penned. One can read his works and legitimately conclude that they were penned by different authors—not only did Nee rarely have an unexpressed thought, but it is said that many of his books were actually pieced together by his disciples from his oral teaching.
As with much of his life, it is very difficult to distinguish fact from fiction with Nee. After his death, stories began to circulate describing how Communist authorities had chopped off his hands to stop his writing effort. But their tactics proved futile. Nee supposedly penned book-after-book from behind bars and in the face of intense physical persecution.
Are the stories true? That depends on who you ask. One thing is certain: they add to the mystery and intrigue surrounding his life and elevate interest in his teachings.
With that said, it is also clear that Nee did not allow theological certainty or clarity to stand in the way of his preaching and writing efforts. He learned as he went, and left a trail of confusing literature in his wake. I think of him as an Asian Karl Barth—intelligent, well versed in Scripture, but often (especially on critical points) Nee was simply unclear.
Nee appeals to his readers through a warm, conversational style of writing, pregnant with personal anecdotes and intriguing illustrations from his Eastern culture. Add to those factors the easy accessibility of his books—you can find most of them online free of charge—and you see the results of a theological supply-and-demand law. Interest + Appeal + Accessibility = Influence.
To be fair, Nee has contributed some helpful material in areas of basic Christian doctrine such as authority and salvation. His most well-known book is The Normal Christian Life, and there Nee writes: “Righteousness, the forgiveness of our sins, and peace with God are all ours by faith, and without faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ none can possess them.”
Obviously, Nee got the gospel right. Yet his views on sanctification, the Holy Spirit, hermeneutics, baptism, the church and sin contain significant error. He had a flawed view of man, practiced an allegorical approach to interpreting Scripture, believed denominations were sinful, and frequently called others to join him in his perpetual quest for the deeper spiritual life—a quest that smacks of perfectionism.
Lack of clarity
Perhaps the best way to describe Nee is to label him a confused Christian mystic. Here’s one lengthy but insightful example. I chose this example because it is indicative of his writing style, as well as an excellent example of his lack of clarity:
Some years ago I was ill. For six nights I had high fever and could find no sleep. Then at length God gave me from the Scripture a personal word of healing, and because of this I expected all symptoms of sickness to vanish at once. Instead of that, not a wink of sleep could I get, and I was not only sleepless but more restless than ever. My temperature rose higher, my pulse beat faster and my head ached more severely than before. The enemy asked, ‘Where is God’s promise? Where is your faith? What about all your prayers?’ So I was tempted to thrash the whole matter out in prayer again, but was rebuked, and this Scripture came to mind: “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17). If God’s Word is truth, I thought, then what are these symptoms? They must all be lies! So I declared to the enemy, ‘This sleeplessness is a lie, this headache is a lie, this fever is a lie, this high pulse is a lie. In view of what God has said to me, all these symptoms of sickness are just your lies, and God’s Word to me is truth.’ In five minutes I was asleep, and I awoke the following morning perfectly well” (The Normal Christian Life, 33-34).
While Nee places heavy stock in personal “spiritual” experiences of that kind, the more significant danger prevalent throughout his books is his consistent lack of clarity. Nee does not come right out and say that faith can cure physical illness, nor does he claim outright that he receives direct revelation from the Lord. He doesn’t hold his experience up as an example to follow, but simply relates it as it happened, and then passes it along to us. Consider another example from The Normal Christian Life:
“The fact of the matter is that, while Christians may enter into the deeper life by different ways, we need not regard the experiences or doctrines they stress as mutually exclusive, but rather complementary. One thing is certain, that any true experience of value in the sight of God must have been reached by way of a new discovery of the meaning of the Person and work of the Lord Jesus. That is a crucial test and a safe one” (25).
That’s the kind of ambiguity you’ll find in much of Nee’s writing. What does he mean by “the deeper life?” What is a “true experience of value?” How does one reach “a new discovery of the meaning of the Person and work of the Lord Jesus?” He never really defines those terms. And yet because he uses phrases like “the higher life,” he appeals to the growing number of American Christians who believe that the key to sanctification is to arrive at a place where one stops striving for it. Is that what Nee taught? Even after reading many of his books multiple times, I can’t really tell.
Life Subsumed in the Divine
Several other authors have pointed out that when Nee was young, he was mentored by British missionary Margaret E. Barber, who held to Keswick theology. It was the philosophy that claimed that the key to sanctification was to surrender your life to the power of Christ in you, and to cease from striving for sanctification. It put forward the idea of a “higher spiritual life” that some Christians obtained when they finally learned what it means to let go, and let Jesus live your Christian life for you.
Durring Nee’s life, that approach to sanctification was called quietism. Simply put, it is the teaching that the best way to lead the Christian life was to have your earthly soul subsumed in the divine. It’s a fundamentally flawed way of thinking about the Christian life and a dangerous approach to sanctification. And it appears to have been taught by Nee as well:
“Broadly speaking, a Christian who has not yet experienced the baptism in the Holy Spirit is rather vague about the reality of the spiritual realm. He is like the servant of Elisha whose eyes were closed to that sphere. He may receive instructions from the Bible, yet his understanding is confined to the mind because he still lacks revelation in his spirit. But upon experiencing the baptism his intuition becomes acutely sensitive and he discovers in his spirit a spiritual world opening before him. By the experience of the baptism in the Holy Spirit he not only touches the supernatural power of God but contacts God’s Person as well” (The Spiritual Man, Part III, “The Soul”).
In The Normal Christian Life, Nee wrote that in salvation, “It is not our own life that has been changed, but rather the life of God has been imparted to us. Do you realize that we have the same life today that God does?” (121).
But again, it is hard to know what exactly Nee wrote, and what was inserted into his writings by his disciples. For that reason, it is helpful to remember that we need to be cautious about his works, without feeling like we are judging the man. The two certainly stand (or fall) independently of each other.
Two-stages of Christian life:
The approach to sanctification presented in Nee’s works closely mirrors the two-stage Christian life that quietism grew to represent. It is the concept that a person comes to faith at one moment, and then later has a different Christian experience that makes them a true disciple, and gives them ultimate spiritual victory.
Nee’s writings show that he adopted this two-tiered system of believers: there are those that are being sanctified by letting Christ live in them, and those that are still carnal (he uses the term “ripened” vs. “unripened”). He also developed one of the first “partial-rapture” views, where only the sanctified believers would be raptured. This then leads to his strange view of the New Jerusalem as a place where unripened believers receive chastisement through the millennial kingdom, so that they will be ripened for eternity. Those secondary eschatological issues are just that: secondary. But they bear mentioning because the higher life approach to Christianity is often his main point, and is very misleading.
In many ways Nee’s writings feed the false distinction that many American Christians embrace: that there is a difference between being a believer and being a disciple. This is a false dichotomy that often arises in conversations about Lordship salvation. Obviously that debate would have been foolish to Nee, and regardless, it began a decade after his death. But much of his writing can be adopted into that two-stage approach to Christian living, and wrongly fuel the quest for the higher spiritual life.
Nee and Baptism
In at least one place, Nee seems to veer toward advocating baptismal regeneration. Nee asks,
“What are the conditions to be fulfilled if we are to have forgiveness of sins? According to the Word they are two: repentance and baptism.”
His answer goes on to solidify that in his mind, a person cannot have their sins forgiven unless the receive water baptism. He elaborates on what he means by these two “conditions”:
“The first condition is repentance, which means a change of mind. Formerly I thought sin a pleasant thing, but now I have changed my mind about it; formerly I thought the world an attractive place, but now I know better; formerly I regarded it a miserable business to be a Christian, but now I think differently. Once I thought certain things delightful, now I think them vile; once I thought other things utterly worthless, now I think them most precious. That is a change of mind, and that is repentance. No life can be truly changed apart from such a change of mind.”
Nee’s understanding of repentance is quite helpful, and certainly speaks to conversion. But then he describes how baptism is a “condition” of salvation:
“The second condition is baptism. Baptism is an outward expression of an inward faith. When in my heart I truly believe that I have died with Christ, have been buried and have risen with Him, then I ask for baptism. I thereby declare publicly what I believe privately. Baptism is faith in action.”
That is very troublesome, and it is immediately followed by Nee’s own explanation, which takes away any ambiguity about his meaning:
“Here then are two divinely appointed conditions of forgiveness—repentance, and faith publicly expressed. Have you repented? Have you testified publicly to your union with your Lord? …If you have fulfilled the conditions you are entitled to two gifts, not just one. You have already taken the one; why not just come and take the other now? Say to the Lord, ‘Lord, I have complied with the conditions for receiving remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost, but I have foolishly only taken the former. Now I have come back to take the gift of the Holy Ghost, and I praise Thee for it.” (131-32).
Although Nee has produced some material that could build up and instruct the body of Christ, others have written more clearly, more accurately and–consequently–more biblically. There are safer places to find cheese than in a mousetrap. This is why I warn people to beware the writings of Watchman.