Take a book and boil it down to a handful of short, memorable quotes that best express the ideas of that book. This is a not an easy task, especially for a great and greatly quotable book like Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life. Nevertheless, this is what I have tried to do in this article. In discussing these six quotes, I also share longer, related quotes from the book.
If you are not familiar with The Normal Christian Life, I hope this will serve as a summary and introduction to the book. If you have already read The Normal Christian Life, recently or a long time ago, I hope this gives you a fresh appreciation for its message. My hope for every reader is that they would be encouraged to live the kind of Christian life that Watchman Nee considered normal.
1. “I need forgiveness for what I have done, but I need also deliverance from what I am.”
The Normal Christian Life begins with this theme and comes back to it again and again. If we don’t understand our problem, we won’t appreciate God’s solution.
Our problem is deeper than our misdeeds. Those are symptoms. Getting people to recognize the seriousness of the sins they have committed is a big step, but no one should stop there. We need to get to the root of the problem.
In the following two quotes Nee makes the same point:
“We are apt to think that what we have done is very bad, but that we ourselves are not so bad. God is taking pains to show us that we ourselves are wrong, fundamentally wrong. The root trouble is the sinner; he must be dealt with.”
“The teaching of Romans is not that we are sinners because we commit sins, but that we sin because we are sinners.”
In the quote above, Nee refers to “the teaching of Romans.” The Normal Christian Life is based on Romans 6-8, although it covers a lot more ground than that, as we will see.
“Our End Is God’s Beginning.”
This quote is from chapter nine, “The Meaning and Value of Romans 7.” As Romans 6 is about our freedom from sin, Romans 7 is about our freedom from the law.
We are free from the law when it has done its job. The law has done its job when we ourselves are brought to an end.
The law brings us to a knowledge of ourselves, so we won’t trust ourselves anymore. Through the law, God reveals to us our utter weakness and helplessness before Him. Until this happens, we are, as Nee said, “weak enough not to do the will of God, but not weak enough to keep out of things altogether.”
There is no overlap between our end and God’s beginning. Yet this is precisely where our hope lies, in the fact that it is God’s new beginning in us, just as it was God who has brought us to an end. It was only He who could.
The Normal Christian Life Is Built Around Four Steps
These four steps are what Nee calls the “conditions of living the normal Christian life.”
They are taken from Romans 6-8, and mostly from Romans 6, as you can see:
1. Knowing – Romans 6:6 says, “…knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him…”
2. Reckoning – Romans 6:11 says, “Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin…”
3. Presenting Ourselves to God – Romans 6:13 says, “…present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead…”
4. Walking in the Spirit – Romans 8:4 refers to those who “walk according to the Spirit”
The first step, or condition, is knowing. This refers to something more than intellectual knowledge. It means knowing by revelation. Without this, you can’t even move on to the next step.
Getting That First Step Right Is Essential
This is not really a step you can take. It is something God gives. And once He does this, once He meets this first condition, the next step flows from it automatically.
That is why Nee said this:
“What then is the secret of reckoning? To put it in one word, it is revelation.”
Revelation knowledge is an important theme in The Normal Christian Life. We will look at when we cover the next key quote.
Do You Believe in Your Own Death?
Have you asked God for this revelation? Have you said to Him, “Show me my death with you”? Are you convinced that your sins have been forgiven because of the death of Jesus? This assurance is a gift of grace. It flows from the work of the cross. And that same work that brings forgiveness of sins has also killed the sinner. At the cross, God has delivered you from who you are just as surely are He has forgiven you for what you have done.
Watchman Nee had seen this, therefore he was able to make the following statement:
“And if I believe in the death of the Lord Jesus, then I believe in my own death just as surely as I believe in his.”
2. “If we had more revelation, we should have fewer prayers and more praises.”
Revelation is a big theme in The Normal Christian Life. This quote shows us why, but we must take it in context. When Watchman Nee says we would have “fewer prayers,” he is referring to a specific kind of prayer. He is talking about requests for God to do for us what He has in fact already done: to kill our sinful self.
“If we had more revelation, we should have fewer prayers and more praises. We spend so much time praying for ourselves just because we are blind to what God has done.”
God has killed us. This is what we needed. We needed to be delivered from ourselves. This was the point of the first key quote.
Believers have died with Christ. Here we see that we need more than information about this death. We need a revelation of it. Revelation does what information only points to.
Watchman Nee’s Personal Experience of Revelation
We also saw, in the previous chapter, that Nee teaches four “conditions of living the normal Christian life.” These conditions are drawn from Romans 6-8. The second one is to “reckon yourself dead.”
Nee had been taught about this kind of reckoning, beginning when he was about eighteen years old. He struggled with it until his mid-twenties, as he explains:
“For years after my conversion, I had been taught to reckon. I reckoned from 1920 until 1927. The more I reckoned that I was dead to sin, the more alive I clearly was. I simply could not believe myself dead, and I could not produce the death.”
Then he describes how, after much struggling and seeking, he had a breakthrough:
“And then in a flash I saw it. I saw my oneness with Christ. I saw that I was in him, and that when he died I died. I saw that the question of my death was a matter of the past and not of the future, and that I was just as truly dead as he was because I was in him when he died.”
When we see the difference revelation made in Nee’s life, we can understand why he stressed it so much:
“From that day to this day I have never for one moment doubted the finality of that word: ‘I have been crucified with Christ.’”
Other Things We Need a Life-Changing Revelation Of
It is not just our death with Christ that needs to be revealed to us. The Normal Christian Life contains many other such truths. These are facts that we can be taught, but we also need to receive a revelation of them, (or as Nee sometimes says, to discover or see them).
We need a revelation of our own sinful nature. Here are two quotes on that from two different parts of the book:
“God knows who I am; he knows that from head to foot I am full of sin; he knows that I am weakness incarnate; that I can do nothing. The trouble is that I do not know it…God must bring us all to the place where we see that we are utterly weak and helpless.”
“…when once you see the truth you will recognize that you are indeed powerless to do anything, but that in setting you aside altogether God has done it all. Such a discovery brings human striving and self-effort to an end.”
We need to see ourselves in Christ:
“Once you have seen yourself in Christ, nothing can shake your assurance of that blessed fact.”
When seeking the Holy Spirit, we need to see that He has been given to the church on the day of Pentecost. We also need to see that the Holy Spirit is God living in us:
“It is all a question of the faith which comes by revelation. When our eyes are opened to see that the Spirit has already been poured out because Jesus has already been glorified, then prayer turns to praise in our hearts.”
“We need the eyes of our understanding opened to know that God himself, through the Holy Spirit, has taken up his abode in our hearts.”
“I am at a loss to convey to you the blessedness of this discovery, that the Holy Spirit dwelling within my heart is a Person. I can only repeat: ‘He is a Person!’ and I repeat it again ‘He is a Person!'”
We need the following revelation about sanctification:
“It is a blessed thing to discover the difference between Christian grace and Christ: to know the difference between meekness and Christ, between patience and Christ, between love and Christ…The common conception of sanctification is that every item of the life should be holy; but that is not holiness, it is the fruit of holiness. Holiness is Christ. It is the Lord Jesus being made over to us to be that.”
Finally, we need a revelation of the church as the body of Christ:
“That is the great need: to see the body of Christ as another great divine fact; to have it break in upon our spirits by heavenly revelation that ‘we, who are many, are one body in Christ.’ Only the Holy Spirit can bring this home to us in all its meaning, but when he does it will revolutionize our life and work.”
3. “We only see history back to the Fall. God sees it from the beginning.”
Part of the appeal of The Normal Christian Life is that it offers practical steps for living in the Spirit. Watchman Nee deals a lot with the daily life of the average believer, the typical struggles that he or she faces, the practices and attitudes that work. He also includes a lot of stories from his own life and from people he knew. The book easy to relate to.
Then again, he also zooms out and looks at the big picture—the really big picture—God’s ultimate purpose in eternity past and future. These are things that believers should probably be thinking about more often. According to Nee, the normal Christian life is a life that keeps these things in view. It is a life lived in the light of God’s ultimate purpose for creation.
So Nee includes both the practical, daily stuff and the big picture, cosmic stuff. But he does more: he connects them. Seeing the big picture is part of practical, daily living.
When we read The Normal Christian Life, we don’t just follow the steps outlined in the book, but we see them in context. Our daily lives are part of a much larger story:
“We have spoken of the need of revelation, of faith and of consecration, if we are to live a normal Christian life. But unless we see the end God has in view, we shall never clearly understand why these steps are necessary to lead us to that end.”
The Glory of Redemption Lies not Only in Its Means but in Its Purpose
When we looked at the first of these six quotations, we considered he error of defining sin only in terms of what we do and not why we do it. In reality, sin is not just about some bad things that we have done. There is something fundamentally wrong with us.
We will look more at Nee’s understanding of why we sin in the next section. Before we do that, though, we want to look at the bigger picture. The problem of sin, and its solution, should not be the beginning and end of our spiritual vision.
Yet without God’s help, sin will be all we see. Because we can only see as far back as the Fall, we begin with the problem. Nee says that we should see the problem, and its solution, as part of a bigger picture:
“But we must always view redemption as an interruption, an “emergency” measure, made necessary by a catastrophic break in the straight line of the purpose of God. Redemption is big enough, wonderful enough, to occupy a very large place in our vision, but God is saying that we should not make redemption to be everything, as though man were created to be redeemed.”
If we look back to what happened before Adam sinned, it will direct our attention to the future, and to the glory of God:
“We only see history back to the Fall. God sees it from the beginning. There was something in God’s mind before the Fall, and in the ages to come that thing is to be fully realized.”
When we have this kind of vision, we will focus on the glory of God. This is a more positive motivation and it brings us into agreement with God:
“Man’s thought is always of the punishment that will come to him if he sins, but God’s thought is always of the glory man will miss if he sins.”
Christian living is human living, and the big picture view gives us an appreciation of what that means:
“If we have even a little revelation of the plan of God we shall always think much of the word ‘man.’”
Adam and Eve as a Picture of Christ and the Church
To see what God wants to show us about His eternal purpose, we can look at what the Bible tells us about God’s dealings with Adam before he sinned. For example, God put Adam to sleep and took Eve out of his side. Nee sees this as a prophetic picture, or “type”:
“There is one type of the death of Christ in the Old Testament which has nothing to do with sin, for it is not subsequent to the Fall but prior to it, and that type is here in Genesis 2.”
Before there was the problem of Adam’s sin, there was the problem of Adam’s solitude. God fixed this problem while Adam slept. The solution was Eve. God put Adam to sleep, not so that He could forgive Eve, but so that he could make her. Nee sees Adam’s sleep as a prophetic type in the way it related to Eve:
“His sleep was not for her sin but for her existence.”
Adam slept so that God could bring forth Eve. Christ died so that God could bring forth the church. This is the parallel that Watchman Nee draws.
Of course, Adam didn’t die, he only slept. But even here Nee sees a lesson about Christ:
“Adam was not slain, but only put to sleep to awake again. Thus he prefigures a death that is not on account of sin, but that has in view increase in resurrection.”
That was Genesis 2. There is also much to learn from Genesis 3, where Adam sinned for the first time. We will look at that when we consider the next key quote.
“It Was a Mighty Death”
Nee doesn’t want us to make light of redemption and forgiveness. He wants us to see these things when we look at the cross. But he also wants us to see something else, something that is not just corrective, but “positive and purposive.” He explains in the following two quotes:
“Thus we see that the achievement of the Lord Jesus in his death and resurrection comprises both a work which provided for the redemption of man and a work which made possible the realization of the purpose of God.”
“…the death of the Lord Jesus. It was a mighty death. It is something positive and purposive, going far beyond the recovery of a lost position; for by it, not only are sin and the old man dealt with and their effects annulled, but something more, something infinitely greater and more far-reaching, is introduced.”
4. “We have changed the channel into which our energies are directed, but we have not changed the source of those energies.”
“If I have learned to live by Christ as my life,” said Watchman Nee, “then I have discovered the secret of victory.”
Although this is a secret waiting to be discovered, Nee also considered it to be the normal Christian life, the life that all believers can and should be living.
As we have considered, we can only see history back to the fall while God sees it from the beginning. In the Bible, God gives us of His view of things. He gives us a revelation of His purpose in Christ. Here we see how we can get at the problem of sin better by viewing it at its beginnings with Adam.
We have already looked at this quote: “I need forgiveness for what I have done, but I need also deliverance from what I am.” Now we will consider how Watchman Nee looks at Adam’s sin to get at the “what I am” problem.
“The trouble with so many of us,” (this quote bears repeating), “is that we have changed the channel into which our energies are directed, but we have not changed the source of those energies.”
The Soul and the Spirit
In the following quotes, Nee describes this faulty energy source. It’s the soul of fallen man. The soul is created by God, and it is good. The problem is man’s independence from God, his separation from God.
“Adam did not let sin into the world by committing murder. That came later. Adam let in sin by choosing to have his soul developed to a place where he could go on by himself apart from God.”
“…the fruit of the tree of knowledge made the first man over-developed in his soul.”
“…from that day on, the soul, with its independent powers of free choice, usurps the place of the spirit as the animating power of man.”
“There is something in man today which is not just the fact of having and exercising a soul, but which constitutes a living by the soul.“
In contrast to this living by the soul is living by the life of Christ. This kind of life is natural and spontaneous when we are in the Spirit.
“Our wills only interfere with the law of life…we only have to exert will-power in order to do things we do not do naturally.”
“Satan’s temptations are not designed primarily to make us do something particularly sinful, but merely to cause us to act in our energy; as soon as we step out of our hiding place to do something on that basis, he has gained the victory over us.”
“We refuse to act; we depend on him to do so, and then we enter fully and joyfully into the action he initiates. It is not passivity; it is a most active life…”
“If we will let ourselves live in the new law, we shall be less conscious of the old. It is still there, but it is no longer governing and we are no longer in its grip.”
Statements Like These Are Sometimes Misunderstood
The quotes above reflect one of the more controversial aspects of Nee’s teaching in The Normal Christian Life.
For one thing, they can seem to make light of sin, as if it’s really only a matter of where our internal energy is coming from.
Yet Watchman Nee says enough about sin in other places that we can know he took it seriously as a moral issue. I don’t think his statements about the “over-developed soul,” when taken in context, really minimize sin or man’s sinful nature.
The Normal Christian Life is based on talks that Nee gave to some churches he was visiting. The people he was talking to knew how bad sin was. He didn’t need to convince them. The quotes above were directed at people who were earnestly serving God, with the goal that they might do so in greater freedom and with more power.
Another possible objection to this teaching is that it makes it all sound so difficult. How do we do what Nee is describing here? How do we refuse to act in our own strength, and enter only into the action that God initiates in us? How do we let ourselves live in the new law of life?
It sounds like a lot of work. It sounds like we would have to be amazingly self-aware at all times, discerning the source of every impulse and energy, every thought that rises up within us. If this is life in the Spirit, it sounds like it would be easier to go back under the law!
But that’s a misunderstanding. We don’t actually do any of this. According to Nee’s description of life in the Spirit, God is with us, even as we strive. He does it all. There is an ease. There is grace.
I think the misunderstanding enters when this description becomes a prescription. Then it’s understood as if Nee is telling us what we must do. But he himself describes these things as coming naturally and spontaneously to the new man.
He does sometimes use language that gives the impression that we can control the process (“If we will let ourselves live in the new law…”). But it’s really hard not to use such language when talking about these things.
His overall emphasis is that this is God’s work in us. If we could diagnose ourselves and control the process, we would be back to following the way of Adam in the garden of Eden, when he rebelled against god and acted independently of Him.
Avoiding the Paralysis of Analysis
Nee himself worked to correct his kind of misunderstanding. In the same chapter of The Normal Christian Life in which he described walking in the Spirit, he warned against taking it as a do-it-yourself prescription:
“In my conversations with younger brothers and sisters, one question comes up again and again. It is: How can I know that I am walking in the Spirit? How do I distinguish which prompting within me is from the Holy Spirit and which is from myself? It seems that all are alike in this; but some have gone further. They are trying to look within, to differentiate, to discriminate, to analyze, and in doing so are bringing themselves into deeper bondage. Now this is a situation which is really dangerous to the Christian life, for inward knowledge will never be reached along the barren path of self-analysis.”
And again he said:
“…what I believe, as his Children, we all need to seek from God, is a real revelation of ourselves. I repeat that I do not mean we should be for ever looking within and asking: “Now, is this soul or is it spirit?” That will never get us anywhere; it is darkness.”
So What Do We Do Instead?
We do need to deal with our independent streak, but we do it on the macro level. We yield our will to God in the big areas of life, and in any area where He is dealing with us specifically.
Then, the little stuff falls into place.
This still doesn’t make it easy, though. It seems there is always something we don’t want to give up or some point at which we still want to do things our way. Nee calls these issues “controversies with God.”
As we consider the next key quote, we will look at these and how they are dealt with.
5. “I must first have the sense of God’s possession of me before I can have the sense of his presence with me.”
As we have seen, The Normal Christian Life is based around four conditions that Watchman Nee takes from Romans 6-8. We must know that we have died with Christ, reckon ourselves dead, present ourselves to God, and walk in the Spirit. Know, reckon, present, walk.
The quote above comes from the Nee’s teaching on presenting ourselves to God. In that part of The Normal Christian Life, we see that another word for presenting is consecration. This consecration entails sacrifice, but it comes with the benefit of God’s presence:
“I must first have the sense of God’s possession of me before I can have the sense of his presence with me.”
Possession and presence: we sense these two things together. Nee ends that chapter with this wish:
“May we always be possessed by the consciousness that we are not our own.”
This kind of consecration involves a give-and-take with God. We give and God takes.
We Give Ourselves to God
For Nee, this part of consecration is not a process, it’s a crisis. It’s an event:
“This giving of myself is a definite thing…There must be a day in my life when I pass out of my own hands into his, and from that day forward I belong to him and no longer to myself.”
Without this moment of complete surrender, we remain in a tension concerning our lives before God. In another chapter of the book, Nee describes this kind of compromised position that we sometimes look for and try to maintain:
“…to consecrate yourself enough for the blessing but not enough for the trouble, enough for the Lord to use you but not enough for him to shut you up…”
Real consecration brings this kind of half-way commitment to an end. But although the consecration of ourselves is a definite thing that we do and are aware of, that doesn’t mean that we get it perfectly right. There’s a process as well as a crisis. The process is God’s.
God Takes Ownership of Us
This is done over time. As we live our lives, we enter new areas, new decisions, new sacrifices. We find His will in conflict with ours on a new subject, and we yield. And until we do yield, we have a “controversy with God.”
“He is not calling us to devote ourselves to his cause; he is asking us to yield ourselves unconditionally to his will.”
“God is waiting for the settlement of all our controversies with him.”
These controversies are not necessarily about sin. They are about whether we will do things our way our God’s way. Sometimes our way is reasonable and logical and good. Yet the controversy continues until we yield.
“Do You Like the Will of God?”
When you accept that you are going to do something God’s way and not yours, when you yield to Him on a certain point, a question still remains. Do you like the will of God?
Yes, you accept it and do it. But do you like it?
A teacher and mentor to Watchman Nee used to ask him that question. According to Nee, “That question goes deeper than anything else.”
What makes us able to say “yes” to that question is when we see the value of obedience to God, the value of Jesus Christ. We will look more at this as we consider the final key quote.
6. “The thought of being able to pour out my life for my Lord flooded my soul with glory.”
This quote is from the final chapter of The Normal Christian Life, a chapter that wraps up the book beautifully.
Watchman Nee didn’t really write The Normal Christian Life as a book. It was put together based on some spoken messages that Nee had delivered in Europe in the late 1930’s. Nevertheless, it was put together very well. It reads like a book, not like of a collection of messages.
The final chapter is called “The Goal of the Gospel.” In it, Nee relates a story from his mid-twenties. One day, by chance, he met his former law professor from college. By this time, Nee given up his career ambitions and dedicated himself to the ministry. But he was not in good shape. He describes himself as “very weak and in broken health.”
His former professor was not impressed with Nee’s condition or with the direction his life had taken:
“He looked me from head to foot and from foot to head, and then he said: ‘Now look here; during your college days we thought a good deal of you, and we had hopes that you would achieve something great. Do you mean to tell me that this is what you are?'”
“Do you mean to tell me that this is what you are?” Those words are emphasized in the book. This question was loaded with disappointment, as if Nee had wasted his potential.
Nee’s first instinct was to be ashamed, but God encouraged him in the midst of that trial:
“Looking at me with penetrating eyes, he asked that very pointed question. I must confess that, on hearing it, my first desire was to break down and weep. My career, my health, everything had gone, and here was my old professor who taught me law in the school, asking me: ‘Are you still in this condition, with no success, no progress, nothing to show?’
“But the very next moment—and I have to admit that in all my life it was the first time—I really knew what it meant to have the ‘Spirit of glory’ resting upon me. The thought of being able to pour out my life for my Lord flooded my soul with glory.”
Preparation for Greater Suffering
When Watchman Nee was 49 years old, he was arrested by the communist government. He had already passed up the opportunity to flee China. He stayed for the sake of the churches there, although he was aware of the risk.
Nee spent the rest of his life—twenty years—in prison. He remained a faithful witness to the truth, even in the face of persecution and imprisonment.
Yet his witness began a lot earlier than that. God had been strengthening him all his life through smaller trials.
It was the small trials of a young man in his twenties that formed the character of the 49-year-old prisoner. It began with things like the disappointment of a former professor. It began with respectable people thinking he was wasting his life.
That’s why I think this incident is so important for understanding Watchman Nee and the message of The Normal Christian Life.
The final chapter of the book is entitled “The Goal of the Gospel.” It’s based on the story of the woman who anointed Jesus days before His crucifixion. The perfume she used was expensive, and she was accused of wasting it. But she knew what she was doing. It wasn’t waste; it was honor.
That kind of “waste” is what Nee called power and usefulness to God:
“One lesson some of us have come to learn is this, that in divine service the principle of waste is the principle of power. The principle which determines usefulness is the very principle of scattering. Real usefulness in the hand of God is measured in terms of ‘waste.'”
To understand this, of course, we need a revelation of the value of Jesus Christ:
“When once our eyes have been opened to the real worth of our Lord Jesus, nothing is too good for him.”
The Kind of Life That Makes an Impression
As we have seen, so much in The Normal Christian Life depends on a God-given revelation of the truth. We can teach, preach, and pray, but we can’t give this kind of revelation to ourselves or to others.
But there is another thing we can do. It’s to live the normal Christian life. This kind of life makes an impression on others, although they might not understand it. This kind of impression creates hunger, which makes room for a revelation.
Watchman Nee explains this process in the final pages of the book:
“We are speaking here of what we are; not of what we do or what we preach. Perhaps you may have been asking the Lord for a long time that he will be pleased to use you in such a way as to impart impressions of himself to others. That prayer is not exactly for the gift of preaching or teaching. It is rather that you might be able, in your touch with others, to impart God, the presence of God, the sense of God. Let me tell you, dear friends, you cannot produce such impressions of God upon others without the breaking of everything, even you most precious possessions, at the feet of the Lord Jesus.
“But if once that point is reached, you may or may not seem to be much used in an outward way, but God will begin to use you to create a hunger in others. People will scent Christ in you. The most unlikely people will detect that. They will sense that here is one who has gone with the Lord, one who has suffered, one who has not move freely, independently, but who has known what it is to subject everything to him. That kind of life creates impressions, and impressions created hunger, and hunger provokes men to go on seeking until they are brought by divine revelation into fullness of life in Christ.”
I think this quote is a good way for us to end our brief look at The Normal Christian Life. May God bless you and give you a fresh revelation of the greatness of your Lord.
Read about another good quotation from The Normal Christian Life: Watchman Nee’s Allegory of Jacob and the Wagons of Egypt