The Normal Christian Life, written by Chinese Christian martyr Watchman Nee, is one of my favorite books. I have read it and re-read it many times over the years and can say without reservation that each time I go through this remarkable little book, I get something new out of it. My original version fell apart years ago and I purchased a second paperback copy. It is dog-eared now and highlighted from cover to cover. Recently, I purchased a nice hardback gift edition and treasure it greatly.
Nee came to Christ in the 1920 and over the years produced a copious amount of writing. He founded a Christian movement in China, known as the Little Flock, and this movement continues to this day in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and around the world. The U.S. branch of this group is located in Los Angeles. Nee was a controversial figure with a charismatic demeanor and sharp mind. He read voraciously and seemed to glean something from a wide range of theological perspectives. Arrested shortly after the Communist Party took power in China, Ni died in prison in 1972.
The Normal Christian Life, published in 1957, has been widely read and has influenced countless Christians in general and a number of Christian writers in particular. I can recall first encountering this book in the late 1960’s when, after serving in the Army, I moved to Arizona and, for a time, became involved in the now famous (infamous?) “Jesus People.” I think it was the clear way in which Nee broke down the work of Christ on the cross that struck such a resonant chord in many believers, especially the young.
In reflecting on the reasons I appreciate this book so much I find that I must be selective in the sense that there are so many aspects to this work that speak to me. Pressing myself to choose a place to begin, I will start with how the book is organized. Nee begins with discussing the importance of the Book of Romans in general and the first eight chapters in particular. Further, he next breaks these chapters down into two sections, one dealing with the significance of the Blood of Christ and the other dealing with the Cross of Christ. The four and a half chapters from 1:1 to 5:11 form the first half; and the three and a half chapters from 5:12 to 8:39 the second half. In summary, he contends that the blood deals with our forgiveness and justification and the cross deals with our deliverance. Nee states:
In the first part of Romans 1 to 8, we twice have reference to the Blood of the Lord Jesus; in chapter 3:25 and in chapter 5:9. In the second, a new idea is introduces in chapter 6:6, where we are said to have been “crucified” with Christ. The argument of the first part gathers round that aspect of the work of the Lord Jesus which is represented by “the Blood” shed for our justification through the remission of sins.” This terminology is, however, not carried on into the second section, where the argument centers now in the aspect of his work represented by “the Cross,” that is to say, by our union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. The distinction is a valuable one. We shall see that the blood deals with what we have done, whereas the cross deals with what we are. The blood disposes of our sins, while the cross strikes at the root of our capacity for sin.
Much of what follows in subsequent chapters hinges upon the reader grasping a fundamental understanding of these two aspects of the gospel. Nee goes on to give a fine description of the difference between “sins” and “sin.” The former is concerned with our behavior and the latter with our core nature since the Fall.
As I said, I believe Nee has done a fine job in organizing the book. Each chapter paves the way for the following chapter and he builds a framework that is easy to follow, digest, and ultimately act upon.
After making clear his understanding of the difference between the work of the blood and the work of the cross, Nee goes on to discuss how a Christian should go about making this new identity in Christ a living reality in his or her experience. Again, he goes right to scripture to explain the process, which he sees as a four-fold phenomenon involving:
Knowing -> Reckoning -> Presenting Ourselves to God -> Walking in the Spirit
Nee’s main focus is on the role of God’s free and radical grace and our faith in accepting what God has granted us – basically, salvation and restoration. If we accept and believe that we have been forgiven by God through faith, then we should accept the reality of the second half of the gospel as well – that God will also sanctify us.
Nee also has excellent chapters on the division between spirit, soul, and body and the Holy Spirit. Although this is a short synopsis of the book, I hope it at least creates a thirst on the part of the reader to explore Nee’s book.
I have also read, twice now, Nee’s epic tome The Spiritual Man, which takes these ideas and delves into them with great detail. I would also recommend this book with the caveat that it requires a commitment in order to read it. It’s a long and at times tedious book.
Over the years Nee’s work, especially The Normal Christian Life, has been widely read. As mentioned earlier, his work has been a significant contribution to the growth of many believers, both clergy and lay, and this little book continues to be held in high regard by most who have taken the time to read it. Nee, like most writers, has also attracted his share of critics. Some of this criticism is founded, while much of it is not. Care should always be taken when reading someone’s work from another culture and another period of time. No writer, or reader for that matter, exists in a vacuum. Instead, our lives are all impacted at some level by what famous historian Carl Becker called, “The Climate of Opinion” that exists at the time a particular book is produced.
Another factor to consider when reading Nee is the fact that he wrote in both Chinese and English and, in either case, English was not his primary language. As a writer and a person who taught writing and journalism in China, I am well aware of how easily it is for one’s thought, especially when dealing with abstract ideas, to be misunderstood and/or mistranslated. For these reasons, critics need to realize the difficulty he may have had in attempting to fit his eastern mind into a western language. Every time I have to write something in Chinese, I am well aware of the difficulty involved.
Nevertheless, I agree with much of what Nee wrote and disagree with parts of his thoughts. I am careful, however, to never throw the baby out with the bath water. I find Nee a generally effective teacher and one that I would highly recommend. This is especially true of The Normal Christian Life.
Read it – reflect on it – enjoy it.
(c) L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved