The Pneumatology of Watchman Nee (Part 2-Distinctives: Sanctification)

The following is an excerpt from the academic paper “The Impact of Watchman Nee’s Pneumatology.”

The most distinctive trait of Watchman Nee’s theology is his unique pneumatology. Yet, it must be considered whether Nee’s pneumatology is truly unique. Perhaps, the perceived uniqueness of Nee’s pneumatology is the focus he places upon the Holy Spirit. Western theologians often place a great deal of focus on the Father and the Son while neglecting the Third Person of the Godhead. For many Western systematic theologians, the Father and Son are given entire chapters and units, whereas the Holy Spirit is lucky to have a footnote referencing his personal work. If Norman Geisler is correct in that the “Father is the Planner, the Son is the Accomplisher, and the Holy Spirit is the Applier of salvation to believers,”[1]—which this paper holds that Geisler is correct in his assessment—then the theologian is obliged to give ample attention to the Holy Spirit. In this regard, Nee’s focus may be better balanced than the Western theologian who neglects the Spirit entirely. Nevertheless, Nee’s pneumatology is marked by three distinct hallmarks: sanctification, the tripartite view of the self, and his focus on spiritual empowerment. How does Nee understand sanctification?


Norman Geisler defines “sanctification” as the “present and continuous process of believers becoming Christlike, accomplished by the Holy Spirit’s power and presence.”[2] For Nee, sanctification requires an act from God and participation by the believer. First, sanctification requires the working of God, which in turn requires faith for the believer. Nee compares the act of sanctification to that of sitting, meaning that “The Christian life from start to finish is based upon this principle of utter dependence upon the Lord Jesus…‘Sitting’ is an attitude of rest. Something has been finished, work stops, and we sit.”[3] Thus, Nee notes that a person’s transformation occurs when one finds rest in the work of God. From this, one will acknowledge the substantial role that Nee gives to the Holy Spirit in personal transformation, thereby discrediting any accusation of a works-based salvation towards Nee’s soteriological discourse. For Nee, sanctification is a work of God. Nee notes that “the sinner believes in the Lord Jesus he is born anew. God grants him His uncreated life that the sinner’s spirit may be made alive”[4] While sanctification is a work of God, Nee holds that the believer plays a role in spiritual development.

Second, Watchman Nee believed that the Christian played an important role in staying close to the Spirit of God for the development of one’s spirit. Hui notes that Nee held a difference between the “external work of the Spirit which results in the believer’s empowerment for ministry…and the internal work of the Spirit which results in the believer’s spiritual renewal.”[5] Later, Nee’s idea of spiritual empowerment will be addressed. However, for now, one must note the role that the believer plays in their spiritual development according to Nee’s pneumatology. Nee held that “Authentic life can be seen only in the abandonment of self. If the nature, life and activities of the created one are not denied, the life of God has no way to express itself…Salvation, then, is to deliver man from his created, natural, animal, fleshly, and self-emanating will.”[6] Thus, the role of the believer in sanctification is to turn one’s will over unto God, while walking in the Holy Spirit. But, if a person’s will is depraved, how can they continuously turn to God? For Nee, this was possible because “God imparts new life in order for us to abandon our will to Him.”[7] God gave the believer the ability to walk in accordance with his will. Nee notes that “Sitting describes our position with Christ in the heavenlies. Walking is the practical outworking of that heavenly position here on earth.”[8] So, the human effort purported by Nee is not that human beings can save themselves. Rather, Nee follows in the holiness tradition in that a person plays a role in their sanctification. It is this area of Nee’s theology that is given the most scrutiny. Does Nee hold any ground in this area of his pneumatology?

Those in the Calvinist camp will hold the greatest problems with Nee’s theology. Nee enters into the debate surrounding God’s sovereignty and human freedom. In full disclosure, this paper does not hold to either an extreme Calvinist position or an extreme Wesleyan position. Rather, this paper holds to the balanced approach given by Norman Geisler called the “classical view because it was held by classical theologians like Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas.”[9] It holds that God’s sovereignty and human freedom coexists and works in cooperation to the ultimate end. Nevertheless, Scripture seems to indicate that the believer does work alongside the Spirit to a degree. Paul says that the Corinthians are “being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:2).[10] And again Paul writes to the Philippians that they were to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). In the end, Nee desired that believers would hold fast to the Spirit of God and strive to life out their lives in such a way that would please God. Ultimately, Nee noted that “Living in the Spirit means that I trust the Holy Spirit to do in me what I cannot do myself.”[11] In addition to Nee’s distinctive beliefs in Christian sanctification, Nee also held a tripartite view of the self.

Next week, we will examine another distinctive of Watchman Nee’s pneumatology–the tripartite view of the self.


Copyright January 15th, 2016. Brian Chilton.


[1] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology: In One Volume (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2011) 549.


[2] Geisler, Systematic Theology, 806.


[3] Watchman Nee, Sit, Walk, Stand (Carol Stream; Fort Washington, PA: Tyndale House; Christian Literature Crusade, 1957), 3.


[4] Watchman Nee, The Spiritual Man, Vol. 2 (New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, Inc., 1968), 9.


[5] Hui, “The Pneumatology of Watchman Nee,” The Evangelical Quarterly, 9.


[6] Nee, The Spiritual Man, Vol. 3, 82.


[7] Ibid.


[8] Nee, Sit, Walk, Stand, 16.


[9] Norman L. Geisler, Chosen but Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will, 3rd ed (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), 145.


[10] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).


[11] Nee, The Normal Christian Life, 119.


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