The Release of the Spirit by Watchman Nee

Nee, Watchman.  The Release of the Spirit. New York, NY: Christian Fellowship Publishers, 2000.

I do not recall ever having heard the name Watchman Nee in seminary.  Nee, I've since learned after a friend recommend The Release of the Spirit and other Nee works, was a Christian in China who was jailed for his faith in 1952 where he remained until his death in 1972.  According to, Nee was uniquely gifted by God as a "Seer of the Divine Revelation."  Nee authored many books to include The Release of the Spirit. [1]

The Release of the Spirit was originally a series of sermons or lessons delivered in Foochow, South China between May 25th and 28th, 1948.  The book was first published in 1955 and the first English edition in 1965.

In this particular work, Nee suggests that man must ultimately be broken if his is to be an effective agent for God, and in fact God cannot use a servant who has not has a release of his inter spirit.  The flesh serves as an impenetrable capsule like an alabaster box.  Once this box is broken, life may come forth (14).  Nee argues that the Holy Spirit orchestrates the breaking, writing, "He makes sure one event after another and one difficulty after another come to us.  These break our outward man so that our inward man may come through" (15).  Most people however, try to avoid being broken not realizing the necessity of the outerman to crack and free the innerman.  "Let us remember," states Nee, "that the one reason for all misunderstandings, all fretfulness, all disappointments, is that we secretly love ourselves.  Hence, we plan a way whereby we can rescue ourselves.  Many times problems arise due to our seeking a way of escape--an escape from the working of the cross" (19).

While the overall point of of The Release of the Spirit is valuable, there is some difficulty with the its starting point.  Nee take a position of trichotomy, that is that man is made up of three parts--body, soul, and spirit.  Even for one who is a dichotomist (like this reviewer), typical arguments from a trichomists position tend to remain within biblical tension.  Nee however, identifies the soul and spirit with definitions that press upon this tension with some force that may be problematic for the dichotomist.  According to Nee, the body is the physical body, the flesh.  The soul is the intellect, thought, emotion, and intangible aspects of personality and being, and the spirit is something different.  "When God comes to indwell us by His Spirit with His life and power," states Nee, "He comes into our spirit at the time when we are born again" (12).  The body is defined by Nee as the outermost man, the soul is the outerman, and the spirit is the innerman.   Therefore, the indwelling by God seems only to be found in the spirit of man and the outerman and outermost man actually inhibit man's spirit fused with the Holy Spirit to come forth.

Nee's presentation flirts with a mystic argument and possibly dabbles in gnosticism.  Rather than God transforming and sanctifying the entirety of the man who is called to love God with all of his heart, soul, strength, and mind, it seems that Nee believes that these parts of man can only hold God back until they are broken and the inner spirit may come forth.  For example, Nee writes,
"Our only hope is that the Lord may blaze a way out of us, breaking our outward man--breaking it to such a degree that the inward man may come out and be seen.  This is precious!  This is the way for those who serve the Lord.  Only by this process can we serve the Lord, and only by this procedure can we lead men to the Lord.  All else is limited in its value.  Doctrinal and theological knowledge does not have that much usefulness.  What is the use of mere mental knowledge of the Bible if the outward man remains unbroken?  Only the person through whom God and come forth is useful" (20-21). 
The tone throughout the book is that emotions, intellect, and the other aspects of the soul are bad or negative and that something else emerges to do the Lord's work.  It is as if the spirit is the only thing infused with the Holy Spirit and the spirit somehow is no longer deprived while the rest of the man is still in a cage.  The soul and body are bad and not useful to God unless controlled by man's spirit.  The counterargument to such a position is that man's body, mind, strength, emotion, intellect, and so-on are given over to the control and transformation of the Holy Spirit and then the entirety of man may be used to pursue God's glory.

An additional difficulty throughout The Release of the Spirit is found in the language choices regarding God's sovereignty.   Or if it is not simply the choice of English words, then it must be the view.  Nee appears to have a small idea or view of God and a large view of man.  It seems God cannot function without us rather than the other way around.  Sinful man appears to hold a great deal over God.   For example Nee says, "It would seem the Lord usually spends several years upon most of us before He can accomplish this work of breaking" (17, italics added for emphasis).  Another example is found only a paragraph later: "But if we do not know how to use our spirit, the Spirit of God cannot touch people through us" (17, italics added for emphasis).

I have come to realize that if this matter is simply about the language choices and translation, than there is less problem than it would seem on the surface.  In addition, had Nee argued that God can and may use you broken or not but it is much better to be used broken, much of this review would have been different.  God used Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, and Judas for his purposes but they were hardened, not broken.  However, we should certainly prefer to be used well by God, willingly as his servant, and this requires first that we are broken.  I realize this perspective comes from my reformed theology which may not be the theology of Nee. 

Because of the theological difficulties I encountered throughout The Release of the Spirit by Watchman Nee, I cannot recommend it without some kind of caveat tailored to the individual.  Admittedly, I found Nee's work theologically troubling even though it appears he had the best of intentions and his over-arching point is good.  That being said, this was an interesting introduction to Watchman Nee and I am thankful for it. 

1. "Watchman Nee," [Accessed June 28th, 2012].