taking the words of Jesus seriously

When I was thirteen years old, I attended the Christian music festival Creation, held in the Appalachian Mountains. I was mesmerized as Tony Campolo preached about our call to love and serve God and also to respond to the needs of the world’s poor. Campolo’s message was the first time I heard about how critical it is to live out the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). Other than the Newsboys entering the main field by helicopter, Campolo’s message is the one that I remember most from that festival.

As followers of Christ, we must take the whole of the gospel seriously: the passages that speak of a call to conversion and also the ones that instruct us to pay attention to the poor, the widows, and the oppressed. The goal of Red Letter Christians is simple: to take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out his racial, countercultural teachings as set forth in Scripture and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount. The twentieth-century Chinese evangelist Watchman Nee is one example of a Red Letter Christian: a person committed to the study of God’s Word and to living it out through evangelism and ministry to the poor.

Nee was born into a third-generation Christian family in China. His personal conversion happened when he was seventeen years old, upon which he took the name “Watchman To-sheng, ” which means “watchman’s rattle, ” because he felt that God was calling him to be a voice inviting people into relationship with Jesus.[1] Nee emphasized the power of the gospel within believing Christians.[2] This power provided a source for evangelism and an invitation for others to join in relationship with Christ and the body of believers.

Related: Is Preaching Nonviolence Bad for Evangelism? by Kurt Willems

Nee was deeply committed to the study of God’s Word. Over time he became one of the most influential evangelists and church planters in the early twentieth century. His passion came from his love and depth of knowledge of the Scriptures.[3] Nee had more than twenty different methods for studying the Bible. He was known as a man “consumed by God’s Word.”[4]  Nee’s ministry encountered many obstacles including personal health problems, financial hardships, and opposition by both some people within the church and from the communist government of China.  Ultimately, Nee was arrested and sentenced to prison where he would ultimately die. However, during his 20 years in prison his faith in the word of God and his emphasis on evangelism continued. Nee’s life and ministry was a great inspiration to the Jesus Movement that swept through the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.  Nee emphasized that good works are not based on human merit but in dependence upon Christ. God was the source of all good works and positive change in the world. Reading Scripture was the faith practice by which someone could become the most connected to God. His goal was brining honor and glory to God while drawing others toward relationship with him.

The Word of God is powerful and effective. The diligent and purposeful study of Scripture is an important component of the Christian life. For spiritual leaders like Watchman Nee, the study of Scripture provides pillars for life and ministry. Nee’s passion for evangelism and the spreading of the gospel was ignited by his love for the Word of God. Nee reminded his followers that the decision to follow Christ was not enough and that discipleship is a critical component of walking with the Lord. We should remember that, historically, men and women have sometimes used the Scriptures to justify acts of oppression and violence. Thus, Christians must take the interpretation of Scripture seriously, prayerfully seeking wisdom and discernment in our understanding of the Word of God. Study is a critical discipline. As we increasingly become inspired by the Scriptures, Christians are empowered to serve as witnesses and evangelists of the good news of Christ, who came to be the light of the world.

Mae Elise Cannon is the author of Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action (IVP, 2013). This entry is adapted from the chapter three. She is also the author of Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World (IVP, 2009).

[1] Bob Laurent, Watchman Nee: Man of Suffering (Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour Publishing, Inc., 1998), p. 18.

[2] Watchman Nee, Changed into His Likeness (Racine, Wis: Treasures Media Inc., 2006), Kindle edition, Kindle locations 381-87.

[3] Laurent, Watchman Nee, p. 85.

[4] Ibid., p. 39.

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About The Author


Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon is an author, speaker, and advocate who cares deeply about God’s heart for the poor and the oppressed. She is the author of "Social Justice Handbook : Small Steps for a Better World" (IVP, 2009) and "Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action" (IVP, 2013) and co-author of "Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith" (Zondervan, 2014). Cannon is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). Her ministry and professional background includes serving as the Senior Director of Advocacy and Outreach for World Vision-U.S., the executive pastor of Hillside Covenant Church (Walnut Creek, California), Director of Development and Transformation for Extension Ministries at Willow Creek Community Church (Barrington, Illinois), and as a consultant to the Middle East for child advocacy issues for Compassion International.

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