Review of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis
By ALEXIS NEAL
A devotional classic, dating from the 1400s, this book has been published into almost every language, and some argue that it is the most widely read devotional work next to the bible. The author (generally accepted to be Thomas à Kempis, a 15th Century German monk), takes the reader through the various spheres of life and admonishes and encourages the reader to, well, imitate Christ in each of these areas.
In one sense, this is a decent enough book. A lot of the behaviors and attitudes Kempis recommends are, in fact, admirable behaviors and attitudes, especially in this day and age. We do love the world too much. We are unduly disquieted by hardship. We are too quick to defend ourselves, and too slow to appreciate the merits of silence and patient endurance. His rebuke of sin is scathing and thorough. Of course, many of his admonitions go a bit too far (silence, complete destruction of desires, total distancing of oneself from the world, etc.)–he is a monk, after all. But most modern readers are unlikely to actually heed his more extreme advice.
The problem is the gospel. It’s simply not there. It may be that Kempis believed the gospel and took it for granted that his readers did the same–which was my opinion when I first read this book back in high school. However, the simple fact is that Christ’s atoning sacrifice for our sins is completely absent from this volume. There are vague references to grace, to appealing to God and Christ for aid, but ultimately this is a book about the things you should do–not the great thing that has already been done. In this sense, it functions a bit like the law–it opens your eyes to see how utterly you fail to live up to the standard (in this case, your failure to imitate Christ). Indeed, I remember vividly the conviction I felt the first time I read it. It’s great for making you feel the weight of your sin. It just can’t help you bear that burden.
Because of this not insignificant failing, I would be reluctant to recommend this book to all but the most grounded of Christians. The temptation to legalism is significant, and I would worry that the average reader would take the standards set forth in this book and make them requirements for his own salvation.