Christian Living

Spiritual Life

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas á Kempis

Before there were marketing phenomena like the Purpose-Driven Life and The Prayer of Jabez — each selling millions of copies — there was a little devotional book that went through 6,000 editions and spread all across the world. It was written by a monk in 1418 and centuries later played a significant role in the conversions of both John Wesley and John Newton — and no doubt in the salvation of many thousands of others we will not know until we are in heaven.

The amazing thing is that The Imitation of Christ by Thomas á Kempis, featured in the latest edition of Ken Boa's "Great Books Audio" series, has as much for us to gain from it today as it ever has in history.

The book takes its title from its opening chapter, where the author tells us it is not enough simply to hear the Gospel. Instead, he says, "Whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ." That idea of embodied faith runs throughout this classic devotional work. So á Kempis goes on to say, "Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it."

Like the book of James, The Imitation of Christ is a treasure trove of practical wisdom, commending a faith with deeds. As Ken Boa says, "It challenges almost all the assumptions of our culture." Take for example, the unending American quest for youthfulness. To this, á Kempis would say, "It is vanity to wish for long life and to care little about a well-spent life." Or what about our American love of rugged individualism? Instead á Kempis warns, "It is a very great thing to obey, to live under a superior and not to be one's own master, for it is much safer to be subject than it is to command." In the true Christian life, we live in subjection to Christ.

How does our penchant for consumerism fair? Not much better; the author speaks plainly and to the point, telling us that the love of things does not make us more comfortable, but more uncomfortable, for it is "when a man desires a thing too much, [that] he at once becomes ill at ease."

A careful and meditative reading of á Kempis's work is like undergoing a thorough physical at the doctor's office—and perhaps just as needed for ongoing health. It is a good doctor who uncovers the deeper underlying health issues behind the more visible symptoms.

Likewise, á Kempis points out the underlying heart issues, how even spiritual acts can be done for a secular purpose. He also derides the Pharisees of his day as well as ours, men and women who are more concerned about crossing the t's and dotting the i's on their doctrine than on becoming more like Christ. "On the Day of Judgment," á Kempis rightly reminds us, "surely, we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done; not how well we have spoken but how well we have lived."

So while God may not ask you on Judgment Day if you read The Imitation of Christ, He will examine how Christ-like a lifestyle you have lived. And that is why I recommend this great classic, and Dr. Ken Boa's CD series, which makes this and other great Christian works so accessible to modern Christians.


From BreakPoint, © Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint with Chuck Colson" is a radio ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission of Prison Fellowship, P.O. Box 17500, Washington, DC, 20041-0500." Heard on more than 1000 radio stations nationwide.

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