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Imitation of Christ, The

by Thomas a Kempis

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By some estimates, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis is the most widely read spiritual work after the Bible—which is too bad. The church would be in much better shape if our most widely-read book was The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Abide in Christ by Andrew Murray or even The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.

As it stands, The Imitation of Christ is almost a textbook for what went wrong with monasticism. Although a monastery could be a good idea (in which case it would look more like a university), there are at least two strong tendencies in the monastic movement that make it dangerous: (1) a tendency to anoint one class of Christians as “holier than thou,” and (2) an encouragement to withdraw from the world.

Christ made it abundantly clear that Christians should be salt and light—which means that we need to step out of the light bulb, so to speak. Rather than hiding our light in a monastery, we need to carry that light into a dark world. Rather than withdrawing from the arts or the sciences, we need to bring our faith to bear on those pursuits. There is no sacred/secular dichotomy! Everything belongs to God, and Christians are called to live our whole lives—whether mowing our lawn or serving on the city council—under His sovereign rule.

The problem with Thomas a Kempis is that he thinks the physical world is gross, and that the wise Christian will withdraw from the world and just contemplate God. What happens to the Great Commission in this view? Thomas can’t make any disciples unless they stumble within the four walls of the monastery. What’s more, Thomas apparently wants to morph into a disembodied spirit, never to be hampered by the good physical things of this world: “meat, drink, clothing, and all other necessities of the body are painful and troublesome to a fervent spirit which, if it might, would always rest in God and in spiritual things.” That isn’t Christianity, that’s Gnosticism!

At this point, then, you might well ask why my students read a book that subtly promotes unbiblical ideas. The answer is in the first line of my tirade: by some estimates, The Imitation of Christ is the most widely read spiritual work after the Bible.

by Jeff Baldwin