The Imitation of Christ: A Spiritual Classic

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis is one of the most widely read Christian classics of all time. It would be hard to estimate the profound influence this insightful book has had on the Christian church for over five hundred years.

Thomas a Kempis spent nearly his entire life in a spiritual community, the Brethren of Common Life. Yet, the Imitation of Christ has guided and inspired tens of thousands of Christians who have never lived in such a spiritual community. That is because of Thomas a Kempis’ thorough knowledge of the Bible and the early Christian writers, his deep and burning love of God, and his compassionate understanding of human weaknesses and needs.

The Imitation of Christ: Its Message

The message of this spiritual classic is that the only way we can truly know and embrace Christ is in living the Christ-life, made possible through God’s enabling grace. As Jesus said, “Whoever hears these sayings of mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house. But it did not fall for it was founded on the rock” (Mt. 7:24,25).

One writer has described the message of the Imitation of Christ in this manner: “The philosophy of the Imitation may be summed up in two words. It is a philosophy of Light, and it is a philosophy of Life: the Light of truth and the Life of grace. Thomas a Kempis does not separate the two. It is only in the union of both that man attains his intended fulfillment.”

Another writer has described it this way: “The imitation referred to is of the Lord Jesus Christ in his life of humility, love, suffering, and total and joyful submission to the Father in heaven.” (Peter Toon)

Imitation of Christ: Its Contents

Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation is divided into four sections or “books.” The first one gives general spiritual counsel on the life of discipleship. The second one focuses more on the inner life, without which the life of discipleship is not possible. The third section develops the first two in greater detail, and in it Thomas a Kempis uses imaginary dialogues between Christ and the individual disciple. The final “book” focuses on communion and its significance in the Christian life. Together, the four sections cover completely how a Christian can walk in the footsteps of Jesus, imitating His life.