Imitation of Christ

Of the imitation of Christ, and of contempt of the world and all its vanities

  1. He that follows me shall not walk in darkness, says the Lord. There are the words of Christ; and they teach us how far we must imitate His life and character, if we seek true illumination, and deliverance from all blindness of heart. Let it be our most earnest study, therefore, to dwell upon the life of Jesus Christ.

Above is an excerpt from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A. Kempis, the first paragraph of chapter 1.

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An assumption about Jesus

“Christ teaches us how far we must imitate His life and character,” asserts the author of Imitation of Christ. The author assumes that we can imitate Jesus, and it appears quite a few folks agree with him. But as far as my study of Scriptures has brought me, the idea of imitating Jesus, or him being an example, goes against the biblical message as a whole. I was motivated to write this article after reading an introduction to the gospel of Matthew from a new Vietnamese translation, in which the author, or authors, referred to Jesus as the supreme teacher who had the authority to interprete God’s Law.

Who do you say Jesus is?

People during Jesus’ time thought of him as a teacher. He performed miracles, turned water into wine, claimed to be the Son of God, but ultimately He was their teacher.

In Matthew 19:16-22, a rich young man came to see Jesus asking Him this: “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” This young man’s question succinctly represents the world’s view of Jesus considering the bolded words in his question. Obviously he considered Jesus a teacher who tells him what good things he must do.

In John 3, we read of Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, who came to meet Jesus one night saying: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” And Jesus responded with: “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus had a hard time getting the meaning of being born from above because he could only see it from the eyes of the flesh. Much like the young man in the earlier story, he saw Jesus as a teacher.

In both these stories, there were nothing Jesus could teach them that they could do. Could the young man truly fulfill any of the commandments even if Jesus showed him how? Case in point is his love for his treasured possessions violates the very commandment of loving the Lord his God with all his heart. Could Nicodemus obey, or try to imitate Jesus, to “be born from above?” Not a chance. It took the universe forming creative power of God to perform such feat.

For each descendant of Eve, the sin nature manifests itself in a different way. The bottom line is there is nothing Jesus can teach us, and nothing we can learn from him, to rid ourselves of this nature that had fallen short of God’s glory.

In John 6 we read that after Jesus performed the miracle of turning a few fish and loaves of bread into enough food for five thousand people, and of walking on water, they asked him: 28‘What must we do to accomplish the deeds God requires?’’ 29Jesus replied, ‘This is the deed God requires - to believe in the one whom he sent.’

Just like Nicodemus and the rich young ruler, the people immediately think of their flesh as a means to carry out what they think is God’s work. They wanted the teacher to tell them what to do, God said He only wanted them to believe in the one He had sent.

Teacher vs. Savior and Lord

In the gospel of Matthew we read that one day Jesus asked His disciples who they thought he was, they answered: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets (Matthew 16:14).” Then He asked them directly who they thought He was, and Peter answered: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16).” Jesus uses Peter’s answer to confirm his role not as a prophet,or any human at any capacity, but as Savior and Lord: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven (Matthew 16:17).”

From the viewpoint of the flesh, Jesus is a human in various capacities: teacher, prophet, healer, etc., but from a divine revelation, He’s Savior and Lord.

Assuming Jesus is a teacher

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Jesus came to be our teacher. What might he be teaching us? All the things pertaining to human relationships? Not at all, but only what pertains to the righteousness that restores us the right to become children of God.

What could he teach us concerning the righteousness we needed that required His death on the cross? He performed miracles to authenticate his being sent by the Father—can this be imitated? He was born without sin, lived above sin, and died as an unblemished Lamb of God to take away our sin—can this be duplicated? He forgave sins past, present, and future of all of mankind—Imitate this? He raised people from the dead—Anyone? He is Almighty God—Dare you try this?

However someone might raise an objection that there were plenty we could learn from Him on this side of eternity, such as humility, self denial, long suffering, and many qualities espoused in books through the ages. Kempis’ book Imitation of Christ is one such book. But except for some who are outside the norm, most folks appear to be socially and morally functional and they already possess the knowledge of these fine qualities expressed in Kempis’ book as well as many other sources. The Son of God didn’t need to leave heaven to teach us these basic principles.

Man already had the ability to tell good from evil since the Garden of Eden (Romans 2:14). For the Jews, God spelled it out on tablets of stone. The problem isn’t that mankind needs to be taught anything that they couldn’t have learned already, it’s that though they knew all these things, they simply couldn’t do it. The apostle Paul expressed this dilemma in the following verse:

14We know that the Law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do. But what I hate, I do (Romans 7:14-15).

Then shortly later Paul concludes with this observation:

Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin (Romans 7:25)

If we carefully follow Paul’s line of reasoning we’d find that though Christ is the solution to the perpetual struggle, in setting us free from the guilt of sins, there exists the reality of the sin nature that is a slave to the law of sin, and this will continue as long as we’re still in this corruptible state.

These books point us in the wrong direction

Let’s survey another nugget of gold from Kempis’ book.

It is vanity then to seek after, and to trust in, the riches that shall perish. It is vanity, too, to covet honors, and to lift up ourselves on high. It is vanity to follow the desires of the flesh and be led by them, for this shall bring misery at the last. It is vanity to desire a long life, and to have little care for a good life. It is vanity to take thought only for the life which now is, and not to look forward to the things which shall be hereafter. It is vanity to love that which quickly passes away, and not to hasten where eternal joy abides.

Doesn’t it feel like a cross between Proverbs and Ecclesiastes? All this wisdom is already there in the pages of Scriptures, but again the problem is “what I want to do, I do not do.” As I recalled my earlier years in the Christian faith, I took in every thought in Imitation wholeheartedly, but the problem was I couldn’t put my finger on anything that would nudge me up one notch in the spirituality ladder. It felt like when I was sitting in a class that gave voice lessons and after hours had gone by, there was no breakthrough, I still couldn’t get that elusive high note.

Books like this gives the reader an illusion of getting somewhere without real changes even in the here and now, let alone eternity. They draw the readers deeper within themselves, round and round in circles while providing no escapes. I like the expression I learned from Bob George’s book “Growing in Grace,” if memory serves me correctly: morbid introspection. Through all this I realized I simply exchanged the books on existentialism, those I used to read before I became a Christian, for books dressed in Christianese with virtually the same content, words that came from the minds of philosophers.

Faith vs. learning, do vs. done

While we may learn skills such as computer programming, music, photography, and countless number of skills that are useful in this world’s economy, and many teachers can help us get where we desire, we can’t count on using the same approach toward the kingdom of God.

This was Nicodemus’ problem when he thought to be born again was to go back to his mother’s womb to start over again. Jesus explained to him that a product of human effort, no matter how well cloaked in spiritual piety, will produce flesh, it will not inherit the incorruptible (1 Corinthians 15:50), he must be born again by the Spirit of God, and the only instrument through which he could achieve this was faith in Christ, not through learning from even the most supreme of teachers.

The tendency to walk by the flesh, to use it to live out the Christian faith, is exemplified by the Galatians where Paul denounced in no uncertain terms:

Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:3—NASB)

To begin by the Spirit is to start from God’s grace with nothing to rely on but faith, and perfecting oneself by the flesh is to try to improve from being already good enough for heaven to something even better. It’s this idea that Paul calls foolish. If Christ’s death on the cross is enough to make us perfect so we may come boldly to the throne of grace, how can anyone improve on what He’s already done? And worse yet all the presumed improvements will be done through the strength of the flesh.

Let’s take an example of someone who used to have an addiction to gambling, but since he came to Christ, the addiction was gone. This change though positive and it sure will save him from all the pain and suffering from the addiction, it does not make him any more sanctified than the day he received Christ into his heart. Christ did not come to save him from a multitude of sins, but to deliver him from the root of it all, his sin nature, the deliverance from the addiction is just a bonus just as Christ had promised in Matthew 6:33: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” All these things include the overcoming of that besetting sin.

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

The believer received the gift of deliverance from the addiction along with the greatest gift of all: Christ. The receiving of this gift of deliverance does not make him any more holy, or sanctified, than the moment he received Christ into his heart. Henceforth his life’s focus should be on His Redeemer and not on the gift, or any gift for that matter. It’s the job of the claymaker to mold him into any shape he wishes.

Books such as Kempis’ Imitation of Christ are guilty of taking they eyes of Christians off of Christ and turn them inward into themselves. Instead of explaining what Christ had done on the cross, the height, depth, and breadth of God’s plan of salvation, and about the righteousness that is theirs through Christ and everything they need for godliness and contentment that is included with Him, they turn the believers’ eyes toward themselves trying to draw from wretchedness and fallen flesh something to impress God and other people.


C.S. Lewis vehemently denounced the very thought of thinking of Christ as a teacher when he wrote this in his book Mere Christianity:

I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him [Jesus Christ]: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that option open to us. He did not intend to.

I wholeheartedly agree with C.S. Lewis on that point. That was why when our Sunday School class read the introduction in the new translation of the Book of Matthew I was so taken aback and kept voicing my objection to such description of Jesus as a supreme teacher. Far be it from anyone who calls on the name of Jesus to think of Him as such.

Nghi Nguyen

- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen

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