Imitating Christ

Of the Imitation of Christ is the title of a book that was published in the Netherlands in the early fifteenth century, and is generally attributed to Thomas à Kempis. It was intended to serve as a handbook for spiritual life and discipleship.

The book’s theme is set forth in the opening paragraph: “By the words of Christ we are taught to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ… Whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on the mind of Christ.”

This little book and the basic idea behind it inspired a whole movement. Its popularity was immediate, and it was printed more than seven hundred times before 1650. At that time, no book had been translated into more languages, apart from the Bible itself. The Imitation became perhaps the most widely read Christian devotional work next to the Bible, and has come to be regarded as a devotional and religious classic.

The call to imitate Christ is a simple yet profound idea that has resonated with people throughout the ages, going back to the New Testament. We are called to imitate Christ. It is the essence of being a Christian, a disciple of Jesus. He has invited us: “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me” (Matt. 11:29). The apostle Paul says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). We put others above self with a spirit of humility and service because that was the mind of Christ. We look to Jesus as our Role Model—our teacher and our example.

Following Christ means accepting him as Lord and Master. He is the Teacher, and we are his disciples. So we do not get to decide what it means to follow him. Imitating Christ must not be based on a feeling, or a general notion, or “cherry picking” those aspects of his life that we like while avoiding those that make us uncomfortable. In the gospels, we learn that some of Jesus’ disciples completely misunderstood what his kingdom was all about, and what it meant to follow him. They wanted special places of honor. But they were mistaken. They had it wrong. So Jesus said, “You do not know what you are asking.” In contrast to the way the world looks at greatness, he said, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant…even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:20-28).

Following Christ also means we pay attention to his word. The only way we can know Jesus and what it means to follow him is to go to Scripture. Listen to him. Hear what he has taught. The teachings and principles found there are provided as our handbook for life. They come from Christ and show us who he is. “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments... By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:3-6).

And following Christ means we follow his example. As the Master Teacher, Jesus modeled what he taught. He showed us how. When he served his brethren by a simple act of hospitality, he said, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you… A servant is not greater than his master” (John 13:12-16).

Dan Petty