Thomas a Kempis on holiness

The whole point of Thomas a Kempis’ book The Imitation of Christ is about growing in discipleship; that is, becoming more holy and acting more like Christ. This should be the goal of any Christian who professes to follow Christ. (Thomas a Kempis was a monk who lived between 1380 and 1471). Chapter 18 is entitled ‘on the examples of the Holy Fathers’, where a Kempis recalls the life of the early Christians, particularly those known as the ‘Desert Fathers‘, and he urges a return to their way of life, and example of fasting and praying.

A Kempis goes on to say:

“Their examples still witness that they were indeed holy and perfect men, who fought valiantly, and trampled the world under their feet… Oh, the carelessness and coldness of the present time! Sloth and lukewarmness make life wearisome for us, and we soon lose our early fervour! May the longing to grow in grace not remain dormant in you, who have been privileged to witness so many examples of the holy life” (from chapter 18)

This is all very well, and reflects a (good) desire to grow in Christian maturity towards God. However, I can’t help thinking that a Kempis to a certain degree reflects his own time. In the same chapter he could be seen as laying some of the ground work that led to the reformer, Martin Luther’s dissatisfaction with himself as a monk, and his subsequent rediscovery of the power of God’s grace.

Earlier in the same chapter, a Kempis says, (talking again of the example of early Christians): “Grounded in true humility, they lived in simple obedience, they walked in charity and patience; and thus daily increased in the Spirit, and received great grace from God”

Is there here, a hint of the idea that God’s grace is some wort of reward for living in simple obedience. This is what Luther rallied against. He could never be good enough to merit God’s grace, no matter how hard he tried. There would always be aspects of himself that were undeserving. Surely it is the other way around. It is as a response to God’s grace that we attempt to grow in discipleship (that is, grow in the imitation of Christ).

Martin Luther put it a lot better than I can:

“As it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith’. I began to understand that in this verse the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous man lives by the gift of God, in other words by faith…. This immediately made me feel as if I had been born again and entered through open gates into paradise itself.” (Martin Luther, from his ‘Autobiographical fragment’ of 1545)

This makes the heart keener to live for God, and takes the pressure off.


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