Thomas Kempis is one of those famed writers in mid Christian history. His book Imitation of Christ was in the past one of the best selling books besides the Bible.
It should be said there are portions of The Imitation of Christ that sound good. In fact, one could get some great ideas out of a page here or a page there.
It should also be known that if Kempis wrote the book, their community lived faith idea is important. A group of friends sought to live godly lives. Others have definitely taught this, but in general we can commend this.
But on the whole, what should we think? Is it worth making a recommended book to friends?
I've come to the conclusion that there are some serious reasons for a Christian person to avoid recommending Kempis' writing...
1. First of all, there is a question of who wrote it. This complicates what is said in the book since it may not be someone's devotions. This article will still refer to it as written by Thomas Kempis, but some speculate it was written by others as a dogmatic theology book. This means it is not as neutral as one might be led to believe. That in itself isn't a bad thing, it's just that seeing it as purely devotional writing assumes way too much in its favor. Some of the possible authors of the 15th century AD were not so great Christian figures. So this should caution us on why it was written, and how much of it is well-backed by a robust life.
2. Second, and a major point, the book repeatedly references Christ dying on the cross each day, which is a false doctrine. Kempis argues extensively in Book IV that Jesus dies on the cross regularly in churches on their altars. This is not found in Scripture, so we find then that the author Kempis is taking a long portion of his book to argue for false theology.
Instead in the Bible we see differently: Christ died for our sins once for all, says Peter in 1st Peter 3:18. That was a sufficient work then, it is not repeated.
Then also God says through his writer in Hebrews 9:28 Jesus' sacrifice on the cross was once for all time, not a repetitive act. It is not ongoing or daily.
More importantly, the action verbs around these do not indicate an ongoing sacrifice of Jesus, but a one time sacrifice Jesus worked on the cross at Calvary. The Bible often shows ongoing action when God wanted to convey that. But it doesn't here.
3. Third a minor point in relation to size of his work, Kempis seems to think that suffering without consolation from God is a moral good. This is found for instance at the end of Book II. I'm not sure how that getting to a place where you need no consolation from God makes sense, but would not endorse that for another reason beyond Christian experience. God often in the Bible instead of what Kempis says, actually comforts His people in trials. Since Kempis seems to contradict Scripture on this, I disagree with Kempis urged goal for his readers to see no comfort needed from God in Christ. Kempis frames his statements in a nice sounding spiritual way, but they just do not match our authority, Scripture.
4. Fourth, while Imitation of Christ was written before the Reformation and the Back to the Bible emphasis, so we may cut Kempis or the actual author some slack on some things (like St. Augustine, etc.), we should not then see that work as so timeless that we need it now. In other words, there are other places to find good devotional material for one's walk with Jesus. Sometimes the bad so outweighs the good that something loses its value, like an old car. It just gets to a point where a new one is needed, even after best efforts to still use it after a while.
5. Penance. In one sense we all suffer for Jesus, but tying that to our relationship with God the way someone from Kempis' background does is FAR different than the way a modern day contemporary Christian in a non Catholic background would. It is found scattered in here in the negative sense, not the positive St. Paul one.
6. Sixth a bigger point in favor of not using it much as devotional material, the continual focus on a Blessed Sacrament. This for those who do not know, refers to the Lord's Supper in a certain religious group's teachings. So they do not call it Lord's Supper but Blessed Sacrament. The reason they call it something different however departs from God's revealed teaching in the Bible.
This terminology change is important as it provides a way to conceptualize what Kempis is teaching people to believe about God. Kempis and his background mean way more than a person on the street would think is meant by that loaded terminology, Blessed Sacrament.
It is not just the Lord's Supper for Kempis but a system of being and remaining saved. If you keep taking the Sacrament regularly and remain in line with his group's teachings, then by your works and deeds of doing that you are contributing to your own salvation regularly. In fact, he would argue, you are adding merit to your acceptance before God; something which Scripture does not allow a real Christian to do (Ephesians 2:8, 9).
His system shared in devotional format may sound nice but it is not God's revealed will at all.
For Kempis or whoever wrote this thing, the Blessed Sacrament refers to in taking the Lord's Supper much more in a negative way than a reverent act to remember Jesus by faith. Imitation of Christ in Book IV relays that the Lord's Supper has the ability to ensure "all vices are cured, all passions are restrained, all temptations are overcome and diminished; by it grace is sent." Grace he previously said is "special grace" implying that the sacrament has salvation power. That contradicts the idea that salvation is wholly of God, and heavily implies salvation is partly by our doing works, such as taking the so-called Blessed Sacrament. This is a contradiction of good Bible doctrine on so many levels. See Bible-driven theologian Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology pages 991-994) on why Kempis makes a mistake here. It has to do with Kempis thinking that grace instead of being a state we are in, where we are saved by God, that one has to add good deeds like taking sacrament to store up enough grace if you truly mean it in your heart to be saved. That is tradition not Scripture speaking.
When we speak of the Lord's Supper we should view it as a symbolic representation of what Jesus did for us. (Just as Scriptures like Luke 22:20 are not referring to actual cup becoming a covenant, so we know the cup's contents and bread is symbolic, not a literal saving grace again). We should not think that it becomes Christ's body and blood again, which Kempis seems to hold to unfortunately. It is blessed to a Bible driven Christian in that it is remembering the great love Jesus has for us and the church community. It is not blessed to us because it becomes another act of going to the cross right there in a church building somewhere. It is not blessed because it
Now can a holy, but still only symbolic remembrance of Jesus' work on the cross ensure all vices are cured. No. God's saving grace does that, but it is not through a symbolic act we do in church. It is through God's Word changing us (Romans 12:1-2) that our personal sins / vices are dealt with properly instead.
Now is Jesus present spiritually? Yes! But this is different than what Kempis means. Kempis thinks you are earning your salvation "special grace" in the taking of Lord's Supper, which any normal Bible following believer would immediately recognize as not what God has said about it.
Now does taking the Lord's Supper provide an opportunity to reflect on Jesus' work and love for us? Yes! But we know those things not from the symbolic act of taking the Lord's Supper but rather entirely from Scripture/the Bible explained! It is not fair to say that that ordinance itself has power unexplained by Scripture.
7. More info: I cannot fully go through everything in Imitation of Christ without having to invest as much time as several sermons would take (25 hours each). Here is an interesting read, including on why earning the "love of" God is a thing in Kempis which contradicts the Bible. Click here for this. What is happening is Catholic theology collapses sanctification and salvation together into one thing, so you can be less saved so to speak. Whereas in Protestant theology, salvation is entirely worked by God for you, you just receive it by faith God grants you. Sanctification is also important, but if you don't take Lord's Supper enough in Protestant theology you are not "less" saved. This is a big difference.
So in summary from what I can gather, Thomas Kempis is not a book we ought to recommend for devotional reading in the Christian life.