Leo Tolstoy: Youth Group President?


In many student ministries, Leo Tolstoy would be viewed as a hero, a model for moral discipline and Christian virtue. Tolstoy was a famous Russian philosopher and author in the mid-1800s, best known for his novel War and Peace. He pursued moralistic perfection in his faith, a task that many viewed as noble. He set up lengthy and complex lists of rules for himself and trusted those lists to guide his life, even forming rules for controlling his emotions. Several times, he publicly vowed to be celibate—though he was married—so he ended up living in a separate bedroom from his wife.

Despite all of his attempts and his public commitments, Tolstoy could never live up to his own standards. His wife’s 16 pregnancies were a reminder of his inability to keep his vow of celibacy. A. W. Wilson, a Tolstoy biographer, wrote: Tolstoy suffered from a fundamental theological inability to understand the Incarnation. His religion was a thing of Law rather than a thing of Grace, a scheme for human betterment rather than a vision for God penetrating a fallen world.

Tolstoy pursued perfection in his own strength and energy apart from the grace of God. He constantly lived under guilt and shame, and he died a miserable vagrant. He never enjoyed the Christian life because he missed the essence of Christianity. The essence of sin is our attempt to take the place of God. The essence of the Christian faith is God taking our place, not only on the cross but also as the One who daily sustains and satisfies us. Tolstoy, because he missed grace, lived the antithesis of the Christian faith.

Sadly, many churches teach as if they desire to produce children and students like Leo Tolstoy. Children’s ministries can drift away from the grace of God and drift into morality training, burdening children and parents with virtues apart from the Vine. Similar to some moralistic messages common in children’s ministry is the tendency to continually address the behavior of teenagers rather than their hearts. While children’s ministry can drift toward teaching for behaviors people want to see in children, student ministry can drift toward teaching against behaviors people don’t want to see in teenagers. The irony is painful in many churches: teach kids how to behave until they hit puberty and then teach them how not to behave until they graduate. Is it any wonder that researchers and consultants continually tell us that the majority of students leave the church after high school graduation? If they have grown up under the burden of attempting to live by a list of do’s and don’ts apart from a changed heart, we send them out with a surplus of repressed behavior bottled up inside.

Children and students, indeed all of us, are incapable of living the Christian life in our own merit. We are utterly unable to transform ourselves. Because of this simple truth, transformation is not about trying; it is about dying. The apostle Paul knew that transformation occurs when we continually die to ourselves and trust the grace of Christ fully: “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:11).

Because of the above truth, I am massively excited about the new curriculum we are launching at LifeWay for children, students, and adults. It is called “The Gospel Project,” and we believe that the children, students, and adults who study it are the project as the gospel continually works on us. Through the study, children and students will encounter the gospel in all of Scripture. They will learn how all of Scripture points to the grand story of Scripture—the glorious gospel. They will understand that the gospel is not only for their initial forgiveness, but it has ramifications for all of life.


  1. Mike Self says

    Eric, thank you for that insight. We, too, are preparing to launch The Gospel Project in our church. I loved your comments. You are right on. It is my prayer that we will experience revival in our churches as people come to understand that all of the Bible is about the gospel; that we will come to understand the grace of Holy God evident on every page.

  2. says

    Thank you Eric, very powerful stuff. Knew the name Leo Tolstoy, but I didn’t really know the man. Sadly, I don’t think he’s simply been the model of Youth Ministry, he’s been the model of the Western Church. But I’m so excited about the movement God has been doing over the last several years, and I’m especially excited about using The Gospel Project in our Church.

  3. says

    Hugely helpful reminder. Thanks for this. There are a few scenes in The Last Station that really drive home some of the points you’ve made. There’s no doubt Tolstoy had a genius mind, but he spent his life striving to be rather than resting in an undeserved grace.

  4. Michael says

    I agree, but wish people would stop acting like it is primarily the children and youth ministries that are teaching moral-ism. To be fair though, it takes a level of maturity for a believer to read where Jesus says to be perfect, and read the book of James, and hear sermons about Christians not living their faith, and not walk away thinking they need to act better and try harder. I would suggest – Leo Tolstoy: Average American Christian?

  5. eric says

    Miles and Mike — please give me feedback after you implement “The Gospel Project”…would love to hear how it works in your setting.
    Michael — I agree it is not merely student and kid ministries peddling moralistic messages. But on your second point, I don’t believe the solution to stagnation is to act better or try harder. Not in our own strength. Surely grace received causes convictions and impacts how we live, but it is the grace of Christ at work in us that causes us to practice the faith. Thus the solution is a continual return to Christ and a deep reliance on Him.

  6. David Van Lant says

    I feel sorry for you guys. Is this the norm for youth ministry in your denomination? I have to make 2 observations: 1) I’ve never been a fan of Tolstoy or looked to his theology. How did you end up there anyway? 2) Bummer for those teenagers that got a law-based Gospel. i didn’t get that in High School, and I didn’t give it out as a youth pastor.

  7. says

    ” teach kids how to behave until they hit puberty and then teach them how not to behave until they graduate.”
    that is incredibly profound and sad. As if puberty wasn’t challenging and confusing enough by itself, so often its as if the church is saying “yeah, all that stuff you’re suddenly feeling is wrong. All the parts of your body that are developing are stumbling blocks”
    We put up these impossible expectations as if they were living under the old law. Believers (especially young ones) cannot put their dependence on themselves. It must be on Christ.
    We are flawed. We are broken. We will fail….unless we encounter Christ. Its through Him that these impossible things are possible.

  8. eric says

    David — You are blessed to have that upbringing. And I am grateful you did not give out rule based faith as a youth pastor.
    I don’t think it is only the norm in the denomination in which I belong, but the proclivity of all of us to drift back to law. Luther said “religion is the default of the human heart.” The book of Galatians is a reminder of this as well.
    There is a fair number of writings on Tolstoy. I think I was first exposed to him in a seminary class.

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