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.