Tobias Crisp

The Life And Ministry Of Tobias Crisp

George Ella, “Tobias Crisp (1600-1643): Exalter Of Christ Alone”:

Tobias Crisp served the Lord during a time of civil war and ecclesiastical unrest. There were threats of a papal take-over in the Established Church and Amyraldianism, Arminianism, Grotianism and Socinianism were flooding into the country to water down the faith inherited from the Reformers and defended by the Puritans. Crisp found these new religions false as they did not exalt Christ.

Entering the ministry as an unconverted man

This ‘holy and judicious’ person, as Augustus Toplady describes Crisp, was born into a family of London sheriffs and aldermen and was educated at Eton, Cambridge and Oxford, finishing his studies by gaining a D.D.. He married Mary Wilson, an Alderman’s daughter, and the couple were blessed with thirteen children. He was ordained Rector of Brinkworth in Wiltshire in the year 1627. It seems that Crisp entered the ministry as an unconverted man. His preaching was highly legalistic, emphasising good works as a means, rather than an outcome, of grace. Yet, he strove earnestly to glorify God in his life and ministry and quickly gained a reputation for popular, forthright preaching. As Crisp delved into the Word to bring comfort to lost souls, his own soul lost the shackles of trust in his own righteousness and he was granted faith in the righteousness of Christ who bore away his sins.

Preaching the whole gospel to the whole man

Crisp now became a seeker and healer of souls second to none in this time of disruption. He preached the whole gospel to the whole man as revealed in the doctrines of grace outlined in Scripture and in the witness of the New Testament saints. Soon people flocked from miles around to hear him preach. As he had a large family estate which brought him a steady income and also a large rectory, he put all to the service of his flock. After preaching, he would gather together those who had travelled far and make sure that they were well catered for and their horses fed and watered for the return journey. It was not uncommon to find Crisp trotting home from church with scores of riders and dozens of private coaches and wagons in his train, leading his 100 or so guests for the day to their refreshments. Hearers and eye-witnesses testified that Crisp’s doctrine was “spiritual, evangelistic, particularly suited to the case of awakened sinners, greatly promoting their peace and comfort. His method was familiar and easy to be understood by persons of the meanest capacity and was particularly adapted to the condition of his hearers.”

With all his wealth and the political and ecclesiastical influence of his family, opportunities of promotion were regularly offered Crisp who declined them all. He was in his God-given element preaching pardon to sinners. Soon there was a marked improvement in his parish through families having their members converted and family prayers becoming a regular feature in their lives. The Lord’s Day, rather than being a time of worldly entertainment now became widely respected and observed. Crisp’s preaching was highly expository but at the same time thoroughly evangelical with the preacher applying each truth to the situation of the hearer as he laid out his text. His emphasis was on Christ as the only way to salvation and on free grace and especially how to grow in that grace.

A sample of Crisp’s preaching

Whenever and wherever one opens Crisp’s sermons, one is in for a rich blessing as when reading his words on being quickened in Christ:

“Do but look in Eph. 2:4-10, and there you shall perceive how clear and full the apostle is in this business, that Christ is made a way to life absolutely and merely of free gift; ‘But God, saith he, ‘who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ; by grace ye are saved: and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Jesus Christ, that in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace, in his kindness towards us through Christ Jesus.’ Mark how he goes on; ‘For by grace are ye saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast; for we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works.’ Still he runs upon mercy and grace, and works he excludes, that no creature might boast.

If any thing were done on our part, to partake of Christ, we might have whereof to boast. So likewise speaking of Abraham, Rom 4:2, ‘For if Abraham were justified by works, he had whereof to glory;’ we should have to glory, if we should have the least hand in the participating of Christ; therefore God would give Christ freely unto his creature; because man should have no stroke in participating of him, that so it might be to the praise of the glory of his grace; that we should not glory; yea, ‘That no flesh should glory in his presence.’ And therefore the same apostle, Eph. 3:12, tells us, that from this grace ‘we have boldness, and access with confidence through the faith of him.’ In regard that Christ is given unto men to be a way unto the Father, and merely of free gift, hence it is that we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.

Should we regard our own works or qualifications, there would be some mixture of distrust; we should have some fear that God would find out such and such a thought; therefore we could never come with boldness and confidence, if we did not come in Christ as a free gift bestowed upon us: for if there were one condition, and the least failing in that condition, God might take advantage upon that default, and so possibly we might miscarry; and we being jealous and privy to it, that there are faults in all we do, we should be ‘subject all our lives to bondage,’ (saith the apostle), and should fear that God will take advantage of all that which is undone on our part; and so not fulfil what he hath promised on his part. But seeing we have Christ bestowed as a free gift of the Father, ‘we come with boldness and access to the throne of grace.’ To establish, or a little more to clear this, look (Heb. 10:18-20) ‘Now where remission of sin is, there is no more offering for sin; having therefore boldness to enter into the holiest, by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way that he hath consecrated for us through the veil, that is to say, his flesh.’ How come we to have boldness? Through the new and living way made by the blood of Christ; not a new and living way by his blood and our actions, but by his blood; that is, only by his blood, merely by his actions; and so passed over freely to us; this is that which makes us come with so much boldness.

Look into the closure of all the scriptures, you shall find there can be nothing imagined more free; nay, so free, as the participating of Christ to be the way to the Father; nothing so free as this, (Rev. 22:17) ‘Both the Spirit and the bride say, come; let him that heareth, say, come; and let him that is athirst, come; and whosoever will, (mark the expression) let him take of the water of life freely.’ Hast thou but a mind to Christ? come and take the water of life freely; it is thine; it is given to thee; there is nothing looked for from thee to take thy portion in this Christ; thine he is as well as any person’s under Heaven; therefore, you shall find our Saviour exceedingly complain of this, as a great fault, ‘You will not come to me, that you might have life;’ ‘He that comes to me, I will in no wise cast him off;’ upon no terms. Thou mayest object a thousand things, that if thou shouldst come, and conclude Christ is thy Christ, he will reject thee, and that it will be but presumption; but, in so doing, thou rejectest thyself, and forsakest thy own mercy; but Christ saith, Whosoever he be, what person soever, ‘I will in no wise cast him off, if he come unto me.”

The reasons for Crisp being much more successful than other preachers

Many of Crisp’s fellow ministers, including nominal Reformed evangelicals, could not understand why Crisp was so much more successful than themselves. They raised the cry that Crisp was a poacher of souls as their own members were prepared to ride 12 miles and more to hear Crisp rather than walk round the corner to their local church. As this accusation was tantamount to admitting that possibly something was wrong with their own witness, other methods of criticism were devised. Crisp was accused of taking the doctrine of imputed righteousness literally and believing that Christ truly bore our sin and was actually punished in our stead. He was also accused, oddly enough by the same people, of denying the need for righteousness and affirming that as one was safe and secure in Jesus, one could live as one wished. The former accusation showed the strong impact of Dutch Grotianism on British Reformed doctrine. Grotius looked upon the imputed righteousness of Christ as a mere metaphor, bringing with it no actual transformation from outside (i.e. from God) into the life of the believer. It was a mere pro-forma, arbitrary arrangement between God and man. The latter accusation Robert Traill tells us was made possible because Arminian influence was so strong at the time that it had become respectable evangelicalism to teach that Christ’s atonement merely prepared the way for a salvation which was to be secured by good works. Those who did not believe this were termed ‘licentious’. Actually these ideas strongly contradicted each other as Arminians looked upon the Law as reflecting the eternal nature of God and were thus, in this respect, orthodox, whereas the Grotians looked upon the Law as a temporary device of God to exert moral influence on man which in no way reflected God’s eternal character. Nevertheless, the two schools of thought combined their energies in denouncing Crisp. He answered these groundless accusations in such sermons as Free Grace the Teacher of Good Works and The Use of the Law. None of Crisp’s works were published during his life-time, however, and the rumours grew, especially as his critics were slow to check their own prejudiced views concerning Crisp by actually hearing him preach. Those who did hear Crisp preach who had their heart set on heavenly food, learnt how wrong Crisp’s accusers were in spreading the evil rumour that he interpreted Christian liberty as allowing him to live a life of sin because God looked on him as sinless whatever he did.

Crisp defends himself against evil claims that free grace encourages licentiousness

In his great sermon Christian Liberty No Licentious Doctrine, Crisp argues:

“But some will say, By this it seems we take away all endeavours and employment from believers, the free-men of Christ. Doth Christ do every thing for them? Do they stand righteous before God, in respect of what he hath done for them? Then they may sit still: they may do what they list.

I answer, Will you deny this, that we are righteous with God, and that we are righteous with God by the righteousness of Christ? Or is it by our own righteousness? Then mark what the apostle saith, Rom 10:3, 4, ‘They (saith he, speaking of the Jews), going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God, for Christ is the end of the law for righteousness, to every one that believeth.’ Either you must disclaim Christ’s righteousness, or you must disclaim your own; for, if the gift of God ‘be of grace, then it is not of works, else work is no more work; and, if it be of works, it is no more of grace otherwise grace is no more grace,’ Rom 11:6.

But you will say further to me (for, except a man be a mere Papist, I am sure he cannot deny but that the righteousness by which I stand righteous before GOD, is the righteousness Christ doth for me, and not that I do for myself, you will ask me, I say, Doth not this take off all manner of obedience and all manner of holiness?

I answer, and thus much I say, It takes them off from those ends which they aim at in their obedience: namely, The end for which Christ’s obedience served: as much as to say, Our standing righteousness, by what Christ hath done for us, concerns us in point of justification, consolation, and salvation. We have our justification, our peace, our salvation, only by the righteousness Christ hath done for us: but this doth not take away our obedience, nor our services, in respect of those ends for which such are now required of believers. We have yet several ends for duties and obedience, namely, That they may glorify God, and evidence our thankfulness, that they may be profitable to men, that they may be ordinances wherein to meet with God, to make good what he hath promised. So far we are called out to services, and walking uprightly, sincerely, exactly, and strictly, according to the good pleasure of God; and, in regard of such ends, there is a gracious freedom that the free-men of Christ have by him; that is, so far forth as services and obediences are expected at the free-man’s hand, for the ends that I have named, there is Christ, by his Spirit, present with those that are free-men, to help them in all such kind of services, so that ‘they become strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might,’ to do the will of God. Mark what the apostle speaks: ‘I am able to do all things through Christ that strengthens me. Of myself (saith he) I am able to do nothing; but with Christ, and through him that strengthens me, I am able to do all things.’ He that is Christ’s free-man hath always the strength of Christ present, answerable to that weight and burthen of employment God calls him forth unto. ‘My grace (saith Christ) shall be sufficient for thee, and my strength shall be made perfect in weakness.’ As you are free-men of Christ, you may confidently rest upon it, that he ‘will never fail you, nor forsake you,’ when he calls you forth into employments. But you that are under the law, there is much required of you, and imposed upon you, but no help to be expected. You must do all by your own strength; the whole tale of brick shall be exacted of you, but no straw shall be given you. But you, that are free-men of Christ, he will help you: he will oil your wheels, fill your sails, and carry you upon eagles’ wings, that you shall run and not be weary, walk and not faint. So, then, the free-men of Christ, having him and his Spirit for their life and strength, may go infinitely beyond the exactest legalist in the world, in more cheerful obedience than they can perform. He that walks in his own strength can never steer his business so well and so quickly, as he that hath the arms, the strength, and the principles of the great God of heaven and earth; as he that hath this great Supporter, this wise Director, this mighty Assister, to be continually by him. There is no burthen, you shall bear, but, by this freedom you have him to put his own shoulder to it to bear it up.”

Twisse and Hervey defend Crisp

Dr William Twisse (1575-1646), moderator of the Westminster Assembly of Divines and author of works on the Christian’s moral obligations, on hearing these serious rumours, made a special study of Crisp’s teaching and witness, finding him absolutely orthodox. He suggested that the only reason why Crisp was unpopular amongst ministers was ‘because so many were converted by his ministry, and so few by ours.’ Concerning those who accused Crisp of Antinomianism, Mr Lancaster, his publisher, said “that his life was so innocent and harmless from all evil, and so zealous and fervent in all good, that it seemed to be designed as a practical refutation of the slander of those who would insinuate that his doctrine tended to licentiousness.”

James Hervey (1714-58) used the edition of Crisp published and edited by John Gill and was full of praise for the great soul-winner, always confessing that it was Crisp who had taught him the value of good works which ‘proceed from the SPIRIT of the LORD JESUS, dwelling in our hearts; and then they will be truly good.’ Of Crisp’s sermons, he wrote to Lady Francis Shirley:

“Do not harbour any fear, Madam, concerning the propriety of your sending Dr. Crisp’s sermons to Mr. K-. They are, I think, the very discourses which he wants. Especially, if he is inclined to distress of conscience, on account of his spiritual state. I know not any treatises more proper, or more excellently calculated, to administer solid consolation. They are, under the divine influence, one of my first counsellors, and principle comforters. They often drop manna and balm upon my fainting and sickly graces. The LORD JESUS CHRIST grant that your Ladyship may experience the soul-cheering, conscience-healing, heart-reviving power of these precious doctrines!

The Doctor has, as you justly observe, some expressions, which seem to contradict positive commands or peremptory assertions of Scripture. But these expressions, when examined and explained, will generally be found to coincide with the truth that is in JESUS. They are not contrary to the pure Word of the Gospel, but, to our pre-conceived ideas. We have not been accustomed to the joyful sound of grace and salvation—infinitely rich grace, and perfectly free salvation—therefore they are a strange language to our ears. O! that We may more frequently hear, and more diligently read, till, like the Colossian converts, we know the grace of GOD in truth!”

Hervey was referring to the occasional depreciative mention of works of righteousness by Crisp where he is striving to keep his readers from believing that their good works are in any way meritorious. Later critics of Reformed theology have culled these few expression from the entirety of Crisp’s writings in order to label their author an Antinomian. Obviously sensitive to such criticisms of Crisp, Hervey wrote again to Lady Francis on the subject, saying:

“I do not wonder that, that people object to Dr. Crisp, and such divines as magnify the exalted SAVIOUR, who sits at GOD’s right hand; but pour contempt upon the fallen creatures, who dwell in houses of clay: who would represent the divine REDEEMER, as the meridian sun, and all the race of Adam, as glow-worms of the night.—There was a time, when I should have joined, most heartily joined in the opposition. For then I fought to establish my own righteousness. I would fain be something; would fain do something to inherit eternal life; and could not brook a total submission to the righteousness of GOD. But repeated infirmities, repeated sins, and repeated sorrows, have been the means, under the influence of the SPIRIT, to cure me of this arrogant temper.—It is now the daily desire of my soul, to see more and more the littleness, the insufficiency, the meanness of all that is called my own. But to delight myself in the unsearchable riches, and triumph in the transcendent excellencies of CHRIST JESUS my LORD.—And, I do assure you, Madam, that when I wander from this path, I stumble upon dark mountains; I fall into briars and thorns; I lose my peace, my tranquillity, my hope.—If this be the case, as it really is, your Ladyship will allow, that I have reason, notwithstanding every contrary suggestion, to adhere inseparably to this Way.”

The purity of Crisp’s practical religion

Crisp’s preaching, as his life, testify to his purity of religion. Expounding Matthew 25:44 on the Christian’s duty to God and man, Crisp says:

“We do not perform Christian duties in order to our being delivered from wrath; but we perform them because we are delivered. A man will work for Christ who has tasted of Christ’s loving-kindness: he stands ready to shew forth the praise of that glorious grace which hath so freely saved him. Such a man is as glad to work for Christ’s sake, as if he was to work for his own salvation. There are many ingenious persons in the world, who will be more ready to serve a friend that has already raised them; than to serve a master, that they may be raised. This is the true service of a believer. His eye is to the glory of Christ, in regard to what Christ hath already done for him: and not in expectation of anything Christ hath yet to do. He looks upon all, as perfectly done for him in the hand of Christ, and ready to be delivered out to him as his occasions may require. The work of salvation being thus completed by Christ and not to be mended by the creature; the believer having now nothing to do for himself, all he doth, he doth for Christ. . . . Salvation itself, therefore, is not the end proposed in any good work we do. The ends of our good works are, the manifestation of our obedience and subjection; the setting forth the praise of God’s grace and thereby glorifying him in the world; the doing, good to others with a view to their profit; and the meeting the Lord Jesus Christ in the performance of duty, where he will be found, according to his promise: these are some of the special ends, for which obedience is ordained, salvation being settled firm before.”

Crisp also said:

“There is no believer who hath received Christ but he is created in him unto good works, that he should walk in them. He that sprinkleth clean water upon them, that they become clean from all their filthiness, puts also a new spirit within them, and doth cause them to walk in his statutes and testimonies. So I say that sanctification of life is an inseparable companion with the justification of a person by the free grace of Christ. But I must withal tell you that all this sanctification of life is not a jot of the way of that justified person unto heaven. It is the business a man hath to do in his Way, Christ.”

The three alleged laws of faith, repentance and sincere obedience

Another cause of criticism against Crisp was the new theology which saw no need to preach the terrors of the Old Law with its call for absolute obedience or eternal destruction, warded off by Christ’s perfect righteous sacrifice and His righteousness being imputed to the elect. Followers of such errors, were named Neonomians because they held that ‘evangelical righteousness’ could be obtained through following the New Law of ‘faith, repentance and sincere obedience.’ If these three commandments were kept for life, the sinner would be saved. Louis Berkof concludes, ‘The covenant of grace was changed into a covenant of works.’

As Crisp preferred God’s Law to the New Law he was called an Antinomian—a lawless man. Crisp’s enemies had cunningly combined the errors of Amyraldianism, Grotianism and Arminianism to form a new pseudo-evangelicalism. This Neonomian stance split evangelical churches down the middle and the modern cleft between free-gracers and free-willers shows that sadly this cleft remains. On the Neonomian side one finds Presbyterian Dr Daniel Williams (1644-1716), whose views influenced Benjamin Brook’s brief biography of Crisp and also the Lorimers’ Hall Western Association Baptist Conference of 1704 in which 13 churches denounced Crisp’s doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ as tending to ‘overthrow natural, as well as revealed religion.’ On the Crisp side, we find such outstanding evangelicals as Twisse, Traill, Toplady, Hervey, Gill, Ryland Sen., Whitefield, Boston, the Erskines, John Brown of Whitburn, Huntington, those Anglicans who hold Article XIII dear and many modern Particular Baptists, in fact, all true Reformed men.

Crisp resigns his soul to God in confidence and great joy

During the civil war, Cavalier troops forced Crisp out of his rectory and he was compelled to move to London where no less than fifty-two ministers combined together to form a kind of Anti-Crisp Society, doing all in their power to discredit the evangelical pastor. It is interesting to note how their perverted logic developed, showing how even the finest saints can become gossip-mongers through theological prejudice. The critics were convinced that Crisp was an Antinomian. They thus expected him to behave as such. This led them to believe any silly rumour they heard against Crisp and thereafter help to spread it.

Crisp was given strength for the occasion and entered many a public debate with his opponents, proving the better man in argument, testimony and quality of life. The irony of the situation was that slanderers were accusing one of the greatest preachers of righteousness of all time of Antinomianism when they were openly bearing false witness themselves! Crisp was now preaching daily and suffering from great persecution which forced him to spend many a night on his knees praying for guidance. This weakened his physical constitution no end and when in the course of witnessing, he contacted the small-pox, this was the Lord’s means of carrying him home. Shortly before his death, Crisp acknowledged that “as he had lived in the free grace of God, through Christ, so he did, with confidence and great joy, even as much as his present condition was capable of, resign his life and soul into the hands of his most dear Father.” Thus passed away Tobias Crisp. aged 42 years. His son gathered together his literary remains and published them under the title Christ Alone Exalted as this was their central theme.

Tobias Crisp (1600-1643) was a sovereign grace preacher and theologian. In 1627, he was presented to the rectory of Brinkworth, Wiltshire. In time, he came to develop more consistent views of the gospel leading to a number of disagreements between himself and the established Puritanism of the 16th century. The Particular Baptists, whose origin overlaps the gospel ministry of Mr. Crisp, also came to develop sharper views of sovereign grace, insomuch that by the first half of the 18th century, the vast majority of churches were distinguished from other denominations for their High Calvinism.