Self-salvation is sinful man’s most natural inclination. We all know there is something wrong with us, that we are not all we want to be and not all we were meant to be. And left to ourselves we look for that salvation anywhere and everywhere except in the place it can be found—in Jesus Christ.
I recently came upon a great illustration of this in the life of Benjamin Franklin. Come Christmas or birthdays or other occasions, I love to buy my parents biographies; they are adept at finding the most fascinating facts and anecdotes and it was my mother who dug this one up in Walter Isaacson’s life of Franklin.
Franklin was a Deist. He held to the existence of some kind of higher power, but believed that this God had created and then retreated, that he was not personally present in the world. If this is the case, all we can know about divinity and humanity will be revealed through nature and reason. Franklin had no use for Scripture or worship and certainly no use for Jesus Christ beyond personal example.
Franklin believed “The most acceptable service to God is doing good to man.” Yet when he was still young he “came to the conclusion that a simple and complacent deism had its own set of drawbacks. He had converted Collins and Ralph [two friends] to deism, and they soon wronged him without moral compunction.” He began to see that Deism accounted for the existence of a God, but not an ethic that would transform behavior. He wanted to better himself and do good to man, so systematized his approach.
On the pages of a little notebook, he made a chart with seven red columns for the days of the week and thirteen rows labeled with his virtues. Infractions were marked with a black spot. The first week he focused on temperance, trying to keep that line clear while not worrying about the other lines. With that virtue strengthened, he could turn his attention to the next one, silence, hoping that the temperance line would stay clear as well. In the course of the year, he would complete the thirteen-week cycle four times.
He wanted to improve himself, wanted to be good. He was willing to admit fault with himself, rather a rare trait, and to work to improve those shortcomings. And so he arrived at a orderly way of pursuing his goal. He would identify and quantify his faults in order to grow in virtue.