Ben Franklin versus Saint Paul
David BurchettDavid Burchett's weblog
- 2008 Mar 27
Yesterday I suffered a nasty bout of writer’s block so I decided that if I was going to be unproductive I might as well watch television. That philosophy of time management has been challenged on more than one occasion by the lovely Mrs.Burchett. Surprisingly the dip into the often vapid world of cable television proved productive. I stumbled upon a fascinating History Channel feature on Ben Franklin. I knew Franklin as a brilliant statesman, inventor, writer and a bit of a scoundrel.
Courtesy of www.earlyamerica.com
But I did not know that in his autobiography the venerable statesman admitted a radical plan.
“I once conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.”
Wonder how that worked out?
Benjamin Franklin could have saved himself some aggravation by reading Paul’s letter to the Roman church. Hold that thought. Franklin outlined the thirteen virtues he desired to master. Here are his baker’s dozen of admirable traits as written in his autobiography and in the language (and spelling) of the day.
1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. MODERATION. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
There is a lot of good in that list although Franklin’s personal life might have made number 12 his biggest challenge. Nonetheless the optimistic Franklin devised a plan to avoid drinking to elevation, engaging in trifling conversation and limiting his venery.
Ben decided that taking on the whole list would be too daunting so he ordered the list and planned to address one virtue at a time until that trait was a habit. He devised a grid to chart his progress. As Saint Paul predicted in his treatise to the Romans, Benjamin Franklin’s system was destined to fail. Franklin wrote a passage not unlike the Roman argument.
“But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employed in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason.”
Hmmmm. Sounds a lot like old nature and sin nature. Centuries earlier the imprisoned Paul had outlined the same struggle. “I try to do the right thing but I invariably do the opposite.” Paul noted that the law clearly demonstrates our sinful condition just as Franklin’s thirteen virtues convicted him of his failure. Paul would have told Franklin that the law convicts all of us of the impossibility of living a sinless life that would satisfy a Holy God. The Apostle’s lament would be depressing if he had stopped after this proclamation to the Romans. “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.”
But Paul did not stop there. He explained that only a miraculous theological event could free us from the enslavement of the law. That the penalty was paid and we are justified by faith and nothing else. He argued that our sin was literally crucified with Christ so that we no longer would have to be a slave to that sin. He wrote that all of the junk from our sin past is now dead in God’s eyes and we have no condemnation if we are in Christ Jesus. Emerging from that shame into the light of grace allows me to begin a path toward sanctification. Realizing how powerless I am to control my sin causes me to come to the same logical conclusion that Ben Franklin sadly deduced. I can’t do this on my own.
But there is the difference between Saint Paul’s plan and Benjamin Franklin’s plan. Paul realized that it is only through Christ who lives in us that we can be free from the slavery of our sin nature. Realizing that we need to lean wholly on Christ and the empowering awareness of the Holy Spirit allows us to begin to resolve our sin issues. Only then can we be free, without condemnation and lavished in His amazing grace. Paul’s letter to the Romans was not a plan to achieve moral perfection. That is not possible in this go around. Some of the principles that my friends at TrueFaced espouse have reoriented my thinking. By the way, you can download and sample a part of the TrueFaced Romans series when you visit their website.
The day I put my belief in Christ by faith I was changed. I have a new nature. God is no longer interested in changing me. I have already been changed. God is interested in me maturing into what it is already true about me. The old sin nature is dead. But the old nature needs to be brought under the gentle control of the Holy Spirit. Steadfastly marking off my good deeds on a list of virtues will not make me holy. Righteousness is not gritting our teeth and determining to sin less. When we begin to trust the truth of what God says is already true about us we actually can begin to resolve our sin issues and begin to understand righteousness as God sees it.
Ben Franklin had a great goal. He just needed a better theology than self-effort.
Dave Burchett is an Emmy Award winning television sports director, author, and Christian speaker. He is the author of When Bad Christians Happen to Good People and Bring'em Back Alive: A Healing Plan for those Wounded by the Church. You can reply by linking through daveburchett.com.