Fellow unitarians John Adams and Thomas Jefferson held that men were "justified" by their works, not by faith alone, grace alone (the Protestant "solas"). Franklin seems to agree; but he was also clear in some letters that he didn't think he personally merited Heaven by his good own works. But he expected Heaven nonetheless.
Still good works seemed a necessary, indeed central component to Franklin's justification scheme. In 1735 and in a satirical tone, Franklin writes at length in his "Dialog Between Two Presbyterians" on how good works, not a particular faith is the sine qua non of true religion.
Faith is recommended as a Means of producing Morality: Our Saviour was a Teacher of Morality or Virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful Teacher. Thus Faith would be a Means of producing Morality, and Morality of Salvation. But that from such Faith alone Salvation may be expected, appears to me to be neither a Christian Doctrine nor a reasonable one.There are a few things about this passage might lead us to question whether Franklin personally believed in the sentiments. One, it has a satirical tone. And two, Franklin wrote as an advocate for another person (for one Hemphill, a minister who was being defrocked for heterodoxy).
As to the first, just because something is satire doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't convey one's true beliefs. To the contrary, what is distinctive about satire is its method. Satire is oft-meant to contain a deadly serious truth message in its teeth.
As to the second, what I discovered, and as we will see below, is that years later, Franklin, in his personal letters, repeats almost verbatim these sentiments. This suggests the sentiments in the aforementioned Dialog did indeed reflect Franklin's personal convictions.
Let me repeat, Franklin in his letters also claimed he didn't think his own "good works" merited Heaven, but he expected to get to Heaven nonetheless. It's a "works" plus scheme. Good works plus the fruit of God the Father's mysterious benevolence.
I think Dr. Gregg Frazer noted that because Franklin, unlike Jefferson and J. Adams, rejected "works alone" in favor of a works plus faith justification scheme, that made the "Protestant" Franklin's creed look ironically similar to that of Roman Catholics. However, Franklin's notion of good works and Jesus' role arguably would be even too "works oriented" for Roman Catholics.
It's hard to pin Franklin down on exactly what he thought of Jesus. We know Franklin thought, at the very least, Jesus the greatest moral teacher. But what else? I see Franklin believing Jesus to be a "savior" through perfect moral example. That is, I don't see good evidence that Franklin believed in anything resembling a traditional notion of the atonement.
So in 1735, in the Dialog, Franklin writes:
Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means. What think you of these Sayings of Christ, when he was reproached for conversing chiefly with gross Sinners, The whole, says he, need not a Physician, but they that are sick; and, I come not to call the Righteous, but Sinners, to Repentance: Does not this imply, that there were good Men, who, without Faith in him, were in a State of Salvation?Bold face mine.
These are the sentiments that get repeated in years later in personal letters. Jesus' role here is to save man by modeling perfect morality. But if you already had your moral affairs in order, you actually didn't need to follow Jesus. This is where I think even the "works based" Roman Catholics would balk.
I noted the quotation below previously, but I didn't connect it with the "Dialog" of 1735. Franklin wrote in 1753 and again in 1790, of Jesus:
He profess’d that he came not to call the Righteous but Sinners to Repentance; which imply’d his modest Opinion that there were some in his Time so good that they need not hear even him for Improvement;...In short, Jesus' role as savior is as the greatest moral teacher, the perfecter of morality. As a means, not an end.