How Jesus describes righteous and unrighteous people is found in a parable in Luke 18:9-14. The story involves a Pharisee and tax collector who pray next to one another in the temple. Here are three differences between them that Jesus points out in the story.

But first, what does the Bible means by righteousness? And here is what it is NOT: A person who is morally superior to other people.

However, scripture does consistently describes righteous people as those who strive to follow God’s commands and the teachings of Jesus. In other words, they try to do the right thing according to scripture. But while righteous people strive to keep God’s law, they regularly fail. They know it, confess it, and then move forward to pursue it again.

How Jesus describes righteous and unrighteous people. A self-righteous person measures against other people. A righteous person measures against God’s standard

V.11 God I thank you that I am not like other men…

V.13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven

The Pharisee in the parable already considers himself righteous. And why does he qualify? Because he compares himself to other people he considers morally inferior to him. And let’s give him some credit. On the outside, his religious life was probably exemplary. He did all the right religious things and avoided the moral misdeeds of those sinful people he compared himself to.

But he neglected an important aspect of sin. It goes beyond our physical actions and is often committed in our minds and heart. And when God measures our righteousness, he looks at the heart.

The tax collector understood that his real level of accountability was to God’s standard. He was so shamefully below that standard he couldn’t even look towards heaven. But he knew something else too. And that’s what drove his prayer.

A self-righteous person celebrates their virtue. A righteous person confesses their sin and celebrates God’s grace

V.12 I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get…

V.13 God be merciful to me, a sinner.

The Pharisee lists all his virtues and they actually are pretty impressive. Some of the things you and I do are pretty impressive too. And when we compile a list and compare it to the horrific deeds of bad people, we may look morally superior.

But here’s the problem. God doesn’t grade on a curve. His standard is absolute perfection. And absolutely no one–except for Jesus Christ–meets that standard.

That’s what Paul means in Romans 6:23 when he says the wages of sin is death. If you are counting on your good works to earn your way to heaven, you aren’t going to make it.

The tax collector knew this and he cried out to God for mercy. And we can too. Because the good news of the gospel is that we are not saved by our good works, but by the grace of God.

How Jesus describes righteous and unrighteous people. A self-righteous person demonstrates pride. A righteous person demonstrates humility

V.14 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

Nothing blinds us like pride. The Pharisee was oblivious to it. And as he itemized the good deeds that qualified him as righteous, he completely missed his sin. Or conveniently ignored it.

Sin is the white elephant in the room. We all recognize it. Acknowledge its often devasting consequences. But avoid even using the term. And instead we say things like, “nobody’s perfect” and “everybody makes mistakes.” But admit we often intentionally do things we know are wrong, and that deep in our hearts and minds are some pretty horrible thoughts? Well, we don’t want to go there.

But to be truly righteous, we have to. With honesty…vulnerability…and humility. Because God is not impressed with our virtuous actions, religious pedigrees or spiritual presentations. He’s looking directly into and surveying the condition of our hearts.

And when you willingly face your depravity and call on God’s mercy, He raises you up. It’s what he does in the story with the tax collector. And with you and me. So be real. Be broken. And healed by God’s grace.

Chip Tudor is an author, blogger and professional writer. He publishes books, humorous Christian drama, and thought provoking blogs from a Christian worldview.